Cruise History

Historical: The first cruise ships

The origins of the cruise industry are murky and contested. Many cruise lines claim to have been the first to develop this lucrative market that only matured in the late 20th century, but who were the real pioneers?

CruiseHistory-first cruise ships

Hamburg Amerika was one of the first lines to introduce one class ships for cruise duties, such as the 16,339 ton Cincinnati of 1909 – SimplonPc

Anyone with the most superficial interest in the cruise industry and cruising in general knows that modern day cruise ships are the successors of the ocean liners of old.

As the world travel industry was transformed by the development of the jet airliner, there was no longer a need for ships to carry passengers over the ocean and so the golden age of travel died.

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But, for countless millions around the world, the pull of the sea and shipboard life was so great that they went on cruises for the fun of it, visiting exotic destinations and relaxing on the voyage there and back.

This is modern cruising as we know it, although the ships have grown larger and the facilities found onboard are increasingly more sophisticated. Carnival, that epic hegemon of the North American cruise market was the first line to really develop the idea of cruising as a mass market vacation that could appeal to everyone and not just the elderly.

But, you might be surprised to hear that the first “cruises”, leisurely ocean vacations to interesting destinations just for the hell of it, actually pre-date the development of the ocean liner and came just after the development of the marine steam engine.

The British line, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), is generally said to have operated the world’s very first cruises, or at least voyages that were the precursor to cruises.

The line is therefore known as the oldest cruise line in the world, although it’s rather humble claim to fame leaves it overshadowed by the ionic renown of Cunard. P&O was born of a partnership between Brodie McGhie Willcox, a London ship broker, and Arthur Anderson, a sailor from the Shetland Isles who began operating a shipping line between England, Spain and Portugal.

The company became the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company in 1835 when a Dublin-based ship owner, Captain Richard Bourne, joined the partnership and a regular steamer service between the British capital, Spain and Portugal was set up.

Interestingly, P&O’s name contains no Ltd (Private Limited) or Plc (Public Limited) suffix as the firm was incorporated in 1837 by Royal Charter.

It was soon after this, in 1844, that P&O began offering passenger services, but unlike most lines of the day, it’s “sea tours” were not regular passenger services between major port cities, but leisurely ocean voyages to interesting locales on the Iberian Peninsula, as well as Athens, Gibraltar, Malta and later as far afield as Malay (now Malaysia) and China.

These voyages were undertaken for the sake of visiting foreign lands and spending time at sea, although the conditions aboard ship were entirely different to today’s liners, as these early cruise-like excursions were likely undertaken by the older ships in P&O’s fleet, untested as the new idea was.

In addition, the technology of the time would have made ocean travel unpleasant at best for some and downright hellish for others, as there was no such thing as stabilisers in the mid-19th century and certainly no air conditioning.

The 19th century travel writer, William Makepeace Thackeray, who in 1844 undertook a series of P&O ‘sea tours’ between Malta, Greece, Constantinople, the Holy Land and Egypt in one account in his book ‘Diary of a Voyage from Cornhill to Grand Cairo’ describes the ship “rolling over a heavy, sweltering calm sea” having just emerged from rough weather that left the ship echoing with “indescribable moans and noises” emanating from behind “the fine painted doors on each side of the cabin”.


P&O pioneered the world’s first cruises, voyages to distant lands for the sake of travel, rather than as a means of getting from one city to another

These early cruise ships, essentially old ocean liners, were very grand, but not suited to the task of cruising in warm waters.

Despite this, P&O, after the Crimean War, converted their ship, the SS Ceylon, to a cruising yacht that offered the very first world cruises, although these voyages around the world were never marketed as such.

Similarly, the first ‘cruise’ from a North America port was not marketed as such, indeed the concept had not even been fully formed, when the entrepeuner Charles C. Duncan decided to send the paddle steamer Quaker City on an “Excursion to the Holy Land, Egypt, the Crimea, Greece and Intermediate Points of Interest” in 1867.

The ‘cruise’ was undertaken by 150 passengers, one of whom was the legendary author Mark Twain. This six month excursion was ground-breaking, laying the ground work, alongside the SS Ceylon, for what would one day come to be known as World Cruises, but no one knew it at the time.

In a sense then, although P&O pioneered the world’s first cruises, the industry could not grow the way it has today because of technology, or the lack thereof. Modern cruise ships attract millions of people onto the ocean every year because they’re assured of large staterooms, plenty of public rooms and restaurants to enjoy, stabilisers to keep the massive ships steady, air conditioning to keep the guests comfortable no matter how hot it gets outside, good food because of large, modern world-class kitchens and staff specifically trained in entertainment and hospitality.

The ocean liners of old could not offer such amenities and the staff, although highly trained, provided an experience more akin to a hotel at sea than a cruise ship. Therefore, while P&O pioneered the cruise business in Europe and the Quaker City chugged out of New York on the first cruise from North America, the idea never caught on as a viable industry and grew in uneven lurches through the decades due to circumstance and as a spin off to the regular ocean liner crossings, rather than as an industry in itself.


Early ocean liners were unsuited to cruise duties, although very grand, as this lounge aboard the SS Prinzessin Victoria of 1901 shows, they lacked modern amenities and facilities such as AC and stabilisers

In the early 20th century, several lines, including North German Lloyd, Hamburg-Amerika and Royal Mail, began sending their older liners on leisurely excursions such as those pioneered by P&O and the Quaker City in the previous century, but they did this only as a way to keep the ships in operation and generating revenue when they were no longer considered suitable from the North Atlantic passenger service, which was becoming highly competitive.

Interestingly, North German Lloyd and Hamburg-Amerika would merge in 1970, forming Hapag-Lloyd, which still operates cruises through Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. Hapag-Lloyd’s MS Hanseatic sailed from Dubai on November 4th, last year bound for Mahe in the Seychelles.

Hamburg-Amerika was one of the first lines to introduce the concept of the one-class ship, in a time when the three-level class distinction of land was scrupulously observed at sea as well.

It converted two of its ships for this purpose, the Cleveland and Cincinnati and the cruises proved highly popular until the outbreak of World War I saw Germany’s merchant and passenger fleet banned from the high seas.

Hamburg-Amerika also started the all-white cruise ship trend when it converted the SS Deutschland into a year-round cruise ship called the Victoria Louise in 1912. White was, of course, the colour of choice as it better reflects the heat than the all-black hulls of the North Atlantic ocean liners at the time, which needed to absorb as much heat as possible in the cold northern waters.


Hamburg Amerika also started the all-white cruise ship trend when in 1910 they converted the SS Deutschland into the SS Victoria Louise, shown in foreground – SimplonPc

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, it resulted in significantly reduced passenger numbers on regular liner routes and many shipping lines began to send their older ships on cruising excursions intended to offer an ‘escape’ from the drudgery and negativity of the real world to those who could still afford it.

During the prohibition years especially, when the sale and manufacture of alcohol was made illegal nationwide in the United States in 1919, these voyages became popular as booze cruises, with the ship often just steaming out into international waters and making a big two-day loop before returning to port.

However, again we see this continual view of cruising as a secondary market, a way to keep ships occupied or as a secondary source of revenue, no one had realised yet that this could be a viable all-year-round industry with ships designed and built specifically for the purpose of cruising.

By the 1930s, larger and more luxurious liners were being employed on cruise voyages, but because of this, through to the 1960s and 70s, the idea of cruising to many seemed like a holiday that only the rich could afford.

It was elitist, or mainly for old people (who’d retired with generous pensions) and such perceptions linger even today, holding the industry back and making it difficult for cruise lines to attract first time passengers.

All major mass market cruise lines emphasise the casual nature of their holiday experience, the family-friendly activities programs onboard and the great deals that can be found through early bookings and 3rd and 4th person sharing rates, and it is because of the long history of the cruise industry and the ocean liner passenger service which gave birth to it.

Categories: Cruise History

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