A Game on the High Seas

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Yunte Huang

On July 30, 1870, the Cu­nard Royal Mail steamer Palmyra left Liverpool for New York City. Only five years ear­lier, the Amer­i­can Civil War, with a loss of over six hun­dred thou­sand lives, had pro­foundly changed the United States. It had put an end to that tragic cross­ing called the Mid­dle Pas­sage, a few thou­sand nau­ti­cal miles to the south of the Palmyra’s route, and abol­ished the bru­tal in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery. Em­bers of scorched cities in the wake of Gen­eral Wil­liam Te­cum­seh Sher­man’s march­ing army had long cooled off, but the South re­mained bit­ter, de­fi­ant, mired in a slow and painful re­con­struc­tion. Mean­while the North and the rest of the coun­try were hurtling along with al­most unchecked speed to­ward the fu­ture. No one seemed to heed the back­woods­man Henry David Thoreau’s con­trar­ian wis­dom: “Why the hurry?” Amer­ica was in a hurry, with the iron horse—the train—lead­ing the way of eco­nomic ex­pan­sion. The com­ple­tion in 1869 of the Transcon­ti­nen­tal Rail­road, built on the backs and lives of Chi­nese and Ir­ish coolie la­bor­ers, had brought the coun­try to­gether spa­tially. New towns sprouted along newly laid rail­road tracks like bam­boo shoots af­ter a spring rain. Chicago emerged as the cen­ter of the meat­pack­ing in­dus­try. Cat­tle king­doms rose in Texas and the Plains states. The dizzy­ing pace of ur­ban ex­pan­sion and fre­netic eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment had ush­ered in a new era in Amer­ica: the Gilded Age. The Palmyra, built in 1866 to keep pace with the ex­po­nen­tial in­crease in transat­lantic traf­fic, was a medium-sized steamship—2,044 in ton­nage, 260 in nom­i­nal horse­power, and a pas­sen­ger ca­pac­ity of 46 in cabin and 650 in steer­age.1 On this trip, the Palmyra, un­der the com­mand of Cap­tain Wil­liam Wat­son, car­ried 29 pas­sen­gers in cabin and 377 in steer­age.2 A steamer was a ma­jor im­prove­ment on a sail­ing ship, cut­ting the length of a transat­lantic jour­ney from an al­most-in­suf­fer­able eight weeks down to two. How­ever, th­ese were the early days of cruise voy­age; con­di­tions on board were still crude and prim­i­tive. Cabins were as small as a cat’s ear, badly lit by a sin­gle can­dle. Pas­sen­gers had to wash their own dishes. To get fresh milk—be­fore the age of elec­tric­ity and re­frig­er­a­tion—the com­pany brought live cows on the ship. To con­trol rats, cats were taken along for the cruise.3 Charles Dick­ens, who, in 1842, crossed

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.