At Last; A Christmas in the West Indies – Charles Kingsley

At last we, too, were crossing the Atlantic. At last the dream of forty years, please God, would be fulfilled, and I should see (and happily, not alone) the West Indies and the Spanish Main. From childhood I had studied their Natural History, their charts, their Romances, and alas! their Tragedies; and now, at last, I was about to compare books with facts, and judge for myself of the reported wonders of the Earthly Paradise. We could scarce believe the evidence of our own senses when they told us that we were surely on board a West Indian steamer, and could by no possibility get off it again, save into the ocean, or on the farther side of the ocean; and it was not till the morning of the second day, the 3d of December, that we began to be thoroughly aware that we were on the old route of Westward-Ho, and far out in the high seas, while the Old World lay behind us like a dream. Like dreams seemed now the last farewells over the taffrel, beneath the chill low December sun; and the shining calm of Southampton water, and the pleasant and well-beloved old shores and woods and houses sliding by; and the fisher-boats at anchor off Calshot, their brown and olive sails reflected in the dun water, with dun clouds overhead tipt with dull red from off the setting sun—a study for Vandevelde or Backhuysen in the tenderest moods. Like a dream seemed the twin lights of Hurst Castle and the Needles, glaring out of the gloom behind us, as if old England were watching us to the last with careful eyes, and bidding us good speed upon our way. Then had come—still like a dream —a day of pouring rain, of lounging on the main-deck, watching the engines, and watching, too (for it was calm at night), the water from the sponson behind the paddle-boxes; as the live flame-beads leaped and ran amid the swirling snow, while some fifteen feet beyond the untouched oily black of the deep sea spread away into the endless dark. It took a couple of days to arrange our little cabin Penates; to discover who was on board; and a couple of days, too, to become aware, in spite of sudden starts of anxiety, that there was no post, and could be none; that one could not be wanted, or, if one was wanted, found and caught; and it was not till the fourth morning that the glorious sense of freedom dawned on the mind, as through the cabin port the sunrise shone in, yellow and wild through flying showers, and great north-eastern waves raced past us, their heads torn off in spray, their broad backs laced with ripples, and each, as it passed, gave us a friendly onward lift away into the ‘roaring forties,’ as the sailors call the stormy seas between 50 and 40 degrees of latitude. These ‘roaring forties’ seem all strangely devoid of animal life—at least in a December north-east gale; not a whale did we see—only a pair of porpoises; not a sea-bird, save a lonely little kittiwake or two, who swung round our stern in quest of food: but the seeming want of life was only owing to our want of eyes; each night the wake teemed more bright with flame-atomies. One kind were little brilliant sparks, hurled helpless to and fro on the surface, probably Noctilucæ; the others (what they may be we could not guess at first) showed patches of soft diffused light, paler than the sparks, yet of the same yellow-white hue, which floated quietly past, seeming a foot or two below the foam. And at the bottom, far beneath, deeper under our feet than the summit of the Peak of Teneriffe was above our heads—for we were now in more than two thousand fathoms water—what exquisite forms might there not be? myriads on myriads, generations on generations, people the eternal darkness, seen only by Him to whom the darkness is as light as day: and to be seen hereafter, a few of them—but how few —when future men of science shall do for this mid-Atlantic sea-floor what Dr. Carpenter and Dr. Wyville Thomson have done for the North Atlantic, and open one more page of that book which has, to us creatures of a day, though not to Him who wrote it as the Time-pattern of His timeless mind, neither beginning nor end. So, for want of animal life to study, we were driven to study the human life around us, pent up there in our little iron world. But to talk too much of fellow-passengers is (though usual enough just now) neither altogether fair nor kind.

We see in travel but the outside of people, and as we know nothing of their inner history, and little, usually, of their antecedents, the pictures which we might sketch of them would be probably as untruthfully as rashly drawn. Crushed together, too, perforce, against each other, people are apt on board ship to make little hasty confidences, to show unawares little weaknesses, which should be forgotten all round the moment they step on shore and return to something like a normal state of society. The wisest and most humane rule for a traveller toward his companion is to ‘Be to their faults a little blind; Be to their virtues very kind;’ and to consider all that is said and done on board, like what passes among the members of the same club, as on the whole private and confidential. So let it suffice that there were on board the good steamship Shannon, as was to be expected, plenty of kind, courteous, generous, intelligent people; officials, travellers—one, happy man! away to discover new birds on the yet unexplored Rio Magdalena, in New Grenada; planters, merchants, what not, all ready, when once at St. Thomas’s, to spread themselves over the islands, and the Spanish Main, and the Isthmus of Panama, and after that, some of them, down the Pacific shore to Callao and Valparaiso. The very names of their different destinations, and the imagination of the wonders they would see (though we were going to a spot as full of wonders as any), raised something like envy in our breasts, all the more because most of them persisted in tantalising us, in the hospitable fashion of all West Indians, by fruitless invitations to islands and ports, which to have seen were ‘a joy for ever.’ But almost the most interesting group of all was one of Cornish miners, from the well-known old Redruth and Camborne county, and the old sacred hill of Carn-brea, who were going to seek their fortunes awhile in silver mines among the Andes, leaving wives and children at home, and hoping, ‘if it please God, to do some good out there,’ and send their earnings home. Stout, bearded, high-cheekboned men they were, dressed in the thick coats and rough caps, and, of course, in the indispensable black cloth trousers, which make a miner’s full dress; and their faces lighted up at the old pass-word of ‘Down-Along’; for whosoever knows Down-Along, and the speech thereof, is at once a friend and a brother. We had many a pleasant talk with them ere we parted at St. Thomas’s.

And on to St. Thomas’s we were hurrying; and, thanks to the north-east wind, as straight as a beeline. On the third day we ran two hundred and fifty-four miles; on the fourth two hundred and sixty; and on the next day, at noon, where should we be? Nearing the Azores; and by midnight, running past them, and away on the track of Columbus, towards the Sargasso Sea. We stayed up late on the night of December 7, in hopes of seeing, as we passed Terceira, even the loom of the land: but the moon was down; and a glimpse of the ‘Pico’ at dawn next morning was our only chance of seeing, at least for this voyage, those wondrous Isles of the Blest—Isles of the Blest of old; and why not still? They too are said to be earthly paradises in soil, climate, productions; and yet no English care to settle there, nor even to go thither for health, though the voyage from Lisbon is but a short one, and our own mail steamers, were it made worth their while, could as easily touch at Terceira now as they did a few years since. And as we looked out into the darkness, we could not but recollect, with a flush of pride, that yonder on the starboard beam lay Flores, and the scene of that great fight off the Azores, on August 30, 1591, made ever memorable by the pen of Walter Raleigh—and of late by Mr. Froude; in which the Revenge, with Sir Richard Grenville for her captain, endured for twelve hours, before she struck, the attack of eight great Spanish armadas, of which two (three times her own burden) sank at her side; and after all her masts were gone, and she had been three times boarded without success, defied to the last the whole fleet of fifty-one sail, which lay around her, waiting, ‘like dogs around the dying forestking,’ for the Englishman to strike or sink. Yonder away it was, that, wounded again and again, and shot through body and through head, Sir Richard Grenville was taken on board the Spanish Admiral’s ship to die; and gave up his gallant ghost with those once-famous words: ‘Here die I, Richard Grenville, with a joyful and quiet mind; for that I have ended my life as a true soldier ought, fighting for his country, queen, religion, and honour; my soul willingly departing from this body, leaving behind the lasting fame of having behaved as every valiant soldier is in his duty bound to do.’ Yes; we were on the track of the old sea-heroes; of Drake and Hawkins, Carlile and Cavendish, Cumberland and Raleigh, Preston and Sommers, Frobisher and Duddeley, Keymis and Whiddon, which last, in that same Flores fight, stood by Sir Richard Grenville all alone, and, in ‘a small ship called the Pilgrim, hovered all night to see the successe: but in the morning, bearing with the Revenge, was hunted like a hare amongst many ravenous houndes, but escaped’ {4}—to learn, in after years, in company with hapless Keymis, only too much about that Trinidad and Gulf of Paria whither we were bound. Yes. There were heroes in England in those days.

Are we, their descendants, degenerate from them? I, for one, believe not But they were taught—what we take pride in refusing to be taught—namely, to obey. The morning dawned: but Pico, some fifty miles away, was taking his morning bath among the clouds, and gave no glimpse of his eleven thousand feet crater cone, now capped, they said, with winter snow. Yet neither last night’s outlook nor that morning’s was without result. For as the steamer stopped last night to pack her engines, and slipped along under sail at some three knots an hour, we made out clearly that the larger diffused patches of phosphorescence were Medusæ, slowly opening and shutting, and rolling over and over now and then, giving out their light, as they rolled, seemingly from the thin limb alone, and not from the crown of their bell. And as we watched, a fellow- passenger told how, between Ceylon and Singapore, he had once witnessed that most rare and unexplained phenomenon of a ‘milky sea,’ of which Dr. Collingwood writes (without, if I remember right, having seen it himself) in his charming book, A Naturalist’s Rambles in the China Seas. Our friend described the appearance as that of a sea of shining snow rather than of milk, heaving gently beneath a starlit but moonless sky. A bucket of water, when taken up, was filled with the same halfluminous whiteness, which stuck to its sides when the water was drained off. The captain of the Indiaman was well enough aware of the rarity of the sight to call all the passengers on deck to see what they would never see again; and on asking our captain, he assured us that he had not only never seen, but never heard of the appearance in the West Indies. One curious fact, then, was verified that night.

The next morning gave us unmistakable tokens that we were nearing the home of the summer and the sun. A north-east wind, which would in England keep the air at least at freezing in the shade, gave here a temperature just over 60°; and gave clouds, too, which made us fancy for a moment that we were looking at an April thunder sky, soft, fantastic, barred, and feathered, bright white where they ballooned out above into cumuli, rich purple in their massive shadows, and dropping from their under edges long sheets of inky rain. Thanks to the brave North-Easter, we had gained in five days thirty degrees of heat, and had slipped out of December into May. The North-Easter, too, was transforming itself more and more into the likeness of a south-west wind; say, rather, renewing its own youth, and becoming once more what it was when it started on its long journey from the Tropics towards the Pole. As it rushes back across the ocean, thrilled and expanded by the heat, it opens its dry and thirsty lips to suck in the damp from below, till, saturated once more with steam, it will reach the tropic as a gray rain-laden sky of North-East Trade. So we slipped on, day after day, in a delicious repose which yet was not monotonous. Those, indeed, who complain of the monotony of a voyage must have either very few resources in their own minds, or much worse company than we had on board the Shannon. Here, every hour brought, or might bring, to those who wished, not merely agreeable conversation about the Old World behind us, but fresh valuable information about the New World before us. One morning, for instance, I stumbled on a merchant returning to Surinam, who had fifty things to tell of his own special business—of the woods, the drugs, the barks, the vegetable oils, which he was going back to procure—a whole new world of yet unknown wealth and use. Most cheering, too, and somewhat unexpected, were the facts we heard of the improving state of our West India Colonies, in which the tide of fortune seems to have turned at last, and the gallant race of planters and merchants, in spite of obstacle on obstacle, some of them unjust and undeserved, are winning their way back (in their own opinion) to a prosperity more sound and lasting than that which collapsed so suddenly at the end of the great French war.

All spoke of the emancipation of the slaves in Cuba (an event certain to come to pass ere long) as the only condition which they required to put them on an equal footing with any producers whatsoever in the New World.


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