Cruising is not a recent affair. People have been interested in seeing the world and visit exotic and foreign places as long mankind has been around. Most of the great explorer voyages came about because of man’s great curiosity in finding out what lay behind the horizon. It has been said that Columbus got his first idea about exploring from the fact that when a sailing ship approached port the mast top appeared above the horizon first and then the rest of the ship. This proved that the earth was not flat, thus you could not fall off it and therefore there had to be something else out there, behind that horizon. So off Columbus went and discovered America.

Cruising, the art of going somewhere without having the economic need to do so, started to be thought of around the time when the first steamships appeared. Early19th century. Sailing ships cannot be relied upon for adhering to a schedule and most travellers have to get home on a set date. When the steamship appeared it was for the first time that shipping companies could publish a sailing schedule and could keep to it.

This is the Iberia of 1836 on which Thackeray made his return trip home. Guests were accommodated in the aft part.

The first cruise on record was made in 1844 by a ship that was owned by the company P&O. This British company, which still exists and still operates cruise ships in the British market, had been founded in 1835 as the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company. Its trading area was the West and East Mediterranean and beyond. Their first ships were basically sailing ships but They had a steam engine that provided auxiliary power, to maintain the schedule if the wind was not there or was blowing the wrong way. The steam-generated power was transferred to paddlewheels on the side of the ship to “paddle” it forward with a max. speed of 12 Knots on the engines only. One thing that P&O realized from the beginning as that if you try to sell a voyage without people asking for it themselves because they have to go somewhere, you have to get the product known to generate interest.

William Makepeace Thackeray, British Poet and Writer and the first Cruise writer and Cruise staff on the high seas.

So the company hired the English poet and author William Makepeace Thackeray to gather impressions for a book to be published upon returning home, a book which would be promoted by P&O for its new idea of “excursions and cruises”. Thus here we have the first ever cruise marketing effort for the high seas. He was given a free ticket and requested to entertain the ladies while the ship was at sea. The men were left to their own devices and spend the days smoking and gambling. The ship he left on, the Lady Mary Wood, was a wooden ship of 161 feet long, 126 feet wide with two masts and could carry 60 passengers in first and 50 in 3rd class. The “cruise” was a voyage on the regular trading route of the company and the cabins were mainly sold to improve earnings as the normal trade was slow. The voyage set out from Southampton England on 6 July 1844 and started with a crossing across the Gulf of Biscay, which was boisterous so all passengers were seasick and this was followed by even worse weather sailing from Gibraltar to Malta. From there it went to Athens and Smyrna. Thackeray switched ships here so he could stay for eight days in Constantinople, now Istanbul, before catching up with the next P&O liner. He found Constantinople a disappointment as it was Ramadan and not much was going on. From there he went to Jaffa, the entry port for Jerusalem but the ship had a “deck cargo” of pilgrims trying to get to the Holy land. Their not very “British” behaviour caused him a certain disconcert and again the weather was rough. The Holy land was of course the highlight of this part of the voyage followed by calling at Egypt where the Pyramids could be visited. From there he caught the next ship to sail home again. He did write the book, but as this sort of transport was a very new thing, he did not want to have his name attached to it so it was written under the pseudonym of Michel Angelo Titmarch. Also he was not always that favourable in his comments in regards to the locals he met an enroute and places visited, so for P&O his efforts must have been a mixed blessing. Some of the experiences he recalled were negative, he reported on being seasick; complained of prices, bugs, lack of pretty women and beggars. Also he was not very understanding of the fact different cultures have different habits, he observed all what he saw from a very British point of view.
Not exactly the best way to generate interest for a cruise to the Mediterannean.

What was it like for the guests on such a trip?
In our eyes very basic. In those days there was no separation in cargos as we have nowadays. Each ship carried in principle all the variations of cargo that was available. Thus most of the ships also had a passenger accommodation, mainly for businessmen and that accommodation was not always filled as trading was often seasonal. Therefore P&O devised this idea to sell an “excursion to the Levant” to fill up unused space. The “Levant” being the old name for the eastern area of the Mediterranean basin. The ship had still standing water (washing bowl and jug) in all cabins, daily refreshed by the steward and candles for light in the cabins free of charge. Also there were separate toilets for passengers, officers and crew and a bathroom down the hallway. The bathroom used salt water and an appointment could be made with the steward. It is unknown if this luxury came price included, nor whether there was a great demand for it. Apart from the entertainment provided by Thackeray, the guests had to enjoy themselves, with reading or talking, watching the scenery on nice days and trying to survive in the cabin during nasty weather. But for an era, where for most people 50 miles was an enormous distance, a cruise to the Mediterranean was an adventure of a lifetime. Whatever success Thackeray book had, P&O laid there is foundation for their cruise business and within 15 years is was quite a successful part of their operation.

Note: The drawing of the Iberia comes from a photo from my collection, the photo from Thackeray comes out of the public domain.