The journals of James Williamson

by Nick

A bit of a plug for a new initiative by the National Maritime Museum Cornwall. The NMMC have just launched a new website about maritime history called Maritime Views.  The highlight is a transcription of the journals of James Williamson, a surgeon on a packet ship sailing out of Cornwall. In total he made seventeen voyages around the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic.

The journals are wonderfully well-written and remind me of nothing so much as a real-life version of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers. Williamson’s account of his first voyage is now up: here are some highlights.

Monday 25 Aug.t 1828 – this morning was very warm, so that I perspire much without exerting myself. Today for the first time saw the flying fish. These are about the size of our herring with two fins near the head so large – that when spread out they will support the fish in the same way as the wings support a bird. But these fish are so constituted that they cannot fly to any great distance – because their wings or fins require to be frequently wette. Some of them having fallen on the deck were next day prepared for breakfast, when we found them to be most excellent eating.

Wednesday 17th – fine day 172 Miles. Saw to day great numbers of Portuguese Men-o-War as these are called. This is a fish, the upper part of which is seen constantly above the water – and it seems like a fin about the size & shape of a Cox-combe. There appear to be two kinds – the one smaller and without any colour – the other 5 or 6 times larger and ornamented with most beautiful and vivid colours. The former are the common Men of War – while the latter may be called the Admirals or Commodores ships.

Saturday 20 Sept.r – the Bananas are a small fruit 5 or 6 inches in length of the shape growing in bunches on one stalk. They have a sweetish insipid taste and I don’t much like them. The Mangoes are about the size of a pigeon’s egg – with a skin like that of a peach. Their taste is delicious, resembling the strawberry precisely in flavour.

But to finish with the Portuguese on board, I shall put down what I have observed relative to their manners.

They seem to me very much addicted to gambling – but of this propensity, I have observed little or nothing since leaving Madeira. They do not by any means drink much – and I believe that they have not consumed the 10th part of the wine, which the same number of Englishmen would have done. Much to my surprise and contrary to all my preconceived notions, I have not found the Portuguese so extremely devout, as I had expected – I never saw them cross themselves – or kneel or keep the Sunday with any form of religion – although we happened to have a Bishop on board.

At dinner as a necessarily appendage or accompaniment a score or two of wooden & elastic toothpicks (called pelillos) are set down, and every gentleman helps himself to these as occasion requires – for not being hard or durable like ours they are soon totally useless. Those made at Lisbon are peculiarly esteemed – & of these, many gentlemen carry a dozen or so in their pockets, for their own accommodation & that of their friends

In some of their habits they are very dirty. For example once or twice at dinner, Lleyall, the merchant, after he had finished eating, took a mouthful of water from his glass – inserted his fingers into his mouth – rubbed his teeth with them and finally squirted the water into his plate. Faugh! Faugh!

Wednesday 10th – today a small schooner was towed into Harbour which had suffered severely during the gale on Saturday last. Her masts were broken – her bulwarks driven in – & in fact she was nearly a wreck – but of 7 men 5 had been washed overboard, & only the Capt.n and a boy remained. The boy also had been washed overboard but luckily got hold of a rope. The Capt.n himself was at the helm when a tremendous sea came & washed him from his place – and he was only saved by his head being jammed in between the tiller and the skylight.

There is also a great article by Tony Pawlyn, who transcribed the journals, about their provenance and history.