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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Sail On

by
Allan Nevins

published by
United States Lines
1946

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Merchant Marine Academy.

 p22  Chapter Two

The Young Republic

American Enterprise

Asked to name the greatest American shipbuilder and shipowner of the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, a student would necessarily ponder over a full dozen men. He would pause over the name of Elias Hasket Derby, the Salem merchant who opened the trade to St. Petersburg and Capetown, whose ships first showed the stars and stripes off Bombay and Calcutta, and who died in 1799 a millionaire, reputedly the richest man in America. He would pause again over Preserved Fish, the New Bedford foundling who became chief proprietor of the Swallowtail Line of Liverpool packets and other ships. Consideration would have to be given to Isaac Wright, the Long Island Quaker who founded the Black Ball Line; to Nathaniel L. and George Griswold, two tall, handsome men who left Old Lyme for New York, graduated from the West India trade into Asiatic commerce, and were so uniformly lucky that men translated the initials of their firm name into "No Loss and Great Gain"; and to George Law, whose Cuban line once almost dragged the country into war with Spain. The redoubtable Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt would have to be given attention. But most students of the period would probably award the highest distinction to Edward Knight Collins, whose career was so rich in enterprise and achievement, and whose ultimate failure was no fault of his own.

 p23  An anecdote of Collins's early life throws light on the personal qualities which before the Civil War lifted the American merchant marine for a time to world leader­ship. The young man, Cape Cod‑reared, became partner with his father, who was owner and skipper of a ship trading to England. Word suddenly reached New York from Liverpool of a spectacular rise in the price of cotton. Merchants and speculators at once hurried agents southward to buy all they could find.

A group called on young Collins, requested him to go to Charleston to purchase for them, and when he consented, asked when he could start. He replied, "as soon as I can charter a pilot-boat, and put provisions and a crew aboard her; about three hours. I can sail at four today."

"But," the merchants expostulated, "that is the hour when the regular Charleston packet leaves. The speculators will go on her and get there before you."

"Gentlemen," replied young Collins, "I will go in the way I have named, or not go at all." There was no more to be said.

At four precisely, the packet left from Burling Slip, and at the same hour a pilot boat with E. K. Collins in command dropped down the East River. As the two vessels headed side by side for the Narrows, the speculators lining the packet rail gaily chaffed "the boy," as they named their rival. They would leave him far behind, they said. But Collins, who had made repeated trips to the West Indies, was an accomplished navigator. His light-draught boat could keep close to shore, while he knew how to take full advantage of tide, current, and wind. He soon left the packet far behind. Reaching Charleston, he was able to buy all the desirable cotton in the city, and along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Then, after making out his invoices and signing his drafts, he stepped aboard his pilot boat, and moved saucily out to sea. As he passed  p24 the bar, his pennant whipping the breeze, he saw the packet coming in and ran within speaking distance. Again the speculators lined the rails, but this time they laughed on the other side of their mouths. It was an auspicious beginning for the twenty-three-year‑old shipmaster.

Though the merchant marine suffered heavily from the Revolution, about nine hundred vessels being captured by the British, many shipowners emerged — thanks chiefly to privateering — with pockets well lined and with ambition and energy unbroken. They would have done well at once had it not been for the eight miserable years of uncertainty during which the Confederation proved quite unable to protect, much less encourage, American commerce. The British naturally passed laws to restrict the trade of their West Indian islands to themselves, and New England found this a heavy blow. The Southern States, apprehensive of monopoly freight charges, did nothing to help Northern commerce meet a foreign competition of cutthroat nature. It was not until 1789, when Congress passed an act to foster shipping (a tariff law which gave a discount of ten per cent in duties on goods imported in American bottoms) that a wonder­ful resurgence of maritime activity began.

Yet even the adversity of 1781‑89 yielded compensations in that it forced American shipowners to turn to far‑off seas and novel cargoes. No chapters of pioneering adventure in the nation's history are more significant than the two which recite the epochal voyage of the Empress of China from New York to Canton in 1784, and that of the Columbia to the Pacific Northwest in 1787.​a Taken in combination, these voyages solved the riddle of mastering a rich new Oriental market. The Empress of China proved that Yankee ships no less than British or French could reach the Chinese buyers to whom Canton, with its trading stations or hongs lining the Pearl River, offered the only gateway. The Columbia found the one  p25 readily saleable commodity which America could offer the Orient: furs. The Chinese would not take ordinary pelts; they demanded the rarer skins of the otter, beaver, seal, and fox — and the Columbia secured an export cargo of sea‑otter skins which it bartered for an import cargo of tea. Before long dozens of ships were carrying hardware, cloth, and knickknacks around the Horn to the Oregon coast, exchanging them there for pelts of the beaver, marten, and sea‑otter, and trading the furs to the hong merchants for silks, spices, sandalwood, and tea. Profits were sometimes enormous. One of Hasket Derby's voyages netted him $100,000. This Oriental trade helped usher in the golden age of American shipping.

The Golden Age

The most lustrous era that American shipping has yet known lasted from 1790 until 1855, with one sad ten‑year break at the time of the second war with Britain. In the first seventeen years of this period, our shipping enjoyed an expansion that was to remain unparalleled until the immense and abnormal wartime growth of 1914‑20. They said of Boston in these years that "Every street leads down to the sea" — and that might have been said of scores of coastal towns. Down these streets, remarks W. L. Marvin, went most of the young men who had dreams in their heads and iron in their blood, and they always found ships waiting. Great shipping merchants arose in Salem, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah; men whose watchword was sleepless daring. When one of the Griswold Brothers' captains, reluctant to sail in thick wintry weather, said, "There is no wind," George Griswold retorted: "Go and find wind — the wind is all ahead." That became a favorite saying of the enterprising shipowners: "Go and find wind."

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A fivefold increase of shipping between 1790 and 1800, bringing  p26 our merchant fleet up to 667,000 tons, was only a beginning. Despite all the trouble bred by the Napoleonic Wars, Algerine pirates, and Mr. Jefferson's policies — despite Berlin and Milan Decrees, British Orders in Council, impressments, and the devastating embargo of 1807 the merchant marine still increased. The European troubles had their benefits as well as hardships, of course, for they stopped the competition of Continental nations, and threw much of the world's carrying trade to the neutral American ships. Congress, moreover, passed helpful legislation. One of its impost laws, placing a heavy tax on teas in foreign bottoms, threw the entire tea‑trade to American ships; and we soon had a great East India fleet of our own. Still another favorable factor lay in the unsleeping ingenuity and aggressiveness of American skippers, whose daring in tight places became proverbial. Some of Captain Richard J. Cleveland's exploits at the turn of the century, for example, when he resolutely conquered typhoons, cutthroat mutineers, bloodthirsty savages, and hostile foreign officials, wringing a profit out of hairbreadth escapes, would seem too wild for any Conrad to invent.

 p27  Down to the War of 1812, the United States had a merchant tonnage which ranked next to Britain's, while in proportion to population American seaborne commerce stood first in the world. In 1801, American vessels carried 89 per cent of the combined export-import trade of the country; in 1805 the proportion had risen to 91 per cent; and in 1807 it touched a peak with 92 per cent. These were decades in which the young republic took a stern pride in the high quality of its ships and sailors, and regarded its shipping as a prime national resource. Washington asserted that shipbuilding ought to be systematically encouraged, for, in words that he adopted, to do this "is to establish shipyards; is to form magazines; to multiple useful hands, to produce artisans and workmen of every kind who may be found at once for the peaceful speculations of commerce and for the terrible wants of war." Jefferson declared that a large body of sailors was indispensable. "If we have no seamen, our ships will be useless, consequently our ship timber, iron, and hemp; our shipbuilding will be at an end; ship carpenters will go over to other nations; our young men will have no call to the sea; our products, carried on foreign bottoms, be saddled with war‑freight and insurance in time of war. . . ."

These opinions were justified by the War of 1812, which, unlike the Revolution, was primarily an ocean war. The country had fully forty thousand hardy, experienced merchant seamen when this conflict began. Many of them had sailed all over the globe: they were self-reliant, stout-hearted individualists, able to chart a course, hold the helm, step a mast, repair a stove‑in side, outwit an enemy, and in hand-to‑hand encounters, use musket, cutlass, and boarding-pike with telling address. At once they swarmed out over the oceans like a horde of hornets. With plenty of swift ships at hand, privateers were equipped with amazing rapidity. Within two months after war began, a hundred and fifty  p28 of them were at sea. Altogether, 517 were commissioned, carrying nearly 5,000 guns. These merchant ships turned privateers took altogether about 1,300 prizes, which with their cargoes were valued at nearly forty million dollars; and they did the enemy a much greater aggregate damage than our regular navy.

Meanwhile, of course, the superior British navy was gradually driving American frigates and sloops from the sea, establishing an effective blockade of the American coast, and capturing immense numbers of American vessels — about fourteen hundred in all. British seapower made possible the invasion of the United States and the seizure of its capital. In the dramatic single-ship actions which were the best-remembered feature of the war, Yankee tars trained in the merchant marine played a gallant part: the victorious battle of the Constitution with the Java, the Wasp with the Frolic, the United States with the Macedonian, and so on. Had a fair balance been maintained between our splendid merchant  p29 marine and our deplorably weak navy, the war might have had a very different character. As it was, the merchant privateers wrote its best naval page. It is distressing and mortifying, asserted a meeting of Glasgow merchants in the fall of 1814, "that our ships cannot with safety traverse our own channels, that insurance cannot be effected but at an excessive premium, and that a horde of American cruisers should . . .. . . take, burn, or sink our own vessels in our own inlets, and almost in sight of our own harbors."

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The war's interruption of our shipping prosperity was brief. American tonnage rose immediately after it to the 800,000‑ton level, though the depression of 1818 caused it to sink once more. Our flag quickly became as familiar in other parts of the world as ever. A novel by Gustav Frenssen describes a young German trying to discern the colors of a specially handsome ship glideding into the port of Hamburg: "Yes — of course — it was the starry blue banner." The middle twenties again found more than nine-tenths of the country's foreign commerce carried in its own bottoms. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, with the rapid settlement of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, and the spread of cotton culture all over the Southwest, gave the Eastern and Gulf ports a tremendous stimulus. They had a wealth of primary products to export, and these paid for a growing volume of manufactured goods. Clinton's Big Ditch rapidly made New York the lordliest of the nation's shipping centers. A long period of world peace, 1815‑50 (our Mexican War was brief and inexpensive), fostered the growth of world trade, and merchants reached out to conquer new domains.

American ship tonnage in the 1820's and 1830's fluctuated, according to the shaky statistics available, between 540,000 and 788,000. An important new source of ship-timber was opened up by the purchase of Florida in 1819, for its live‑oak helped replace the vanishing supply of white‑oak and Maine pine. As in olden  p30 times, Yankee shipbuilders not only supplied the home demand but catered to an eager foreign market. The yards of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York developed traditions of design and craftsman­ship unsurpassed anywhere in the world. High wages brought to them many of the best shipwrights of Britain and northern Europe.

Perhaps the most famous of these immigrants was Henry Eckford, a Scot, who established a shipyard at New York, built the celebrated Beaver for John Jacob Astor, turned out warships on the Great Lakes in the hectic days of 1812‑14, and returned to New York to make a name and a fortune. The Eckford-Webb yard (he was succeeded by a Yankee assistant, Isaac Webb) was renowned for the scope of its business and the high distinction of its ships. Only less notable was the Bergh-Westervelt yard, established in New York by Christian Bergh, with C. B. and Jacob A. Westervelt as partners. That of Adam and Noah Brown was also famous in its day. A mile of the East River waterfront became one of the busiest shipbuilding areas in the world. So long as wood remained the basic ship material, a 500‑ton ship, fully equipped, which cost $45,000 in Great Britain, could be bought for $10,000 less in New England or New York. It is not strange that between 1815 and 1840 more than 540,000 tons of shipping was sold abroad.

The Great Packet Lines

By 1817 the river steamboat was familiar to all Americans, the Hudson boasting of ten which ran regularly between Albany and New York. This was the year in which Captain Moses Rogers, a Connecticut Yankee of river experience, went to Savannah to take charge of a steamboat company; and in 1819 he was responsible for one of the proudest maritime achievements of Americans, the first part-steam crossing of the Atlantic. Taking the new ship Savannah, of 340 tons, equipped with a single-cylinder engine  p31 made at Morristown, N. J., and fitted with collapsible paddle-wheels, he set off across the Atlantic to Liverpool. In a voyage which, beginning May 22, consumed twenty-nine days and eleven hours, she used steam for about three and a half days altogether, and sails the remainder of the time. On her approach to the English coast the furiously smoking chimney caused onlookers to suppose her on fire, and boats put out to aid her. After her return home she became a mere coastal sailing-ship; but, however abortive her voyage, she had indubitably been the first vessel to use a steam-engine on a trans-atlantic trip.

Much more important in real utility was the establishment of the Black Ball Line, the first regular fleet of New York-Liverpool packets, by Isaac Wright & Son in 1818. These ships, strong of hull, heavier and better built than ordinary merchant vessels, were planned for safety, comfort, and cargo-room rather than speed. They departed at fixed times and arrived with surprising regularity. Eighteen or twenty days was a good transatlantic passage. The traveler could now sail with fair certainty of his movements, and with less dread of hunger, thirst, and general discomfort. A handsome cabin aft of the mainmast was developed for first‑class passengers, though the steerage passengers in the 'tween-decks suffered greatly in bad weather. These boats also specialized in the more expensive types of freight.
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Another famous packet fleet in the Liverpool trade was the Red Star Line, begun in 1822, which included such good boats as the John Jay, Sheffield, United States, and England. That same year saw Fish and Grinnell begin their Swallowtail Line with the Robert Fulton. During the next fourteen years New York had four packet sailings a month to Liverpool, and as many homeward bound, under the American flag. The ships were the finest product of American yards, their captains were the aristocrats of our  p33 marine, and they attracted the pick of Yankee sailors. Then in 1835 the best packets yet seen, the famous Dramatic Line, made their debut under the owner­ship of the before-mentioned Edward Knight Collins.

This enterprising young man had pushed forward rapidly. In 1830 he had established a line of full-rigged packets to Vera Cruz, soon reaching out to Tampico, and in 1832 had set in motion the first regular New York‑New Orleans packet line — the best vessels ever used in the coastal service. Collins enjoyed cordial relations with the eminent shipbuilders David Brown and Jacob Bell, who in 1834 built for him the Shakespeare, then the largest merchant ship under our flag. When she entered the Mersey the next year, great crowds lined the shores, and her captain (an uncle of E. K. Collins) held a continuous reception of visitors for a week. She was followed by the Garrick, the Sheridan, the Siddons, and in 1838 the Roscius — this last the first Atlantic liner to reach 1,000  p34 tons. For a number of years the Dramatic Line was the crack service between Europe and America.

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The Coming of Steam

But Collins's packet line was hardly started before steam-propulsion wrought a revolution in ocean traffic. The British had successfully placed steam packets on runs to Rotterdam, Hamburg, Lisbon, and Gibraltar. Two British corporations, the Great Western Steamship Company (an offshoot of the Great Western Railway), and the British & American Navigation Company, of which MacGregor Laird was a leading spirit, resolved to enter the North Atlantic field. They engaged in a desperate race. Almost simultaneously, the Sirius and the Great Western in 1838 made their trips from Britain to New York. The Sirius came in on a Monday morning, after a seventeen‑and-a‑half day voyage; the Great Western, only fifteen days out, passed up the Narrows at four that afternoon, throwing off huge volumes of smoke, while guns saluted, bells rang, boats clustered around her, and thousands on the shore roared a welcome. Receptions were held, and toasts drunk to  p35  President Van Buren and Queen Victoria. The New York Herald declared that these arrivals "open quite a new era in the philosophy of commerce, arts, and social life."

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One American was ready to catch up the British challenge. When other vessels under the Union Jack, the Royal William, Liverpool, and President, crossed the ocean, and when a Nova Scotian named Samuel Cunard founded his famous line with the Britannia and Unicorn in 1840, E. K. Collins resolved that the United States should not be left behind. The poet Longfellow, at a Boston dinner in honor of Cunard's first crossing, had proposed a toast: "Steamships — the pillar of fire by night, and the pillar of smoke by day, that guide the wanderer over the sea." Collins realized that the day of sails in passenger traffic was closing. He told a friend in this year 1840: "I will build steamers that shall make the passage from New York to Europe in ten days and less." A decade later that boast was fulfilled. Collins had proved that, while a first-class seaman, he could also be an adroit lobbyist in Congress, and a consummate business organizer.

How, by unwearied labor, he secured a mail contract and a modest subsidy from the government; how, working with two naval engineers, Sewell and Faron, he designed his ships; and how by the latter half of 1850 he put four proud liners, the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Baltic, into operation, is a story behind which lay a world of determination and effort. The firm of Brown & Bell built two of his steamers, and the yard of William H. Brown the other two. Two marine engine factories of importance had arisen in New York, the Allaire Works and the Novelty Works, and they each supplied engines for two of the ships. The East River, in these years when Collins was constructing his vessels, and when other craft were being hurriedly built (for the discovery of California gold had opened a rich new Pacific traffic), was a smoky, busy, clangorous spot. Hammers beat, boiler factories roared, power  p36 saws screamed, and sometimes the explosion of gases in moulds startled the whole city. Never had New York turned out such expensive, luxurious, and power­ful ships as those Collins ordered.

The Atlantic delighted Americans that first summer by crossing to Liverpool in ten days and sixteen hours, clipping twelve hours from the Cunard record; and in September the Pacific cut the time by another ten hours. The diarist, Philip Hone, recalling that a generation earlier it had taken nine days to go from New York to Albany, held up his hands over the "wondrous changes" of the time. For several years Collins kept the American flag in first place on the North Atlantic. Competing fiercely with the Cunarders, he made distinctly better time for his round trips. In twenty‑six passages to and from Liverpool in 1852, the average time of the Collins ships was nineteen hours and forty-seven minutes shorter than the average time of the Cunard liners. A sailing day's run of 330 miles by the Pacific in 1851 stood as the record for a steamer until 1864. Once when Captain Asa Eldredge was about to leave New York, he exclaimed: "If I don't beat the Persia (a Cunarder), I will send Pacific to the bottom!" Congress was so pleased that it raised the annual subsidy of the line from $385,000 to $853,000.

Yet fate, aided by sectional politics, was against the indomitable Collins. He line was dealt a heavy blow in September, 1854, when the Arctic collided with a small French steamer in the fog off Cape Race, and sank with the loss of more than three hundred lives; among those drowned being Collins's wife, son, and daughter. Not long afterward the Pacific, sailing from Liverpool, disappeared without leaving a splinter behind; perhaps the victim of an iceberg. Southern hostility to subsidies, founded on a belief that the cotton-growers' money was being used to enrich Yankee shipowners, resulted first in a reduction of the subsidy, and then in 1858 to its abrupt withdrawal. The Collins Line was hampered also  p37 by the initial necessity of borrowing at least two‑thirds its capital at high rates; the cost of lobbying; and the high charges for construction, repairs, and maintenance. Overwhelmed by his difficulties, Collins petitioned Congress to release him from his contract and take over his steamships. In 1858 the company ceased operations, and its founder presently turned to coal and iron enterprises. He had done his country services for which all discerning men felt gratitude.

Clippers and Whalers

These were also the years of the final glory of the sailing-ships, the splendid clippers, built for speed rather than cargo-carrying capacity, and embodying more of the poetry of the seas than any other type of vessel. The product of long decades of competitive ship design, these slender, streamlined, sharp-prowed craft, carrying a veritable cloud of canvas, began to emerge in the 1830's. A rudimentary type of clipper, the Ann McKim, came from the Baltimore ways in 1832. The first ship worthy of the name, however, the Rainbow, was built in New York in 1843, while that same year the Antilope came from an East Boston yard.

Intended to stretch out on long voyages to the farthest seas, the poetically named clippers were at their best on the Cape Horn and Oriental runs. Under favorable conditions they could beat the steamships. The Flying Cloud (the masterpiece of Donald McKay, the Nova Scotia builder who, removing to the United States, brought something near genius to his work) sped from New York to San Francisco on her maiden voyage in 1851 in eighty-nine days; and off Valparaiso she covered 374 miles in one day. The Andrew Jackson, built at Mystic, Conn., also ran from New York to San Francisco in eighty-nine days. In 1853, McKay's magnificent Sovereign of the Seas, bringing whale‑oil from Honolulu to New York, logged 421 nautical miles in a single day. The  p38 Gamecock, built in East Boston, crossed from Honolulu to Hong-Kong in nineteen days. The Dreadnought, a product of the Newburyport yards, laid claim to a passage from Sandy Hook to Queenstown in thirteen days and nine hours.

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These ships brought tea from India before it lost its freshness. Carrying men and goods to California, they frequently went on to China for silks, spices, and tea, or to Australia, with its own roaring gold fields. It is not strange that British merchants, finding that an American clipper could make five voyages while their ships made four, began to buy or charter these Yankee marvels. Beginning in 1850, the California clippers grew rapidly in weight, ranging up to 2,000 tons — and McKay's Great Republic was of 4,555 tons. A few years later the extreme clippers gave way to a "medium" type. Some early vessels carried enormous amounts of sail — the Challenge had its mainmast‑top two hundred feet above the sea — but the later models were moderately rigged and used smaller crews.

Whaling, too, reached its apogee in the 1840's and 1850's. By 1846 more than seven hundred American whalers were employed  p39 in the industry, and New Bedford was the world's greatest whaling port. That year the rich Arctic Ocean grounds north of Bering Strait were discovered by accident, with the result that San Francisco soon became a whaling center of note. The profits of the voyages were sometimes extraordinary. One New Bedford whaler in a single season took ten large whales which yielded 1,140 barrels of oil; another killed a tremendous whale in the Okhotsk Sea which furnished 250 barrels. It is recorded that the South America of Providence returned in 1849 from a two‑year voyage with 5,300 barrels of whale‑oil, 200 of sperm‑oil, and 50,000 pounds of whalebone, worth altogether $89,000 — and the cost of the vessel had been only $40,000. Another ship, the Montreal of New Bedford, brought home a cargo worth $136,000. Few callings were so full of peril, and the daring, endurance, and heroism displayed by the ocean-hunters, running the gauntlet of monsoon, reef, iceberg, and enraged leviathans, has given us many a memorable story of adventure. At least two instances were recorded in which a maddened cachalot rammed a whaling-ship so furiously that it sank in mid‑sea.

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 p40  But both the clippers and the whaling-ships were entering upon their decline by the year 1860. The roomy, dependable, and more and more speedy steamship inevitably displaced the long, narrow, high-built clipper. Drake's oil‑well in 1859 inaugurated a new source of supply for illuminants so cheap and abundant that the whale-fisheries could not compete with it. Even before this year, moreover, the whales had become so scarce and man‑shy that the profit in pursuing them was dubious. A whaleship had to be equipped in much more expensive fashion than before, and often had to cruise for three or even four years instead of two. During the Civil War the Confederate cruisers, and the high cost of marine insurance, drove the whaling crews from the seas, and ended the great era of the industry.

Classics of the Sea

Right down to the Panic of 1857 the merchant marine remained in a position of general prosperity. It profited not only from the rapid settlement, after 1849, of the Pacific Coast, and the surge of world-prosperity following the California and Australian gold discoveries, but from Great Britain's two wars with China (1840‑42; 1856‑60), which gave Americans an enhanced share of the China trade; from the European disturbances of 1849‑50; and from the Crimean War, which raised ocean freight rates and created a brisk demand for American vessels.

Then, too, the "great migration" from Europe to America, 1846‑57, and the enlarged demand for American breadstuffs after the repeal of the British corn laws, helped give American shipping a brisk business. Year by year in the 1840's and 1850's the cotton crop, much of which was worked up in British factories for world-wide consumption, rose, till in 1860 the country produced more than 3,840,000 bales. This alone meant a handsome volume of  p41 freight. New York shippers created a profitable three-cornered freight, the "cotton triangle," carrying manufactured goods from New York to Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, or New Orleans, thence taking cotton to Liverpool or Havre; and bringing freight and immigrants back to New York. By 1855 the American shipping registered for foreign trade had reached 2,348,000 tons, and stood second only to Great Britain's. It was carrying slightly more (77.3 per cent) than three-fourths of our import and export trade. Our shipbuilding in that year also attained an impressive total — 583,450 tons were launched from our yards.

America had produced the greatest oceanographer of the time, and perhaps of all time, in the Virginian, Matthew Fontaine Maury, well called "the pathfinder of the seas." Becoming head in 1842 of the United States Naval Observatory, he began a systematic study of ocean winds and currents, analyzing old ships' logs and other records, and securing the cooperation of mariners throughout the world. He was soon able to furnish charts and sailing directions that made voyages materially shorter and cheaper. For example, he shortened the average sailing time from New York to Rio de Janeiro by ten to fifteen days, while his work was one of the factors in bringing the average sailing time from New York to San Francisco down from 180 days in 1847 to 133 days in 1855. His book on The Physical Geography of the Sea and Its Meteorology (1855) attracted international attention, and for the first time established oceanography as a distinct science. Dominating an international congress at Brussels in 1853, he established a vast amount of systematic observation of marine conditions throughout the world; he gave Cyrus Field invaluable aid in laying the Atlantic cable; and a long list of nations paid him high honor.

In an allied field almost equally memorable work had been  p42 done by Nathaniel Bowditch, son of a Salem shipmaster and cooper. As a youth he precociously immersed himself in mathematics. Making five ocean voyages in his twenties, he mastered practical navigation. The standard work on the subject was then by an Englishman, J. H. Moore, which reached its twentieth edition in 1828. Bowditch first improved, revised, and corrected this text, but soon made such extensive changes that he felt justified in bringing it out under his own name as The New American Practical Navigator. This Bowditch-Moore treatise was long incomparably the nest book on navigation in any language, unapproached in clarity, accuracy, and completeness. No fewer than sixty‑six editions or reprints have been enumerated.

And America also produced, very fittingly, a classic group of maritime narratives, well worthy of comparison with the best British books about the sea.

Several of the old sea‑captains, well called Homeric figures, left to posterity engrossing records of their adventures. Special mention must be made of four: Edmund Fanning's Voyages Round the World, Amasa Delano's very detailed Narrative of Voyages and Travels, which includes three circumnavigations of the globe, George Coggeshall's two volumes of Voyages, and Richard J. Cleveland's amazing Narrative of Voyages and Commercial Enterprises, which went through a number of editions. It was reserved to a young town-nurtured college student of Boston, however, to produce the greatest of the factual chronicles. Richard H. Dana, Jr., ordered to leave his books for reasons of health, took an ordinary seaman's berth on the brig Pilgrim, bound for California, in August, 1834. There followed two full years of adventure, which he recorded in a book as truthful as it was graphic, Two Years Before the Mast. The British Admiralty gave a copy of the first English edition to every sailor in the British navy; two thousand  p43 copies were sold in Liverpool on the first day of publication. It is, says W. Clarke Russell, "the most memorable of all contributions to the literature of the sea."

In another category, the product of one of the richest imaginations in American literature, is Herman Melville's Moby Dick, or The White Whale, which appeared in 1851; a work great in its descriptions of whaling adventure, great in its portraiture and its wild rhetoric, and greatest of all in its philosophical implications. Melville wrote other unforgettable books of the sea, and his White Jacket merits praise as a vivid account of life in a man-of‑war.

Had anyone, standing on the Battery or at the Golden Gate, predicted in 1855 that our merchant marine would soon decline to insignificance, he would have met a stare of amazement from merchants and mariners. "For two hundred years," they would have said, "Americans have shown unexcelled prowess in building and sailing ships. For hundreds of years to come the American flag will fly over the second, if not the first, of the world's merchant marines." But the prophet of disaster would have spoken truly. Decay was already setting in.

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Thayer's Note:

a The voyage of the former is covered in detail by F. R. Dulles in The Old China Trade, chapter I, "The Empress of China"; that of the Columbia by the same author in chapter IV of the same book, pp53‑55.


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