Friday, October 29, 2021

My Travels by Maria Hackett

An Irishwoman’s uncommon anecdotes of exotic lands
Maria Hackett, the author of My Travels, was neither a famous nor professional writer. She was merely a grandmother with some interesting stories to tell of her past. As happens in many families, her children encouraged her to write her memories down for the benefit of her descendants. Unlike the stories of your average grandmother, however, Hackett’s recollections were deemed worthy of publication in her local newspaper, the Sunday Press of Albany, New York. Her writings were then published in book form in 1912 and now exist for perpetuity in the public domain.

What is unusual about Hackett’s life is her extensive travels. She was born and raised in County Cork, Ireland, but shortly after her marriage she and her husband, a distiller of whiskey, emigrated to Tasmania (then called Van Diemen’s Land) where they settled for 13 years before returning to their homeland. This round-trip voyage amounted to 36,000 miles on sailing ships, and they made the return journey with eight children in tow. After the death of her husband, Mrs. Hackett then emigrated to America and settled in Albany with some of her adult children.

The fascinating aspect of Hackett’s peregrinations is that they took place between 1828 to 1854, when traveling involved a great deal more hardship than we can even dream of today. For example, passengers on these early sailing voyages had to provide their own food for the trip, which included livestock of several species that had to be fed and slaughtered along the way. Shipwrecks and pirates were dangers faced by seafarers of the era, and Hackett had thrilling encounters with both perils. One shocking episode of her journey involves a bizarre nautical custom. When a ship crossed the equator, sailors were traditionally granted a day of license to participate in all manner of mayhem without repercussions, even to such extreme lengths as physical torture of the passengers. On the bright side, Hackett describes life in the town of Hobart, Tasmania, as a veritable paradise. The Hacketts eventually were forced to leave for business reasons, but while there they enjoyed impeccable weather, glamorous balls at the governor’s mansion, and a friendship with Sir John Franklin, the arctic explorer who would ultimately disappear while searching for the North Pole.

Not surprisingly, this 19th-century narrative isn’t exactly “woke” by today’s standards. Though she expresses disgust at witnessing a slave market in Rio de Janeiro, Hackett does make derogatory comments about a Jewish passenger and reveals some nasty views on Australian Aborigines. Antiquated prejudices aside, Hackett’s travelogues are quite fascinating glimpses of her time. The main problem with the book is that it’s so brief, only 80 pages in print, that each anecdote barely scratches the surface of its potential interest. The last 11 pages of the book don’t even relate to Maria’s adventures at all, but are occupied by a summary of the military career of one of her grandsons.

My Travels is what it is: a brief personal memoir written for family members. The book’s biggest fault my be its brevity, but that brevity also means it will only occupy an hour of your time. For those who derive vicarious enjoyment from tales of historic journeys to exotic lands, it is certainly worth the hour spent.

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