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Dear Diary - A View of 19th Century World Travel

In the March Ask the Past post, we introduced a Williams’s family letter collection from the family’s voyage around the world--a trip undertaken when T.C. Williams’ father, T.C. Sr, and his tobacco business were appointed by the Governor to represent Virginia at the Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne, Australia in 1888. We have since had the letters transcribed (late 1800s handwriting is a beast to read!), and these letters have proven to be a wealth of information about the family. Most of the correspondence in our archives are family letters, written by members of a family who obviously love one another and enjoy hearing about each other’s lives. In this post, we’ll take a deeper divetravelingvery short diary of T.C. Williams, Sr., written while on the steamship Arcadia as it sailed across the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal to Italy.


The diary contains a mere six entries, beginning on August 19, 1888. Williams, Sr., starts off by relaying how his previous diary, along with all of his medications and valise, were stolen from his hotel room at the “Federal Coffee Palace” in Melbourne, Australia. Williams goes on to give a very handy synopsis of their trip so far—listing the places they had visited on their trip across the United States, describing how their Pacific Ocean voyage had gone (not well) and offering observations from his visits and business meetings in Australia. The family met many different people, and stories of these visits and meals with new friends are reflected in letters home written by the other members of the travelling party. The family, as a whole, enjoyed Sydney over Melbourne. Williams Sr. goes on to discuss how the voyage on the steamship Arcadia had been going—his wife Ella was seasick, the English passengers were rude and anti-social (these passengers’ behavior was mentioned in letters from all the other members of the family as well), but the food was apparently fine. They made a few ports of call, including Albany, a small town in Western Australia where they sold many kangaroo skins. Unfortunately, no one mentioned if they bought any kangaroo skins.


The next entry, from August 25th, is also focused on their shipboard experience. The weather was hot, the ocean alternated between peaceful calm and turbulent squalls, and T.C. was not sleeping well. Thankfully, Ella’s seasickness had let up and she was able to get out of bed and leave her room.


He writes again on August 28th, when the ship is back out at sea after stopping at the Port of Colombo, Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon at the time). Here he goes into great detail about the indigenous people of Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly, his comments on the locals reflect the prejudices common to wealthy white Americans of his generation. Williams Sr. very much looked down on these people. He deplored that they were “naked or near so” and that his family was “besieged by sellers” of all kinds. He also complained about being followed by troops of begging children. Happily, once the Williams family travelled outside of the port town, Williams found many things to recommend Sri Lanka, including cinnamon gardens, a coconut tree forest, and the restaurant at which they ate lunch.


The final two entries are much the same—complaints about the heat and how long the days and nights were since there was little to do aboard ship. Compounding the boredom was the fact that Ella was once again confined to her room with seasickness. Unfortunately for us, although Williams wrote more letters, he did not revisit his diary for the remainder of the trip during its final two months. Despite its brevity, this diary gives us a little peek into the past, reminding us that international travel, which bothersome now, was extremely arduous in the late 1800s. Please check back for more about this lengthy trip in the upcoming months.

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