Nils Emil Aars’ Diary: Violent Storm and Frustrating Calm, Death and Madness, and Finally – The Promised Land.
Nils Emil Aars wrote a diary during his voyage on the Beta from Drammen to Hawaii.
Aars was 23 years old when he emigrated. He had studied theology, but gave that up when his father, who was a pastor at Strømgodsets Kirke, died. He then went to the military academy for one year and became a reserve lieutenant.
Since he was the assistant to the ship’s doctor, it is assumed that he traveled under somewhat better conditions than the others, although one gets the impression from the diary that he did not eat together with the captain and the doctor, but together with the other passengers.
We repeat a good deal from the 130-page book, mostly from the last half, where he tells about everything from fires and sickness to Christmas celebrations as they pass Cape Horn, and then to the days as they get closer to their destination, Hawaii.
We do not always quote the diary word for word. In several places we have shortened what Aars wrote.
The diary is translated by Jack M. Johnson.
One child died
Already on Friday the 29th of October he tells that they had a terrible storm. They lost the supply of kerosine and gasoline. One child died.
25 November: Tonight at about 11 o’clock there was quite a fright on board when it was reported to the captain that there was a fire on board the ship. It proved to be correct, and God knows what would have happened if it had not been discovered so early. The smoldering fire had started under the galley where the food for the emigrants was prepared. There was too much heat, even with two layers of bricks underneath the ovens.
One could not see the flames, but as there was no air, there could be no flame. They had to tear down the ovens and the bricks, and they put out the fire this time. Hopefully it would be the last.
Butchering the hog for Christmas dinner and another fire
Thursday, 16 December: Today we have undertaken the job of butchering for Christmas dinner, as the biggest of our hogs told his colleagues farewell to this world. By the way, it was a big pig of a hog who had been very nasty to the others, giving them no peace. It had tried its best to hinder the others from getting any food. It will become some delicious spareribs and pork sausage. We have four women here who know how to prepare the meat and they are in a scurry of activity. One could almost imagine that one was back home as it was in the old days.
Aars writes that they are to sail between the Falkland Isles and the mainland.
On December 17, he is happy to be able to see the Falkland Isles. Also on this day there was a fire in the back of the ship. The smoke came out through two small lounges in the back. The boatswain yelled for water, and helped to draw in the sails so that they would not be damaged. The women came up on deck with their children in their arms, the men yelled as they looked for their wives, and everybody wanted to sail toward land.
Yes, many of the passengers were crying and were quite frightened. When they investigated, they found that there was not yet much of a fire to speak of. The smoke came from the spontaneous combustion of some fireworks which gave off an unpleasant smell of burned paper and gunpowder. So the tears have been shed for this time. Thank God! Yes, it could have been very bad if the fire had burned for a while unattended in such strong wind and waves. I understand that it would have meant certain death, because we were already far away from the Falkland Isles.
21 December: Aars tells that for quite some time they have noticed that small things have been disappearing. Now a young girl from Drammen has been caught. She was wearing some of the stolen articles, and some more were found in a trunk. She was not punished on board the ship, but they thought she would be punished when she came on land.
Canvas rags and ropes as Christmas gifts
24 December: Now this day, the most glorious day of the year, has arrived. And, as amazing as it may seem, we have had the most wonderful weather in the world with sunshine and a nice breeze. It is quite remarkable that we passed Cape Horn at exactly 12 noon during such good weather. It was quite unusual, but very nice for us, of course, that we rounded this greatly feared Cape in such wonderful weather and that it happened to be Christmas Eve. Yes, it was really quite extraordinary. We spent a very enjoyable evening in the lounge, as the doctor and I had put together a newspaper called “Beta News” containing accounts of all kinds of funny things about the trip and the people here in the rear lounge. We had also made Christmas presents, but they were the products of our situation: nails, canvas rags, ropes, raisins, meatballs, etc. Each present was accompanied by a rhyme, which added to the merriment. In the evening we drank punch and sat up until one o’clock. Of course, we were thinking about those at home.
Monday, 10 January: He tells about thirsty passengers because of the salty food they are served. The passengers are not being given their full ration of water because some of the water barrels are leaky. The next day he writes about quite an uproar because they are terribly thirsty and complain about not getting enough water. He also tells that two of the passengers almost got into a fight because one of them had received permission from the doctor to get a little extra water to wash a sick child. The other man was envious and started to badmouth him. They settled their differences in the end.
A woman got sick this afternoon. Otherwise nothing else.
Wednesday 12 January: The woman who got sick is a young, pretty wife, who has been pale and has looked ill the whole trip. She is showing signs that she might have a miscarriage. Poor wife. If only it would go well for her, because such cases can be very dangerous. She has a sister, rosy and healthy, and she is obviously sweet and the prettiest girl on board. Both are from Røyken parish.
15 January: Unfortunately there is no wind today, either. It would certainly be sad if we were to have such calm weather for a long time. If the voyage lasts more than four months, we will run out of many things. They were supposed to have loaded provisions for six months, and the clerk in Drammen attested to that. Unfortunately this was not correct, because we have less than what was written on the invoice. With that in mind, and taking into account the rebellious people onboard, the future does not look pleasant. We certainly hope that we will soon get a good breeze.
16 January: He writes again that the wind is calm, and they continue to wait for more of a breeze. They pass the time playing checkers, reading, sleeping, and eating. Doing this day out and day in makes life quite dull and boring, and it certainly is.
We spent the evening dancing. Otherwise nothing more today.
20 January: The wind is now blowing quite steadily and our speed is now eight knots. If we can keep this up, we will get there in about three weeks. Yes, it will be nice to get ashore again, because this voyage is becoming terribly long. Although I can say that conditions are fairly good on board, our situation is certainly not as good as that of the captain and the doctor. This is because the doctor, who seems to be a big egotist, has such great influence on the captain that he does whatever the doctor asks.
Man gone crazy
Today, one of the emigrants, a married man, has gone mad, really quite crazy. He has had periods of madness earlier and has suffered from delirium tremens several times. This is certainly a trial for his poor wife and three children. He sleeps in a little hut we have built for him on deck, and he is allowed to go free during the day.
Next day: The mad man has sung, cried and yelled all night, greatly disturbing those who were trying to sleep. Today he was taken by force and put into a bathtub and given a good wash. He was not happy about that, but endured it somewhat patiently. He walked around all day grabbing things and throwing hats overboard. However, there are so many people keeping an eye on him during the day, that he will probably not be able to do anything wrong. If he gets much worse, he will be put in his cage.
Sunday, 23 January: A pleasant day. Church service, and later an afternoon sermon preached by an emigrant by the name of Andreas Hansen from Drammen. He preaches sermons each afternoon.
Monday, 24 January: Today at 10 o’clock one more child died after having been bedridden and plagued by several illnesses. The child had been quite sick in Drammen also. This afternoon the quiet ocean was ready to receive the child, and it closed over him in silence.
26 January: Wonderful and favorable weather. Today one more small child died. And this was the second child those parents have lost on this voyage. Poor people!
We are so used to funerals on board that it almost seems to be a daily thing. One more child is battling with death and will soon die. This evening a young, pretty girl from Drammen has gotten cramps and she is screaming terribly.
27 January: The mad man has gone from rage to complete melancholy. He is now easier to deal with and sometimes even talks with his wife and children, but he still sleeps alone in his hut.
31 January: Sermon as usual. But this time the psalms were performed by a choir of trumpets, and they sounded really good. We had chicken fricassee with export beer. It has been a long time since I have eaten so much good food.
Tuesday, 1 February: Just think that one more month has gone by. I have to say that even though life is dull, the three months have gone quickly, I can soon start to count the days until our arrival. I assume that we will be there in fourteen days, if the wind is favorable.
2 February: This afternoon and night we have received quite a bit of rain, which we really needed, because the water supply was very low. We have only enough water left for 16 – 20 days. And should we risk remaining in this calm area where there is now absolutely no wind, it would mean certain death for all of us, as it has to so many before us. That would be a painful death. Last night we collected enough rainwater for four days.
Friday they had chicken fricassee again, and it was an excellent meal, according to Aars.
5 February: A real nice wind, now things are going well. Many bets have been made about when we will see the Sandwich Islands.
Otherwise he writes that they have had a fantastic voyage without any severe weather or storm worth mentioning. But there was one exception (He apparently does not count the storm they had in the North Sea.)
As they get closer to land, they begin to get themselves ready so that they can go ashore as nicely dressed as possible. Today the captain told me to count everybody to see if we have the same number of people aboard as we had when we sailed from Drammen.
The next day Aars learns that they have one man who was not on the list, but he has a ticket.
Sunday, 13 February: People do nothing but stand by the railing to see if they can catch a glimpse of land.
We reach our goal
Monday, 14 February: On the evening of this day, as fate would have it, we got to see land, Hawaii, the promised land.
Aars writes that they see sunny coasts, level land and fields, and cows and horses grazing, but that there are few trees. Only here and there do they catch a glimpse of a palm tree with its mighty crown bending over to give the world’s most refreshing resting place in its wonderful shade.
Then he tells that he sees small houses, built in a nostalgic Nordic way, about like small farmhouses. He also sees sod piles and smells sod burning, which are familiar sights and smells from back home.
Thursday, 15 February: From now on, it will be difficult for me to write in this diary, because of all the new things to see, and all the new things happening. It will be hard to write it all down. We had to sail from Hawaii over to Maui, because L’Orange lives there. He came aboard on Wednesday. We were anchored right by a little town, but we could hardly see it because of the palms and banana trees. Many natives came to look at us, and they probably thought we were some strange people. From here we sailed to a bay further up on the same island. Thursday and Friday were busy days for us as we had to get everything in order, but on Saturday most of the passengers were set ashore at Maalaea. I had hoped to stay here at Maui along with some of the other pleasant families, but unfortunately I was assigned to Mr. Hitchcock on Hawaii. It was sad to say goodbye to so many. The reason I am to go to the island of Hawaii is because L’Orange would not be able to do anything to help me here on Maui with regard to making extra earnings or becoming a foreman or something like that. By sending me to Hawaii, he thinks that I will be promoted quickly. If I find that I do not like it there, and would rather move to another place, I can just tell him about that. Since he did this as a favor, I agreed to do it. Today it is Sunday and we are still at the harbor. We are not going to leave for Hawaii before Tuesday, because then a steamboat will come to take us there.
Today is Tuesday, 23 February, and we are still here in Maalaea Bay at Maui. No steamboat has come and God knows when it will come. Time passes slowly here, nothing to do but wait. On Monday the captain and the doctor went to visit Captain L’Orange after they had spent the morning hunting wild doves.
Not as dark as I had thought
I have been ashore several times and have looked at the Kanaka huts. The natives are friendly people, some quite pretty, and not as dark as I had thought. The ladies have dresses from the shoulder and all the way down to the feet. I have seen several Kanaka people, both men and women, who walk completely naked on the beach to fish. They wear only a little ribbon around the waist. A Kanaka is on board the ship and speaks fairly good English. He is a master at playing Checkers. After the immigrants who were assigned to plantations on Maui had gone ashore, we others had to wait for eight days before the steamship came. Our colleagues who had gone ashore on Maui on Saturday had to start to work on Tuesday, so it did not take long before they had to get to work.
Saturday, 26 February: We said goodbye to Beta and took off on a small coastal boat. We did not get much food, and it was boring on board. We could not express ourselves, except by gestures. Of course nobody there could speak Norwegian, and it was indeed surprising if somebody even knew where Norway was. Monday noon we arrived at our destination and anchored quite a bit from land. Our new boss came on board to check on his slaves. Afterwards he went ashore to obtain a boat. He came back with a flat-bottomed boat. A rope was tied from ship to land, and we used that rope to pull the boat in to land. The breakers were so big that many of us were afraid of this procedure. But if we wanted to go ashore, we had to do it. The boat went aground on the bottom several times, and we had to wait for a new wave to come and throw it further onto the shore. Finally we stood on land. It was good walk on land. A lot of native Kanaka and Chinese were looking at us. The landowner himself worked maybe harder than anybody else. He looked very stern, but he is supposed to be a very good man to work for, which turned out to be true. (This means that this is not written on the same day, but probably a while later – TG.)
All of our belongings were transported by donkeys and mules to our new dwellings. They were made like barracks at home. In the room where I am living there are 11 persons, who are, by the way, the nicest and most orderly of them all. There are Portuguese, East Indians, Americans, and other nationalities living in other rooms in this house, while the Chinese live off on their own. There were a lot of new things to see the first day. For dinner today we were served salted meat, bacon, potatoes, rice, beans, tea, sugar, syrup. As hungry as we were, the food tasted really good. With full bellies we left the table, fetched our pipes and looked around.
We have now moved from the first barrack to another, where we live on the second floor. First floor is used as a dining hall, so we do not have far to walk for meals. That is nice, because it often rains. In all, there are 109 persons here who came with the Beta. The married people live in three barracks. We have the nicest barrack with a porch on each side. From one side we have a view of the Pacific Ocean, which is only a rifle shot from us. From the other side we have a view of the farms and the plantations and a big mountain, where there is new snow every morning. And in clear weather we can see the fire from a big volcano. (And Aars sees lots of unknown flowers, but not many coconut palm trees.)
Yesterday was my birthday, but I didn’t even think of it before I came home for supper. But a birthday here doesn’t seem to mean anything. Here one works every day.
It was quite strange to work on Maundy Thursday and Easter Monday, which are considered to be holy days (in Norway), along with other prayer days such as the day after Whitsunday. But we had free from work on Good Friday, and we received this month’s salary for 25 workdays. Only Sundays are observed as holy days. In the Hawaiian Kingdom the 11th of June is a holiday because it is the birthday of Kamehameha the Great.
11 June: Aars went to Hilo because he thought that there would be an enjoyable celebration, but he was very disappointed. Some brass music was played, or something that the natives called music, but in our opinion it was nothing but cacophony. Even so, they earned quite a bit of money when they played at the doors of rich people, but whether they were getting money for the music, or just to leave, I could not decide for sure. Hilo is a quite nice little town, but it doesn’t look like a town. Small, one-story houses with Chinese shops and coffeehouses. The town hall is the best in all of Hilo, and the garden is like a park. There are many coconut trees here, and a steamship comes each Thursday.
Here the diary of Nils Emil Aars ends. He sent the book home to his sister so that it would stay in the family. Today it is a part of The Norwegian Maritime Museum on Bygdøy. See also the interview with Aars’ great-grandson, Jack Johnson.