The Last Voyage

A Voyage in the 'Sunbeam', Our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months, by Annie BrasseyTo continue a bit longer with the naval theme . . . I have friends and colleagues (and indeed children) who get up in the morning, pick up their suitcase and head off for the airport for a twelve-hour flight, or get in the car for a four-hundred mile drive, with enthusiasm, or at least with equanimity and without having spent the night before in sleepless paroxysms of fear, obsessively counting currency and checking that the passport hasn’t mysteriously escaped from the inside zipped pocket of the bag where it was when last checked five minutes ago. I admire these people, but cannot imitate them.

It’s probably because of basic, unadventurous cowardice that I’m so fascinated by the travellers we publish in CLC. I’ve mentioned before the sheer discomfort of travel even in the best of circumstances – Amelia Edwards going down the Nile, Elizabeth Rigby in the Baltic winter – let alone the pioneer explorers like Burckhardt, Mungo Park or John Lloyd Stephens, who endured terrible privations (and in the former two cases, died in the process). And the idea of taking off with four (eventually five) small children, ‘two dogs, three birds and a charming Persian kitten belonging to the baby’ on a voyage around the world for an indeterminate period, in order to test the sea-worthiness and technological efficiency of one’s husband’s new steam-yacht, is far outside my comfort zone – especially seeing that two of the children get washed (albeit temporarily) overboard on page 6. Respect, then, to Annie Brassey (first Mrs, then Lady), cheerful chronicler of her family’s extraordinary travels, and yet another Victorian lady who defies the stereotype.

Anna Allnutt was born in 1839 and married Thomas Brassey in 1860. He was the son of a railway magnate, and was himself interested in naval affairs: after repeated attempts to gain a seat in Parliament, he was  elected M.P. for Hastings in 1868, and in 1880 was made a civil (i.e. not naval) Lord of the Admiralty in Gladstone’s government. This was not an onerous post – and did not draw the attention (and ridicule) of the public in the same way as W.H. Smith’s appointment as ‘ruler of the Queen’s Navee’ had a few years earlier. But Brassey was lucky enough to have his work as his hobby, and vice versa: when he was not instituting naval reforms, or lecturing on naval affairs, or writing books on the navy, he was in his three-masted schooner, the Sunbeam, with its steam engine for auxiliary power as need arose, its crew, its domestic staff, friends, relatives, dogs and kittens.

Annie’s ‘chatty’ accounts of their voyages became best-sellers, and made her famous. She had previously published The Flight of the ‘Meteor’ and A Cruise in the ‘Eothen’ (on the Mediterranean and the United States respectively), but A Voyage in the ‘Sunbeam’ went into nineteen editions, and was translated into five foreign languages. The subsequent books, Sunshine and Storm in the East (on travels in the eastern Mediterranean in 1874 and 1878, and in which she noted the evident decline of the Ottoman Empire between her two visits), In the Trades, the Tropics, and the Roaring Forties (on the Caribbean), and The Last Voyage, to India and Australia, in the ‘Sunbeam’, did not have the runaway success of A Voyage in the ‘Sunbeam’; but Lady Brassey (Thomas was created baron in 1886 (and earl at the coronation of George V in 1911)) had a devoted following for all her writings, which began as long letters to her father, and were later edited for publication by Longman.

It’s not deep stuff – the word ‘chatty’ was used by the editor of The Last Voyage, and ‘gossiping’ by a critic – but the combination of the apparent artlessness of her style, her boundless enthusiasm and her keen eye for colourful detail make the books eminently readable. (And there are pictures, too: engravings made either from sketches by her artists guests or from her own photographs.)

It is evident that she knew what she was talking about – technical details about sailing and the customs and laws of the sea abound (and are not explained): but what doesn’t come out in the books (until the very end) is that she suffered ill-health all her life, and was especially prone to sea-sickness. Nevertheless, she loved to travel, organised land excursions (some of them extremely arduous) at all the ports of call on their voyages, and rarely does more than note ‘I was extremely tired’ after, for example, two sleepless nights ankle-deep in water as the Sunbeam was tossed about in a tropical storm.

The very end was deeply sad: the Last Voyage was undertaken for Annie’s health: she sailed to Bombay in a P. & O. steamer, and met the Sunbeam there, and it is on leaving Bombay in the yacht that the published narrative begins, on 6 January 1887. Increasing ill-health is mentioned in passing (‘ I was borne in my chair . . . I became tired and was glad to lie down and rest . . .’), and the last journal entry was made on 27 August. Characteristically, it was full of plans for bringing first-aid training to the missionaries and native pearl divers of the Torres Straits, via the St John Ambulance Association, of which she was an energetic proponent and patron. She died, of malaria, on 14 September 1887 and was buried at sea.

The Last Voyage was published in 1889. It was edited, from her unfinished writings and additional notes by Thomas, by Mary Anne Broome, a friend and an equally well-travelled journalist, who had helped transform A Voyage in the ‘Sunbeam’ from a collection of letters and journals into a book. The touching introductory memoir of their mother written by Thomas for his children reveals the extent of her physical ill-health: she had a ‘weak chest’ and was prone to bronchitis (her own mother had died young of a ‘decline’); ‘on the point of first going out into society, she was fearfully burned, and lay for six months wrapped in cotton-wool, unable to feed herself’; she first contracted malaria while passing through the Suez Canal in 1869, and had had several relapses which put her life in danger before the final attack. ‘Her courage never failed her’: nor, in these books, did an unquenchable zest for life and adventure.

Caroline

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