Updated: Jun 1, 2021
Hip hip Hooray! My blog has come of age! Only one year in and sixteen colorful stories from cruise history down already. That only goes to show what you can accomplish when you can’t go anywhere, can’t see anyone and have reached the end of your Netflix queue (for future reference: this was year 1 of the Covid-19 pandemic).
At such an important / arbitrary juncture it is important to stop and smell the flowers, pat yourself on the back for beating that writer's block and to refresh everyone’s mind why chronicling this obscure corner of maritime history was even relevant or worthwhile to begin with. Most of the latter is actually laid out in the very first post here (About Cruise History) but since I figure since only the most devout binge readers will have gone that deep, it bears dusting off and revisiting.
Most people do not know how old the phenomenon of cruising is. They figure it’s a 1960’s thing, invented by Americans and developed in the Caribbean, whereas it is in fact an 1840’s thing, invented by the British and developed in the Mediterranean. Cruising is in fact almost as old as modern mass tourism itself - literally within a few years of the first organized package excursions that heralded the advent of mass tourism (courtesy of Thomas Cook and others), someone turned around and said; 'Hmm, but what if we took that concept out to sea?'. The 1960’s merely marked a change in format where cruising went from being a sideline to the ocean liner shipping business, to being the fully-fledged industry we know today. Hence, we have a cruise industry that is only 50-odd years old, but a cruise phenomenon that is 175-odd years old and most people only know of the former.
I called it an obscure corner of maritime history… mostly because it is. Whereas the history of maritime exploration and ship development, cargo shipping and passenger transport, naval warfare and many other seaborne affairs is well chronicled and understood, the roots and early history of leisure cruising remain woefully unexplored and poorly documented. That likely has to do with the nature of cruising being a ‘thing of leisure’ – a non-vital human activity (a frivolous pastime, detractors might say), not really pushing the boundaries of human development in any way and therefore not deemed worthy of study or record-keeping. That is of course poppycock as what we choose to do voluntarily with our time says equally much (if not more) about our nature and culture than what we are compelled to do for livelihood at any given point in history. And that is our loss now as it becomes increasingly difficult to piece together complete pictures of the early cruise activity and history. There are fewer and fewer eyewitnesses to anything earlier than mid-20th century events and pre-digital records are disappearing fast into cracks of entropy or obscurity. There is only so much time left to preserve a complete picture of what went on in the dawn of leisure cruising.
So that’s what I have set out to do; recount the enterprises and developments of cruising past, place them in their proper historical context, highlight the many fascinating iterations that emerged, examine the societal and cultural dynamics that brought them about and - in as far as possible – try to make you appreciate what your great-great-great grandparents (and their parents) would have experienced on one of those early cruises (had they been so privileged as to go on one). It's not an attempt to chart cruise history in its entirety. Good lord, no! I have a life too, you know! It's a series of stories that spotlight various events or periods, put them into context and make for an interesting and entertaining read, even to the layman. And if that's what you are and you are still reading at this point; kudos to you, good Reader! Really appreciate it! I'll try to keep it approachable and entertaining.
You may argue that my timing is off. Who gives a hoot about the murky and obscure pre-history of cruising, what with the entire cruise industry hanging on by its fingernails in the face of Covid-19? To which a French person would say ‘Au contraire!’ Now is the perfect time to remind ourselves how much human experience and historic legacy is packed into this business and where it came from. I am not going to get all hyperbolic and pretend that the future of cruising is at stake with Covid – it has survived pandemics and world wars before and it will be back, likely in a different format, maybe with some different market players, but it will be back.
But cruising was getting a bit of a bad rap pre-Covid, what with the mainstream industrial segment turning into soulless monopolized mega-corporations, operating oversized, hyper-commercialized, floating resort-blocks that spread pollutants in the ocean and overtourism on every shore (and spreading the first waves of Covid around certainly didn’t do much to improve that image). Whether that rap is deserved is a lengthy and nuanced discussion for another time but the important thing to remember is that this is not the end-all and be-all of cruising! This is not where it came from and it’s likely not where it’s going. That’s just the overindulgence and arrogance of a young industry running unchecked and if you think that’s bad, just wait until we popularize and democratize space tourism (for history is nothing if not cyclical). So forget your past at your own peril, because it defines who you are and where you are going.
I am an academic, yet I have chosen not to turn this project into an academic treatise, partly because I want it to be read and enjoyed by everyone and partly because footnoting, referencing and other scholarly formatting conventions choke my joy of writing and constrain the lighthearted storytelling format I am going for. But know that I am holding myself to a certain standard of verifiable truth … in as far as anything in 175 years of sketchy and patchy recordkeeping can be said to be 100% verifiable from behind a keyboard in a locked-down world. For that same reason, this is also a work in progress – I frequently revisit my work here to add another detail I learned from a new source of information, correct a misapprehension or elaborate on a thin subject. And if you, dear Reader, are particularly knowledgeable about cruise history and can tell where I done goofed or barked up the wrong tree (See! I could never get away with this kind of wording in an academic treatise!), then what are you waiting for? Contact me and let’s set the record straight.
Also, I am running out of stories and I need someone to throw some inspiration my way. Seriously, I've got like a couple of tellable stories left in the pipeline and then I am out. If you are still reading at this point, you must have more than a fleeting interest in the history of cruising, so what have you ever wondered about when it comes to the origin of cruising? Let me know and let's see if there's a hook in it.
Meanwhile, for all the ships I am always talking about, I am still missing a crucial one; a readership! These stories are less than a year old and haven’t travelled far on the world wide web and the entire point of their existence is to spread the knowledge of cruise pre-history. So by all means, introduce this to likeminded cruise and maritime geeks, share it on social media and special-interest forums, show it to your grandparents – they always appreciate someone making the effort to learn about the good old days. I thank you in advance for your efforts in doing so and I wish you much enjoyment catching up on the exciting origins of cruise history.
This is a status update in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's collected in this blog. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.