The cruise industry began with banana boats. The Boston Fruit Company, which became the giant corporation called “United Fruit,” marketed the concept of pleasure cruising to “The Golden Caribbean” to a mass audience in the 1890s.
The steamships that went to Jamaica to fetch the bananas to bring north had no southbound cargo, until the company added passenger accommodations and pitched the trip to average citizens as a way to broaden their horizons and have a good time. Going to sea for fun had been a practice confined to a salty subset of the elite, but United Fruit’s “Great White Fleet,” as it came to be known, made it affordable for a wider range of people to visit exotic tropical locales. The
company innovated air conditioning to keep the bananas fresh below decks, and piped the cool air into the cabins and public spaces, to keep the passengers comfortable. Business increased through the first three decades of the 20
century, reaching its height in the 1920s, when Caribbean cruises to rum-
producing islands, which remained unburdened by Prohibition, were all the rage.
The Depression and World War II ended that heyday, then the advent of jet airplane travel in the 1950s prevented the cruise industry from rebounding.
Not until the 1970s did the modern cruise industry rise on the foundation
established by United Fruit 80 years earlier, in the form of mass-capacity vessels
operated by Carnival Cruises and a handful of competing corporations. When
the second coming of the cruise industry began to gain momentum in 1970, about a half million passengers went on a cruise. Twenty years later, the number was 4.5 million worldwide, and twenty years after that it was 14.3 million. In 2014, with 185 cruise ships in the North American market alone, approximately 21.7 million people went on a cruise, 52% of them from the United States. The cruise industry cleared profits that year totaling some $37 billion. In reality, cruise ships are microcosms of the unequal division of the world’s work and wealth. The rich minority relax in luxury, while Asian, South American, and Eastern European sailors and stewards work a relentless schedule, serving out contracts lasting six to nine months straight, only connecting with their distant families by telephone and computer, during brief periods of free time in port.
It all started modestly in the 1890s, on leaky ships like the SS Belvidere of the Boston Fruit Company, steaming on a regular run from Boston to Jamaica and back. A young woman from Maine, one Miss G. B. Barrows, boarded the Belvidere in March 1898 for a cruise to Jamaica. She followed the classic tourist itinerary when she got there, which took visitors from Port Antonio over the
mountains to Spanish Town, and on to Kingston. This extended shore excursion,
with its enthusiastic souvenir-shopping, mirrors the experience of today’s cruise
clientele, who take tours on an almost daily basis on cruises to the Caribbean
Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea, Alaska, and New England, among
many other places. Other common experiences that link Miss Barrows’ cruise in
1898 with everyone going to sea on a cruise ship today, include bonding with
fellow passengers, enduring motion sickness in heavy weather, and glorying in
the lovely sights at sea, such as sunrises, sunny afternoons, sunsets, and moonlight.
Miss Barrows apparently loved her Caribbean cruise. For the rest of her life, she carefully preserved the papery ephemera of her trip (calling cards from people she met, tourist brochures, tickets assigning her to Cabin 12, Berth 1, Steamer Chair 24). Six years after her trip, she added to this collection a colorful United Fruit pamphlet with Jamaican scenes. Nine years later, she clipped news stories about the island from her local newspaper, after a disastrous earthquake struck. She cut out a United Fruit magazine advertisement that reminded her of the view she relished from the veranda of her hotel in Port Antonio (included as an illustration here). And she preserved a four-leaf clover, tucked inside her complimentary map of Jamaica from the Boston Fruit Company. If this lucky charm was a souvenir of the island, as seems likely, it may have helped her reach home safely after a stormy passage in April 1898. Less than two months later, on 25 May 1898, the Belvidere wrecked near Cape Maisí, the easternmost point of Cuba, on its way from Port Morant back to Boston.
16 March 1898
Boat office—photos of scenery—Left the wharf at 1. Tug-Barque Herbert
Fuller at wharf. Chatham, Cape Cod, East-land. Sat outside till too cold, then in
Music room of boat. Dinner at 6—assigned seats—then to state-room—a little
rising water and went to bed, slept fairly well, only looked out once. Slept with
open door-hasps—window a port-hole. Wash-bowls fold up—ledges in tables.
Thursday - Up bright to breakfast, rising bile—& kept flat and slept. Went on deck and sat aft with the Montreal lady—chat with Capt. A. (saw ship & steamer).
Water around my chair and spray sent me in, I lay till lunch. I was the only woman at the table. Went to my berth and slept a while. Was one of five at dinner—not much appetite. Took an orange and crackers to my room—very rough. A little more ‘bile’ & “turned in.” ‘Terrible’ rough night. Called the waiter to take down my cloak & umbrella, as they swung out two feet, etc. The orange very good in the night.
Friday – Tired and sore, and a very lame back. Stewardess encouraged me to keep up my good record and I went to breakfast. No longer ‘oiled’ and a good appetite. Rested awhile, & went on deck. Miss Coffin appeared. I stayed till lunch. One lady at lunch. “Sargasso sea.” Port[uguese] man o’ wars. Saw vessel.
P.M. On deck till dinner & Miss C. went down. After, had a nap before going to bed—a calm smooth night. Rested well—ate orange at 12. Looked out at five to see Watling’s Island
& got up at 6:30.
Sat. 19 Sunshine and beautiful. Every body out. Sea glassy very early—quite smooth all the A.M. but a swell that hindered writing—A poor night.
Sunday A heavy swell all day. A day of rest. Saw a steamer, a bird lighted on the boat, saw flying fish. Passed Crooked Fortune and Castle Is.
P.M. Had a nap in music room. Fine sunset at sea. Sat up till 10 with Mr. and Mrs. Whitcomb to see Cuba light on Cape Maysi [Maisí].
Changed to thinner underwear.
Monday [21 March] – Heavy swell and tumbled out of steamer chair—got named of the passengers “now you see me.” Sighted Jamaica about 10—fine
scenery—mountains and tropical vegetation. Arrived at 11. U.S. [Navy] ships Cincinnatti out by the lighthouse at Folly Point—Castine and Wilmington inside.
Health officer came out—crowds of colored people on wharf—customs officer.
Took to hotel through main street of stores looking like blacksmith shops. Fine situation of Litchfield House had rooms on first floor, detached dining room with branch of mango tree. Lunched—visited wrote letter home.
After dinner on verandah. Search lights and signals on warships. Fire flies—crickets—A Jamaican woman’s remark, “mile away the eagle scream’d.”
Tuesday 22 – Breakfast after 7—Tom had carriage & mules at 8 such a drive!
Capt. Baker’s Philip driver—variety of plants and trees. Market women with loads on head, hat on top. Water carriers—thatched cabins—many
children—rags. Fine views of sea & surf... Back at 12. Lunch—naval officers. A chat with Capt. Chester of the Cincinnatti... Eve on the verandah—boy with mongoose—searchlights turned on red.
Wednesday – Not up early and the team waited for breakfast. Drove to Golden Vale, road full of market women. Basket on head, yams, etc. Push carts of bananas. Burros with panniers, well dressed woman and child on panniers...
After return,...Tom called that the warship steamers were going out...shooters on the Navy Is. range...
Watched a strange steamer coming in after 9 P.M. Proved to be a
Norwegian, coming for a fruit freighter. (mosquitoes)
Thurs 24 – Up in season. Started for Hope Bay (10 miles) at 7. The drive a continual delight, along the seashore, surf, colored water... Picturesque ruins of old waterworks on sugar plantation—another by the water side in a cove where vessels went up. Stone walls built in slavery times on both sides of the road, crossed with vines. Joseph’s coat—ferns, &c—coolie child. Saw women washing clothes in a ravine. Hope Bay—B. F. Co.’s wharf very attentive
wharfings—bags of cocoa-nuts, barrels of fish in storehouse—took a stroll along the seashore, gathered shells, pebbles, flowers, &c.
[Her budget notes record that she also acquired “3 bottles liquors” that day, for one dollar.]
Got back to P[ort] A[ntonio] before lunch.
P.M. Loafed on the verandah...
Friday After breakfast went to the top of the house with Miss Brazil, the housekeeper.
Wanted to visit the schools at the old “barracks”...
Sat. 26 ...Decided to go to the Market...The market a busy scene. Bought lime, nutmegs... Went to the Boat Office for ticket then we all went back in the boat across the harbor...
Eve. As usual on the verandah. Watched the light on the Bermuda the
condemned filibuster that lay just across the channel...
I hope never to forget the view from the verandah.
Sunday. - ...Went to the Wesleyan Church. Colored preacher—fair German
P.M. Began to attempt to pack...Worked till dismayed.
Eve Verandah. Back to my room and worked, sewed and packed till 2 A.M...
. Was waked at quarter to five. Breakfast... Third-class car.
Passengers of all conditions, colors, & sizes & chickens! A diversified ride along the sea shore fine views of sea and mountains. 24 tunnels in 30 miles. Left the sea at Annotta Bay & the cars at “Bog Walk.” A “haggle” for carriages but went in two...
[After paying her exorbitant $1.08 admission to take the “Bog Walk” to see the waterfall there (it was the most she would pay for anything, aside from hotel bills), and visiting Spanish Town, Miss Barrows re-boarded the train (for 28 cents) and reached Kingston in the late afternoon.]
Spent the evening in the reading room and verandah towards the sea—Saw the Southern Cross from my window...
. A woman with oranges at my door early—I got up in fine spirits.
Looked over pictures and curiosities and saw a boatload of large turtles.
Went to breakfast. Waited for a small spoon, then went to get my own &
reported it. After breakfast we went shopping, with the Helmbolds (“from upland”)—Nathan’s Bee Hive—bought bandanna belt & Self Help full of
curiosities—Victoria Market—Bought large basket & “lots of things.”
Went back to dinner & intended to rest but the Helmbolds had engaged carriages to go to Hope Gardens a fine place with all the plants of Jamaica. Hurried back
expecting the boat to leave at 5. A dusty ride thro Kingston streets. Broken
glass bottles top of jail walls, customs fences—Boat left at 7.
Women loaded the bananas, singing.
Met Mrs. Du Fresne nee Annie Heston of Portland and family. Mr. & Mrs.
Ashton & the boat full.
Kept on deck till after we got to Morant Bay—bananas brought out on lighters—After ten went below before the boat started—Slept not very soundly till waked by women singing at Port Morant. Dressed & went out on the
wharf—Women carried coal in baskets on their heads, weighing 60 – 70 lbs.
Lazy men— “Turned in” again.
Wednesday 30 – Waked in good season and went to breakfast—ought not to have taken coffee. Rather rough & lay down—one very sudden & heavy plunge of the boat. Slept & on waking found my dress wet & water dropping from above.
The sudden start caused the loss of my breakfast. Slept again—tried to dress for lunch, but had to lie down. The stewardess encouraged me not to “break my second” & I “braced up” and went to lunch—Went up stairs & stayed on deck till dinner—also in the eve. Obliged to have a room-mate, as well as a pan to catch the water. Sat awhile with Mrs. Du Fresne.
Thurs. 31. (Stuart’s birthday)
The water abated a little. Got up to see the sun rise, I went in again till bell time. Several persons not yet visible. Day passed quietly. A heavy “roll” at lunch. Threw dishes off the table.
Eve. Beautiful moonlight, I sat on deck till after nine.
Friday April 1 – Put on thicker dress. On deck after breakfast & played checkers
with Mrs. Wilcox—Found our fan palm leaves, but the rain drove us in before we
secured them & they were lost. Miss Coffin succumbed. All the women below but Mrs. Parsons & myself & we stayed in the “music room”—a rainy afternoon but rather smooth.
Stayed up till nine—Mr. Fender.
Saturday – Overhauled my box & changed underwear—room leaking again, but not badly—my room-mate kept her berth—Mrs. & Miss Coffin got on deck.
Eve – In music room. Dr. Dunham. Cloudy all day. Three vessels & a Steamer that caused some excitement.
Sunday – A very rough day. Mrs. Parsons & myself were the only women up stairs. Read some, but sometimes hard work to keep one’s seat—no
comfortable chairs but steamer. A snow squall showed change of latitude.
Monday – Up early to see land. Delayed after making Boston harbor, waiting for Health Officer. Took oath to Customs officer & baggage 6 or 8 packages!
Landed—Stuart Mary and Era waiting for me. E. and I rode up to Chandler, &
walked to 17. Glad to be on land again—all tired out by Sunday’s roughness—
1. Now called San Salvador Island, The Bahamas, it is famed as the landfall of Columbus in the New World in 1492.
2. The USS Maine had exploded in Havana Harbor less than a month before
Miss Barrows left for Jamaica. The U.S. Navy warships in Port Antonio were on
alert because of the resulting “Spanish-American War,” or War of 1898, which
stemmed from the ongoing Cuban Revolution of 1895. Vessels attempting to run
guns and mercenaries to the island, called “filibusters,” were seized by U.S. Navy patrols during the prelude to full intervention in April 1898.
3. The log of expenses that Miss Barrows kept shows that she bought a starfish, a calabash, a “fern album,” a necklace, napkin rings, a carved cocoanut, two photographs, and a selection of fresh produce: star apples, mangoes,