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Pride Of The Seas
Nineteenth-century American courage and resourcefulness carried our merchant flag to the world's harbors and our nation to world prominence. The proud affection of a sea-conscious nation is reflected in our portfolio of ships by artists of three continents. Our essay, by C. Bradford Mitchell, former editor of Steamboat Bill and information director of the Merchant Marine Institute, charts the curious historic twists of public attitude and official policy that have alternately fostered and stunted our merchant navy.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
As American ships became known for their quality and cheapness (to the extent that by 1720 British builders were urging their government to limit the size of ships built in the colonies, and to bar them from all but British trade), they gained increasing fame for speed. The clipper ship was as yet undreamed of, but the Yankee obsession for “going at a good clip” was well developed—partly from the ever-present necessity of outrunning not only pirates and foreign privateers but, as often as not, His Majesty’s own ships, trying to enforce the navigation and trade acts. Speeds of nine or ten knots on commercial voyages seem to have been routine by the 1760s, and it can hardly have surprised the British that, when war did come, these same merchantmen—oversparred and overcanvassed for the occasion—outpaced, outmaneuvered, and frequently outfought the king’s heavier ships.
Survival in a world of restrictive trade legislation demanded of the colonial merchant and seafarer the utmost resourcefulness and ingenuity. Pre-Revolution fortunes, such as they were, resulted from shrewd assessment and intensive cultivation of the few permissible trades, combined with a liberal dash of privateering and no small amount of judicious lawbreaking.
The fund of commercial stratagem thus acquired was invaluable when the war’s end brought political independence and potential economic ruin. Six months after the Peace of Paris, New York and New England shipping men acted to break the paralysis with which the merchant marine was threatened by the loss of English markets and the aggressive invasion of our transatlantic trade by the other maritime powers of Europe. Their daring departure was to open direct trade with the Far East, heretofore a British preserve.
Around the Cape of Good Hope to Canton went the diminutive Empress of China of New York, departing on Washington’s Birthday, 1784. Close behind came the ex-privateer Grand Turk of Salem, already the first American ship to reach the Cape. In 1787 two small Boston ships, the 213-ton Columbia and the 90-ton Lady Washington, sailed together for the relatively unexplored northwest coast of our continent and successfully inaugurated a commercial cycle that put the China trade on a paying basis: trinkets and “trade goods” were exchanged with the coast Indians for seaotter skins, to be traded at Canton for merchandise worth many times the value of the outward cargo. When she returned to Boston in 1790, having left the Lady Washington on the northwest coast, the Columbia became the first American ship to round Cape Horn and to circumnavigate the globe. On her second voyage, she discovered and named the Columbia River.
These and similar accomplishments in ship creation, ship operation, and mercantile expansion were “whole” achievements, in that they created something new and capitalized on it to the full. As a consequence, between 1789 and 1810 American-flag tonnage in overseas trade increased by seven hundred per cent, to nearly a million tons, and the portion of United States foreign commerce carried in United States-registered ships rose swiftly to the ninety per cent level, despite the extraordinary difficulties and perils then besetting any American ship on the high seas.
Columbia was now seriously challenging the claim of her dowager parent to be mistress of the seas. The thesis of this essay is that she could do so only because she had two sound maritime arms, a right which was brilliantly innovative, and a left which was belligerently executive. Her challenge, a major provocation of the War of 1812, would seem vindicated by the war’s outcome; yet, only four years later came the episode of the Savannah and the first sign of that strange and costly withering of the important left arm.
But first it is necessary to note one more spectacular American invention, which was brilliantly followed up. On a snowy Monday, January 5, 1818, the James Monroe, a somewhat “sharp-built” but otherwise not unusual square-rigged ship of 424 tons, sailed from New York for Liverpool. She was the newest and largest in “a regular succession” of four ships between those ports, as announced by her New York proprietors. Their enterprise is known to history and balladry as the Black Ball Line, and it set the pattern of ship operation that has precedence in the American merchant marine to this day.
What distinguished the James Monroe—and made her voyage such a gamble for her owners—was that she had sailed at a scheduled time, announced over two months before. Moreover, she sailed with a cargo that filled only about three-fourths of her capacity, in a day when “full and down” was the first imperative, no matter how long a ship lay in port awaiting the last ton of cargo. Her passengers had been offered special inducements in the way of accommodation and sustenance, after centuries in which ocean travel had been an ordeal to be avoided. Finally, though her owners could not have known this as she passed Sandy Hook, Captain Watkinson would “drive” his ship to Liverpool in twenty-eight days, twelve days less than the time of most other ships then sailing the route.