Pride Of The Seas

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On February 6, 1783, nine weeks after the Revolution ended, a new flag flew in the Thames. It flew, said the London Times, from “the ship Bedford, Captain Mooers, belonging to the Massachusetts [sic].” That oil-laden Nantucket whaler was, the report continued, “the first vessel which displayed the thirteen rebellious stripes of America in any British port.”

Such references to the thirteen-striped flag are commonly taken today as allusions to the red, white, and blue banner authorized by Congress in 1777. What is forgotten is that under Confederation the merchant marine of the United States had its own distinctive version of the national emblem, as does the British merchant fleet to this day. It was a starless flag of red and white stripes, symbolic, like the world’s other merchant flags, of a maritime nation’s pride in, and vast dependence upon, the ships that carry its commerce and bolster its wartime defense. After the Constitution was adopted, Congress never acted to confirm this American merchant flag. Since 1787, therefore, the Stars and Stripes have flown over merchantmen and men-of-war alike, a policy calculated to sharpen the focus of patriotic symbolism but, in long retrospect, prophetic of the submergence of identity and the ultimate decay of the “sister service.”

When the Bedford lay at London there was no question what she and her kind meant to the young republic. American merchant ships and seamen had built the commercial prosperity without which the colonies could never have challenged the mother country. They had furnished the Continental cause what little regular naval power it possessed and, more important, a privateer force of dazzling speed and agility, which harried enemy shipping into the very harbor mouths of England. They were presently to embark on an exploitation of new and old trade routes which, despite Barbary piracy, depredations by both combatants in the Napoleonic Wars, and our own embargoes and nonintercourse acts, would win the United States an honored place among commercial powers and make the American merchant marine known from Copenhagen to Canton. Between 1789 and 1815, as the maritime historian Winthrop Marvin says, “it was dear to the whole country.”

What broke up this love affair between Americans and their ships? Why, since the Civil War, has our average citizen or legislator been conscious of his merchant marine only in time of crisis, and unprotestingly allowed it to shrivel betweentimes? How does history’s largest trading nation, with over 400 million long tons of exports and imports each year, come to have a merchant marine which stands fifth or sixth among the world’s flags; which in terms of average age of its ships is one of the oldest afloat; and which carries only eight out of every hundred tons of our ocean commerce?

There are many answers, none satisfactory. Confederate cruisers are blamed for sinking much of the fleet and driving the rest to foreign flags. But Germany and Japan, almost obliterated at sea by 1945, were back among the ten leading maritime nations before 1960. It is said that we turned our backs on the sea to develop our hinterland (and indeed our patriotic song writers did veer from hymning Columbia, the gem of the ocean, in the nineteenth century to eulogizing amber waves of grain and alabaster cities in the twentieth). Yet Soviet Russia and Communist China, land powers with vast internal preoccupations, are efficiently expanding their merchant fleets while ours declines. It is also pointed out that the gap between American price and wage levels and those of foreign maritime nations has long since widened to the point where it cannot be bridged by any unassisted private shipping enterprise.

If the diagnosis is elusive, the symptoms are painfully apparent. Apart from the sorry statistics just mentioned, perhaps the main observation to be drawn from a thoughtful reading of our maritime past is that somewhere along the way we lost the knack, or the will, to follow through on our technical and commercial initiatives. At some point the native ingenuity and enterprise that had made us a leading seafaring nation were infected with a subtle infirmity of purpose. Thus we were able—with the Savannah in 1819—to give the world steam power at sea but were unable to grasp the benefits of that epoch-making innovation; able to perceive the cost of supplying our country’s shipping needs but too irresolute to pay that cost. Looking back over the past 150 years, we can see this strangely uncharacteristic American trait at work misshaping our maritime destiny.

But it was not so in the beginning.

From earliest colonial times, much of the creativity and the exploitive energy of the Atlantic seaboard community was channelled into shipbuilding, navigation, and sea trading. Oceanworthy vessels were launched by both English and Dutch groups before 1620. A 400-ton ship—very big for the period—was built by 1645, and between 1674 and 1714 New England alone produced 1,332 vessels, 239 of them for sale abroad.