The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 1

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THE deeds that have made the Clipper Ship Era a glorious memory were wrought by the shipbuilders and master mariners of the United States and Great Britain, for the flag of no other nation was represented in this spirited contest upon the sea. In order, therefore, to form an intelligent idea of this era, it is necessary to review the condition of the merchant marine of the two countries for a considerable period preceding it, as well as the events that led directly to its development.

From the earliest colonial days, ship-building has been a favorite industry in America. The first vessel built within the present limits of the United States was the Virginia, a pinnace of thirty tons, constructed in 1607 by the Popham colonists who had arrived during the summer at Stage Island, near the mouth of the Kennebec River, on board the ships Gift of God and Mary and John. When these vessels returned to England, leaving forty-five persons to establish a fishing station, and a severe winter followed, the colonists became disheartened and built the Virginia which carried them home in safety and which subsequently made several voyages across the Atlantic.

The Onrust, of sixteen tons, was built at Manhattan in 1613–14, by Adrian Block and his companions, to replace the Tiger, which had been damaged by are beyond repair. After exploring the coasts of New England and Delaware Bay, she sailed for Holland with a cargo of furs. The Blessing of the Bay, a barque of thirty tons, was built by order of Governor John Winthrop at Medford, near Boston, and was launched amid solemn rejoicings by the Puritans on July 4, 1631. This little vessel was intended to give the New England colonists a means of communication with their neighbors at New Amsterdam less difficult than that through the wilderness. So we see that shipbuilding was begun in America under the pressure of necessity, and it was fostered by the conditions of life in the new country.

In the year 1668, the ship-building in New England, small as it may now seem, had become sufficiently important to attract the attention of Sir Josiah Child, sometime Chairman of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, who in his Discourse on Trade protests with patriotic alarm: "Of all the American plantations, His Majesty has none so apt for building of shipping as New England, nor any comparably so qualified for the breeding of seamen, not only by reason of the natural industry of that people, but principally by reason of their cod and mackerel fisheries, and, in my poor opinion, there is nothing more prejudicial, and in prospect more dangerous, to any mother kingdom, than the increase in shipping in her colonies, plantations, and provinces."

The apprehension of the worthy Sir Josiah was well founded, for at that period most of the spars and much of the timber which went into the construction of the East Indiamen and the fighting ships of his royal master, King Charles II., had grown in American soil, and of 1332 vessels registered as built in New England between 1674 and 1714, no less than 289 were built for or sold to merchants abroad. Not that they were better than foreign built vessels, but on account of the plentiful supply of timber they could be built more cheaply in America than in Great Britain and on the Continent.

The industry was in a promising and healthy condition, and so continued, until in 1720 the London shipwrights informed the Lords of Trade that the New England shipyards had drawn away so many men "that there were not enough left to carry on the work." They therefore prayed that colonial built ships be excluded from all trade except with Great Britain and her colonies, and that the colonists be forbidden to build ships above a certain size. The Lords of Trade, though fine crusty old protectionists, were unable to see their way to granting any such prayer as this, and so ship-building continued to flourish in America. In the year 1769, the colonists along the whole Atlantic coast launched 389 vessels, of which 113 were square-riggers. It should not, however, be imagined that these vessels were formidable in size. The whole 389 had an aggregate register of 20,001 tons, an average of slightly over 50 tons each. Of these vessels 137, of 8013 tons, were built in Massachusetts; 45, of 2452 tons in New Hampshire; 50, of 1542 tons, in Connecticut; 19, of 955 tons, in New York; 22, of 1469 tons, in Pennsylvania. It is probable that few of them exceeded 100 tons register, and that none was over 200 tons register.

With the advent of the Revolutionary War, the rivalry on the sea between the older and the younger country took a more serious turn. Centuries before clipper ships were ever thought of, England had claimed, through her repeated and victorious naval wars against Spain, Holland, France, and lesser nations, the proud title of Mistress of the Seas, but in the Revolutionary War with her American colonies and the War of 1812 with the United States, her battleships and fleets of merchantmen were sorely harassed by the swift, light-built, and heavily-armed American frigates and privateers. While it cannot be said that the naval power of England upon the ocean was seriously impaired, yet the speed of the American vessels and the skill and gallantry with which they were fought and handled, made it apparent that the young giant of the West might some day claim the sceptre of the sea as his own.

During the latter half of the eighteenth century, however, the leading nation in the modelling and construction of ships was France, and during this period the finest frigates owned in the British Navy were those captured from the French. The frigate was indeed invented in England, the first being the Constant Warwick, launched in 1647, by Peter Pett, who caused the fact of his being the inventor of the frigate to be engraved upon his tomb; but in the improvement of the type, England had long been outstripped by her neighbor across the channel. William James,[1] the well known historian of the British Navy, makes mention of the French forty-gun frigate Hebe which was captured by the British frigate Rainbow in 1782, and records that "this prize did prove a most valuable acquisition to the service, there being few British frigates even of the present day (1847) which, in size and exterior form, are not copied from the Hebe." As late as 1821 the Arrow, for many years the fastest yacht owned in England, was modelled from the lines of a French lugger, recently wrecked upon the Dorset coast, which proved to be a well known smuggler that had for years eluded the vigilance of H. M. excise cutters, always escaping capture, although often sighted, through her superior speed.

The United States no less than Great Britain was indebted to France for improvements in the models of her ships at this period. During the Revolutionary War, when a treaty was entered into between France and the United States in 1778, a number of French frigates and luggers appeared in American waters. The luggers, rating from one hundred and fifty to two hundred tons and some even higher, belonged to the type used by the privateersmen of Brittany, a scourge upon every sea where the merchant flag of an enemy was to be found. They were the fastest craft afloat in their day. When the French frigates and luggers were dry docked in American ports for cleaning or repairs, their lines were carefully taken off by enterprising young shipwrights and were diligently studied. It was from these vessels that the first American frigates and privateers originated, and among the latter were the famous Baltimore vessels which probably during the War of 1812 first became known as "Baltimore clippers."

Congress ordered four frigates and three sloops of war to be built in 1778, and almost countless privateers suddenly sprang into existence at ports along the Atlantic seaboard, most of them copied from models of the French vessels. One of the frigates, the Alliance, named to commemorate the alliance between France and the United States, was built at Salisbury, Massachusetts, by William and John Hatkett. Her length was 151 feet, breadth 36 feet, and depth of hold 12 feet 6 inches, and she drew when ready for sea 14 feet 8 inches aft and 9 feet forward. She was a favorite with the whole navy by reason of her speed and beauty, and on her first voyage she had the honor of conveying Lafayette to France, At the close of the war she was sold by the Government and became a merchantman famous in the China and India trade. Several of the privateers were built and fitted out at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Newburyport, Massachusetts. Those in which Nathaniel Tracy was interested captured no less than 120 vessels, amounting to 23,360 tons, which with their cargoes were condemned and sold for 3,950,000 specie dollars; and with these prizes were taken 2220 prisoners of war. Many other instances of this nature might, of course, be mentioned, but the important point is the fact that in the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth, as well, the fastest vessels owned or built in the United States and Great Britain were from French models.[2]

The characteristics of the French model were a beautifully rounded bow, by no means sharp along the water-line, easy sectional lines developing into a full, powerful forebody and midship section, and great dead rise at half floor. The greatest breadth was well forward of amidships and at the waterline, with a slight, gracefully rounded tumble home to the plank-sheer. The after-body was finely moulded, clean, sharp, and long, with a powerful transom and quarters. The time-honored cod's head and mackerel's tail: the figureheads and ornamentation of the quarters and stern, were veritable works of art. By comparing the models of the British frigates of that day to be seen in the Naval Museum at Greenwich, and the lines of the American frigates and Baltimore clippers of the same period, with the models still preserved in the Louvre, it is easy to trace a family likeness among them all, the parent being of French origin. The grandparent also might easily be identified, in the Italian galleys of Genoa and Venice, though this is of no importance to our present purpose.

That the American vessels showed a marked superiority in point of speed over British men-of-war and merchant ships during these two wars is the more remarkable from the fact that frigates had been built in England for a century and a half, as we have seen, and, while it is true that two vessels for the British Government were built at Portsmouth previous to the Revolutionary War—the Faulkland, fifty-four guns, in 1690, and the America, fifty guns, in 1740—still, at the outbreak of the Revolution, the shipwrights of America scarcely knew what a frigate was, and much less had thought of building one. It had been the policy of Great Britain to keep her American colonies as much as possible in ignorance concerning naval affairs, doubtless from fear of their growing ambition. They were therefore led to copy the models of French vessels, not only from choice, on account of their excellence, but from necessity as well. Thus it came about that the frigates of Great Britain and the United States were developed from the same source.

A sailing ship is an exceedingly complex, sensitive, and capricious creation—quite as much so as most human beings. Her coquetry and exasperating deviltry have been the delight and despair of seamen's hearts, at least since the days when the wise, though much-married, Solomon declared that among the things that were too wonderful for him and which he knew not, was " the way of a ship in the midst of the sea." While scientific research has increased since Solomon's time, it has not kept pace with the elusive character of the ship, for no man is able to tell exactly what a ship will or will not do under given conditions. Some men, of course, know more than others, yet no one has ever lived who could predict with accuracy the result of elements in design, construction, and rig. History abounds in instances of ships built for speed that have turned out dismal failures, and it has occasionally happened that ships built with no especial expectation of speed have proven fliers. It would seem, after ages of experience and evolution, that man should be able at last to build a sailing ship superior in every respect to every other sailing ship, but this is exactly what he cannot and never has been able to accomplish. A true sailor loves a fine ship and all her foibles; he revels in the hope that if he takes care of her and treats her fairly, she will not fail him in the hour of danger, and he is rarely disappointed.

While all this is true in the abstract, yet it is not difficult to account for the performance of ships in retrospect, and in this particular matter, the superior speed of American frigates during the two wars with the mother country, it is quite easy to do so.

In the first place, British men-of-war and merchantmen were at that time built with massive oak frames, knees, and planking, the timber of which had lain at dockyards seasoning in salt water for many years, and was as hard and almost as heavy as iron, while they were fastened with weighty through-and-through copper bolts; so that the ships themselves became rigid, dead structures—sluggish in moderate winds, and in gales and a seaway, wallowing brutes—whereas the American frigates and privateers were built of material barely seasoned in the sun and wind, and were put together as lightly as possible consistent with the strength needed to carry their batteries and to hold on to their canvas in heavy weather. Also, the British ships were heavy aloft—spars, rigging, and blocks—yet their masts and yards were not so long as those of the American ships, nor did they spread as much sail, although their canvas was heavier and had the picturesque "belly to hold the wind," by which, when close-hauled, the wind held the vessel.

Then the British men-of-war were commanded by naval officers who were brave, gallant gentlemen, no doubt, but whose experience at sea was limited to the routine of naval rules formulated by other gentlemen sitting around a table at Whitehall. The infraction of one of these regulations might cost the offender his epaulets and perhaps his life. In this respect the captains of the American Navy enjoyed a great advantage, for at this early period the United States authorities had their attention fully occupied in preserving the government, and had no time to devote to the manufacture of red tape with which to bind the hands and tongues of intelligent seamen. We think, and rightly, too, of Paul Jones, Murray, Barry, Stewart, Dale, Hull, Bainbridge, and others, as heroes of the navy, yet it is well for us sometimes to remember that all of these splendid seamen were brought up and most of them had commanded ships in the merchant marine. They were thus accustomed to self-reliance, and were filled with resource and expedient; they had passed through the rough school of adversity, and their brains and nerves were seasoned by salted winds, the ocean's brine mingling with their blood.

What wonder then that the American frigates, so built and so commanded, proved superior in point of speed to the British men-of-war? Less wonder still that the American privateers, whose men in the forecastle had in many instances commanded ships, should sweep the seas, until the despairing merchants and ship-owners of Great Britain, a nation whose flag had for a thousand years "braved the battle and the breeze" and which boasted proudly and justly that her home was upon the sea, compelled their government to acknowledge as political equals a people who had proved themselves superior upon the ocean.

So in the struggle for a national existence and rights as a nation, the foundations of the maritime power of the United States were laid. The ship-builders and the seamen of the Revolution and the War of 1812 were the forefathers of the men who built and commanded the American clipper ships.

After the Revolutionary War the merchants of Salem, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia vied with each other in sending their ships upon distant and hazardous voyages. Notwithstanding the natural difficulties of navigating, what to their captains were unknown seas, and the unnatural obstacles invented by man in the form of obstructive laws, the merchant marine of the United States steadily increased not only in bulk, but what was of far more importance, in the high standard of the men and ships engaged in it.

Salem took the lead, with her great merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, who sent his barque Light Horse to St. Petersburg in 1784, and soon after sent the Grand Turk first to the Cape of Good Hope and then to China. In 1789, the Atlantic, commanded by his son, Elias Hasket Derby, Jr., was the first ship to hoist the Stars and Stripes at Calcutta and Bombay, and she was soon followed by the Peggy, another of the Derby ships, which brought the first cargo of Bombay cotton into Massachusetts Bay. Mr. Derby owned a fleet of forty vessels, and upon his death in 1799 left an estate valued at more than $1,000,000, the largest fortune at that time in America, as well as a name honored for integrity throughout the mercantile world. William Gray, another famous Salem merchant, owned in 1807 fifteen ships, seven barques, thirteen brigs, and one schooner, his fleet representing one quarter of the total tonnage of Salem at that time. Then there were Joseph Peabody, Benjamin Pickman, and Jacob Crowninshield, all ship-owners who contributed to the fame of this beautiful New England seaport.

Many of the merchants had been sea-captains in their youth, and it was the captains who really made Salem famous. These men, from the training of the New England schoolroom and meetinghouse, went out into the world and gathered there the fruits of centuries of civilization, which they brought home to soften the narrow self-righteousness of their fellow-citizens. In later years these captains carried missionaries to India, China, and Africa, unconscious that they were themselves the real missionaries, whose influence had wrought so desirable a change in New England thought and character. When Nathaniel Hawthorne served in the Custom House at Salem, the friends in whom he most delighted were sea-captains, for it was through their eyes that he looked out upon the great world, and gathered the knowledge of human nature that enabled him to portray in such grim reality the hidden springs of human thought and action. These captains were the sons of gentlemen, and were as a class the best educated men of their time in the United States, for they could do more important and difficult things, and do them well, than the men of any other profession. The old East India Museum at Salem is a monument to their taste and refinement. Nowhere else, perhaps, can be found another little museum as unique and beautiful, of treasures brought home one by one from distant lands and seas by the hands that gave them.

Boston, too, had her ships and seamen. From that port were sent out in 1788 the Columbia, a ship of two hundred and thirteen tons, and the sloop Washington, of ninety tons, commanded by Captains John Kendrick and Robert Gray, who took them round Cape Horn to the northwest coast of America, and then after trading for cargoes of furs, went across to China. The Columbia returned to Boston by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and was the first vessel to carry the United States ensign round the globe. Subsequently she discovered the majestic river that bears her name, and so won the great Northwest for the flag under which she sailed. The Massachusetts, of six hundred tons, the largest merchant vessel built in America up to her time, was launched at Quincy in 1789 and was owned in Boston. She sailed for Canton and was sold there to the Danish East India Company for $65,000.

Ezra Weston was the most famous of the old time Boston ship-owners. He began business in 1764, and owned his own shipyard, sail-loft, and extensive rope-walk at Duxbury, Massachusetts, where his vessels were built and equipped. In 1798 his son Ezra became a partner, and this firm continued until the death of the father in 1822. The son Ezra then went on in his own name until 1842, when his sons Gersham, Alden, and Ezra, were taken into the firm, and they continued it until 1858, in all some ninety-three years, the last place of business being Nos. 37 and 38, Commercial Wharf. From the year 1800 to 1846 the Westons owned twenty-one ships, ranging in tonnage from the Hope, of 880 tons, to the Minerva, of 250 tons; one barque, the Pallas, of 209 tons; thirty brigs, from the Two Friends, of 240 tons, to the Federal Eagle, of 120 tons; thirty-five schooners, from the St. Michael, of 132 tons, to the Star, of 20 tons; and ten sloops, from the Union, of 63 tons, to the Linnet, of 50 tons. The brig Smyrna, one of the Weston fleet, built in 1825, of 160 tons, was the first American vessel to bear the flag of the United States into the Black Sea after it was opened to commerce. She arrived at Odessa July 17, 1830. The Westons were easily the largest ship-owners of their time in the United States, and not only built but loaded their own vessels. Their house-flag was red, white, and blue horizontal stripes.

In the year 1791, Stephen Girard, who was born near Bordeaux in 1750 and had risen from cabin-boy to be captain of his own vessel, built four beautiful ships at Philadelphia for the China and India trade—the Helvetia, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire. These vessels, long the pride of Philadelphia, greatly enriched their owner.

The sloop Enterprise, of eighty tons, built at Albany and commanded by Captain Stewart Dean, was sent from New York to China in 1785. This was the first vessel to make the direct voyage from the United States to Canton. She returned during the following year with her crew of seven men and two boys all in excellent condition. When she warped alongside the wharf at New York, Captain Dean and his crew were in full uniform, and the scene, which was witnessed by an admiring throng, was enlivened by "martial music and the boatswain's whistle."

Thomas Cheesman was one of the first ship-builders in New York, and he was succeeded in business, before the end of the eighteenth century, by his son Forman, born in 1763. The latter built the forty-four-gun frigate President, launched in the year 1800 at Corlear's Hook—by far the largest vessel built in New York up to that time. Previous to this, however, he had built the Briganza and the Draper, each of three hundred tons, and the Ontario, of five hundred tons. Thomas Vail, William Vincent, and Samuel Ackley also built several vessels prior to the year 1800. The ships Eugene, Severn, Manhattan, Sampson, Echo, Hercules, Resource, York, and Oliver Ellsworth were launched from their yards. In 1804 the Oliver Ellsworth, built by Vail & Vincent and commanded by Captain Bennett, made the passage from New York to Liverpool in fourteen days, notwithstanding that she carried away her foretopmast, which was replaced at sea.

All of these shipyards were below Grand Street, on the East River. Samuel Ackley's yard was at the foot of Pelham Street, and here the Manhattan, of six hundred tons, was built for the China and East India trade. She was regarded as a monster of the deep, and when she sailed upon her first voyage in 1796, it took nearly all the deep water seamen in the port to man her. Henry Eckford opened a shipyard at the foot of Clinton Street in 1802. From this yard he launched, in 1803, John Jacob Astor's famous ship Beaver, of four hundred and twenty-seven tons. It was on board this ship that Captain Augustus De Peyster made his first voyage as a boy before the mast. Subsequently he commanded her, and upon retiring from the sea in 1845 he became the Governor of the Sailors' Snug Harbor at Staten Island. The Beaver once made the homeward run from Canton to Bermuda in seventy-five days. Christian Bergh began shipbuilding in 1804 with the ship North America, of four hundred tons, built for the Atlantic trade, and the brig Gipsey, of three hundred tons, a very sharp vessel for those days. She was dismasted off the Cape of Good Hope upon her first voyage to Batavia, and afterwards foundered in a heavy squall, all hands being lost. The Trident, of three hundred and fifty tons, was built by Adam and Noah Brown in 1805, and the Triton, of three hundred and fifty tons, by Charles Brown during the same year, both for the China and India trade. John Floyd began ship-building in 1807, and launched the Carmelite, a ship of four hundred tons, during that year, but was soon appointed naval constructor at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Until 1794 ships had been built from skeleton models composed of pieces that showed the frames, keel, stem, and stern post, but were of little use in giving an accurate idea of the form of a vessel, while it required much time and labor to transfer the lines of the model to the mould loft. In this year, however, Orlando Merrill, a young shipbuilder of Newburyport, at that time thirty-one years old, invented the water-line model, which was composed of lifts joined together, originally by dowels and later by screws. These could be taken apart and the sheer, body, and half-breadth plans easily transferred to paper, from which the working plans were laid down in the mould loft. This ingenious though simple invention, for which, by the way, Mr. Merrill never received any pecuniary reward, revolutionized the science of ship-building. The original model made by him in 1794 was presented to the New York Historical Society in 1853. Mr. Merrill died in 1855 at the age of ninety-two.

  1. A frigate was a ship designed to be a fast, armed cruiser and mounted from twenty to fifty guns; when a naval vessel mounted less than twenty guns she became a sloop of war, and when she mounted more than fifty guns she became a line-of-battle ship. The frigate was always a favorite type of vessel with the officers and men of the navy, as she was faster and more easily handled than a line-of-battle ship, and was at the same time a more powerful fighting and cruising vessel than a sloop of war. Frigate-built means having the substantial construction, arrangement of the decks, masts, spars, rigging, and guns of a frigate.
  2. When peace was declared in 1783, the Government of the United States sold or otherwise disposed of all its vessels, a fact that was quickly taken advantage of by the Barbary corsairs. They at once began to prey upon American merchant shipping in the Mediterranean and even in the Atlantic, and made slaves of the captured crews. The French and English, too, in their wars with each other, by no means respected the neutrality of American commerce, the former being the worse offenders. It was not, however, until 1794 that Congress again authorized the formation of a navy, under the Secretary of War, and in 1798 the office of Secretary of the Navy was created. Among the vessels built in 1794–98 was the frigate Constitution, the famous "Old Ironsides" which still survives. The separate States had meanwhile maintained vessels for the protection of their own coasts, and, of course, there had been no cessation in the building of merchant ships during the period preceding the War of 1812.