The Old Merchant Marine
by Ralph D. Paine

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Chapter VIII. The Packet Ships of the “Roaring Forties”

It was on the stormy Atlantic, called by sailormen the Western Ocean, that the packet ships won the first great contest for supremacy and knew no rivals until the coming of the age of steam made them obsolete. Their era antedated that of the clipper and was wholly distinct. The Atlantic packet was the earliest liner: she made regular sailings and carried freight and passengers instead of trading on her owners’ account as was the ancient custom. Not for her the tranquillity of tropic seas and the breath of the Pacific trades, but an almost incessant battle with swinging surges and boisterous winds, for she was driven harder in all weathers and seasons than any other ships that sailed. In such battering service as this the lines of the clipper were too extremely fine, her spars too tall and slender. The packet was by no means slow and if the list of her record passages was superb, it was because they were accomplished by masters who would sooner let a sail blow away than take it in and who raced each other every inch of the way.

They were small ships of three hundred to five hundred tons when the famous Black Ball Line was started in 1816. From the first they were the ablest vessels that could be built, full-bodied and stoutly rigged. They were the only regular means of communication between the United States and Europe and were entrusted with the mails, specie, government dispatches, and the lives of eminent personages. Blow high, blow low, one of the Black Ball packets sailed from New York for Liverpool on the first and sixteenth of every month. Other lines were soon competing--the Red Star and the Swallow Tail out of New York, and fine ships from Boston and Philadelphia. With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 the commercial greatness of New York was assured, and her Atlantic packets increased in size and numbers, averaging a thousand tons each in the zenith of their glory.

England, frankly confessing herself beaten and unable to compete with such ships as these, changed her attitude from hostility to open admiration. She surrendered the Atlantic packet trade to American enterprise, and British merchantmen sought their gains in other waters. The Navigation Laws still protected their commerce in the Far East and they were content to jog at a more sedate gait than these weltering packets whose skippers were striving for passages of a fortnight, with the forecastle doors nailed fast and the crew compelled to stay on deck from Sandy Hook to Fastnet Rock.

No blustering, rum-drinking tarpaulin was the captain who sailed the Independence, the Ocean Queen, or the Dreadnought but a man very careful of his manners and his dress, who had been selected from the most highly educated merchant service in the world. He was attentive to the comfort of his passengers and was presumed to have no other duties on deck than to give the proper orders to his first officer and work out his daily reckoning. It was an exacting, nerve-racking ordeal, however, demanding a sleepless vigilance, courage, and cool judgment of the first order. The compensations were large. As a rule, he owned a share of the ship and received a percentage of the freights and passage money. His rank when ashore was more exalted than can be conveyed in mere words. Any normal New York boy would sooner have been captain of a Black Ball packet than President of the United States, and he knew by heart the roaring chantey

    It is of a flash packet,
      A packet of fame.
    She is bound to New York
      And the Dreadnought’s her name.
    She is bound to the west’ard
      Where the stormy winds blow.
    Bound away to the west’ard,
      Good Lord, let her go.

There were never more than fifty of these ships afloat, a trifling fraction of the American deep-water tonnage of that day, but the laurels they won were immortal. Not only did the English mariner doff his hat to them, but a Parliamentary committee reported in 1837 that “the American ships frequenting the ports of England are stated by several witnesses to be superior to those of a similar class among the ships of Great Britain, the commanders and officers being generally considered to be more competent as seamen and navigators and more uniformly persons of education than the commanders and officers of British ships of a similar size and class trading from England to America.”

It was no longer a rivalry with the flags of other nations but an unceasing series of contests among the packets of the several lines, and their records aroused far more popular excitement than when the great steamers of this century were chipping off the minutes, at an enormous coal consumption, toward a five-day passage. Theirs were tests of real seamanship, and there were few disasters. The packet captain scorned a towboat to haul him into the stream if the wind served fair to set all plain sail as his ship lay at her wharf. Driving her stern foremost, he braced his yards and swung her head to sea, clothing the masts with soaring canvas amid the farewell cheers of the crowds which lined the waterfront.

A typical match race was sailed between the Black Ball liner Columbus, Captain De Peyster, and the Sheridan, Captain Russell, of the splendid Dramatic fleet, in 1837. The stake was $10,000 a side, put up by the owners and their friends. The crews were picked men who were promised a bonus of fifty dollars each for winning. The ships sailed side by side in February, facing the wild winter passage, and the Columbus reached Liverpool in the remarkable time of sixteen days, two days ahead of the Sheridan.

The crack packets were never able to reel off more than twelve or fourteen knots under the most favorable conditions, but they were kept going night and day, and some of them maintained their schedules almost with the regularity of the early steamers. The Montezuma, the Patrick Henry, and the Southampton crossed from New York to Liverpool in fifteen days, and for years the Independence held the record of fourteen days and six hours. It remained for the Dreadnought, Captain Samuel Samuels, in 1859, to set the mark for packet ships to Liverpool at thirteen days and eight hours.

Meanwhile the era of the matchless clipper had arrived and it was one of these ships which achieved the fastest Atlantic passage ever made by a vessel under sail. The James Baines was built for English owners to be used in the Australian trade. She was a full clipper of 2515 tons, twice the size of the ablest packets, and was praised as “the most perfect sailing ship that ever entered the river Mersey.” Bound out from Boston to Liverpool, she anchored after twelve days and six hours at sea.

There was no lucky chance in this extraordinary voyage, for this clipper was the work of the greatest American builder, Donald McKay, who at the same time designed the Lightning for the same owners. This clipper, sent across the Atlantic on her maiden trip, left in her foaming wake a twenty-four hour run which no steamer had even approached and which was not equaled by the fastest express steamers until twenty-five years later when the greyhound Arizona ran eighteen knots in one hour on her trial trip. This is a rather startling statement when one reflects that the Arizona of the Guion line seems to a generation still living a modern steamer and record-holder. It is even more impressive when coupled with the fact that, of the innumerable passenger steamers traversing the seas today, only a few are capable of a speed of more than eighteen knots.

This clipper Lightning did her 436 sea miles in one day, or eighteen and a half knots, better than twenty land miles an hour, and this is how the surpassing feat was entered in her log, or official journal: “March 1. Wind south. Strong gales; bore away for the North Channel, carrying away the foretopsail and lost jib; hove the log several times and found the ship going through the water at the rate of 18 to 18 1/2 knots; lee rail under water and rigging slack. Distance run in twenty-four hours, 436 miles." The passage was remarkably fast, thirteen days and nineteen and a half hours from Boston Light, but the spectacular feature was this day’s work. It is a fitting memorial of the Yankee clipper, and, save only a cathedral, the loveliest, noblest fabric ever wrought by man’s handiwork.

The clipper, however, was a stranger in the Atlantic and her chosen courses were elsewhere. The records made by the James Baines and the Lightning were no discredit to the stanch, unconquerable packet ships which, year in and year out, held their own with the steamer lines until just before the Civil War. It was the boast of Captain Samuels that on her first voyage in 1853 the Dreadnought reached Sandy Hook as the Cunarder Canada, which had left Liverpool a day ahead of her, was passing in by Boston Light. Twice she carried the latest news to Europe, and many seasoned travelers preferred her to the mail steamers.

The masters and officers who handled these ships with such magnificent success were true-blue American seamen, inspired by the finest traditions, successors of the privateersmen of 1812. The forecastles, however, were filled with English, Irish, and Scandinavians. American lads shunned these ships and, in fact, the ambitious youngster of the coastwise towns began to cease following the sea almost a century ago. It is sometimes forgotten that the period during which the best American manhood sought a maritime career lay between the Revolution and the War of 1812. Thereafter the story became more and more one of American ships and less of American sailors, excepting on the quarter-deck.

In later years the Yankee crews were to be found in the ports where the old customs survived, the long trading voyage, the community of interest in cabin and forecastle, all friends and neighbors together, with opportunities for profit and advancement. Such an instance was that of the Salem ship George, built at Salem in 1814 and owned by the great merchant, Joseph Peabody. For twenty-two years she sailed in the East India trade, making twenty-one round voyages, with an astonishing regularity which would be creditable for a modern cargo tramp. Her sailors were native-born, seldom more than twenty-one years old, and most of them were studying navigation. Forty-five of them became shipmasters, twenty of them chief mates, and six second mates. This reliable George was, in short, a nautical training-school of the best kind and any young seaman with the right stuff in him was sure of advancement.

Seven thousand sailors signed articles in the counting-room of Joseph Peabody and went to sea in his eighty ships which flew the house-flag in Calcutta, Canton, Sumatra, and the ports of Europe until 1844. These were mostly New England boys who followed in the footsteps of their fathers because deep-water voyages were still “adventures” and a career was possible under a system which was both congenial and paternal. Brutal treatment was the rare exception. Flogging still survived in the merchant service and was defended by captains otherwise humane, but a skipper, no matter how short-tempered, would be unlikely to abuse a youth whose parents might live on the same street with him and attend the same church.

The Atlantic packets brought a different order of things, which was to be continued through the clipper era. Yankee sailors showed no love for the cold and storms of the Western Ocean in these foaming packets which were remorselessly driven for speed. The masters therefore took what they could get. All the work of rigging, sail-making, scraping, painting, and keeping a ship in perfect repair was done in port instead of at sea, as was the habit in the China and California clippers, and the lore and training of the real deep-water sailor became superfluous. The crew of a packet made sail or took it in with the two-fisted mates to show them how.

From these conditions was evolved the “Liverpool packet rat," hairy and wild and drunken, the prey of crimps and dive-keepers ashore, brave and toughened to every hardship afloat, climbing aloft in his red shirt, dungaree breeches, and sea-boots, with a snow-squall whistling, the rigging sheathed with ice, and the old ship burying her bows in the thundering combers. It was the doctrine of his officers that he could not be ruled by anything short of violence, and the man to tame and hammer him was the “bucko” second mate, the test of whose fitness was that he could whip his weight in wild cats. When he became unable to maintain discipline with fists and belaying-pins, he was deposed for a better man.

Your seasoned packet rat sought the ship with a hard name by choice. His chief ambition was to kick in the ribs or pound senseless some invincible bucko mate. There was provocation enough on both sides. Officers had to take their ships to sea and strain every nerve to make a safe and rapid passage with crews which were drunk and useless when herded aboard, half of them greenhorns, perhaps, who could neither reef nor steer. Brutality was the one argument able to enforce instant obedience among men who respected nothing else. As a class the packet sailors became more and more degraded because their life was intolerable to decent men. It followed therefore that the quarterdeck employed increasing severity, and, as the officer’s authority in this respect was unchecked and unlimited, it was easy to mistake the harshest tyranny for wholesome discipline.

Reenforcing the bucko mate was the tradition that the sailor was a dog, a different human species from the landsman, without laws and usages to protect him. This was a tradition which, for centuries, had been fostered in the naval service, and it survived among merchant sailors as an unhappy anachronism even into the twentieth century, when an American Congress was reluctant to bestow upon a seaman the decencies of existence enjoyed by the poorest laborer ashore.

It is in the nature of a paradox that the brilliant success of the packet ships in dominating the North Atlantic trade should have been a factor in the decline of the nation’s maritime prestige and resources. Through a period of forty years the pride and confidence in these ships, their builders, and the men who sailed them, was intense and universal. They were a superlative product of the American genius, which still displayed the energies of a maritime race. On other oceans the situation was no less gratifying. American ships were the best and cheapest in the world. The business held the confidence of investors and commanded an abundance of capital. It was assumed, as late as 1840, that the wooden sailing ship would continue to be the supreme type of deep-water vessel because the United States possessed the greatest stores of timber, the most skillful builders and mechanics, and the ablest merchant navigators. No industry was ever more efficiently organized and conducted. American ships were most in demand and commanded the highest freights. The tonnage in foreign trade increased to a maximum of 904,476 in 1845. There was no doubt in the minds of the shrewdest merchants and owners and builders of the time that Great Britain would soon cease to be the mistress of the seas and must content herself with second place.

It was not considered ominous when, in 1838, the Admiralty had requested proposals for a steam service to America. This demand was prompted by the voyages of the Sirius and Great Western, wooden-hulled sidewheelers which thrashed along at ten knots’ speed and crossed the Atlantic in fourteen to seventeen days. This was a much faster rate than the average time of the Yankee packets, but America was unperturbed and showed no interest in steam. In 1839 the British Government awarded an Atlantic mail contract, with an annual subsidy of $425,000 to Samuel Cunard and his associates, and thereby created the most famous of the Atlantic steamship companies.

Four of these liners began running in 1840--an event which foretold the doom of the packet fleets, though the warning was almost unheeded in New York and Boston. Four years later Enoch Train was establishing a new packet line to Liverpool with the largest, finest ships built up to that time, the Washington Irving, Anglo-American, Ocean Monarch, Anglo-Saxon, and Daniel Webster. Other prominent shipping houses were expanding their service and were launching noble packets until 1853. Meanwhile the Cunard steamers were increasing in size and speed, and the service was no longer an experiment.

American capital now began to awaken from its dreams, and Edward K. Collins, managing owner of the Dramatic line of packets, determined to challenge the Cunarders at their own game. Aided by the Government to the extent of $385,000 a year as subsidy, he put afloat the four magnificent steamers, Atlantic, Pacific, Baltic, and Arctic, which were a day faster than the Cunarders in crossing, and reduced the voyage to nine and ten days. The Collins line, so auspiciously begun in 1850, and promising to give the United States the supremacy in steam which it had won under sail, was singularly unfortunate and short-lived. The Arctic and the Pacific were lost at sea, and Congress withdrew its financial support after five years. Deprived of this aid, Mr. Collins was unable to keep the enterprise afloat in competition with the subsidized Cunard fleet. In this manner and with little further effort by American interests to compete for the prize, the dominion of the Atlantic passed into British hands.

The packet ships had held on too long. It had been a stirring episode for the passengers to cheer in mid-ocean when the lofty pyramids of canvas swept grandly by some wallowing steamer and left her far astern, but in the fifties this gallant picture became less frequent, and a sooty banner of smoke on the horizon proclaimed the new era and the obliteration of all the rushing life and beauty of the tall ship under sail. Slow to realize and acknowledge defeat, persisting after the steamers were capturing the cabin passenger and express freight traffic, the American ship-owners could not visualize this profound transformation. Their majestic clippers still surpassed all rivals in the East India and China trade and were racing around the Horn, making new records for speed and winning fresh nautical triumphs for the Stars and Stripes.

This reluctance to change the industrial and commercial habits of generations of American shipowners was one of several causes for the decadence which was hastened by the Civil War. For once the astute American was caught napping by his British cousin, who was swayed by no sentimental values and showed greater adaptability in adopting the iron steamer with the screw propeller as the inevitable successor of the wooden ship with arching topsails.

The golden age of the American merchant marine was that of the square-rigged ship, intricate, capricious, and feminine in her beauty, with forty nimble seamen in the forecastle, not that of the metal trough with an engine in the middle and mechanics sweating in her depths. When the Atlantic packet was compelled to abdicate, it was the beginning of the end. After all, her master was the fickle wind, for a slashing outward passage might be followed by weeks of beating home to the westward. Steadily forging ahead to the beat of her paddles or the thrash of her screw, the steamer even of that day was far more dependable than the sailing vessel. The Lightning clipper might run a hundred miles farther in twenty-four hours than ever a steamer had done, but she could not maintain this meteoric burst of speed. Upon the heaving surface of the Western Ocean there was enacted over again the fable of the hare and the tortoise.

Most of the famous chanteys were born in the packet service and shouted as working choruses by the tars of this Western Ocean before the chanteyman perched upon a capstan and led the refrain in the clipper trade. You will find their origin unmistakable in such lines as these:

    As I was a-walking down Rotherhite Street,
      ’Way, ho, blow the man down;
    A pretty young creature I chanced for to meet,
      Give me some time to blow the man down.
    Soon we’ll be in London City,
      Blow, boys, blow,
    And see the gals all dressed so pretty,
      Blow, my bully boys, blow.

Haunting melodies, folk-song as truly as that of the plantation negro, they vanished from the sea with a breed of men who, for all their faults, possessed the valor of the Viking and the fortitude of the Spartan. Outcasts ashore--which meant to them only the dance halls of Cherry Street and the grog-shops of Ratcliffe Road--they had virtues that were as great as their failings. Across the intervening years, with a pathos indefinable, come the lovely strains of

    Shenandoah, I’ll ne’er forget you,
      Away, ye rolling river,
      Till the day I die I’ll love you ever,
    Ah, ha, we’re bound away.


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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