article picture

A Trip to California in 1856 - Part 8

by Isabelle Walton Lusk

This article is a continuation of Isabelle Walton Lusk's memoir about traveling from Maine to California. Even though steam ships did not depend on wind, weather was still important for smooth traveling. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of his trip on a steamer. "I was in the forward part of the vessel where all the great waves struck and broke with voices of thunder. In the next room to mine, a man died. I was afraid that they might throw me overboard instead of him in the night."(1)

Part 8 - Coal Stop in Kingston, Jamaica

We soon [traveled] down to where it was beginning to be hot, and poor Mrs. Bernard almost suffocated with a thick wool dress. I had coaxed her to buy some nice thin goods [before the trip]."(2)

Our ship began to roll strangely and many of the passengers were sea sick. It was on account on the ballast was so low.(3) We arrived quite early in the morning at Kingston for coal.(4) The deck was opened and a wooden shaft was put down. A man sat at a table with a large book. With a pen and ink, he kept a tally of the buckets of coal brought in. Then came the coal heavers, to my horror, all women with great buckets of coal on their heads, holding them with one hand and the other on their hips.

Their only garment, a gown reaching about half way from the knees to the feet held on by straps over their shoulders. One of them seemed quite young, some middle aged, and some were evidently nursing mothers. I exclaimed, "Oh horrors, these women are doing work like that. Where are the men?" One [young man named] Chris said carelessly, "They are nxxxers".

"But Chris, they are women, and men should be doing work like that." I said no more because Chris had been raised to look on such people as cattle. These women came around and dumped the coal into the shaft, and then passed the man at the table and he [wrote] down the number of buckets. They would work for twenty-four hours, then receive a pittance earned for their work while the white man would fill his pockets with the money they had earned for him.(5)

article picture

Lithograph,Coaling up, Kingston, Jamaica by artist George Victor Cooper, 1852

Our crowd decided to spend the day on shore to see the sights and buy anything we could see to purchase. Everything in the town was for sale, apparently. We saw high fences built of bricks and mortar. On the top was soft clay which had been stuck with broken crockery, glass spikes, and other sharp things. The gates [of the city] being the same. Those fences enclosed the English Gentlemen's grounds where they had all they needed except flour and ice and a few other things. Besides the fence, they had men with shotguns all around the place and if a Negro showed up by the fence they peppered him good with a shot. The white men used to beat the slaves, now the Negro men would not allow it.(6)

The only hotel was owned and kept by a colored woman, a widow. Her hair was long and fine and wavy. The porch of the hotel was a few steps, and above a few fans were arranged, and someone out of sight

who pulled the cords that run the fans. It made it very cool and refreshing, and kept away the flies and gnats that seemed to fill the air. Our crowd ordered a chicken dinner and then a number of coaches so that we might see the town.

We saw no Negro men on the street, except those that were driving the coaches. But the streets were full of women peddling all kinds of wares. Lovely hand embroideries, and some parrots in small cages just large enough for the parrot. I bought many pieces of embroidery and lace. When I asked the landlady where the men were, she shook her head.

We found them however, at a town, their huts so low it did not seem as if a man or woman could enter the doors without crawling on their hands and knees. There under the shade trees were children three weeks to eight and ten years old, all stark naked as they were born. The poor babies tormented by the flies and gnats that were ready to eat them alive. The men in shirt and trousers, lying under the trees paying no attention to the children. The men were smoking small cigars, cigarettes, and wooden pipes. The older children bringing them a drink and filling and lighting their pipes. They seemed too lazy to light their own pipes. The miserable lazy hounds. Their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters [were] either still filling our ship with coal or peddling in the streets to support them.(7)

The hotel owner told me her history. Her husband had been much older than herself. An English master had owned the hotel and kept it after the slaves were freed. He deeded the place to her husband. Before her husbands' death, he deeded it to her. I asked if she had any children. She said no and thanked God for that so they did not live this life.

The next part of a Trip to California in 1856 will be published in a future GuideLines issue. Thanks to Eric Bennion and Frances Lusk Bennion for sharing this memoir. You can read previous installments of this memoir on the City Guides website.

(1) Life on a Steamer Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel.

(2)Travelers were advised: “Light clothing such as is worn in the United States during the summer months is sufficient for traveling purposes, from 3 days out of New York to within 5 days of San Francisco, after which the usual warm clothing will be necessary.” Source: Gregory’s Guide for California Travelers via the Isthmus of Panama, John W. Gregory, 1850.



(3)The coal used for the steam travel had been the ship’s ballast along with the food and ice. At this point in the trip, much of these things had been burned, eaten, or melted so the ship was rocking.

(4)Steamers traveled 10-12 knots. At 10 knots, they could use 37.37 tons if coal was used. Steamers needed a secured supply of coal. The Atlantic ports were near coal centers. The Pacific ports had supplies shipped to Panama and around South America to specific stops. Source:The Panama Route: 1848-1869, John Haskell Kemble

(5)Jamaica became a base of operations for pirates in the 1600s, and a stop in the African slave trade when sugarcane became the island industry. Under British rule, there was a ratio of slaves to masters of 20:1. After many revolts, the British abolished slavery 20 years before Isabelle was there. Slavery was still an institution in the United States at this time. Source:The Story of the Jamaican People, Peter Sherlock and Hazel Bennett.

(6)The sugar industry was propped up by the British government after emancipation until 1846, but sugar prices plummeted from completion from other islands. Visitors to Jamaica reported in the mid-1800s the complete collapse of plantations, untended buildings, and tropical plants reclaiming the land. Source:Jamaica: guide to the People, Politics, and Culture, Peter Mason

(7) The Emancipation Act of 1831 ruled that the former slaves were apprenticed laborers could continue to live on the plantations. However, if they remained, they were required to pay rent and could be evicted in a week if they failed to pay. The government’s policy of restricting the amount of land available to former slaves ensured that farming could not be an industry for the masses. Most left the plantations. Former slaves received some donations from Baptist missionaries to help establish villages.

Source: The Story of the Jamaican People, Peter Sherlock and Hazel Bennett.

Photo credits:

•Coaling up, Kingston, Jamaica, courtesy of the Bancroft Library, BANC PIC 1963.002:0994:48--A



Copyright © 2012 San Francisco City Guides

Send comments and questions to guidelines@sfcityguides.org
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.