Posted: May 5, 2020
If the walls are closing in during this time of social distancing, embark on a journey across the ocean with the Aiken family. Travel diaries give us a glimpse into how the American elite boarded steamships to set forth on their Grand Tours. Explore these documents to trace mid-19th century voyages to Europe, and discover enlightening details with just a few clicks on the keyboard.
Joseph Daniel Aiken, the cousin of Governor William Aiken, traveled with his wife Ellen Martin Aiken aboard the Cambria in 1849. Built in 1845, the steamer ship was owned by the English Cunard Line. Aiken writes: “Embarking Wednesday 9th of May 1849. At Boston for Liverpool, on board steamer Cambria… we touched at Nova Scotia on Friday morning…” Fraught with rough seas and sea sickness, the steamer docked in Liverpool approximately twelve days after embarkation. Find Joseph’s extensive travel diary in the archives of the S.C. Historical Society.
In 1857, Harriet Lowndes Aiken, the wife of Gov. Aiken, documented her journey abroad: “Left home Saturday August 15 in Steamer Marion for New York – Cpt Foster very civil… Wednesday 19th embarked in English Steamer Persia for Liverpool – our only acquaintances among the passengers were Mr. and Mrs. Weston and Mrs. Peabody.” Her next entry notes, “Arrived in Liverpool Saturday 29.” Look for Mrs. Aiken’s travel journal in Historic Charleston Foundation’s Margaretta Childs Archives.
The RMS Persia, upon which Mrs. Aiken traveled from New York to Liverpool, was also a Cunard Line steamer ship. On her maiden voyage in 1856, Persia struck an iceberg but was saved by her clipper bow and the stoutness of her construction. She won the Blue Riband the following year for having had the fastest westbound transatlantic voyage. The Persia ran from 1856-1868 and was scrapped in 1872. She was the first Atlantic record breaker constructed of iron and was the largest ship in the world at the time of her launch.
The Cunard Line did have competitors including the American owned Collins Line, which began service in 1850 and was subsidized in part by the U.S Government. The Collins Line would boast three Blue Riband winning voyages during the years 1850-1854. In addition, many considered their steamships to be even finer than the finest ship that Cunard had to offer.
Perhaps as interesting as the facts noted in the travel diaries are the differences in tone and style of each chronicler’s entries. Joseph Daniel Aiken penned long, detailed, and sometimes wistful accounts filled with humor. Mrs. Aiken dashed off swift entries, as if she has just finished for the day and is already anticipating her next adventure.