Shipboard Life & Atlantic Crossings to the New World

By Stephen R. Berry

Published by Yale University Press, 320 pages, hardcover $40

Reviewed by Chanel Champagne

A Path in the Mighty WatersA Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life & Atlantic Crossings to the New World tells the story of how people experienced their crossings to North America in the eighteenth century. Author Stephen R. Berry chronicles the account of passengers through their personal journals, letters, illustrations, and logbooks during their time aboard the ships Simmonds and London Merchant. The story goes into immense detail to give the reader an understanding of the hardships encountered throughout the long journey and how it transformed the lives of the passengers forever.

The struggles and challenges immigrants endured during their journey were anything but easy. Ships at this time were built to carry cargo and were only slightly modified to carry passengers, who were treated as cargo rather than people. Most of the immigrants had never sailed a day in their life, and the adjustment to gain their “sea legs” was quite a challenge. Many became seasick and dehydrated in the early stages of the voyage. Malnutrition and weakened immune systems among tight living quarters with limited food caused infectious diseases to be common and unavoidable.

Along with the physical demands, the travelers were also forced to intermix with people from different regions, religions, and classes. This was a challenge for most, as they were experiencing new outlooks and lifestyles for the first time. They had to put their beliefs aside and learn to coexist with people from different walks of life. Throughout the book, the author illustrates the journeys through sailors’ perspectives and describes how the transatlantic crossing differed between immigrant journeys and slave ships.

A Path in the Mighty Waters provides new insight into how these long voyages played a part in shaping American culture. Berry does a superb job of working from extensive primary sources from the perspective of many individuals. A particular strength is the instances when passengers put aside the struggles of the voyage and took a moment to describe a serene sunset, or befriend someone from a different region or religion. The author argues these oceanic journeys set the background for early American life and created a more accepting and adapting culture. One has to have respect for the bravery of these individuals. Early colonists uprooted their lives to travel to the unknown to build a better life for themselves and their families. If they knew how grueling the experience would be, would they still take the opportunity? The spiritual quest this incredible journey became is an accomplishment to be appreciated and understood.

Chanel Champagne is the Director of the Mystic Seaport Store in Mystic, CT. A Path in the Mighty Waters is available at the Mystic Seaport Store or by phone at 860-572-5385.

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