The Blue Ribband | Crossing the Atlantic

It’s hard to believe that we’ve reached the end of our second season here at Fifteen-Minute History. Before we begin, I want to thank you all for joining us each week since January as we have explored the past fifteen minutes at a time. I hope you have enjoyed listening to these podcasts as much as I have enjoyed writing and recording them! As we close this season out, we thought it would be fun to break from the broad themes of American history and instead share three stories with our audience which follow a common theme—crossing the Atlantic Ocean and traveling to Europe.

John Adams, Winter Crossing, 1778

Two years into the American War of Independence, the Continental Congress dispatched John Adams to France to help secure a treaty with King Louis XVI’s government for military assistance against the British. Adams was hesitant to accept the post; in his diary he wrote, “It was my intention to decline the next election, and return to my practice at the bar…My family was living on my past acquisitions which were very moderate…My children were growing up without my care in their education, and all my emoluments as a member of Congress for four years had not been sufficient to pay a laboring man on my farm.” Of course, as he had done so often in the past, he set aside his personal considerations and fulfilled his duty to the country.

His wife Abigail would remain in Massachusetts with their younger children, but John Quincy would accompany his father aboard the frigate Boston, which departed for France on February 17, 1778. A voyage across the Atlantic was never easy, but a winter crossing was quite perilous because of the strong winds and violent storms (not to mention the threat of British warships). Captain Samuel Tucker explained the many risks to Adams, who insisted on knowing everything he could about the art of sailing, and as they departed American waters the risks quickly became reality. The Adams men were given a small cabin below decks, and John spent much of the voyage suffering from seasickness. His son read to him as he swung in his hammock, practicing his Latin and teaching his father French. When John felt able to go above deck and meet with Captain Tucker, the officer informed him of the ship’s status and sought his advice on any important matters concerning the crew or the voyage. Adams was never shy of offering his opinion on any matter, and both his diary and the surviving account of the voyage written by Captain Tucker are filled with Adams’ comments on the state of the ship (“a beautiful vessel”), the crew (“a detestable use of profanity plagued them”), the food (“wretched and served at the cook’s pleasure only”), and the living conditions (“the reek of burning sea coal and stench of stagnant water below decks were dreadful, contributing to general misery”).

In fair weather, a ship of the late 18th century could cross the Atlantic in three weeks, but in winter it could stretch on up to ten weeks. The Boston made it across in six weeks and four days, and they faced a multitude of dangers along the way. On the second day out from Boston, the ship was pursued by three British frigates, and for two days and nights the crew stood ready for battle before they finally escaped the enemy. Later that night, the Boston’s main mast was struck by lightning, injuring twenty seamen and killing one. Once the storm had passed, Tucker recorded in his log, Adams “resumed lecturing me on every part of my duty to him and to the country.” The most common instruction given by Adams was to improve the general mood aboard ship by regularly cleaning the decks and keeping the men at work and exercised; these suggestions were followed, and within the first week conditions aboard had improved considerably. The weather had cleared once the Boston reached the midpoint of the journey, and Adams commented in his diary, “We see nothing but sky, clouds, and sea and then sea, clouds, and sky.” The ship spotted a British merchantman about a week before they reached France.

Captain Tucker sought Adams’ permission to attack and, when granted, the Boston engaged the enemy. The fighting was fierce, and both John and John Quincy got a firsthand taste of the terrors of naval warfare. John fought alongside the Marines when the enemy ship was boarded, and John Quincy’s cabin was near the ship’s surgery, and he witnessed the gruesome nature of medicine aboard ship. When the Boston finally arrived at Bordeaux on March 30th, John Adams got his first glimpse of the Pyrenees Mountains through the ship’s telescope. He was awestruck as he saw the green sloping hills of southern France with the Spanish mountains to the south. “Europe, thou great theater of arts, science, commerce, war, am I at last permitted to visit thy territories,” he wrote in his diary. Adams and Captain Tucker were entertained aboard a French frigate in the harbor of Bordeaux, and two days later he strode ashore and learned that a treaty had been signed between France and America before he had arrived. Nevertheless, he did his duty and proceeded on to Paris to join Benjamin Franklin at the American consulate, where he would spend the rest of the war. Decades later, Adams would write to his friend and political rival Thomas Jefferson that the voyage from Boston to Bordeaux were a picture of his entire life.

According to Adams’ biographer David McCullough, “The raging seas he had passed through, he seemed to be saying, were like the times they lived in, and he was at the mercy of the times no less than the seas.”

Barbara Tyson Arnt & Margaret Dardis, 1961

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the time of the great ocean liners which crisscrossed the Atlantic and brought immigrants to America and tourists to Europe. Famous ships like the Titanic, Queen Elizabeth I and II, and Queen Mary I and II were home to rich and poor alike, offering luxurious staterooms on deck that matched the finest London or New York hotels or small, cramped steerage cabins in the bowels of the ships. Transatlantic voyages no longer took weeks, and the liners of White Star, Cunard, and other companies competed to gain the Blue Riband, an unofficial award for the fastest crossing from New York to Southampton and back. Most American audiences know the story of the Titanic and thus the broad outlines of how people made the crossing at the turn of the century, but this practice continued long after the “unsinkable” White Star liner crashed into an iceberg and vanished beneath the freezing waters off Newfoundland. During the two world wars, these ocean liners were converted to troop ships, but after 1945 they returned to their passenger roots and brought thousands of refugees from Europe to Ellis Island and a new life in the New World. Their decks were then filled with American tourists eager for adventure in Europe.

One such tourist was Barbara Arnt (nee Tyson), a 23-year-old woman from Sarasota, FL. She departed New York in September 1961 aboard the SS America, a steamer which had been constructed just before the United States entered the Second World War. Barbara later described her experiences aboard the America in an interview with the United States Lines website: I sailed on her in September 1961 from New York to Bremerhaven. It was wonderful, she was so beautiful. I couldn’t get enough of being out on the fantail watching the wake behind the ship. We were in Hurricane Esther and it was pretty scary. I couldn’t believe how far she would list, it was impossible to walk straight. We had to use the ropes to move around with. My doors kept opening and slamming shut when we would change the way we leaned. They had sides they pulled up at the tables and put wet fabric of some type that kept the dishes and glasses from sliding off. I remember some type of belt looking thing that clipped our chairs to the tables so we wouldn’t slide across the floor.

There were some injuries as well. A lot of people were very seasick but I never missed a meal. It was great. I was 21 and thought it was exciting even when we lost some deck furniture over the side. What great memories I have [of] this beautiful lady. Ocean liners were renowned for their all-inclusive facilities, which included dining halls, bars and saloons, exercise rooms, libraries, and even (in the 1960s as the liners approached the end of their service) cinemas. Families often traveled across the Atlantic together, and liners had to have facilities for even the youngest of passengers. Few parents expected to spend their three or four days aboard ship entirely with their children, and many ships had purpose-built playrooms, including the SS America. In an interview with United States Lines, Playroom Associate Margaret Dardis recalled: My recollections of the children are many and clear. Sea-sick parents shoved their bright-eyed kids, who could be anywhere from age 2 to 12, in the door, clapped hand to mouth, and fled. One trip, we put on a play for the parents— the children’s own dictated script for “The Emperor Has No Clothes”, with the lead deciding to wrap himself in one of the ship’s large bath towels, to indicate the lack of clothing. On another trip, I did not put in a moment in the playroom from New York to Southampton but spent every waking moment on the forward crew deck—because we were transporting the US Olympic team. When the children became obstreperous, I used the technique of telling them to make as much noise as they could for one minute by the clock— and then discovered that their voices carried to, and alarmed, people on the tourist deck, just the other side of the portholes. Perhaps the warmest memory is of a five-year-old boy from the Bronx, named Leon, whose mother feared that he would misbehave toward the other children and who did, indeed, jump onto and kick another child’s building made from the Erector set— but who, I discovered, was a brilliant future engineer; he not only made the most complex construction in the booklet that came with the set, but went on to create several new ones of his own, and became the politest, best behaved child imaginable by the time of arrival. If, by some unimaginable coincidence, Leon, you happen be one of those who set eyes on this, please e-mail me! What I learned from you that trip was the foundation on which I built to become a (now-Emeritus) Professor with forty years of teaching.

Of course, as air travel became more popular and less expensive, ocean liners lost their market share in the travel industry, and by the late 1960s most had been sold off or scrapped. Today, very few of the pre-World War Two liners remain in existence, and all are either museums or floating hotels. SS America was sold off several times before she was wrecked off the Canary Islands in 1994. The two most famous postwar liners, Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Mary II are both still afloat, Elizabeth as a hotel in Dubai and Mary still crosses the Atlantic each year bringing passengers back and forth from the Old World to the New.

Jon Streeter, 2018

For most of the last century, tourists heading to Europe needed to go through medical examinations before they departed the United States and on arriving in their destination country. Paperwork giving permission to travel was necessary as well, and travelers often spent days or even weeks in quarantine at their ports of entry waiting for bureaucracies to catch up with travel plans—and this after spending so much time at sea! Fortunately, today one needs only an American passport to travel to any nation within the European Union, and air travel has made the process far quicker (though less comfortable, as even steerage passengers on an ocean liner could stretch their legs). In my many travels to Europe, I have always been thankful to be alive at a time when I can depart Indianapolis in the evening and arrive in London, Paris or Munich the next morning. I thought I would close this podcast with a final story—one of my own.

In the summer of 2018, AET organized a two-week tour of Germany focusing on “The Cost of Freedom” and the Second World War. We were based first in Munich and then Berlin, and our travels took us to many historic and beautiful sites, as well as some sobering reminders of man’s cruelty to man. I have traveled to Germany more times than I can count, and as we prepared to leave in April and May, I was confident that I had everything ready for the trip. Hotels were booked, tours were in place, paperwork was filed, we were all set! At our tour group meetings I stressed the importance of good shoes, proper etiquette when traveling abroad, updating your passport, exchanging dollars for Euros, and getting to the airport on time. I went to bed the night of June 13th nervous (as I always am before a trip) but excited to get going!

Everyone arrived at the Indianapolis airport on time, and we got ourselves organized and into line to check in and get our plane tickets. I stepped to the counter with the first group of students and one of our adult chaperones, presented my passport, and waited to get my ticket. Then, I heard words I never expected: “Sir, your passport is expired.” I was so focused on preparing others for the trip that I never considered looking at my own travel documents! I will confess publicly that I became physically ill, thinking that the trip was ruined. Fortunately, my adult chaperones felt confident enough to proceed without me until I could obtain a new passport (requiring me to drive to Chicago the following day), and I was able to secure a flight and join my group 72 hours after they left the United States. Those two days were a low point in my career as a travel guide, but they taught me the importance of preparation, calm in the face of uncertainty and, above all, prayer support from friends and family.

Had I been John Adams, the ship would have waited for me, as I was the most important member of the crew. If I’d been about to board SS America, I would have had to wait until the ship returned, and our trip would have been over before it began. Thanks to the wonders of international airlines, not to mention cars and modern printing, the trip was salvaged and we had an amazing time in Germany. I tell this story not to frighten prospective travel companions who might wish to join us on a future AET trip but to show how far we have progressed as a society in the area of international travel (and so you may chuckle at my misfortune). For those of you who would like to join AET on a tour some day, you may be assured that my passport and other travel documents are in good order, and I have set myself daily reminders beginning on January 1, 2028, to renew my passport long before our tour group departs that summer!


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