What was it like to sail on a square-rigger?


ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Contemporary travel is fast and efficient. Board a plane, eat a meal, watch a movie, take a nap, and a few hours later, the traveler disembarks in a new and distant land to sample unique foods, observe exotic dances and decipher the language of the quaint inhabitants. Six nights’ hotel stay and it’s back home – tempus fugit.

In the old days … By contrast, travel during the 18th century was slow, laborious and quite difficult.

University of Michigan assistant professor Vanessa Agnew spent six weeks aboard a replica of Captain Cook’s 18th century ship – the Endeavour – retracing a portion of Cook’s first voyage and learning first-hand the rigors and rewards of working on a square-rigger as it sailed from Cairns, Australia, to Bali, Indonesia.

A cultural critic specializing in 18th century travel writing and the intersections between natural history, music, exploration and colonization, Agnew teaches courses in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures on Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, racial discourse and travel writing.

Documentary. Thanks to her research on music and 18th century voyaging, she was recruited with five other historians and cultural critics from Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States to participate in a series of documentary films titled The Ship, airing on the History Channel in fall 2002.

For Agnew and the rest of the crew, daily life aboard ship began as they awoke from their hammocks in primitive, shared quarters. Throughout the day, program producers conducted individual interviews with Agnew and other crew members.

No free rides. The crew, when not being interviewed, completed routine duties including swabbing the decks, helming the ship, working the sails, pushing the capstan and climbing the mast, Agnew says, who recounts hanging upside down from the yardarm (the spar that carries the sail) to roll up the sails.

The “authentic” 18th century experience extended to a daily menu of salt beef and pork, sauerkraut, dried anchovies, hard tack (a dry biscuit) and peas, and breakfasts of oatmeal and raisins.

To prevent scurvy, the adapted modern menu included vitamin supplements, something that could have benefited Cook and his crew.

“We were desperate for decent food,” Agnew said. “And I never want to eat porridge again.”

< Unique insight./b> The rare opportunity also gave her a first-hand understanding of the philosophic and intellectual ways in which an 18th century traveler may have interpreted the journey.

She explains that as the ship nears land, the change in environment is gradual and methodic, providing those aboard with an opportunity to consider the surroundings.

“The approach to an island is very slow,” Agnew describes. “One begins to speculate: Why is the vegetation dense in one location and sparse in another? Why are the flora and fauna different? Why are the people the way they are?

“One can see, for instance, how the German naturalist and writer Georg Forster might have come up with theories about cultural relativism in the South Seas, or the evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace with theories about the continental separation between Asia and Australia.

“It’s as though the islands themselves suggest a framework for comparison.”

Gift-giving. Agnew is captivated by the dynamics of cross-cultural encounters. During the 18th century, when a vessel and its crew came in contact with new people, the sailors and islanders often participated in gift giving, trade and hospitality rituals, she reveals.

They played music and entertained one another, compiled vocabularies and set up markets.

“Not only did the crew want what others had – fruit, livestock, beads, nails or sex – they wanted to satisfy basic curiosity. These initial interactions formed the basis for more systematic ethnographic reflection,” Agnew said.

Online resource. Today’s world, in contrast to Cook’s, is readily available via the Web. Making 18th century voyage texts available to a broad audience, Agnew is preparing a hypermedia edition of Samuel Wallis’ journal dealing with the European discovery of Tahiti.

This is important, she points out, because in the past, such material tended to be available only in manuscript form to academics.

Through her work on the South Seas Project, a collaborative venture with the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University and the National Library of Australia, Agnew will see this material made available online.

Opportunity. “People often do not see how current ways of thinking are inflected by the past,” Agnew said. “Participating in a series of films like this gives me the opportunity to talk about the 18th century to a lay public.

“It also allows me to think about the ways in which we write about the past – whether that means the philosophic reflections of Georg Forster or ‘extreme history’ adventures aboard a replica of an 18th century sailing ship.”


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