Hard to believe that as long ago as 1866 there was a monthly paddle steamer crossing the Atlantic between Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro. The service, which transported goods and 500 passengers, took approximately three weeks. The steamer belonged to a French company based in Bordeaux and Hans Christian was booked on this final leg of the journey. Weather permitting, the voyage from Lisbon to Bordeaux would take about four days.
To say he was afraid of the crossing is no exaggeration. He had travelled from Denmark to Portugal overland but for the return journey he could not afford the time. Although the ship would make his journey quicker he was troubled by thoughts of what could happen out at sea. Worse still, before boarding the ship, he met the Captain who confirmed they were likely to encounter high seas.
Reluctantly, Hans Christian boarded the Captain’s launch and, in his travelogue, he tells his readers: “With the brisk rowing of the sailors we were soon out in the Tagus where the steamer Navarro lay. The bosun’s pipe shrilled; sailors with halberds stood by the ladder and soon I was on French territory.”
He was now committed to the voyage but his anxiety continued. The paddle steamer weighed a mere 2100 tons and he would soon be crossing the notoriously rough seas of the Bay of Biscay. As he explains, “I could not turn my thoughts away from the catastrophes that could happen”.
A similar, much shorter voyage can be experienced today, on board the last surviving paddle steamer in the world. The Waverley takes visitors along Scotland’s beautiful west coast and the isles. Delightful though the scenery is, cruising on a paddle steamer is a pastime Hans Christian would have avoided.
Standing on the deck, watching the mouth of the Tagus disappear, he dwelt on the demise of an old school friend who had been lost at sea. With increasing anxiety, he noticed flotsam floating by. “I saw pieces of wrecked ships, there a large red painted chest; it went its way, we went ours. I involuntarily pictured to myself, how we should sink, the water breaking through the walls, all the lights extinguished.”
On the first night, although he had a private cabin, he could not face the thought of going below deck. Instead he tried to sleep in the first-class dining salon and, over two pages in his book, he describes the sensations that he felt: “The floor seemed to lift itself up under my feet. Through the windows I saw only the high clear sky, and the next moment, we were so deep down between the waves that they looked like cataracts, rolling against the ship. I suffered all the anguish of mortal fear, sweat broke out on my brow, I sprung up and rushed outside.”
Once on deck he experienced an epiphany. A moment of acceptance that he was mortal and one way or another he would have to die.
“The whole of the rolling sea shone; the mighty waves broke with phosphorescent light. My fantasy had taken a different turn and my thoughts were of resignation – were I to die that night or in some years’ time, was it really so necessary for me to live longer? Death comes in the end and here it would come with grandeur. I stood for a long time in the star-clear night and looked at the great rolling ocean, and when at last I went back into the salon again and stretched myself out on a sofa, my heart and mind were refreshed and glad to surrender to God.”
As it turned out, he need not have worried about death or the dreaded Bay of Biscay. Two days later, he refers to being in the middle of the Spanish Sea. “It was dead calm. The surface of the water was like a sheet of smooth silk. I could still see the distant land of the Peninsula. It was as if we were gliding over a lake where the wind was asleep.”
To present day readers, his account of the layout of the paddle steamer is particularly interesting. He reports that “when one stood amidships between the engine and the enormous paddle wheel, one was in second class, which, with third class in front, was filled with freight and passengers and presented the most picturesque sight. A confusion and racket just like that of a marketplace, children running around, and a Noah’s Ark from South America of monkeys in cages, domestic animals in pens, parrots and cockatoos swinging to-and-fro. In first class, the verandah deck was positioned on each side of the dining-salon. There ladies and gentlemen sat on benches and chairs, talking and reading, or doing hand-work. In the engine room where flame burned under the steam-kettles, the crew worked half naked.”
On the top of the ship there was the more airy bridge and on the third day Hans Christian felt brave enough to climb the ladders and observe the expansive view.
The following morning, the huge mouth of the River Gironde could be seen indicating their destination would soon be reached. From there Hans Christian tells us he made his way back to Denmark in a very few days. With his journey through Portugal over, his travelogue was ready to be published.
From humble origins – the son of a cobbler and a washerwoman – Hans Christian became one of Denmark’s most widely travelled and well-known citizens. There is considerable speculation about his birthright and important royal connections. In the next and final episode, these scandalous allegations bring this series of articles to an end.
A Series by Carolyn Kain