Jacksonian Miscellanies, #97 
Cobbett Praises American Ships
April 19, 2001

Jacksonian Miscellanies is back, after a long absence.  I'm afraid some "new" subscribers, having made their request some months ago, will have forgotten that they made it.  The reason is my "day job" has kept me too busy lately.

William Cobbett is said to be one of the founders of American political journalism.  A farm boy; he was born in 1763, in the town of Farnam, Surrey County, England.  In 1783 he joined the English army, about the time peace was made with the U.S., and served in Canada for a few years.  As a Corporal, he went after the Quartermaster for stealing supplies, creating so much trouble for himself that he fled first to France (with his new wife), and then to the United States, where he lived from 1792-1800, mostly in Philadelphia.

This is the period in which he took the pen name (not for the purpose of hiding), Peter Porcupine, and published a couple of newspapers and many pamphlets taking an ultra Federalist tone, and advocating alliance with England and war on France during the Napoleonic wars.  His baiting of Democrats came to a head in a libel suit by Benjamin Rush, when Cobbett laid into him for his medical practices (which were typical for the day) during the Yellow Fever.  He lost the suit and would have had to pay $5000, but soon afterwards, he fled back to England.

In England he became an advocate of Parliamentary reform and spokesman for the poor.  In 1809, he attacked the use of German troups to put down a mutiny in Ely (Schoolnet biography - see below), and had to spend two years in prison; after several more years of criticizing the government, he feared imprisonment again, and fled back to the U.S., where he stayed from 1817-1819, though he had much less to do with politics this time.

He spent his remaining years in England, was elected to Parliament in 1832, and died in 1835.

Having travelled to North America and back at least 3 times, he was especially well qualified to write, in his Emigrant's Guide (The emigrant's guide: in ten letters, addressed to the tax-payers of England : containing  information of every kind, necessary to persons who are about to emigrate : including several authentic and most interesting letters from English emigrants, now in America, to  their relations in England), about selecting the best ship when one is emigrating to America.

In this excerpt, pp102-109 of the book, he praises American ships and particularly their captains; gives advice on cabin selection, and makes a nasty stereotyped reference to black ships cooks, suggesting they should be bribed with Brandy (never mind money - they'd just a soon you threw it in the ocean).

The book is poorly edited, to judge from this sample, but it has a lively, blunt style; I have no idea how successful it was.

The book can be found online at the URL:
Www.canadiana.org has lately been outstripping everyone in putting books from this period online.

A brief, well written biography (but longer than the one I just gave) can be found online at:

The book's title has been given; it was published in London in 1829.  Much could be said about the topic of "emigrant's guides"; some of which I may say if I put out another excerpt from this book.

On the sort of Ship to go in, and of the steps to be taken relative to the Passage, and the sort of Passage; and also of the Stores, and other things, to be taken out with the Emigrant, and how to carry and transmit Money.

65. THE ship will be no other than an American one, if you wish for a quick and a safe passage. The Americans sail faster than others, owing to the greater skill and greater vigilance of the captains, and to their great sobriety and the wise rules that they observe with regard to their men. They carry more sail than other ships; because the captain is everlastingly looking out. I have crossed the Atlantic three times in American ships, once in an English merchant ship, once in a king's ship, and once in a king's packet; and I declare, that the superiority of the Americans is decided, and so decided, that, if I were going to cross again, nothing should prevail on me to go on board of any ship but an American one. I never knew an American captain take off his clothes to go to bed, during the whole voyage; and I never knew any other who did not do it. The consequence of this great watchfulness is that, advantage is taken of every puff of wind, while the risk from the squalls and sudden gusts is, in a great measure, obviated. A lazy captain, or one that gets drunk over night, does one of two things: keeps out too much sail, and thereby risks the ship, or, in order to avoid danger in this way, keeps out much less than might be carried, and thus the ship is retarded in her progress. There are few nights, and no days, when a skilful mariner, cannot see the squalls and gust approaching. When I came home from America the last time, we had, I dare say, ten squalls a day, and, some times, twice the number: during the squall it was necessary to take in a good deal of sail; between the squalls we could carry a good deal of sail, the breeze being stiff, but the wind fair. The captain, who was almost constantly on deck day and night, and only went and laid down two or three times in the day, and never in the night, between the squalls, could see very plainly when they were coming; and always had his sails taken in, a few minutes before the squall reached the ship. As soon as the squall was over, and it did not last ten minutes perhaps, out went the sails again, and thus we went on for a whole fortnight, with a very little intermission day or night. A drinking, sleeping fellow would have done one of two things: keep out the sails during the squalls, and have his sails and rigging torn to pieces, and have been retarded on his voyage; or, he would have taken in his sails in the evening at any rate, and just kept on at two or three miles an hour, instead of eight or ten miles an hour, during the night. And, from what I have been told, added to what I myself have observed, I am sorry to have to say, though it is my bounden duty to say it, that I verily believe this to be in general the difference between American and English captains. I have sailed with three Americans: neither of them ever pulled his clothes off, from the time the ship weighed anchor to the time she cast anchor again. I am persuaded that the superiority of the American navy must have been in a great measure owing to this superior vigilance and skill. Doubtless the bodily strength of the men had something to do with it; but this vigilance, especially, this everlasting watchfulness, this wonderful adroitness in taking advantage of every little   circumstance, must have had a great deal to do in the ensuring of those astonishing victories which the American navy obtained over ours. Even the correspondents of the poor people in Sussex press their friends to come by an American ship! Their little experience had furnished them with knowledge enough to make them press that advice home; and therefore I need not, I think, say more on this point.

66. There is something in the size of the ship. A small ship is very disagreeable, even if you be in the cabin: she is tossed about much more than a large ship; and she seldom has any conveniences fit for passengers. But, as to this matter, there are so many American ships, passing between LONDON, LIVERPOOL,, GREENOCK, and NEW YORK, that you can be at no loss on this score. There are, upon an average, three or four ships every day in the year, quitting NEW YORK for some part of this kingdom. Some ships are a great deal older than others; and there may be cases when they are becoming dangerous, from their age. You should, therefore, make full inquiries on this head, beforehand; should go and see the ship yourself; but, as to seeing the captain, and ascertaining what sort of a man he is, these are useless; for a captain of a ship is one man on shore and another man on board; and, perhaps, the rougher he is in the former state, the smoother he is in the latter. You must, indeed, leave yourself no reason to pre about his temper or his manners, any more than about those of the person of whom you buy your ship-stores. The taking of your passage must be a plain matter of business; the bargain made, the money paid, and the transaction recorded in a written memorandum, which is best for both parties; for you will not be very good humoured when you are sea-sick; and, when passengers complain of the bad temper of the captain, they do not reflect on what their temper would be, if they were plagued with sea-sick people, and had to listen to their unreasonable and incessant wailings, and their everlasting senseless questions. ROUSSEAU says, nobody likes to be asked questions; and, though it is very natural for land people to be constantly crying out against a sea life, and against the various and great inconveniences experienced in a ship, the ship, recollect, is, at any rate, the CAPTAIN's home; the cabin is his parlour; and no man likes to hear his home decried, be that home what it may. There are, therefore, great allowances to be made for what is deemed the bad temper, and what are called the rough manners of captains of ships. If they have several passengers, they have a great deal of annoyance to endure; and that, too, when involved with many cares and anxieties. Take you care to abstain from pestering the CAPTAIN with silly questions, and you will rarely, find him what is called an ill-tempered man. Take you care of yourself as well as you can, and leave him to take care of his men and his ship:

67. The next question is, what sort of passage you are to take. A cabin passage, if for one grown person, is from thirty, to five and forty pounds, perhaps, according to the style in which you are to live; if a whole family go, the children are taken for much less, and a bargain is generally made for the whole in a lump. There are little rooms, or closets, separated from the cabin by doors, which are sometimes taken where there are women and children. These are often to be obtained for a specific price; and, in short, you must go and examine the place well, if possible and make your bargain for whatever you may want. Where there are women and children, great care ought to be taken about providing the proper room; for, it is too late to repine, when the anchor is once weighed. Every consideration ought to be bestowed on providing for a mitigation of the great and painful inconveniences that women have to undergo: and, the greater their native modesty, the more insurmountable their reluctance to depart from that delicacy which has been habitual to them all their lives: the more painful their situation on board of ship. Therefore, if you be in that state of life, which points out the propriety of a cabin passage, sacrifice every thing but the great object in view, in order to make the voyage as little painful as possible to women of this description.

68. If your circumstances point out the steerage instead of the cabin, the price here is, with provisions found, for a single grown person £8., and for children under fourteen years of age £4. 10s. each: this is from London; from Liverpool, £4. 10s. for a grown person, and thirty shillings for provisions, if found by the Captain in the cabin, the provisions are found by the Captain, and that is by far the best way; but, in the steerage, it is best to take your own provisions; and as to the sort of provisions, the foregoing letters contain an abundance of information. The writers' of those letters had had experience, in every particular; and they have enumerated all the particulars. Look at the latter part of No. 14, or, rather, towards the middle of that letter, and you will see numerous articles mentioned. Flour, rice, ginger, candles, grots, salt, pepper, vinegar, port wine (which I never knew to be necessary), dried ham, other bacon, potatoes, butter, sugar, tea, coffee. You should take some biscuits, and perhaps three or four times as much as you want, for fear of a very long voyage, and consequent famine; but, I never could bring myself to eat biscuit, and, as these good people say, plenty of flour is the great security. I would add, some fresh eggs, well packed in bran or salt; I do not recollect any thing else, except a bottle of brandy for the steerage passenger, and a gallon of brandy for the cabin passenger; to be judiciously administered in bribes to the black cook. He would bid you toss your money into the sea; but he will suck down your brandy; and you will get many a nice thing prepared by him, which you never would get, if it it were not for that brandy.  I hold wine and all spirituous liquors, and even beer, to be wholly unnecessary on board of ship. The water is always good; the tea slops are always at hand; and every thing that is intoxicating in its nature adds to the severity of seasickness. I always drank water, except upon one of my passages; and then I found the beer an evil rather than a good. You can support this site at no cost if you make an Amazon purchase using this link to get to Amazon: Thanks