Marco Polo passengers kept a lid on
By Mac Trueman
If anyone had
found space to pack a Christmas tree, the tree would have lost its needles two
or three months ago.
So on Christmas Day, 1853 about 1,000
British emigrant passengers and crew just kept on shivering as the Saint John
built sailing ship Marco Polo rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered frigid
stormy waters of the southern Indian Ocean, on its way to
Decorations hung in the first class saloon -
where most people weren't allowed to go anyway - and there was the prospect
that the noon dinner would be served more generously than normal. There would
be a religious service, because it was both Christmas and Sunday.
But according to The Marco Polo Project's Barry Ogden and
Alan Hutton, Christmas Day was really no different from any other day aboard
No different, that is, except for a curious notice
published in the Dec. 24 edition of the vessel's newspaper, the Marco Polo
Chronicle. It read:
Passengers are requested not to sow any wild oats on
the "Marco Polo." Anyone disobeying will be punished most severely. By order of
Captain Wild R.W.
The ship's newspapers - one published
on Saturday, Dec.24, 1853, and the other on Jan. 21 - were found earlier this
year by Melbourne-area resident John Walker when he set out to refinish an old
portable desk for his father.
Walker accidentally pressed
a hidden lever, which in turn opened a secret compartment containing the two
newspapers and the ticket with which his great-great grandfather had sailed
here. He turned the oilskin-thin papers over to the Shiplovers Society of
Hutton, who is the Marco Polo Project's
director of design, believes the captain meant business with this warning. He
had to be strict. He was sitting on a powder keg.
930 passengers and 60 crew members had been cramped here for two months here
for two months now. Nerves were frayed. If any fight broke out, it could spread
through the ship in the blink of an eye. Passengers who had brought liquor
aboard were looking for a excuse for a good drunk, those that needed an
"Imagine a school dormitory 200 feet long by 40
feet wide, by three floors, and nobody had been let out for the past 70 days. A
prison would be more like it
If you are out in the middle of the ocean
somewhere, you can't call in the police."
It was all the
more reason for keeping a lid on Christmas.
was no stranger to long voyages of several months, after all books were read,
all the wool was knitted, all conversation topics had been used up, and boredom
was inescapable, Hutton said.
Single men and single women
lived in segregated quarters. Penalties were steep for being in the wrong
place, and sailors were locked in irons for even talking about sex. But it was
easy to move unnoticed along the hallways below, which were utterly dark, even
on the Marco Polo, which was the first passenger liner to have skylights on her
first couple of decks.
There were no portholes. People
wrote their letters by candlelight, even at noon.
more than two months at sea, Christmas dinner amounted to more of the same
thing, since there were very few foods that lasted long without refrigeration.
Tinned meats would be in short supply by now, and the vessel's salt meat and
sea biscuits would be starting to go bad. Jams and pickles - were getting
Unless it had been raining a lot, passengers
would be wondering when fresh water would have to be rationed.
The article above was published in the Evening Times-Globe, Saint
John, N.B. Friday, December 27, 1991
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