The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 2

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GREAT BRITAIN and the United States signed a treaty of peace and good-will at Ghent in 1814. During the following year the wars of England and France ended on the field of Waterloo. And so at last the battle flags were furled. The long-continued wars of England had, through neglect, reduced her merchant marine to a low standard of efficiency, and both men and ships were in a deplorable condition. There was no government supervision over British merchant shipping except taxation, the only check, and that but partially effective, being the Underwriters at Lloyd's. Unscrupulous ship-owners might and often did send rotten, unseaworthy vessels to sea, poorly provisioned, short of gear and stores, with captains, mates, and crews picked up from low taverns along the docks. These vessels were fully covered by insurance at high rates of premium, with the hope, frequently realized, that they would never be heard from again.

The "skippers," "maties," and "jackies" alike belonged to the lowest stratum of British social classification, which, according to the chronicles of those days, was pretty low. They were coarse, vulgar, ignorant men, full of lurid oaths; their persons emitted an unpleasant odor of cheap rum and stale tobacco; they had a jargon of their own and were so illiterate as to be unable to speak or write their own language with any degree of correctness. In a certain sense the captains were good sailors, but their knowledge and ambition were limited to dead reckoning, the tar bucket and marlinspike, a wife in every port, and plenty of rum and tobacco with no desire or ability to master the higher branches of navigation and seamanship. Mariners that a landsman delights to refer to as "real old salts," of the Captain Cuttle and Jack Bunsby species, are amusing enough, perhaps, in the hands of a skilful novelist, but not at all the class of men that one would willingly select to assist in carrying forward the commerce of a great maritime nation.

Then the stupid and obsolete Tonnage Laws encouraged and almost compelled an undesirable type of vessels, narrow, deep, flat-sided, and full-bottomed—bad vessels in a seaway, slow, and often requiring a considerable quantity of ballast, even when loaded, to keep them from rolling over.

It is, of course, always hazardous to deal in generalities, but I think that this may be accepted as a fair description of the merchant marine of Great Britain up to 1834, when the Underwriters at Lloyd's and the better class of ship-owners founded Lloyd's Register of Shipping, to provide for the proper survey and classification of the merchant ships of Great Britain. This first important step in a much needed reform was followed in 1837 by the appointment of a committee by Parliament to investigate the general condition of shipping engaged in foreign trade. The committee reported as follows:

"The American ships frequenting the ports of England are stated by several witnesses to be superior to those of a similar class amongst the ships of Great Britain, the commanders and officers being generally considered to be more competent as seamen and navigators, and more uniformly persons of education, than the commanders and officers of British ships of a similar size and class trading from England to America, while the seamen of the United States are considered to be more carefully selected, and more efficient. American ships sailing from Liverpool to New York have a preference over English vessels sailing to the same port, both as to freight and the rate of insurance; and, the higher wages being given, their whole equipment is maintained in a higher state of perfection, so that fewer losses occur; and as the American shipping having increased of late years in the proportion to 12¾% per annum, while the British shipping have increased within the same period only 1½% per annum, the constantly increasing demand for seamen by the rapidly growing maritime commerce of the whole world, the numbers cut off by shipwrecks, and the temptations offered by the superior wages of American vessels, cause a large number of British seamen every year to leave the service of their own country, and to embark in that of the United States; and these comprising chiefly the most skilful and competent of our mariners, produce the double effect of improving the efficiency of the American crews, and in the same ratio diminishing the efficiency of the British merchant service."

In 1843 a circular was issued from the Foreign Office to all British consuls requesting information on the conduct and character of British shipmasters, especially with regard to the "incompetence of British shipmasters to manage their vessels and crews, whether arising from deficiency of knowledge in practical navigation and seamanship, or of moral character, particularly want of sobriety." The consular reports revealed a startling condition of affairs, requiring immediate attention, and led to the establishment in 1847, of the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, with authority to supervise maritime affairs. From such unpromising material the formation was begun of the greatest merchant marine that has ever existed.

Meanwhile, one of the most important branches of British commerce, the East India trade, had been following an independent career, for the ships of the East India Company, although engaged in commercial pursuits, were under the direct patronage of the government, and cannot be regarded as forming part of the merchant marine of Great Britain. Yet as this Company had an important bearing upon the mercantile affairs of the nation, I propose to review as briefly as possible some of its remarkable exploits.

"The United Company of Merchant Venturers of England trading to the East Indies" was familiarly known as the "John Company," and among those endowed with a larger bump of reverence, as the "Honorable John Company"; but by whatever name it may be called, this was the most gigantic commercial monopoly the world has ever known, since the days when the merchants of Tyre claimed the exclusive right to send their ships across certain waters known by common consent as Tyrian Seas.

The East India Company was founded in the year 1600, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The subscribed capital of £72,000 was expended on the first voyage in five vessels with their cargoes. This fleet consisted of the Dragon, of 600 tons, her commander receiving the title of Admiral of the squadron; the Hector, 300 tons, with a Vice-Admiral in command; two vessels of 200 tons each; and the Guest, a store ship of 130 tons. Four hundred and eighty men were employed in the expedition, including twenty merchants as supercargoes. The vessels were all heavily armed and were provided with small arms and an abundance of ammunition. They cost, with their equipment, £45,000, and their cargoes £27,000.

Friendly relations were formed with the King of Achin, in Sumatra, and a station, known in those days and long afterward as a "factory," was established at Bantam, in Java. The fleet returned to England richly laden with silks and spices in 1603. In 1609 the Trades Increase, of 1209 tons, the largest ship launched in England up to that time, was built, but she was wrecked and became a total loss on her first voyage. Sir Henry Middleton, her commander, died soon after. This was an unfortunate expedition and resulted in heavy losses to the Company, but in 1611 the Globe cleared 218%, and in the following year the Globe, Thomas, and Hector turned over profits amounting to 340% upon the capital invested. Other successful voyages followed, so that in 1617 the stock of the Company reached a premium of 203%.

The East India Company had its troubles, to be sure, which were many and great, yet it increased in power, wealth, and strength, until at the close of the eighteenth century it had become possessed of a large portion of the continent of India, maintaining its own armies, forts, palaces, Courts of Directors, Boards of Council, Governors, and Typeans.[1] Eventually, this Company became the ruler of more than one hundred million human beings, not naked savages, but civilized men and women, many of whose ancestors had been learned scholars and merchant princes long prior to the invasion of Britain by the Roman, Dane, and Saxon.

It is not, however, with the political affairs of this Company that I wish to deal, but rather with the ships and the men who navigated them. The princely emoluments known as "indulgences" in which the captains and officers of these ships participated, naturally attracted the attention of parents and guardians, so that younger sons, otherwise destined for a life of ill-requited repose in the church, the Army, or the Navy, found lucrative service with the East India Company. These perquisites, which were handed out by the Honorable Court of
East Indiamen 1720 24b.jpg

East Indiamen, 1720

Directors, were no doubt intended to be of pleasing variety and magnitude. The Company adhered strictly to promotion by seniority as vacancies occurred, from ship to ship when necessary. Captains were appointed to their ships before launching, in order that they might superintend their equipment and get them ready for sea. Midshipmen were appointed by the Court of Directors, and no youth of less than thirteen or over eighteen years was eligible. Second mates were required to be at least twenty-two, chief mates twenty-three, and commanders twenty-flve years of age.

Captains were entitled to fifty-six and one half tons of space on board the ships commanded by them, which they might use at their discretion, either to collect the freight or to carry cargo on their own account, credit being furnished by the company for the latter purpose at the usual interest. The rate of freight ranged from £35 to £40 per ton, though in 1796 the Admiral Gardner, a ship of 813 tons, commanded by John Woolmore, Esq., was chartered for "six voyages certain" from London to India and return, at £50 for every ton of cargo carried. Even at the lowest rate of £35 per ton, the voyage out and home of about eighteen months yielded a captain some £3955, and if he carried goods on his own account, as was usually the case, he realized a much larger sum. Captains were also allowed primage, which was a percentage upon the total gross freight earned by the ship, and the passage money for passengers carried, except the Company's troops, less the cost of living. Considering that the passage money to or from India or China was for a subaltern £95, and for a general officer £234, to say nothing of directors and governors and their families, and that these ships usually carried from twenty to thirty passengers, we may conclude that this also was a considerable source of revenue.

Then captains were permitted to own the dunnage used for the protection of homeward cargoes, which they supplied in the form of stone and chinaware, canes, bamboos, rattans, sapan-wood, horns, nankins, etc. All of these goods might in those days be bought at very low prices in India and China, and under the monopoly of the East India Company, they sold at very high prices in London. Most of this "dunnage," however, came to the captains in the form of presents, known in the fragrant language of the Far East as "cumshaws," from admiring Indian and Chinese merchants.

Naturally all of the cargoes were well dunnaged, so much so, indeed, as finally to attract the attention of the benevolent Court of Directors, who deemed it expedient to restrain the zeal of their captains in this direction by issuing an order that "as dunnage has been brought home in the Company's ships far beyond what is necessary for the protection of the cargo and stores, occupying tonnage to the exclusion of goods, or cumbering the ship, the court have resolved that unless what is brought home of those articles appears absolutely and bona fide necessary for and used as dunnage, the exceeding of such requisite quantity shall be charged against the tonnage of the commanders and offenders." This dunnage business had been progressing favorably for about two centuries when this mandate was issued, and had enriched many a deserving mariner. It was estimated that an Indiaman's captain received in one way or another from £6000 to £10,000 per annum, and there is a record of one ship that made what was known as a double voyage—that is, from London to India, China, and return—a twenty-two months' cruise—whose commander made profits amounting to the tidy sum of £30,000.

The mates and petty officers were also well provided for, having forty and one half tons of space allotted among them to do with as they pleased, and all hands were supplied with wines, spirits, and beer in quantities which if stated might seem like an attempt to impose upon the reader's credulity.

A more showy if less substantial honor was conferred by the distinctive dress of the company's servants. The captains were arrayed in a picturesque uniform consisting of a blue coat with black velvet lapels, cuffs and collar, bright gold embroidery, and yellow gilt buttons engraved with the Company's crest, waistcoat and breeches of deep buff, black stock, or neck-cloth, cocked hat and side-arms. The chief, second, third, and fourth officers wore uniforms of a similar though less gorgeous character, and all were particularly requested "not on any account to appear in boots, black breeches, and stockings" and "to appear in full dress when attending the Court of Directors."

The charter of the East India Company provided that its ships should fly the long coach-whip pennant of the Royal Navy. During the last quarter of the eighteenth and first part of the nineteenth centuries, the ships were built, rigged, equipped, armed, manned, and handled like the frigates of the Royal Navy, though they were beautifully and luxuriously fitted for passengers, many of whom were personages of high social and official rank. They differed, however, from the frigates in one important particular. Whereas, the navy constructors, as we have seen, profited by the models of the French frigates, the builders of the Indiamen kept to the full-bodied, kettle-bottomed model, in order that these ships might carry large cargoes. They were of quite as bad a type as the ships of the more humble merchant marine. I have before me the particulars of one of the East India Company's ships that carried four hundred and nineteen tons of general cargo, and required eighty tons of iron kentledge to keep her on her legs. They were nevertheless grand, stately-looking ships, and were well cared for.

The crews were divided into the usual two watches, but the officers had three watches, four hours on and eight hours off. The watches were divided into messes of eight men each, who had a space allotted to them between the guns in the between-decks. Here their hammocks were slung and their chests, mess-kids, copper pots, kettles, and tin pannikins were stowed, clean and bright, under the inspection of the commander and the surgeon, who were assisted in their duties by wearing white gloves with which to test the appearance of cleanliness. The crews slept in hammocks which were stowed in nettings at seven bells in the morning watch, to the pipe of the boatswain's whistle. The decks were washed and holystoned in the morning watch, and at eight bells all hands breakfasted. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the between-decks were turned out, washed, and holystoned. On Sunday mornings the crew was mustered and inspected by the chief officer, and then assembled for Divine service, which was read by the commander, as the Court of Directors required the captains "to keep up the worship of Almighty God, under a penalty of two guineas for every omission not satisfactorily accounted for in the log-book."

The crews were drilled at the guns and with cutlass, musket, and boarding-pikes, and other small arms. Courts-martial were held on board and the rawhide cat-o'-nine-tails was freely used by the boatswain upon the naked backs and shoulders of triced-up seamen—one, two, three dozen, perhaps, with a bucket of salt water to rinse off the blood. This was not so brutal a form of punishment as may perhaps appear to landsmen, and was probably the best method of enforcing proper discipline among the reckless men who for the most part formed the crews of ships at that period.

These vessels carried large crews, whose work was easy and who were well looked after and provided for. They had plenty of the best food and quite as much rum as was good for them. In the dog-watches they were allowed and even encouraged to enjoy themselves in the manner known on board ship as "skylarking." Saturdays they had to themselves to wash and mend their clothes, and in the dog-watches of that day they were given an extra allowance of grog, with which to drink long life and happiness to sweethearts and wives, with music, dance, and song. Seamen who had served eight years in the Company's ships were entitled to liberal pensions, as were also the wives and children of those who had been killed in the service of the Company, or who had been so maimed or wounded as to be unable to perform further service. There can be no question that the directors of the East India Company took good care of those who served them faithfully.

The East Indiamen were always fine, strong ships, built of oak, elm, and teak, copper-fastened throughout, their cost being £40 per ton ready for sea; but they were very slow, and their passages were reckoned not by days but by months. Every evening, no matter how fine the weather, royals and all light sails were taken in and stowed, and the royal yards sent on, deck. If the weather looked at all as if it might become threatening during the night, the topgallantsails and mainsail were stowed and a single reef put in the topsails. Safety and comfort were the watchwords, with no desire or effort for speed. No one ever knew how fast these vessels really could sail, as they never had any one on board who tried to get the best speed out of them, but without doubt their passages might have been considerably shortened with even a moderate amount of vigilance and energy. All we know is, how slow they were. Yet these ships were fought through many a desperate battle upon the sea, with foreign men of war, privateers, and other foes, and the skill and valor of their captains, officers, and
An East Indiaman 1788 30b.jpg

An East Indiaman, 1788

crews shed a new lustre upon the ensign under which they sailed. Indeed, the maritime records of the East India Company read more like a naval history than the annals of ships engaged in commercial pursuits.

In some respects these Indiamen were remarkable ships, and they should, like men, be judged by the standards of the times in which they existed. They were owned by a company which for more than two centuries held a monopoly of the British China and East India trade without the spur of competition urging them to perfect their vessels and to exact vigorous service from the officers and crews who sailed them. Under such a system there could be no marked progress in naval science. It would, of course, be an exaggeration to say that there had been no improvement in British shipping from the reign of Queen Elizabeth to the Victorian era, but it was so gradual as to be perceptible only when measured by centuries. Thus we speak of the ships of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, and upon examination are surprised to find how few and slight were the improvements made during these three hundred years in the design and construction of hulls or in spars, rigging, and sails. The only striking improvement was a modification of the really beautiful ornamentation which embellished and at the same time lumbered up the lofty hulls of the earlier ships.

Some of the Indiamen were built in Wigram's famous yard at Blackwall on the Thames, which was in existence for more than two centuries. Indeed, some of the first ships owned by the East India Company, the Dragon, Susannah, and Merchants' Hope were launched there. During the reigns of Elizabeth, James, Charles I., Charles II., and the Georges, this yard turned out many of the ships owned in the Royal Navy, and through all these years it had in time of need been a faithful standby of the British Government. Some of the ships of the Company were, however, built in other yards and in their own building establishment at Bombay.

During the years 1819 and 1820 the Company sent to their different stations in Bengal, Madras, Bombay, China, Ceylon, and Penang, twenty-three of their own ships aggregating 26,200 tons, besides twenty-one chartered vessels measuring 10,948 tons. Among the Company's ships were the Canning, Duke of York, Kellie Castle, Lady Melville, Thomas Coutts, and Waterloo, built by Wigram, and all from 1325 to 1350 tons, each mounting 26 guns with a crew of 130 men. The Buckinghamshire, Earl of Balcarras, Herefordshire, Thomas Granville, Minerva, and Charles Grant, all from 923 to 1417 tons, 26 guns, and 130 men with the exception of the Minerva and Thomas Granville which mounted the same number of guns but had 115 and 107 men, respectively, were built by the Company at Bombay. The Asia, Dorsetshire, Duneira, Marquis of Wellington, Prince Regent, Princess Amelia, and Windsor, which were all over 1000 tons and mounted 26 guns with crews of from 115 to 130 each, were built in the Barnard yard, also on the Thames. The London, Lowther Castle, Marquis of Camden, and Perseverance, all from 1329 to 1408 tons, 26 guns, and 130 men each, were built in the Pitcher yard at Northfleet in Kent. The Earl of Balcarras, of 1417 tons, built in 1815 at Bombay, was the largest ship owned by the Company, She was built of India teak, copper-fastened throughout, and mounted batteries on two decks. Her crew of 133 men was made up as follows: Commander, 6 mates, 2 surgeons, 6 midshipmen, purser, gunner, carpenter, master-at-arms, armour, butcher, baker, poulterer, caulker, cooper, 2 stewards, 2 cooks, 8 boatswains, gunner's, carpenter's, caulker's, and cooper's mates, 6 quartermasters, sailmaker, 7 servants for the commander and officers, and 78 seamen before the mast.

These facts illustrate not only the manner in, which the ships of the East India Company were officered and manned, but also the extravagant scale upon which the affairs of the Company were administered. Of course, a gross monopoly like this, legalized though it was by Acts of Parliament, could not continue indefinitely among a free and intelligent people. For many years mutterings of discontent, gathering in force and volume, had been heard from all parts of Great Britain, indicating the disapproval of the people concerning the methods of the Company. At last, in 1832, these mutterings burst into a storm of indignation from the people through their representatives in Parliament, which swept the frigates of the Honorable John Company off the face of the deep; for in that year commerce to the Orient was thrown open to all British ships, and knowing their utter inability to compete successfully with free and intelligent personal energy, the East India Company condemned or sold their entire fleet. Sixteen ships were broken up for their massive copper fastenings and other valuable material, while forty-six were sold, and no finer tribute can be offered to the excellent construction of these vessels than the figures which they realized at what may justly be called a forced sale.

Naturally these ships were not all sold at the some moment, as some of them were on their way to China and India when the crash came; in fact, it required about three years to close them all out; still, it was well known that the Court of Directors had decreed that they must all be sold, and this gave bargain hunters a chance to practise their wiles. At first two or three of the ships were put up at public auction; the bids were few and meagre, indicating an assumed and perhaps preconcerted apathy. Negotiations of a less public nature ensued, which resulted as follows: The Buckinghamshire, of 1369 tons, then eighteen years old, was sold to Thacker & Mangels for £10,550. The Canning, 1326 tons, seventeen years old, sold for breaking up to Joseph Somes at £5750. The Minerva, 976 tons, eighteen years old, ready for sea, to Henry Templer, at £11,800; this ship, after thirty-seven years of service in the India trade was wrecked off the Cape of Good Hope in 1850. The Earl of Balcarras, 1417 tons, nineteen years old, to Thomas A. Shuter for £15,700; this ship after fifty-two years' service, became a receiving hulk on the west coast of Africa. The Bombay, 1246 tons, twenty-two years old, sold to Duncan Dunbar for £11,000, was wrecked after fifty-nine years of service. The Lowther Castle, 1408 tons, nineteen years old, went to Joseph Somes for £13,950. The Waterloo, 1325 tons, eighteen years old, was sold for breaking up at £7200. The Thames, 1360 tons, thirteen years old, went to James Chrystall at £10,700. The remaining ships of the fleet brought equally good prices. Thus ended the maritime exploits of the "United Company of Merchant Venturers of England trading to the East Indies"; although its influence upon the merchant marine of Great Britain continued for many years.

With the opening of the China and India trade to all British ships, there came the long-wished for competition—one of the hinges upon which commerce swings—and a number of British ship-owners, hardly known before, now came into prominence. Among them were Green, Wigram, Dunbar, and Somes, of London, and the Smiths, of Newcastle. So strongly was the example of the East India Company impressed upon their minds that they still continued to construct frigate-built ships, though with some slight effort toward economy and speed. Many of the former captains, officers, and seamen of the East India Company sailed for the private firms, and so the personnel of the British merchant marine was much benefited. The private ships, of course, were not permitted to fly the naval pennant, but in other respects the service remained pretty nearly, the same. Much of the wasteful extravagance was naturally eliminated, and the "indulgences" were substantially reduced, but the time-honored practice of "making snug for the night" was too ancient and comfortable a custom to be very speedily abolished.

Joseph Somes, one of the promoters of Lloyd's Register, bought a number of the Company's old ships, as we have seen, and in addition he built the Maria Somes, Princess Royal, Sir George Seymour, and Castle Eden. Thomas and William Smith, of Newcastle, were an old ship-building firm, who had in 1808, at their yard in St. Peter's, constructed the frigate Bucephalus, 970 tons, 52 guns, for the Royal Navy, while in later years they built many merchant vessels. The finest of their new ships were the Marlborough and the Blenheim, of 1350 tons each, built under special government survey and granted certificates as frigates equipped for naval service. This firm also built the Gloriana, 1057 tons, Hotspur, 1142 tons, and St. Lawrence, 1049 tons, all of the frigate type, though employed as merchantmen.

Duncan Dunbar owned a number of fine ships and eventually became the largest ship-owner of his time in Great Britain. Many of his vessels were built in India. The Marion, 684 tons, built in Calcutta in 1834, was in active service until 1877, when she was wrecked on the Newfoundland coast. The David Malcolm was built in 1839, and the Cressy, 720 tons, and the Hyderabad, 804 tons, in 1843, at Sunderland.

Robert Wigram and Richard Green, at one time partners, built and owned their own ships, known as the "Blackwall frigates." In 1834–35, they brought out the Malabar, Monarch, and Windsor Castle, and subsequently the Carnatic, Prince of Wales, Agamemnon, Alfred, and others, from 1200 to 1400 tons each. As late as 1849 the Alfred, of
The Marlborough and Blenheim 36b.jpg

The "Marlborough" and "Blenheim"

only 1291 tons, commanded by Captain Henning, carried a crew of eighty men, which included five mates, three boatswains, two carpenters, four quartermasters, a number of stewards and cooks, with sixty men before the mast.

These were the last of the frigate-built ships; for when the Navigation Laws were, repealed in 1849, and the carrying trade of Great Britain and her colonies was thrown open to all nations, the British merchants and ship-builders found it necessary to construct a very different type of vessel in order to compete in the ocean carrying trade.

Farewell, then, to the gallant old Indiaman, with her hammock nettings, bunt jiggers, rolling tackles, jeers, gammon lashings, bentinck shrouds, and cat harpings, dear to sailors' hearts; and good-bye to her sailors, too, sons of the men who fought in the victorious fleets of Nelson, fellows who drank gunpowder in their rum before stripping to battle with the enemy, who could stand triced up by the thumbs and take their four-and-twenty of rawhide on the naked back without wetting an eyelash. And farewell to the merry dance and song, the extra dram of grog in the dog-watch, and jovial toasts to sweethearts and wives, as the sun sinks beneath the blue wave and the cool evening trade wind fills the sails.

  1. A typean was the head merchant of one of the Company's "factories" or mercantile houses, such as were later known in China as "hongs."