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Merry Christmas

Marco Polo passengers kept a lid on Christmas

By Mac Trueman
Evening Times-Globe

   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 Australia.
   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 ship.
   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 Victoria.
   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.
   Wild's 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 excuse.
   "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.
   Hanky-panky 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.
   After 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 scarce.
   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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