- Historic Sites
Masters Of The Merchant Marine
We built a merchant marine despite the opposition of the Royal Navy, went on to develop the most beautiful of all sailing ships, and held our supremacy for years. But how do we measure up today?
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
It was a great life for the master, who could be a bully on deck and a suave gentleman in the saloon, but existence for the crew was brutal. Hard driving kept the fo’c’sle wet; both watches were often on deck. American sailors fled the packets, and “Liverpool Irish” replaced them. They made hardy but dangerous seamen, and it took plenty of “handspike hash” to keep them under control.
Meanwhile, our maritime activities burgeoned. The potato famine of 1846–47 brought swarms of Irish emigrants to our ports; the Mexican War opened the Southwest and West Coast; discovery of gold in California brought a mad stampede from the East; that same year the British repealed their navigation laws, opening Australia and India to our shipping. All these events called for more and faster ships. America had the men and the will to order, design, build, and command them. Out of these years came the loveliest of all man-made commercial objects, the clipper ship.
The first clippers made fantastic profits. Rainbow earned 200 percent on her maiden voyage. Flying Cloud more than repaid the builder’s costs on hers. In a couple of decades oceangoing vessels quadrupled in size, carried five times the amount of sail, almost doubled their average speed, and tripled their crews! Not until the 1960s and ’70s would change so profound occur again. But with complements of ninety to one hundred men, too little cargo space, and the need for constant repair from the strain of their exceptionally tall masts and huge sail areas, they made sense only for high-priced, long-distance cargoes.
The terrible man-killing work the clippers demanded discouraged most Americans from signing on. Narrow, sharp, and hard-driven, the ships constantly took green water aboard, making their decks nearly as dangerous as their rigging. The terrors of Cape Horn were not exaggerated, nor were the casualties. When Sparkling Wave finally reached New York in 1858, she had lost two captains, five mates, a stewardess, and five seamen. Six of the surviving crew were sick.
Nevertheless, many seamen took pride in these ships and, perversely, in their commanders, who, if nothing else, were supremely able. As in battle, fearlessness and competence and even cruelty outweighed all other qualities. Masters and mates believed harsh treatment of the crew was essential, despite the evidence of better captains, like the famous Josiah Cressy of the Flying Cloud , who, speaking of his crew after winning a race around the Horn against the N. B. Palmer , said, “They worked like one man, and that man a hero.”
The arbitrary and brutal system of shipboard discipline was to some extent a reflection of the authoritarian temper of the times. Courts and the public agreed that the good of the ship overrode most rights of the individual. In a free country the seaman gave up his personal freedom for a voyage that might take years. There simply was no other occupation that offered such low pay, danger, hard work, poor food and living conditions, loss of privacy, rigid discipline, brutality, and lack of redress.
The man-killing work the clippers demanded kept most Americans from signing on.
In 1825 a House of Refuge was established in Manhattan to care for the city’s population of orphans, truants, and delinquents. In a move that reflected the generally held view of seafaring, “the very worst cases among the boys were indentured out to sea.…” For more than twenty years several boys each year were so assigned.
The first recorded step toward more formal training came in 1827, at Nantucket, when Adm. Sir Isaac Coffin of the Royal Navy visited there and endowed the Coffin School as a memorial to his distant ancestor, Tristram Coffin, one of the purchasers and early settlers of the island. Young Isaac had attended the Boston Latin School and, at fourteen, joined the Royal Navy as midshipman; he had command of the seventy-four-gun ship-of-the-line Shrewsbury at the age of twenty-two.
In 1828 he bought the brig Clio of Boston and commissioned her as the Coffin Schoolship. The U.S. Navy loaned Lt. Alexander B. Pinkham to command her. On the first voyage with her complement of Nantucket students, the Clio visited the St. Lawrence and Quebec; on her second, Rio de Janeiro. The school operated on the then popular “Lancastrian” system, using abler pupils as monitors to teach small groups of fellow students, thus saving on faculty salaries. But even so the Clio proved an expensive investment, and the trustees persuaded Admiral Coffin to sell the vessel for the benefit of the endowment fund. Lieutenant Pinkham returned to the Navy.
A few years later, in Boston, Capt. Robert Forbes worked to establish the “reform schoolship” Massachusetts for homeless and wayward boys, to provide shelter, discipline, and elemental vocational training. She must not have lasted long, since only sparse records exist.