“The captain’s table was in the centre. ‘Let us drink to the mighty Titanic.’ With cries of approval, everybody drank to the toast. I believe it was generally thought by all of those at the table that the Titanic would reach New York late Tuesday or early Wednesday morning, and the captain and other officers were planning a big banquet after the landing in anticipation of the trip record breaker. “ Titanic’s Assistant Steward, Washington Herald, Sunday 21st April 1912.
Naturally, the glamour to dine at the captain’s table while on board originated back in the days when sea travel was divided into classes and the voyage of the first class was following a high degree of formality, including official balls and banquets; during which landing at the captain’s table was a privilege only reserved for high-ranking ship crew members and a few invited passengers.
The formal dinners reached their highest peak with the gilded era of luxury liners, when though 80% of the passengers were in the lowest class of travel, the selected hundred first class guests could enjoy gracious hotel-like environments – designed to help them forget about the WWI going on off board – and hope to flatter their status by receiving an invitation to dine at the captain’s table.
The first written record to mention dining at a captain’s table comes from circa 1588, from The principal navigations, voyages, traffiques and discoveries of the English nation, where the author Richard Hakluyt narrates on how the nephew of the famous Sir Francis Drake, John Drake – who was himself a captain of the English fleet in the battle against the Spanish Armada – dined at the table of a Spanish captain discussing the faith of some slaves and the situation on the Brazilian coast.
A century later, the next written record of our term, used in a figurative sense, comes from the “Britain’s most celebrated diary”, the dairy of Samuel Pepys, an administrator of the navy of England and Member of Parliament, who in March 1667 wrote on the political position and the finance spendings of his next door neighbour and colleague, Admiral William Penn, a Commissioner of the Navy Board: “How he doth keep his Captain’s table, and by that means hat the command of his Captains, and doth not fear, in a 5-th rate ship constantly employed, to get 1000l in five years time.”
Another century to go, and we end up reading on the absence of status on the board of an East India Company ship where: “Officers, clerks, and passengers dined and supped, if they chose, at the captain’s table” (Robert Bage, Mount Henneth).
Captain’s table traditions are carried on board some modern cruise ships, but updated for an informal clientele and intended as fun, rather than formal gatherings. And depending on the length of a cruise and captain’s availability it is today quite common that those special tables are hosted not by the captain, himself, but by some cruise assistant managers.
And then there are the Onslows, (British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances): So then, this purser chap came up to the cabin and said we’re on the captain’s table. And I thought “Blimey!” I mean, you win a competition, you get a luxury cruise, and then they expect you to eat with the crew! “