The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 6

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THE repeal of the British Navigation Laws in 1849, after violent opposition in Parliament and the House of Lords, and from almost every British ship-builder and ship-owner, gave a new impetus to the building of clipper ships, as the British merchant marine was then for the first time brought into direct competition with the vessels of other nationalities, especially those of the United States.

During the years that had elapsed since the closing up of the East India Company in 1832, some effort had been made to improve the model and construction of British merchant ships, and as we have seen, clipper schooners had been built for the Aberdeen service and for the opium trade in China, but no attempt had been made in Great Britain to build clipper ships. British ship-owners still felt secure under the Navigation Laws, in the possession of their carrying trade with the Far East, and paid little attention to the improvements in naval architecture which had been effected in the United States.

This was not from ignorance of what had been accomplished there, for the fast American packet ships had long been seen lying in the London and Liverpool docks. In 1848, Lord William Lennox, in an article entitled A Fortnight in Cheshire, mentions seeing them. He says: "Here (Liverpool) are some splendid American liners. I went on board the Henry Clay of New York, and received the greatest attention from her commander. Captain Ezra Nye. Nothing can exceed the beauty of this ship; she is quite a model for a frigate. Her accommodations are superior to any sailing vessel I ever saw." There were also the Independence, Yorkshire, Montezuma, Margaret Evans, New World, and scores of other fast American packet ships which had been sailing in and out of Liverpool and London for years. The arrivals and departures of these vessels created no deep impression upon the minds of British ship-owners, because they were not at that time competing with sailing vessels for the North Atlantic trade to the United States.

The same lack of enterprise was apparent in the men who handled their vessels, as we may see from the following amusing description in De Tocqueville's Democracy in America, published in 1835[1]

"The European sailor navigates with prudence; he only sets sail when the weather is favorable; if an unfortunate accident befalls him, he puts into port; at night he furls a portion of his canvas; and when the whitening billows intimate the vicinity of land, he checks his way and takes an observation of the sun. But the American neglects these precautions and braves these dangers. He weighs anchor in the midst of tempestuous gales; by night and day he spreads his sheets to the winds; he repairs as he goes along such damage as his vessel may have sustained from the storm; and when he at last approaches the term of his voyage, he darts onward to the shore as if he already descried a port. The Americans are often shipwrecked, but no trader crosses the seas so rapidly. And as they perform the same distance in shorter time, they can perform it at a cheaper rate.

"The European touches several times at different ports in the course of a long voyage; he loses a good deal of precious time in making harbor, or in waiting for a favorable wind to leave it; and pays daily dues to be allowed to remain there. The American starts from Boston to purchase tea in China; he arrives at Canton, stays there a few days, and then returns. In less than two years he has sailed as far as the entire circumference of the globe, and he has seen land but once. It is true that during a voyage of eight or ten months he has drunk brackish water, and lived upon salt meat; that he has been in a continual contest with the sea, with disease, and with a tedious existence; but, upon his return, he can sell a pound of tea for a half-penny less than the English merchant, and his purpose is accomplished.

"I cannot better explain my meaning than by saying that the Americans affect a sort of heroism in their manner of trading. But the European merchant will always find it very difficult to imitate his American competitor, who, in adopting the system I have just described, follows not only a calculation of his gain, but an impulse of his nature." At that time there were several American ships that could have transported De Tocqueville from Boston to Canton and back in considerably less than two years, and doubtless their captains would have supplied him with something much better than brackish water to drink, besides convincing him that what he regarded as recklessness was in reality fine seamanship, and that he had been in no greater danger of shipwreck than on board a vessel of any other nationality, besides being a great deal more comfortable.

Some time before 1849, British sea-captains must have seen the American clipper ships in the ports of China; or perhaps an Indiaman in the lone southern ocean may have been lying almost becalmed on the long heaving swell, lurching and slatting the wind out of her baggy hemp sails, while her officers and crew watched an American clipper as she swept past, under a cloud of canvas, curling the foam along her keen, slender bow. But when these mariners returned home and related what they had seen, their yarns were doubtless greeted with a jolly, good-humored smile of British incredulity. With the Navigation Laws to protect them, British ship-owners cared little about American ships and their exploits.

These Navigation Laws, first enacted in 1651 by the Parliament of Cromwell, and affirmed by Charles II. soon after his restoration to the throne, were intended to check the increasing power of Holland upon the sea, but they had quite the contrary effect. With a few slight changes, however, they were passed along from generation to generation, until Adam Smith exposed the fallacy of Protection in his Wealth of Nations, which appeared in 1776. From that time on, British statesmen, few in number at first, adopted his teachings, and under the pressure of popular clamor some concessions were made, especially in the way of reciprocity treaties, but it was nearly three quarters of a century before these barbaric old laws, a legacy from the thieving barons, were finally swept away.

It may be well briefly to enumerate these laws as they stood previous to their repeal, for it is seldom that one comes across so much ingenious stupidity in so compact a form; also mainly because through their repeal the ships of Great Britain eventually became the greatest ocean carriers of the world.

(I.) Certain enumerated articles of European produce could only be imported to the United Kingdom for consumption, in British ships or in ships of the country of which the goods were the produce, or in ships of that country from which they were usually imported.

(II.) No produce of Asia, Africa, or America could be imported for consumption in the United Kingdom from Europe in any ships; and such produce could only be imported from any other place in British ships or in ships of the country of which they were the produce.

(III.) No goods could be carried coastwise from one part of the United Kingdom to another in any but British ships.

(IV.) No goods could be exported from the United Kingdom to any of the British possessions in Asia, Africa, or America (with some exceptions in regard to India) in any but British ships.

(V.) No goods could be carried from one British possession in Asia, Africa, or America to another, nor from one part of such possession to another part of the same, in any but British ships.

(VI.) No goods could be imported into any British possessions in Asia, Africa, or America, in any but British ships, or ships of the country of which the goods were the produce; provided also, in such case, that such ships brought the goods from that country.

(VII.) No foreign ships were allowed to trade with any of the British possessions unless they had been specially authorized to do so by orders in Council.

(VIII.) Powers were given to the sovereign in Council to impose differential duties on the ships of any country which did the same with reference to British ships; and also to place restrictions on importations from any foreign countries which placed restrictions on British importations into such countries.

Furthermore, by an act passed in 1786, British subjects were prohibited from owning foreign-built vessels. This act was regarded as one of the Navigation Laws, and was repealed with them.

One of the objects of the repeal of the Navigation Laws was to enable British ship-owners to become the ocean carriers of the world, and to remove every restraint as to where they should build or buy their ships. This step was a natural sequence to the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and the glorious dawn of Free Trade, by which every British subject was permitted to purchase whatever he required in the best and cheapest market, and so was able to work at a moderate wage, and to have continuous employment. Thus Great Britain, with few natural advantages, became the great workshop of the world and controlled every market upon the globe in which her manufactures were not excluded by the barrier of Protection. Even from these countries she reaped a decided benefit, for they were so hampered by Protection, which increased the expense of living, created high rates of wages for labor but with uncertain employment, and brought about increased cost of production, whether of ships or merchandise, that it became impossible for them to compete in the open markets of the world, and these avenues of trade were left open for Great Britain to exploit at her pleasure.

Such was the belief of the great leader, Richard Cobden, and his brilliant colleagues. They were convinced that if British merchants were to carry on the commerce of Great Britain they must do so untrammelled as to where they bought or built their ships; they realized the fact that cheaper and better wooden sailing vessels—then the ocean cargo carriers of the world—were being built in the United States than could be constructed in Great Britain. (Indeed, as we shall presently see, the finest, largest, and fastest ships owned or chartered in Great Britain between the years 1850 and 1857, came from the shipyards of the United States.) They fully recognized the importance of the home ship-building industry, and did everything possible to encourage it, but they also perceived that ship-owning is of vastly more importance to a nation than shipbuilding, and that fleets of ships are not commerce but only the instruments with which commerce performs its work; likewise, that the nation owning the best and cheapest ships, no matter where or by whom built, must and will, other things being equal, do not only most of its own carrying trade, but also a considerable portion of that of other nations. These men were not willing any longer to sacrifice the carrying trade of their country in order that a few comparatively unimportant shipbuilders, grown incompetent through long years of monopoly, might continue to thrive at the expense of the nation.

No people excel the English in courage and resource in times of national trouble, and they had long before this fought battles for freedom—freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of the slave, freedom to worship God,—and now the final contest for freedom, the freedom of trade, had been bravely fought and won. The result, of course, was not immediate, as it required several years to recover from the evil effects of two centuries of Protection. The fruits of victories for freedom rarely ripen quickly, and in this instance the records show that the increase of British shipping for the year before the repeal of the Navigation Laws had been 393,955 tons, while during ing the year following there had been a decrease of 180,576 tons; also that foreign yessels arriving from foreign ports increased from 75,278 tons to 364,587 tons in these years. It was therefore natural that there should be a feeling of despondency throughout Great Britain among those who had opposed the repeal, for they thought that their fears were being realized, and that the over-sea carrying trade, which they had regarded as their own, was being taken from them. In this hour of gloom the stouthearted ship-owners of London and Liverpool resolved that England should again become Mistress of the Sea, and so competition, the stimulus needed to rouse their latent abilities, was the instrument of their salvation.

The first American ship to carry a cargo of tea from China to England after the repeal of the Navigation Laws was the clipper Oriental, of 1003 tons, built for A. A. Low & Brother in 1849, by Jacob Bell, who continued in the ship-building business after the firm of Brown & Bell was dissolved in 1848. This ship's length was 185 feet, breadth 36 feet, depth 21 feet. She sailed from New York on her first voyage, commanded by Captain N. B. Palmer, September 14, 1849, and arrived at Hong-kong by the Eastern passages in 109 days. She discharged, took on board a full cargo of tea for New York, sailed January 30, 1850, and arrived April 21st, 81 days' passage. This was Captain Palmer's last command, though he lived many years, as we have seen, to enjoy the fruits of his toil upon the sea.

The Oriental sailed on her second voyage from New York for China, May 19, 1850, under the command of Captain Theodore Palmer, a younger brother of Captain Nat, and was 25 days to the equator; she passed the meridian of the Cape of Good Hope 45 days out, Java Head 71 days out, and arrived at Hong-kong, August 8th, 81 days from New York. She was at once chartered through Russell & Co. to load a cargo of tea for London at £6 per ton of 40 cubic feet, while British ships were waiting for cargoes for London at £3:10 per ton of 50 cubic feet. She sailed August 28th, and beat down the China Sea against a strong southwest monsoon in 21 days to Anjer, arrived off the Lizard in 91 days, and was moored in the West India Docks, London, 97 days from Hong-kong—a passage from China never before equalled in point of speed, especially against the southwest monsoon, and rarely surpassed since. She delivered 1600 tons of tea, and her freight from Hong-kong amounted to £9600, or some $48,000. Her first cost ready for sea was $70,000. From the date of her first sailing from New York, September 14, 1849, to arrival at London, December 3, 1850, the Oriental had sailed a distance of 67,000 miles, and had during that time been at sea 367 days, an average in all weathers of 183 miles per day.

Throngs of people visited the West India Docks to look at the Oriental. They certainly saw a beautiful ship; every line of her long, black hull indicated power and speed; her tall raking masts and skysail-yards towered above the spars of the shipping in the docks; her white cotton sails were neatly furled under bunt, quarter, and yardarm gaskets; while her topmast, topgallant, and royal studdingsail booms and long, heavy, lower studdingsail booms swung in along her rails, gave an idea of the enormous spread of canvas held in reserve for light and moderate leading winds; her blocks, standing and running rigging were neatly fitted to stand great stress and strain, but with no unnecessary top-hamper, or weight aloft. On deck everything was for use; the spare spars, scraped bright and varnished, were neatly lashed along the waterways; the inner side of the bulwarks, the rails and the deck-houses were painted pure white; the hatch combings, skylights, pin-rails, and companions were of Spanish mahogany; the narrow planks of her clear pine deck, with the gratings and ladders, were scrubbed and holystoned to the whiteness of cream; the brass capstan heads, bells, belaying pins, gangway stanchions, and brasswork about the wheel, binnacle, and skylights were of glittering brightness. Throughout she was a triumph of the shipwright's and seaman's toil and skill.

No ship like the Oriental had even been seen in England, and the ship-owners of London were constrained to admit that they had nothing to compare with her in speed, beauty of model, rig, or construction. It is not too much to say that the arrival of this vessel in London with her cargo of tea in this crisis in 1850, aroused almost as much apprehension and excitement in Great Britain as was created by the memorable Tea Party held in Boston harbor in 1773. The Admiralty obtained permission to take off her lines in dry dock; the Illustrated London News published her portrait, not a very good one by the way; and the Times honored her arrival by a leader, which, ended with these brave, wise words:

"The rapid increase of population in the United States, augmented by an annual immigration of nearly three hundred thousand from these isles, is a fact that forces itself on the notice and interest of the most unobservant and uncurious. All these promise to develop the resources of the United States to such an extent as to compel us to a competition as difficult as it is unavoidable. We must run a race with our gigantic and unshackled rival. We must set our long-practised skill, our steady industry, and our dogged determination, against his youth, ingenuity, and ardor. It is a father who runs a race with his son. A fell necessity constrains us and we must not be beat. Let our ship-builders and employers take warning in time. There will always be an abundant supply of vessels, good enough and fast enough for short voyages. The coal-trade can take care of itself, for it will always be a refuge for the destitute. But we want fast vessels for the long voyages, which otherwise will fall into American hands. It is fortunate that the Navigation Laws have been repealed in time to destroy these false and unreasonable expectations, which might have lulled the ardor of British competition. We now all start together with a fair field and no favor. The American captain can call at London, and the British captain can pursue his voyage to New York. Who can complain? Not we. We trust that our countrymen will not be beaten; but if they should be, we shall know that they deserve it."

  1. Second American edition, translated by H. Reeve, pp. 403-4.