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 Crossing The Atlantic

Today one can fly from London to Boston in about eight hours; in the 17th century, that same trip meant a hazardous and, at best, unpleasant voyage of at least six weeks on a small wooden ship.

The vessels used in the 17th century were small, particularly when compared to ships today. A few ships were from 300 to 500 tons, but the majority were between 150 and 200 tons. The Mayflower was an average size ship for that time. She was 180 tons, 90 feet long and about 20 feet wide. She carried 102 passengers and a crew of 47.

Compare that to today's cruise ships, which range in size from 12,000 to 95,000 tons, are 450 to 950 feet long, and carry up to 3,000 passengers. Today a ship, such as the QEII, can make the voyage from England to the United States in three and one-half days.

When a passenger left London he could not say within many weeks how long he was to be on board the ship taking him to America. The ships were slow sailers, although they could go as fast as eight miles an hour when there was a fair wind and a smooth sea. But never was this rate kept up for even twenty-four hours.

Often four or five miles was all there was to show for a whole day. There were even times when they were further from their destination at the end of twenty-four hours than at the beginning. The length of the voyage could vary from 47 to 138 days. Sometimes ships that left London at the same time might arrive in America as much as eight or nine weeks apart.

Conditions on board were far from ideal, even for those times. Most ships were over-crowded with passengers, and private cabins were available only to the ship's captain and a very few, if any, important passengers. All the others slept on the floor on the deck below the main deck.

There was very little light or air. Often water would pour in through cracks and joints, drenching the passengers and their belongings. There were no bathrooms on board. If you wanted to wash, you had to wash in salty water from the sea. Most likely you would wear the same clothes for the entire voyage.

Meals usually consisted of salt horse (salted beef, pork or fish) and hardtack (a hard, dry biscuit). There were dried peas and beans, cheese and butter. Weather permitting, food was cooked over charcoal fires in metal boxes called braziers. But it was often too dangerous to have a fire and so the food was eaten cold. Food became infested with bugs, the biscuits got too hard to eat, the cheese got moldy, butter turned bad and even the beer began to go sour by the end of the voyage.

A large amount of water was taken on board, but after standing in barrels for a while, it was neither pleasant or safe to drink. Everyone, even the children, drank beer instead.

Storms were a great danger, and the Atlantic had many, especially in the fall and winter. The tossing and rolling of these small ships in even a minor storm caused most of the passengers, many of whom had never been on a ship before, to become seasick. A major storm could easily capsize ships of this size or cause them to break apart.

Sickness, other than seasickness, was also a major problem. Even a minor illness could quickly spread among passengers and crew alike. Serious illnesses, often called ship's fever, killed many passengers. On some voyages as many as half the passengers died before they reached their final destination.

The prospect of this long, dangerous and unpleasant voyage was not made more tolerable by the conditions passengers faced upon arrival in America. There were no hotels in which to stay, no restaurants in which to eat, nor often even relatives or friends to greet them.

New England, although not an unknown territory even when the Pilgrims settled there in 1620, was not a particularly hospitable area. The winters were hard, disease often ran rampant, and the area was populated with sometimes hostile Indians. Those who survived the voyage were faced with the very difficult task of building a new life, literally from scratch.

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Copyright 1999 Bill Brownell