▲ Chinese aboard a steamship traveling from San Francisco to Japan circa 1890 - 1905. Photo courtesy Robert Neff Collection
By For many people, Christmas means travel. Obtaining tickets, waiting in long lines to pass through immigration and customs, and the invariable delays due to weather or mechanical problems only exasperate the difficulties in returning home and mar the festivities of the holiday season. But what was it like a hundred years ago?
Traveling between Korea and the United States in the late 19th century was not only time consuming, it was also very dangerous. In the early winter of 1889, Horace Allen — after a two-year stint with the Korean government — returned to Seoul with his wife and two young sons to assume duties as the secretary of the American legation. Their voyage had been anything but easy.
On Nov. 1 in Vancouver, Canada, they embarked on a small “tramp steamer,” the Port Augusta which was to transport them to Yokohama, Japan — a voyage of some 14 days. From there they would make their way to Chemulpo (modern Incheon) by use of a Japanese coastal steamer.
The Port Augusta — which had been chartered by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) from an Australian shipping company — was far from suitable for the voyage. Built in 1886, she was 347 feet long and had an operating speed of 10 knots per hour. Allen described her as a “long piratical craft” with very poor passenger accommodation. It had a row of small cabins and a “little dining salon which was also [a] writing and lounging-room. Two tables and a sideboard occupied most of the space, while there were divans along the sides which could be used when meals were not being served.” Its only redeeming feature was the marble trim but in the cold humid climates of the North only served to make the dining room more dreary and wet.
From the beginning the voyage was plagued with misfortune. Like many shipping companies operating between China and the West, the CPR made a fairly good profit transporting hundreds of Chinese laborers to and from the United States. Devoting as much space as possible to their lucrative trade of Chinese laborers, these ships generally carried light loads of cargo. On this particular trip the vessel was carrying a small cargo of flour and nearly 500 Chinese! According to Allen, “many of them [were] in feeble health after a life of hardship and privation in American, and on their way to their own loved land to die.”
Off the coast of Alaska, the ship encountered a horrible storm with towering waves and fierce winds. The ship was tossed about so severely that the engine broke down and the ship was left at the mercy of the sea. It wasn’t only the ship’s machinery that suffered.
“The close air of the hold and the violent motion of the vessel were too much for some of the enfeebled old [Chinese] men and they began to die. The dead were placed in boats hanging on davits along the ship’s side, one of which boats hung opposite our cabin, and whenever the ship rolled we would look into that ghastly boat-load directly in front of our cabin windows.”
The CPR had an agreement with their Chinese passengers that the bodies would not be buried at sea but would be preserved as much as possible and returned to their homeland. But as the storm continued to hammer the ship, conditions quickly worsened.
Allen claimed that the ship’s captain, distraught over his previous two unsuccessful voyages between Vancouver and Yokohama, had to be locked in his cabin for fear he might commit a rash act. The first mate had slipped and fell — breaking his leg and rendering him unable to perform his duties.
As the days went by more and more Chinese perished and soon there was no place to store the bodies. There was little other choice but to begin burying them at sea. The Chinese, however, refused, and for a short time it appeared as if there would be a mutiny. Allen, armed with a revolver, was placed in front of the hatchway leading into the hold and told not to let any Chinese up on the deck. Eventually it was agreed that the bodies would be pickled in barrels and stowed out of sight.
Fortunately for all, the storm soon abated and they were able to repair the engines and were also able to distill some much needed water. Even the captain recovered from his depression and was able to return to his duties. But they were still not out of danger.
Due to the delay caused by the storm and the engine breakdown, the ship — provisioned for only 14 days’ worth of travel — was soon out of food. For several days they subsisted on water and bread that the crew had made from the cargo of flour. The only exception to this was when the captain finally surrendered a ham that he had been given as a present. From it they made sandwiches. One of Allen’s sons reportedly was “so hungry that he growled like a dog as he ate his sandwich, seemingly to fear some one might take it from him.” Undoubtedly, none of the ham made its way into the hold for the Chinese.
On Nov. 25, the Port Augusta sailed into Yokohama harbor where it took on supplies in order to complete its last leg of its voyage to Hong Kong. According to Allen, the surviving Chinese went ashore and purchased ducks and suckling pigs which they roasted on the deck of the ship as part of a ceremony thanking their gods for a safe journey. They then threw handfuls of intimation paper money into the water in hopes of appeasing the spirits for the second part of their journey.
The Port Augusta apparently finished its voyage but it was its last one with the CPR. Deemed unsuitable, it was sold in 1891 to the Russian Steam Navigation & Trading Co. and renamed the Czaritza. Her final fate is unknown.
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