The Old Merchant Marine
by Ralph D. Paine

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Chapter V. Yankee Vikings and New Trade Routes

Soon after the Revolution the spirit of commercial exploration began to stir in other ports than Salem. Out from New York sailed the ship Empress of China in 1784 for the first direct voyage to Canton, to make the acquaintance of a vast nation absolutely unknown to the people of the United States, nor had one in a million of the industrious and highly civilized Chinese ever so much as heard the name of the little community of barbarians who dwelt on the western shore of the North Atlantic. The oriental dignitaries in their silken robes graciously welcomed the foreign ship with the strange flag and showed a lively interest in the map spread upon the cabin table, offering every facility to promote this new market for their silks and teas. After an absence of fifteen months the Empress of China returned to her home port and her pilgrimage aroused so much attention that the report of the supercargo, Samuel Shaw, was read in Congress.

Surpassing this achievement was that of Captain Stewart Dean, who very shortly afterward had his fling at the China trade in an eighty-ton sloop built at Albany. He was a stout-hearted old privateersman of the Revolution whom nothing could dismay, and in this tiny Experiment of his he won merited fame as one of the American pioneers of blue water. Fifteen men and boys sailed with him, drilled and disciplined as if the sloop were a frigate, and when the Experiment hauled into the stream, of Battery Park, New York, “martial music and the boatswain’s whistle were heard on board with all the pomp and circumstance of war.” Typhoons and Malay proas, Chinese pirates and unknown shoals, had no terrors for Stewart Dean. He saw Canton for himself, found a cargo, and drove home again in a four months’ passage, which was better than many a clipper could do at a much later day. Smallest and bravest of the first Yankee East Indiamen, this taut sloop, with the boatswain’s pipe trilling cheerily and all hands ready with cutlases and pikes to repel boarders, was by no means the least important vessel that ever passed in by Sandy Hook.

In the beginnings of this picturesque relation with the Far East, Boston lagged behind Salem, but her merchants, too, awoke to the opportunity and so successfully that for generations there were no more conspicuous names and shipping-houses in the China trade than those of Russell, Perkins, and Forbes. The first attempt was very ambitious and rather luckless. The largest merchantman ever built at that time in the United States was launched at Quincy in 1789 to rival the towering ships of the British East India Company. This Massachusetts created a sensation. Her departure was a national event. She embodied the dreams of Captain Randall and of the Samuel Shaw who had gone as supercargo in the Empress of China. They formed a partnership and were able to find the necessary capital.

This six-hundred-ton ship loomed huge in the ayes of the crowds which visited her. She was in fact no larger than such four-masted coasting schooners as claw around Hatteras with deck-loads of Georgia pine or fill with coal for down East, and manage it comfortably with seven or eight men for a crew. The Massachusetts, however, sailed in 411 the old-fashioned state and dignity of a master, four mates, a purser, surgeon, carpenter, gunner, four quartermasters, three midshipmen, a cooper, two cooks, a steward, and fifty seamen. The second officer was Amasa Delano, a man even more remarkable than the ship, who wandered far and wide and wrote a fascinating book about his voyages, a classic of its kind, the memoirs of an American merchant mariner of a breed long since extinct.

While the Massachusetts was fitting out at Boston, one small annoyance ruffled the auspicious undertaking. Three different crews were signed before a full complement could be persuaded to tarry in the forecastle. The trouble was caused by a fortune-teller of Lynn, Moll Pitcher by name, who predicted disaster for the ship. Now every honest sailor knows that certain superstitions are gospel fact, such as the bad luck brought by a cross-eyed Finn, a black cat, or going to sea on Friday, and these eighteenth century shellbacks must not be too severely chided for deserting while they had the chance. As it turned out, the voyage did have a sorry ending and death overtook an astonishingly large number of the ship’s people.

Though she had been designed and built by master craftsmen of New England who knew their trade surpassingly well, it was discovered when the ship arrived at Canton that her timbers were already rotting. They were of white oak which had been put into her green instead of properly seasoned. This blunder wrecked the hopes of her owners. To cap it, the cargo of masts and spars had also been stowed while wet and covered with mud and ice, and the hatches had been battened. As a result the air became so foul with decay that several hundred barrels of beef were spoiled. To repair the ship was beyond the means of Captain Randall and Samuel Shaw, and reluctantly they sold her to the Danish East India Company at a heavy loss. Nothing could have been more unexpected than to find that, for once, the experienced shipbuilders had been guilty of a miscalculation.

The crew scattered, and perhaps the prediction of the fortune-teller of Lynn followed their roving courses, for when Captain Amasa Delano tried to trace them a few years later, he jotted down such obituaries as these on the list of names:

 “John Harris. A slave in Algiers at last accounts.
  Roger Dyer. Died and thrown overboard off Cape Horn.
  William Williams. Lost overboard off Japan.
  James Crowley. Murdered by the Chinese near Macao.
  John Johnson. Died on board an English Indiaman.
  Seth Stowell. Was drowned at Whampoa in 1790.
  Jeremiah Chace. Died with the small-pox at Whampoa in 1791.
  Humphrey Chadburn. Shot and died at Whampoa in 1791.
  Samuel Tripe. Drowned off Java Head in 1790.
  James Stackpole. Murdered by the Chinese.
  Nicholas Nicholson. Died with the leprosy at Macao.
  William Murphy. Killed by Chinese pirates.
  Larry Conner. Killed at sea.”

There were more of these gruesome items--so many of them that it appears as though no more than a handful of this stalwart crew survived the Massachusetts by a dozen years. Incredible as it sounds, Captain Delano’s roster accounted for fifty of them as dead while he was still in the prime of life, and most of them had been snuffed out by violence. As for his own career, it was overcast by no such unlucky star, and he passed unscathed through all the hazards and vicissitudes that could be encountered in that rugged and heroic era of endeavor. Set adrift in Canton when the Massachusetts was sold, he promptly turned his hand to repairing a large Danish ship which had been wrecked by storm, and he virtually rebuilt her to the great satisfaction of the owners.

Thence, with money in his pocket, young Delano went to Macao, where he fell in with Commodore John McClure of the English Navy, who was in command of an expedition setting out to explore a part of the South Seas, including the Pelew Islands, New Guinea, New Holland, and the Spice Islands. The Englishman liked this resourceful Yankee seaman and did him the honor to say, recalls Delano, “that he considered I should be a very useful man to him as a seaman, an officer, or a shipbuilder; and if it was agreeable to me to go on board the Panther with him, I should receive the some pay and emoluments with his lieutenants and astronomers.” A signal honor it was at a time when no love was lost between British and American seafarers who had so recently fought each other afloat.

And so Amasa Delano embarked as a lieutenant of the Bombay Marine, to explore tropic harbors and goons until then unmapped and to parley with dusky kings. Commodore McClure, diplomatic and humane, had almost no trouble with the untutored islanders, except on the coast of New Guinea, where the Panther was attacked by a swarm of canoes and the surgeon was killed. It was a spirited little affair, four-foot arrows pelting like hail across the deck, a cannon hurling grapeshot from the taffrail, Amasa Delano hit in the chest and pulling out the arrow to jump to his duty again.

Only a few years earlier the mutineers of the Bounty had established themselves on Pitcairn Island, and Delano was able to compile the first complete narrative of this extraordinary colony, which governed itself in the light of the primitive Christian virtues. There was profound wisdom in the comment of Amasa Delano: “While the present natural, simple, and affectionate character prevails among these descendants of the mutineers, they will be delightful to our minds, they will be amiable and acceptable in the sight of God, and they will be useful and happy among themselves. Let it be our fervent prayer that neither canting and hypocritical emissaries from schools of artificial theology on the one hand, nor sensual and licentious crews and adventurers on the other, may ever enter the charming village of Pitcairn to give disease to the minds or the bodies of the unsuspecting inhabitants.”

Two years of this intensely romantic existence, and Delano started homeward. But there was a chance of profit at Mauritius, and there he bought a tremendous East Indiaman of fourteen hundred tons as a joint venture with a Captain Stewart and put a crew of a hundred and fifty men on board. She had been brought in by a French privateer and Delano was moved to remark, with an indignation which was much in advance of his times: “Privateering is entirely at variance with the first principle of honorable warfare . . . . This system of licensed robbery enables a wicked and mercenary man to insult and injure even neutral friends on the ocean; and when he meets an honest sailor who may have all his earnings on board his ship but who carries an enemy’s flag, he plunders him of every cent and leaves him the poor consolation that it is done according to law . . . . When the Malay subjects of Abba Thule cut down the cocoanut trees of an enemy, in the spirit of private revenge, he asked them why they acted in opposition to the principles on which they knew he always made and conducted a war. They answered, and let the reason make us humble, ’The English do so.’”

In his grand East Indiaman young Captain Delano traded on the coast of India but soon came to grief. The enterprise had been too large for him to swing with what cash and credit he could muster, and the ship was sold from under him to pay her debts. Again on the beach, with one solitary gold moidore in his purse, he found a friendly American skipper who offered him a passage to Philadelphia, which he accepted with the pious reflection that, although his mind was wounded and mortified by the financial disaster, his motives had been perfectly pure and honest. He never saw his native land with so little pleasure as on this return to it, he assures us, and the shore on which he would have leaped with delight was covered with gloom and sadness.

Now what makes it so well worth while to sketch in brief outline the careers of one and another of these bygone shipmasters is that they accurately reflected the genius and the temper of their generation. There was, in truth, no such word as failure in their lexicon. It is this quality that appeals to us beyond all else. Thrown on their beam ends, they were presently planning something else, eager to shake dice with destiny and with courage unbroken. It was so with Amasa Delano, who promptly went to work “with what spirits I could revive within me. After a time they returned to their former elasticity.”

He obtained a position as master builder in a shipyard, saved some money, borrowed more, and with one of his brothers was soon blithely building a vessel of two hundred tons for a voyage into the Pacific and to the northwest coast after seals. They sailed along Patagonia and found much to interest them, dodged in and out of the ports of Chili and Peru, and incidentally recaptured a Spanish ship which was in the hands of the slaves who formed her cargo.

This was all in the day’s work and happened at the island of Santa Maria, not far from Juan Fernandez, where Captain Delano’s Perseverance found the high-pooped Tryal in a desperate state. Spanish sailors who had survived the massacre were leaping overboard or scrambling up to the mastheads while the African savages capered on deck and flourished their weapons. Captain Delano liked neither the Spaniard nor the slavetrade, but it was his duty to help fellow seamen in distress; so he cleared for action and ordered two boats away to attend to the matter. The chief mate, Rufus Low, was in charge, and a gallant sailor he showed himself. They had to climb the high sides of the Tryal and carry, in hand-to-hand conflict, the barricades of water-casks and bales of matting which the slaves had built across the deck. There was no hanging back, and even a mite of a midshipman from Boston pranced into it with his dirk. The negroes were well armed and fought ferociously. The mate was seriously wounded, four seamen were stabbed, the Spanish first mate had two musket balls in him, and a passenger was killed in the fray.

Having driven the slaves below and battened them down, the American party returned next morning to put the irons on them. A horrid sight confronted them. Thirsting for vengeance, the Spanish sailors had spread-eagled several of the negroes to ringbolts in the deck and were shaving the living flesh from them with razor-edged boarding lances. Captain Delano thereupon disarmed these brutes and locked them up in their turn, taking possession of the ship until he could restore order. The sequel was that he received the august thanks of the Viceroy of Chili and a gold medal from His Catholic Majesty. As was the custom, the guilty slaves, poor wretches, were condemned to be dragged to the gibbet at the tails of mules, to be hanged, their bodies burned, and their heads stuck upon poles in the plaza.

It was while in this Chilean port of Talcahuano that Amasa Delano heard the tale of the British whaler which had sailed just before his arrival. He tells it so well that I am tempted to quote it as a generous tribute to a sailor of a rival race. After all, they were sprung from a common stock and blood was thicker than water. Besides, it is the sort of yarn that ought to be dragged to the light of day from its musty burial between the covers of Delano’s rare and ancient “Voyages and Travels.”

The whaler Betsy, it seems, went in and anchored under the guns of the forts to seek provisions and make repairs. The captain went ashore to interview the officials, leaving word that no Spaniards should be allowed to come aboard because of the bad feeling against the English. Three or four large boats filled with troops presently veered alongside and were ordered to keep clear. This command was resented, and the troops opened fire, followed by the forts. Now for the deed of a man with his two feet under him.

“The chief officer of the Betsy whose name was Hudson, a man of extraordinary bravery, cut his cable and his ship swung the wrong way, with her head in shore, passing close to several Spanish ships which, with every vessel in the harbor that could bring a gun to bear, together with three hundred soldiers in boats and on ship’s decks and the two batteries, all kept up a constant fire on him. The wind was light, nearly a calm. The shot flew so thick that it was difficult for him to make sail, some part of the rigging being cut away every minute.

“He kept his men at the guns, and when the ship swung her broadside so as to bear upon any of the Spanish ships, he kept up a fire at them. In this situation the brave fellow continued to lie for three-quarters of an hour before he got his topsails sheeted home. The action continued in this manner for near an hour and a half. He succeeded in getting the ship to sea, however, in defiance of all the force that could be brought against him. The ship was very much cut to pieces in sails, rigging, and hull; and a considerable number of men were killed and wounded on board.

“Hudson kept flying from one part of the deck to the other during the whole time of action, encouraging and threatening the men as occasion required. He kept a musket in his hand most part of the time, firing when he could find the leisure. Some of the men came aft and begged him to give up the ship, telling him they should all be killed--that the carpenter had all one side of him shot away--that one man was cut in halves with a double-headed shot as he was going aloft to loose the foretopsail and the body had fallen on deck in two separate parts--that such a man was killed at his duty on the forecastle, and one more had been killed in the maintop--that Sam, Jim, Jack, and Tom were wounded and that they would do nothing more towards getting the ship out of the harbor.

“His reply to them was, ’then you shall be sure to die, for if they do not kill you I will, so sure as you persist in any such cowardly resolution,’ saying at the same time, ’OUT SHE GOES, OR DOWN SHE GOES.’”

By this resolute and determined conduct he kept the men to their duty and succeeded in accomplishing one of the most daring enterprises perhaps ever attempted.

An immortal phrase, this simple dictum of first mate Hudson of the Betsy, “Out she goes, or down she goes,” and not unworthy of being mentioned in the same breath with Farragut’s “Damn the torpedoes.”

Joined by his brother Samuel in the schooner Pilgrim, which was used as a tender in the sealing trade, Amasa Delano frequented unfamiliar beaches until he had taken his toll of skins and was ready to bear away for Canton to sell them. There were many Yankee ships after seals in those early days, enduring more peril and privation than the whalemen, roving over the South Pacific among the rock-bound islands unknown to the merchant navigator. The men sailed wholly on shares, a seaman receiving one per cent of the catch and the captain ten per cent, and they slaughtered the seal by the million, driving them from the most favored haunts within a few years. For instance, American ships first visited Mas a Fuera in 1797, and Captain Delano estimated that during the seven years following three million skins were taken to China from this island alone. He found as many as fourteen vessels there at one time, and he himself carried away one hundred thousand skins. It was a gold mine for profit while it lasted.

There were three Delano brothers afloat in two vessels, and of their wanderings Amasa set down this epitome: “Almost the whole of our connections who were left behind had need of our assistance, and to look forward it was no more than a reasonable calculation to make that our absence would not be less than three years . . . together with the extraordinary uncertainty of the issue of the voyage, as we had nothing but our hands to depend upon to obtain a cargo which was only to be done through storms, dangers, and breakers, and taken from barren rocks in distant regions. But after a voyage of four years for one vessel and five for the other, we were all permitted to return safe home to our friends and not quite empty-handed. We had built both of the vessels we were in and navigated them two and three times around the globe.” Each one of the brothers had been a master builder and rigger and a navigator of ships in every part of the world.

By far the most important voyage undertaken by American merchantmen during the decade of brilliant achievement following the Revolution was that of Captain Robert Gray in the Columbia, which was the first ship to visit and explore the northwest coast and to lead the way for such adventurers as Richard Cleveland and Amasa Delano. On his second voyage in 1792, Captain Gray discovered the great river he christened Columbia and so gave to the United States its valid title to that vast territory which Lewis and Clark were to find after toiling over the mountains thirteen years later.


Chapter I. Colonial Adventurers in Little Ships  •  Chapter II. The Privateers Of ’76  •  Chapter III. Out Cutlases and Board  •  Chapter IV. The Famous Days of Salem Port  •  Chapter V. Yankee Vikings and New Trade Routes  •  Chapter VI. “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights”  •  Chapter VII. The Brilliant Era of 1812  •  Chapter VIII. The Packet Ships of the “Roaring Forties”  •  Chapter IX. The Stately Clipper and Her Glory  •  Chapter X. Bound Coastwise  •  Bibliographical Note

[Buy at Amazon]
Old Merchant Marine
By Ralph D. Paine
At Amazon