The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 20

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CHAPTER XX


THE GREATNESS AND THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN MERCHANT MARINE


THE year 1851 is memorable in our maritime annals, because at that time the United States was at the zenith of her power upon the ocean, and had completely outstripped her rival Great Britain in the efficiency and extent of her oversea carrying trade. It is true that the total tonnage of merchant shipping owned in the United States in this year, including steam, was only 3,718,640 tons, against 4,332,085 owned by the British Empire with all its dependencies; but these figures, like many statistics of this nature, are somewhat misleading. The primary reason for the existence of a merchant ship is, of course, her ability to pay her way and earn money for her owners. When a ship ceases to be able to do this, the sooner she is converted into a hulk or broken up, the better. So the true measure of a nation's merchant marine is its earning capacity, not merely the number or tonnage of its ships; and judged by this standard, the merchant marine of the United States was at this time far in advance of the merchant shipping of the whole British Empire.

In the first place, the merchant ships of the British Empire were of such massive construction that they could not carry at the very most more than ninety per cent, of the cargo carried by ships of similar tonnage owned in the United States; then in the matter of speed, an American merchantman would make five voyages while a British ship was making four of equal length; and as to freights, the American ships had the splendid rates to San Francisco all to themselves, while from China to England the rates of freight were quite double in their favor, as compared with British ships.

If any one with a liking for statistics will apply these facts to the foregoing figures, the seeming advantage of tonnage possessed by the British Empire will disappear and it will be found that the merchant marine of the United States at that time held a commanding position in the maritime carrying trade of the world. Furthermore, the shipbuilders of this country still excelled in every branch of merchant marine architecture.

On the North Atlantic in 1851, the American Collins Line steamships Arctic, Atlantic, Baltic, and Pacific were competing successfully with the British Cunarders Niagara, Canada, Asia, and Africa: the Baltic holding the speed record for both the eastern and the western passages between New York and Liverpool; while the New York, Philadelphia, and Boston packet ships still held their own. No sailing ships of other nationalities could compete with them, and though hard pressed by steamships of the various lines, they still retained their popularity with passengers and shipping merchants. American ships from home ports were profitably engaged in the India, China, African, and South American trades; the New Bedford and Nantucket whaling ships were to be found upon every sea; the Mississippi, Hudson River, and Long Island Sound steamboats were the most perfect types of this period for inland navigation; and the Massachusetts fishing schooners, the North River sloops, and the New York pilot-boats were far famed for speed and beauty; while the American clippers were now known and admired throughout the maritime world.

It was in this year also that the Royal Yacht Squadron presented a cup to be sailed for at Cowes by yachts belonging to the yacht clubs of all nations, which, as every one knows, was won by the America, representing the New York Yacht Club.

"To teach the Mistress of the Sea
What beam and mast and sail should be,
To teach her how to walk the wave
With graceful step, is such a lore
As never had been taught before;
Dumb are the wise, aghast the brave."[1]

Surely De Tocqueville was right when he said: "Nations, as well as men, almost always betray the most prominent features of their future destiny in their earliest years. When I contemplate the ardor with which the Anglo-Americans prosecute commercial enterprise, the advantages which befriend them, and the success of their undertakings, I cannot refrain from believing that they will one day become the first maritime power of the globe. They are born to rule the seas, as the Romans were to conquer the world."[2]

This day had then come. The victory of the America off the Isle of Wight may be likened to the gilded weathercock at the top of some lofty spire, being highly decorative and at the same time showing the direction of the wind. At that time the commercial greatness of the United States rested upon the splendid qualities shown by her sailing ships and their captains upon the ocean. And after all the only really rational sovereignty of the seas that exists, or has ever existed, is maintained by the merchant marine, whose ships and seamen contribute not only to the welfare and happiness of mankind, but also to the wealth of the nations under whose flags they sail.

In those early days, as the flaming posters in the downtown streets of New York used to announce, it was "Sail versus Steam" and the packet ships justified their claim more than once by beating a steamship from port to port. When, as not infrequently happened, a packet ship running before a strong westerly gale in mid-ocean overhauled a wallowing side-wheel steamer bound the same way, the joyous shouts and derisive yells of the steerage passengers on board the packet, as she ranged alongside and swept past the "tea-kettle," were good for the ears of sailormen to hear. In those days no sailors liked steamships, not even those who went to sea in them. If a packet captain sighted a steamer ahead going the same way, he usually steered for her and passed to windward as close as possible, in order that the dramatic effect of the exploit might not be lost upon the passengers of either vessel.

The Atlantic steamship lines with which the packet ships had to compete, the Cunard, Collins, Havre, Bremen, and Vanderbilt lines, ran only wooden side-wheel steamers; but when the Inman Line was founded in 1850, and began to run iron screw steamers between Liverpool and Philadelphia, the Atlantic packet ships began to lose their trade. Indeed, from 1840, when the Cunard Line was established, until the Inman Line began to run their fast iron screw steamships to New York in 1857, the rivalry between sail and steam was keen and spirited. During these years the Atlantic mail steamships carried almost as much canvas as sailing vessels, and they continued to do so for many years. Most of the Cunarders were barque-rigged, and the famous Russia of that line carried topmast and topgallant studdingsails. The Allan liners were also barque-rigged, and the Inman steamships were full ship-rigged, while the White Star liners were ship-rigged with a jiggermast. It was not until 1889, when the White Star Line brought out the Majestic and the Teutonic with twin screws, pole masts, and no canvas, that the Atlantic Ocean began to be navigated by vessels propelled entirely by steam; so that the complete transition from sail to steam required very nearly half a century.

It cannot be said that steam competition had any direct effect upon the California clippers, as it is only of late years that there has been direct communication by sea between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and the Pacific Mail Company, after once getting its steamers round into the Pacific, had always carried passengers, the mails, and specie with transshipment at Panama. The demand for the California clippers ceased when rapid transportation of cargoes round Cape Horn became no longer necessary.

Besides the competition between sail and steam, there was also going on for many years, as has already been suggested, the attempt to substitute iron for wood in the construction of vessels, and screw propellers for paddle-wheels as a means of propulsion by steam. In both branches of this transition, which were parallel but not necessarily connected, Great Britain took the lead, and she has rightfully reaped the benefit.

How gradually the change came about will be seen from the following facts and figures: The first iron sailing ship was the Vulcan, built on the Clyde in 1818, and in the following year the first sailing vessel with an auxiliary engine crossed the Atlantic. This was the Savannah, a wooden ship of 850 tons, with portable paddles and an engine and boiler on deck. She was built at New York. The first vessel to cross the Atlantic using steam-power during the entire voyage was the Royal William, which was taken from Quebec to London in 1833; and in 1838 the first steamers of British build, the Great Western and the Sirius, made the westward passage. The first steamer constructed of iron was the Aaron Manby, a small paddle-wheel vessel about 50 feet long, built at Horsley, England, in 1821; and the first screw steamer of any importance was the Archimedes, an iron vessel of 237 tons, built in England in 1839. The Great Britain, built at Bristol, England, in 1843, was the first screw, as well as the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic, but it was not until 1850, when the Inman liner City of Glasgow began to run regularly between Liverpool and Philadelphia, that iron screw steamers took a recognized place upon the ocean.

It is to be noticed how closely these last dates correspond with those of the clipper ship era, which opened with the advent of the Rainbow in 1843, and was brought to its greatest brilliancy through the discovery of gold in California and Australia in 1848 and 1851. At this time each nation was devoting its best talents to developing the material that lay nearest at hand; and while the American wooden-built type was earlier brought to perfection, its possibilities were more limited by natural causes. Greater economy, durability, and regularity of speed on the part of the iron screw steamer were the qualities that finally drove from the seas the far more picturesque and beautiful wooden sailing ship.

The supremacy held by the merchant marine of the United States in 1851 was maintained until about 1856, and during this period American ships continued to be built, bought, and chartered by British ship-owners; but after the great financial depression which affected both countries from 1857 to 1859, British ship-owners no longer needed American-built ships, for in Great Britain iron had by this time superseded wood in the construction of large vessels. Thus the advantage to the United States of having an abundant supply of timber was taken away, while the advantage of Free Trade, with low cost of living, was on the side of England. Moreover, the spirit of enterprise, which had been growing in Great Britain during the years of free competition in the carrying trade since 1849, was having its effect.

Following the repeal of the Navigation Laws, the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, a wise and farseeing measure, completed the foundation upon, which the merchant marine of Great Britain has been developed. This act of Parliament contains 548 clauses, dealing with all questions which relate to British merchant ships and seamen, including tonnage. The ship-builders of Great Britain had been much hampered by the old tonnage laws and were glad to see them abolished.[3] The new tonnage rules, which are still in force, were based upon the actual cubic capacity of the hull, the unit of 100 cubic feet being one ton register, so that a vessel measuring 100,000 cubic feet internal capacity registers 1000 tons, and is able to carry 2000 tons at 50 cubic feet per ton. This new system of measurement encouraged the application of scientific knowledge to the design of vessels, and, as we shall see, helped somewhat to prolong the clipper ship era in England, when it was practically dead in the United States.

It is true that during our Civil War American ships were still sold in England, but this was rather because their owners had no profitable use for them at home than from any lack of British iron vessels. Since that period, the decline of American shipping, for reasons that should be well understood, has been constant.

I refer to the Navigation Laws and Protective Tariff of the United States. The former, first enacted in 1792 and revised and added to since that time only in unimportant details, have long outlived the usefulness they may once have possessed), and completely fail to meet the requirements of the changes in ocean navigation that have taken place during the period of more than a century that has since elapsed. As is well known, they prohibit an American citizen from owning a foreign-built merchant ship. Meanwhile the Protective Tariff so increases the cost of living and with it the cost of the labor and materials that go into the construction of a modern ship, that the American ship-builder cannot produce a steel or iron vessel at anything like a cost that will enable her to compete successfully with a ship of the same class constructed in a European shipyard. Were it not for this hindrance, the immense natural advantages of such broad, deep waters as those of the Delaware and Chesapeake, where the finest coal and iron ore are within easy transportation, and the abundant food supplies of the neighboring garden States and of the West which are easily accessible, would make them ideal spots for the construction of ships. So it will be seen that the Navigation Laws and Protective Tariff are the millstones between which the American ship-owner and ship-builder at present find themselves ground with an ever-receding prospect of escape from this cunningly, devised dilemma. Meanwhile, the ensign of the United States no longer contributes in any marked degree to the gayety of foreign seaports; whereas, Great Britain, with inferior coal and iron ore, compelled to import the food and clothing material for her shipwrights from distant lands, and with certainly no keener intelligence nor greater energy among her ship-owners and builders, but guided by the enlightened policy of Free Trade, sends her endless procession of merchant ships, both sail and steam, to every seaport upon the globe.


  1. Walter Savage Landor.
  2. Democracy in America (1835); Second American edition, p. 408.
  3. See Appendix IV.