The world’s first purpose-built cruise ship and its tragic last sail

It was the pinnacle of sophistication at the time, appealing to the classy and affluent who were enamored of the prospect of sailing the high seas in utter luxury, but it only had a short and fading life. ended in tragedy. But it’s not the ship you might be thinking of.

Before the Titanic, there was the Prinzessin Victoria Luise, the world’s first purpose-built cruise ship. The brainchild of a deeply ambitious and forward-thinking German shipping tycoon.

Albert Ballin was born on August 15 1857 in Hamburg with navigation in the blood. His father organized the passage of emigrants from Europe to the United States and after his death Ballin took over the family business.

His concept of removing all luxuries from ships to maximize the number of steer travellers, a kind of ‘stack them, sell them cheap’ approach has seen the cost of a ticket for an Atlantic voyage drop to just $6. Rivals including Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft (Hapag), also known as Hamburg America Line, could no longer compete, so Hapag decided to cut its losses and hire Ballin.

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He quickly rose through the ranks to become general manager of the company in 1899.

One of his ideas was to find a way to utilize the ocean liners which often struggled with passenger numbers in bad weather during the winter months. Instead of leaving the ships idle, he offered to rent them out to travel agencies. As a man who loves the finer things in life, he is busy fitting out a ship for the luxury market.

The very first modern cruise began on January 22, 1891 on the steamer SS Augusta Victoria – a 57-day jaunt around the Mediterranean. On board were 241 passengers, along with Ballin and his wife Marianne, and despite many naysayers the voyage proved to be a resounding success.

Other cruises continued on existing liners, but Ballin soon realized that these ships, lacking any onboard amenities, were not enough to satisfy the burgeoning luxury market. So he had to commission a specially designed cruise ship. He turned to Blohm & Voss to build such a ship, and on June 29, 1900, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise was launched.

Named after the daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the ship would look more like a high-end yacht than a cruise ship, but it was revolutionary at the time.

The Prinzessin Victoria Luise off Molde in Norway in 1905 in a copy of the newspaper "Nordlandfahrten".

norwegian heritage

The Prinzessin Victoria Luise off the Norwegian coast of Molde in 1905 in a copy of the newspaper “Nordlandfahrten”.

At 4,409 gross tons and with a hull just under 16 meters wide by 124.2 meters long, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise could cruise at 15 knots or 28 km/h. It featured two masts and two funnels, and a rumor at the time was that the Kaiser himself was unhappy with the ship as it was larger than his own royal yacht.

There were 120 first class cabins on board accommodating 180 passengers and no expense was spared. There were no bunks here, instead there were beds pushed together, and all the rooms had running water. Only one suite, that of the Emperor, also had a toilet. Any other cabin guests had to book their time with the bath steward for a time slot. There was a gymnasium, a library and a darkroom for developing films. A social room and the open decks were available for all guests to mingle and a smoking area was strictly for gentlemen.

There was a large dining room with opulent menus. One from March 1, 1901 shows an eight-course meal with beef broth, fish, roast beef (American style), and green turtle stew.

The first voyage was on January 5, 1901 sailing from Hamburg to Boulogne (France), Plymouth in the UK before arriving in New York, USA.

For the next five years Prinzessin Victoria Luise sailed the transatlantic route while also sailing the Mediterranean and the West Indies with occasional voyages to the Baltics, but tragedy was to strike on December 16, 1906.

The ship’s commanding officer, Captain H. Brunswig, was sailing to Port Royal in Jamaica when he confused two different lights, sending the Prinzessin Victoria Luise crashing on an uncharted ridge.

Although no one was injured, the captain was devastated at the grounding, and after disembarking a boat to report the incident, he returned to his cabin and committed suicide.

At the time, a Hapag executive was quoted: “I can only account for his act on the theory that his pride was crushed by the accident, and that he believed that only death would erase what he considered his disgrace.”

The crew and 70 passengers were safely carried off the ship and despite numerous attempts it could not be dislodged from the reef. It eventually sank in an earthquake that subsequently devastated the Caribbean island.

The loss came six years before the sinking of the Titanic and the start of World War I, which decimated the nascent cruise market.

Ballin suffered terribly during the First World War. He attempted to mediate between Germany and the German Empire, but saw his shipping company devastated by the war. After the abdication of his benefactor and protector, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Ballin committed suicide just two days before the armistice ended the war.

Its name lives on as a street in central Hamburg, Ballindamm, although the Nazis later changed it because Ballin was Jewish. It was restored after World War II. Similarly, a ship launched in his honor in 1922, the SS Albert Ballin, was renamed by the Nazis Hansa. The ship had a long and rich life until it was finally scrapped in 1982.