The Old Merchant Marine
by Ralph D. Paine

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Chapter VI. “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights”

When the first Congress under the new Federal Constitution assembled in 1789, a spirit of pride was manifested in the swift recovery and the encouraging growth of the merchant marine, together with a concerted determination to promote and protect it by means of national legislation. The most imperative need was a series of retaliatory measures to meet the burdensome navigation laws of England, to give American ships a fair field and no favors. The Atlantic trade was therefore stimulated by allowing a reduction of ten per cent of the customs duties on goods imported in vessels built and owned by American citizens. The East India trade, which already employed forty New England ships, was fostered in like manner. Teas brought direct under the American flag paid an average duty of twelve cents a pound while teas in foreign bottoms were taxed twenty-seven cents. It was sturdy protection, for on a cargo of one hundred thousand pounds of assorted teas from India or China, a British ship would pay $27,800 into the custom house and a Salem square-rigger only $10,980.

The result was that the valuable direct trade with the Far East was absolutely secured to the American flag. Not content with this, Congress decreed a system of tonnage duties which permitted the native owner to pay six cents per ton on his vessel while the foreigner laid down fifty cents as an entry fee for every ton his ship measured, or thirty cents if he owned an American-built vessel. In 1794, Congress became even more energetic in defense of its mariners and increased the tariff rates on merchandise in foreign vessels. A nation at last united, jealous of its rights, resentful of indignities long suffered, and intelligently alive to its shipping as the chief bulwark of prosperity, struck back with peaceful weapons and gained a victory of incalculable advantage. Its Congress, no longer feeble and divided, laid the foundations for American greatness upon the high seas which was to endure for more than a half century. Wars, embargoes, and confiscations might interrupt but they could not seriously harm it.

In the three years after 1789 the merchant shipping registered for the foreign trade increased from 123,893 tons to 411,438 tons, presaging a growth without parallel in the history of the commercial world. Foreign ships were almost entirely driven out of American ports, and ninety-one per cent of imports and eighty-six per cent of exports were conveyed in vessels built and manned by Americans. Before Congress intervened, English merchantmen had controlled three-fourths of our commerce overseas. When Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State, fought down Southern opposition to a retaliatory shipping policy, he uttered a warning which his countrymen were to find still true and apt in the twentieth century: “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 have no call to the sea; our products, carried in foreign bottoms, will be saddled with war-freight and insurance in time of war--and the history of the last hundred years shows that the nation which is our carrier has three years of war for every four years of peace.”

The steady growth of an American merchant marine was interrupted only once in the following decade. In the year 1793 war broke out between England and France. A decree of the National Convention of the French Republic granted neutral vessels the same rights as those which flew the tricolor. This privilege reopened a rushing trade with the West Indies, and hundreds of ships hastened from American ports to Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St. Lucia.

Like a thunderbolt came the tidings that England refused to look upon this trade with the French colonies as neutral and that her cruisers had been told to seize all vessels engaged in it and to search them for English-born seamen. This ruling was enforced with such barbarous severity that it seemed as if the War for Independence had been fought in vain. Without warning, unable to save themselves, great fleets of Yankee merchantmen were literally swept from the waters of the West Indies. At St. Eustatius one hundred and thirty of them were condemned. The judges at Bermuda condemned eleven more. Crews and passengers were flung ashore without food or clothing, were abused, insulted, or perhaps impressed in British privateers. The ships were lost to their owners. There was no appeal and no redress. At Martinique an English fleet and army captured St. Pierre in February, 1794. Files of marines boarded every American ship in the harbor, tore down the colors, and flung two hundred and fifty seamen into the foul holds of a prison hulk. There they were kept, half-dead with thirst and hunger while their vessels, uncared for, had stranded or sunk at their moorings. Scores of outrages as abominable as this were on record in the office of the Secretary of State. Shipmasters were afraid to sail to the southward and, for lack of these markets for dried cod, the fishing schooners of Marblehead were idle.

For a time a second war with England seemed imminent. An alarmed Congress passed laws to create a navy and to fortify the most important American harbors. President Washington recommended an embargo of thirty days, which Congress promptly voted and then extended for thirty more. It was a popular measure and strictly enforced by the mariners themselves. The mates and captains of the brigs and snows in the Delaware River met and resolved not to go to sea for another ten days, swearing to lie idle sooner than feed the British robbers in the West Indies. It was in the midst of these demonstrations that Washington seized the one hope of peace and recommended a special mission to England.

The treaty negotiated by John Jay in 1794 was received with an outburst of popular indignation. Jay was damned as a traitor, while the sailors of Portsmouth burned him in effigy. By way of an answer to the terms of the obnoxious treaty, a seafaring mob in Boston raided and burned the British privateer Speedwell, which had put into that port as a merchantman with her guns and munitions hidden beneath a cargo of West India produce.

The most that can be said of the commercial provisions of the treaty is that they opened direct trade with the East Indies but at the price of complete freedom of trade for British shipping in American ports. It must be said, too, that although the treaty failed to clear away the gravest cause of hostility--the right of search and impressment--yet it served to postpone the actual dash, and during the years in which it was in force American shipping splendidly prospered, freed of most irksome handicaps.

The quarrel with France had been brewing at the same time and for similar reasons. Neutral trade with England was under the ban, and the Yankee shipmaster was in danger of losing his vessel if he sailed to or from a port under the British flag. It was out of the frying-pan into the fire, and French privateers welcomed the excuse to go marauding in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. What it meant to fight off these greedy cutthroats is told in a newspaper account of the engagement of Captain Richard Wheatland, who was homeward bound to Salem in the ship Perseverance in 1799. He was in the Old Straits of Bahama when a fast schooner came up astern, showing Spanish colors and carrying a tremendous press of canvas. Unable to run away from her, Captain Wheatland reported to his owners:

“We took in steering sails, wore ship, hauled up our courses, piped all hands to quarters and prepared for action. The schooner immediately took in sail, hoisted an English Union flag and passed under our lee at a considerable distance. We wore ship, she did the same, and we passed each other within half a musket. A fellow hailed us in broken English and ordered the boat hoisted out and the captain to come aboard, which he refused. He again ordered our boat out and enforced his orders with a menace that in case of refusal he would sink us, using at the same time the vilest and most infamous language it is possible to conceive of. . . . We hauled the ship to wind and as he passed poured a whole broadside into him with great success. Sailing faster than we, he ranged considerably ahead, tacked and again passed, giving us a broadside and furious discharge of musketry, which he kept up incessantly until the latter part of the engagement. His musket balls reached us in every direction but his large shot either fell short or went considerably over us while our guns loaded with round shot and square bars of iron were plied so briskly and directed with such good judgment that before he got out of range we had cut his mainsail and foretopsail all to rags and cleared his decks so effectively that when he bore away from us there were scarcely ten men to be seen. He then struck his English flag and hoisted the flag of The Terrible Republic and made off with all the sail he could carry, much disappointed, no doubt, at not being able to give us a fraternal embrace. We feel confidence that we have rid the world of some infamous pests of society.”

By this time, the United States was engaged in active hostilities with France, although war had not been declared. The news of the indignities which American commissions had suffered at the hands of the French Directory had stirred the people to war pitch. Strong measures for national defense were taken, which stopped little short of war. The country rallied to the slogan, “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute,” and the merchants of the seaports hastened to subscribe funds to build frigates to be loaned to the Government. Salem launched the famous Essex, ready for sea six months after the keel was laid, at a cost of $75,000. Her two foremost merchants, Elias Hasket Derby and William Gray, led the list with ten thousand dollars each. The call sent out by the master builder, Enos Briggs, rings with thrilling effect:

“To Sons of Freedom! All true lovers of Liberty of your Country! Step forth and give your assistance in building the frigate to oppose French insolence and piracy. Let every man in possession of a white oak tree be ambitious to be foremost in hurrying down the timber to Salem where the noble structure is to be fabricated to maintain your rights upon the seas and make the name of America respected among the nations of the world. Your largest and longest trees are wanted, and the arms of them for knees and rising timber. Four trees are wanted for the keel which altogether will measure 146 feet in length, and hew sixteen inches square.”

This handsome frigate privately built by patriots of the republic illuminates the coastwise spirit and conditions of her time. She was a Salem ship from keel to truck. Captain Jonathan Haraden, the finest privateersman of the Revolution, made the rigging for the mainmast at his ropewalk in Brown Street. Joseph Vincent fitted out the foremast and Thomas Briggs the mizzenmast in their lofts at the foot of the Common. When the huge hemp cables were ready for the frigate, the workmen carried them to the shipyard on their shoulders, the parade led by fife and drum. Her sails were cut from duck woven in Daniel Rust’s factory in Broad Street and her iron work was forged by Salem shipsmiths. It was not surprising that Captain Richard Derby was chosen to command the Essex, but he was abroad in a ship of his own and she sailed under Captain Edward Preble of the Navy.

The war cloud passed and the merchant argosies overflowed the wharves and havens of New England, which had ceased to monopolize the business on blue water. New York had become a seaport with long ranks of high-steeved bowsprits soaring above pleasant Battery Park and a forest of spars extending up the East River. In 1790 more than two thousand ships, brigs, schooners, and smaller craft had entered and cleared, and the merchants met in the coffee-houses to discuss charters, bills-of-lading, and adventures. Sailors commanded thrice the wages of laborers ashore. Shipyards were increasing and the builders could build as large and swift East Indiamen as those of which Boston and Salem boasted.

Philadelphia had her Stephen Girard, whose wealth was earned in ships, a man most remarkable and eccentric, whose career was one of the great maritime romances. Though his father was a prosperous merchant of Bordeaux engaged in the West India trade, he was shifting for himself as a cabin-boy on his father’s ships when only fourteen years old. With no schooling, barely able to read and write, this urchin sailed between Bordeaux and the French West Indies for nine years, until he gained the rank of first mate. At the age of twenty-six he entered the port of Philadelphia in command of a sloop which had narrowly escaped capture by British frigates. There he took up his domicile and laid the foundation of his fortune in small trading ventures to New Orleans and Santo Domingo.

In 1791 he began to build a fleet of beautiful ships for the China and India trade, their names, Montesquieu, Helvetius, Voltaire, and Rousseau, revealing his ideas of religion and liberty. So successfully did he combine banking and shipping that in 1813 he was believed to be the wealthiest merchant in the United States. In that year one of his ships from China was captured off the Capes of the Delaware by a British privateer. Her cargo of teas, nankeens, and silks was worth half a million dollars to him but he succeeded in ransoming it on the spot by counting out one hundred and eighty thousand Spanish milled dollars. No privateersman could resist such strategy as this.

Alone in his old age, without a friend or relative to close his eyes in death, Stephen Girard, once a penniless, ignorant French cabin-boy, bequeathed his millions to philanthropy, and the Girard College for orphan boys, in Philadelphia, is his monument.

The Treaty of Amiens brought a little respite to Europe and a peaceful interlude for American shipmasters, but France and England came to grips again in 1803. For two years thereafter the United States was almost the only important neutral nation not involved in the welter of conflict on land and sea, and trade everywhere sought the protection of the Stars and Stripes. England had swept her own rivals, men-of-war and merchantmen, from the face of the waters. France and Holland ceased to carry cargoes beneath their own ensigns. Spain was afraid to send her galleons to Mexico and Peru. All the Continental ports were begging for American ships to transport their merchandise. It was a maritime harvest unique and unexpected.

Yankee skippers were dominating the sugar trade of Cuba and were rolling across the Atlantic with the coffee, hides, and indigo of Venezuela and Brazil. Their fleets crowded the roadsteads of Manila and Batavia and packed the warehouses of Antwerp, Lisbon, and Hamburg. It was a situation which England could not tolerate without attempting to thwart an immense traffic which she construed as giving aid and comfort to her enemies. Under cover of the so-called Rule of 1756 British admiralty courts began to condemn American vessels carrying products from enemies’ colonies to Europe, even when the voyage was broken by first entering an American port. It was on record in September, 1805, that fifty American ships had been condemned in England and as many more in the British West Indies.

This was a trifling disaster, however, compared with the huge calamity which befell when Napoleon entered Berlin as a conqueror and proclaimed his paper blockade of the British Isles. There was no French navy to enforce it, but American vessels dared not sail for England lest they be snapped up by French privateers. The British Government savagely retaliated with further prohibitions, and Napoleon countered in like manner until no sea was safe for a neutral ship and the United States was powerless to assert its rights. Thomas Jefferson as President used as a weapon the Embargo of 1807, which was, at first, a popular measure, and which he justified in these pregnant sentences: “The whole world is thus laid under interdict by these two nations, and our own vessels, their cargoes, and crews, are to be taken by the one or the other for whatever place they may be destined out of our limits. If, therefore, on leaving our harbors we are certainly to lose them, is it not better as to vessels, cargoes, and seamen, to keep them at home?”

A people proud, independent, and pugnacious, could not long submit to a measure of defense which was, in the final sense, an abject surrender to brute force. New England, which bore the brunt of the embargo, was first to rebel against it. Sailors marched through the streets clamoring for bread or loaded their vessels and fought their way to sea. In New York the streets of the waterside were deserted, ships dismantled, countinghouses unoccupied, and warehouses empty. In one year foreign commerce decreased in value from $108,000,000 to $22,000,000.

After fifteen months Congress repealed the law, substituting a Non-Intercourse Act which suspended trade with Great Britain and France until their offending orders were repealed. All such measures were doomed to be futile. Words and documents, threats and arguments could not intimidate adversaries who paid heed to nothing else than broadsides from line-of-battle ships or the charge of battalions. With other countries trade could now be opened. Hopefully the hundreds of American ships long pent-up in harbor winged it deep-laden for the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean. But few of them ever returned. Like a brigand, Napoleon lured them into a trap and closed it, advising the Prussian Government, which was under his heel: “Let the American ships enter your ports. Seize them afterward. You shall deliver the cargoes to me and I will take them in part payment of the Prussian war debt.”

Similar orders were executed wherever his mailed fist reached, the pretext being reprisal for the Non-Intercourse Act. More than two hundred American vessels were lost to their owners, a ten-million-dollar robbery for which France paid an indemnity of five millions after twenty years. It was the grand climax of the exploitation which American commerce had been compelled to endure through two centuries of tumult and bloodshed afloat. There lingers today in many a coastwise town an inherited dislike for France. It is a legacy of that far-off catastrophe which beggared many a household and filled the streets with haggard, broken shipmasters.

It was said of this virile merchant marine that it throve under pillage and challenged confiscation. Statistics confirm this brave paradox. In 1810, while Napoleon was doing his worst, the deep-sea tonnage amounted to 981,019; and it is a singular fact that in proportion to population this was to stand as the high tide of American foreign shipping until thirty-seven years later. It ebbed during the War of 1812 but rose again with peace and a real and lasting freedom of the seas.

This second war with England was fought in behalf of merchant seamen and they played a nobly active part in it. The ruthless impressment of seamen was the most conspicuous provocation, but it was only one of many. Two years before hostilities were openly declared, British frigates were virtually blockading the port of New York, halting and searching ships as they pleased, making prizes of those with French destinations, stealing sailors to fill their crews, waging war in everything but name, and enjoying the sport of it. A midshipman of one of them merrily related: “Every morning at daybreak we set about arresting the progress of all the vessels we saw, firing off guns to the right and left to make every ship that was running in heave to or wait until we had leisure to send a boat on board to see, in our lingo, what she was made of. I have frequently known a dozen and sometimes a couple of dozen ships lying a league or two off the port, losing their fair wind, their tide, and worse than all, their market for many hours, sometimes the whole day, before our search was completed.”

The right of a belligerent to search neutral vessels for contraband of war or evidence of a forbidden destination was not the issue at stake. This was a usage sanctioned by such international law as then existed. It was the alleged right to search for English seamen in neutral vessels that Great Britain exercised, not only on the high seas but even in territorial waters, which the American Government refused to recognize. In vain the Government had endeavored to protect its sailors from impressment by means of certificates of birth and citizenship. These documents were jeered at by the English naval lieutenant and his boarding gang, who kidnapped from the forecastle such stalwart tars as pleased their fancy. The victim who sought to inform an American consul of his plight was lashed to the rigging and flogged by a boatswain’s mate. The files of the State Department, in 1807, had contained the names of six thousand American sailors who were as much slaves and prisoners aboard British men-of-war as if they had been made captives by the Dey of Algiers. One of these incidents, occurring on the ship Betsy, Captain Nathaniel Silsbee, while at Madras in 1795, will serve to show how this brutal business was done.

“I received a note early one morning from my chief mate that one of my sailors, Edward Hulen, a fellow townsman whom I had known from boyhood, had been impressed and taken on board of a British frigate then being in port .... I immediately went on board my ship and having there learned all the facts in the case, proceeded to the frigate, where I found Hulen and in his presence was informed by the first lieutenant of the frigate that he had taken Hulen from my ship under a peremptory order from his commander to visit every American ship in port and take from each of them one or more of their seamen .... I then called upon Captain Cook, who commanded the frigate, and sought first by all the persuasive means that I was capable of using and ultimately by threats to appeal to the Government of the place to obtain Hulen’s release, but in vain . . . . It remained for me only to recommend Hulen to that protection of the lieutenant which a good seaman deserves, and to submit to the high-handed insult thus offered to the flag of my country which I had no means either of preventing or resisting.”

After several years’ detention in the British Navy, Hulen returned to Salem and lived to serve on board privateers in the second war with England.

Several years’ detention! This was what it meant to be a pressed man, perhaps with wife and children at home who had no news of him nor any wages to support them. At the time of the Nore Mutiny in 1797, there were ships in the British fleet whose men had not been paid off for eight, ten, twelve, and in one instance fifteen years. These wooden walls of England were floating hells, and a seaman was far better off in jail. He was flogged if he sulked and again if he smiled flogged until the blood ran for a hundred offenses as trivial as these. His food was unspeakably bad and often years passed before he was allowed to set foot ashore. Decent men refused to volunteer and the ships were filled with the human scum and refuse caught in the nets of the press-gangs of Liverpool, London, and Bristol.

It is largely forgotten or unknown that this system of recruiting was as intolerable in England as it was in the United States and as fiercely resented. Oppressive and unjust, it was nevertheless endured as the bulwark of England’s defense against her foes. It ground under its heel the very people it protected and made them serfs in order to keep them free. No man of the common people who lived near the coast of England was safe from the ruffianly press-gangs nor any merchant ship that entered her ports. It was the most cruel form of conscription ever devised. Mob violence opposed it again and again, and British East Indiamen fought the King’s tenders sooner than be stripped of their crews and left helpless. Feeling in America against impressment was never more highly inflamed, even on the brink of the War of 1812, than it had long been in England itself, although the latter country was unable to rise and throw it off. Here are the words, not of an angry American patriot but of a modern English historian writing of his own nation:* “To the people the impress was an axe laid at the foot of the tree. There was here no question, as with trade, of the mere loss of hands who could be replaced. Attacking the family in the person of its natural supporter and protector, the octopus system of which the gangs were the tentacles, struck at the very foundations of domestic life and brought to thousands of households a poverty as bitter and a grief as poignant as death. . . . The mutiny at the Nore brought the people face to face with the appalling risks attendant on wholesale pressing while the war with America, incurred for the sole purpose of upholding the right to press, taught them the lengths to which their rulers were still prepared to go in order to enslave them."*

* The Press Gang Afloat and Ashore, by J. R. Hutchinson.


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

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Old Merchant Marine
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