|At the Port of Le Havre|
Our ancestors' trip to America. I imagined it many times and read good articles to help get a picture of what these very brave people had to deal with as they left their homes, made their way to the Port of Le Havre, and sailed away. I often tried to imagine what they were thinking as the ship left the harbor with the ocean in front of them.
To help me along my sister translated an 1844 article about leaving the Port of Le Havre on a trip to Caen in 1844. The author, J. Morlent, was not traveling very far. Once the boat left harbor, he would be sailing along the coast of France. The length of the journey makes no difference. The experience of our ancestors would have been just as Morlent described it. What he described was each thrilling movement of the ship as it left the harbor.
The captain did not just put the ship into reverse, swing around and sail away. Pulling away from the place where the ship was moored was complicated and could be dangerous. Obviously I am a landlubber and clueless about the very beginning of a sea journey; most likely so were many of the 1844 passengers. Therefore I give you the rather flowery words of Monsieur Morlent and, in boldface, my less flowery interpretation of what he is describing.
Interpretation: When the tide is right for departure, the ship is already moving slightly on the waves - the first time people who had always lived on land became aware of the need to develop sea legs. It is coming out of the walled dock that has held it steady up to now.)
Monsieur Morlent: "Already the three strokes of the bell have sounded. The steam escapes with a sharp whistle from the long, metal tube that surrounds it and, noisily, the steam spreads in a white-ish cloud and redescends in a pinkish color on the forward and back parts of the boat, according to the direction of the wind which should shorten or lengthen our water excursion. The dockside is filled with a triple row of the curious who come to cheer our departure: there, is said a last goodbye; there, the hands of friends grip each other … but the speedy propulsion blades of Le Calvados are in motion. They have moved our sailing ship and the words “good trip,” “write to me,” intersect and lose themselves in the air in the middle of the commotion. Already the absence has begun. Words are powerless to make understood the last declarations of friendship, of affection or of politeness. It is the gesture that replaces the word while, quickly disappearing, the merciless engine takes the ship which turns and swims in the foam, leaving behind on the waters its plumes of mist."
Interpretation: The many people on the shore shout their farewells and good wishes, which at first can reach all ears on the ship but which become more faint until the sound is gone.)
Monsieur Morlent: The steamer moves proudly in front of a flotilla of little unmoored boats, vigilant sentinels of the waterway, who never fail at their assignment; it is in these small boats, of such miserable appearance, that our intrepid pilots hurry to rush into the middle of tempests, to take it can be said, by the hand, the big ship in peril, and to guide it to harbor, across the dangers that bristle at the entrance; how many pay with their life for this generous recklessness. At the foot of these walls, beaten by the surf, lies a bank of pebbles called the southern shingle-bank. It is a deadly danger to ships who miss the entry to the harbor and then are broken by the tempest in several hours and scattered on this beach, famous, each year, for more than one shipwreck. It is the despair of the sailor who, escaping the dangers of a long sea voyage, is cruelly run aground only several feet from the object of his efforts.
Interpretation: Leaving the safe harbor, the ship encounters the sailors who mann the small, battered boats at the risk of the dangerous waves, trying to prevent the impressive large sailing ship from running aground and breaking into pieces because the ship's pilot misjudged the entry to the harbor.
We skirt the northern pier, the favorite strolling area of foreigners, maintained with a care that resembles flirtation, and visited every day by a large portion of the population of Le Havre, of which it is the meeting place at the time of high tide. A belt of granite surrounds it, a small beacon ends it, and its straight platform often has difficulty containing the crowd that jostles together to participate in the impressive spectacle of the entrance or the exit of ships, whether the sky is clear and the breeze light or whether the wind blows violently and the gray and tempestuous waves darken the strange panorama.
Interpretation: Every day, especially at high tide, crowds of people who are from both Le Havre or foreign places stroll in a special area and watch with fascination as arriving or departing ships move toward or away from the granite wall of the harbor regardless of the weather. The strolling area is protected by a "belt" of granite with a beacon at its end.
Monsieur Morlent: "But this lovely and strong belt of granite is often powerless to protect it from the shock of ships that are abruptly pushed by the swell. One of the first days of February, last year, the American ship The Emperor, upon entering into the harbor, hit it so violently that it overturned three foundation sections of the wall cap and shook the others at a height of over eighteen feet. The stem of the ship was almost crushed. When one has seen the piers of Le Havre, built in blocks of the granite of Cherbourg, linked together by iron bolts and encased in cement, which has the hardness of rock, one is struck with amazement that the motion of the sea can succeed in overturning these constructions that appear to be resistant over centuries."
Interpretation: Granite walls as high as 18 feet are no match for the power of the water that smashes into the Le Havre harbor.
Monsieur Morlent: We have passed the pier and already the city escapes us. On a long line, that appears winding from the south to the north, are displayed in the foreground the floating warships that protect the shoreline, the ovens that forge cannon balls, a gunpowder factory, and the shipbuilding yards, above which are displayed the frames of these beautiful ships of commerce.
What courage our ancestors had. I wonder how many of them, looking at the scenes Morlent describes above, wondered if they had been a little mad when they signed the contract that took them away from solid, steady earth and positioned their feet on these precarious, unmanageable waves.