The Old Merchant Marine
by Ralph D. Paine
Public Domain Books
Chapter IX. The Stately Clipper and Her Glory
The American clipper ship was the result of an evolution which can be traced back to the swift privateers which were built during the War of 1812. In this type of vessel the shipyards of Chesapeake Bay excelled and their handiwork was known as the “Baltimore clipper,” the name suggested by the old English verb which Dryden uses to describe the flight of the falcon that “clips it down the wind.” The essential difference between the clipper ship and other kinds of merchant craft was that speed and not capacity became the chief consideration. This was a radical departure for large vessels, which in all maritime history had been designed with an eye to the number of tons they were able to carry. More finely molded lines had hitherto been found only in the much smaller French lugger, the Mediterranean galley, the American schooner.
To borrow the lines of these fleet and graceful models and apply them to the design of a deepwater ship was a bold conception. It was first attempted by Isaac McKim, a Baltimore merchant, who ordered his builders in 1832 to reproduce as closely as possible the superior sailing qualities of the renowned clipper brigs and schooners of their own port. The result was the Ann McKim, of nearly five hundred tons, the first Yankee clipper ship, and distinguished as such by her long, easy water-lines, low free-board, and raking stem. She was built and finished without regard to cost, copper-sheathed, the decks gleaming with brasswork and mahogany fittings. But though she was a very fast and handsome ship and the pride of her owner, the Ann McKim could stow so little cargo that shipping men regarded her as unprofitable and swore by their full-bodied vessels a few years longer.
That the Ann McKim, however, influenced the ideas of the most progressive builders is very probable, for she was later owned by the New York firm of Howland and Aspinwall, who placed an order for the first extremely sharp clipper ship of the era. This vessel, the Rainbow, was designed by John W. Griffeths, a marine architect, who was a pioneer in that he studied shipbuilding as a science instead of working by rule-of-thumb. The Rainbow, which created a sensation while on the stocks because of her concave or hollowed lines forward, which defied all tradition and practice, was launched in 1845. She was a more radical innovation than the Ann McKim but a successful one, for on her second voyage to China the Rainbow went out against the northeast monsoon in ninety-two days and came home in eighty-eight, a record which few ships were able to better. Her commander, Captain John Land, declared her to be the fastest ship in the world and there were none to dispute him.
Even the Rainbow however, was eclipsed when not long afterward Howland and Aspinwall, now converted to the clipper, ordered the Sea Witch to be built for Captain Bob Waterman. Among all the splendid skippers of the time he was the most dashing figure. About his briny memory cluster a hundred yarns, some of them true, others legendary. It has been argued that the speed of the clippers was due more to the men who commanded them than to their hulls and rigging, and to support the theory the career of Captain Bob Waterman is quoted. He was first known to fame in the old Natchez, which was not a clipper at all and was even rated as slow while carrying cotton from New Orleans to New York. But Captain Bob took this full-pooped old packet ship around the Horn and employed her in the China tea trade. The voyages which he made in her were all fast, and he crowned them with the amazing run of seventy-eight days from Canton to New York, just one day behind the swiftest clipper passage ever sailed and which he himself performed in the Sea Witch. Incredulous mariners simply could not explain this feat of the Natchez and suggested that Bob Waterman must have brought the old hooker home by some new route of his own discovery.
Captain Bob had won a reputation for discipline as the mate of a Black Ball liner, a rough school, and he was not a mild man. Ashore his personality was said to have been a most attractive one, but there is no doubt that afloat he worked the very souls out of his sailors. The rumors that he frightfully abused them were not current, however, until he took the Sea Witch and showed the world the fastest ship under canvas. Low in the water, with black hull and gilded figurehead, she seemed too small to support her prodigious cloud of sail. For her there were to be no leisurely voyages with Captain Bob Waterman on the quarter-deck. Home from Canton she sped in seventy-seven days and then in seventy-nine--records which were never surpassed.
With what consummate skill and daring this master mariner drove his ship and how the race of hardy sailors to which he belonged compared with those of other nations may be descried in the log of another of them, Captain Philip Dumaresq, homeward bound from China in 1849 in the clipper Great Britain. Three weeks out from Java Head she had overtaken and passed seven ships heading the same way, and then she began to rush by them in one gale after another. Her log records her exploits in such entries as these: “Passed a ship under double reefs, we with our royals and studdingsails set . . . . Passed a ship laying-to under a close-reefed maintopsail . . . . Split all three topsails and had to heave to . . . . Seven vessels in sight and we outsail all of them . . . . Under double-reefed topsails passed several vessels hove-to.” Much the same record might be read in the log of the medium clipper Florence--and it is the same story of carrying sail superbly on a ship which had been built to stand up under it: “Passed two barks under reefed courses and close-reefed topsails standing the same way, we with royals and topgallant studding-sails,” or “Passed a ship under topsails, we with our royals set.” For eleven weeks “the topsail halliards were started only once, to take in a single reef for a few hours.” It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that, seventeen days out from Shanghai, the Florence exchanged signals with the English ship John Hagerman, which had sailed thirteen days before her.
Two notable events in the history of the nineteenth century occurred within the same year, 1849, to open new fields of trade to the Yankee clipper. One of these was the repeal of the British Navigation Laws which had given English ships a monopoly of the trade between London and the British East Indies, and the other was the discovery of gold in California. After centuries of pomp and power, the great East India Company had been deprived of its last exclusive rights afloat in 1833. Its ponderous, frigate-built merchantmen ceased to dominate the British commerce with China and India and were sold or broken up. All British ships were now free to engage in this trade, but the spirit and customs of the old regime still strongly survived. Flying the house-flags of private owners, the East Indiamen and China tea ships were still built and manned like frigates, slow, comfortable, snugging down for the night under reduced sail. There was no competition to arouse them until the last barrier of the Navigation Laws was let down and they had to meet the Yankee clipper with the tea trade as the huge stake.
Then at last it was farewell to the gallant old Indianian and her ornate, dignified prestige. With a sigh the London Times confessed: “We must run a race with our gigantic and unshackled rival. We must set our long-practised skill, our steady industry, and our dogged determination against his youth, ingenuity, and ardor. Let our shipbuilders and employers take warning in time. There will always be an abundant supply of vessels good enough and fast enough for short voyages. But we want fast vessels for the long voyages which otherwise will fall into American hands.”
Before English merchants could prepare themselves for these new conditions, the American clipper Oriental was loading in 1850 at Hong Kong with tea for the London market. Because of her reputation for speed, she received freightage of six pounds sterling per ton while British ships rode at anchor with empty holds or were glad to sail at three pounds ten per ton. Captain Theodore Palmer delivered his sixteen hundred tons of tea in the West India Docks, London, after a crack passage of ninety-one days which had never been equaled. His clipper earned $48,000, or two-thirds of what it had cost to build her. Her arrival in London created a profound impression. The port had seen nothing like her for power and speed; her skysail yards soared far above the other shipping; the cut of her snowy canvas was faultless; all clumsy, needless tophamper had been done away with; and she appeared to be the last word in design and construction, as lean and fine and spirited as a race-horse in training.
This new competition dismayed British shipping until it could rally and fight with similar weapons The technical journal, Naval Science, acknowledged that the tea trade of the London markets had passed almost out of the hands of the English ship-owner, and that British vessels, well-manned and well-found, were known to lie for weeks in the harbor of Foo-chow, waiting for a cargo and seeing American clippers come in, load, and sail immediately with full cargoes at a higher freight than they could command. Even the Government viewed the loss of trade with concern and sent admiralty draftsmen to copy the lines of the Oriental and Challenge while they were in drydock.
British clippers were soon afloat, somewhat different in model from the Yankee ships, but very fast and able, and racing them in the tea trade until the Civil War. With them it was often nip and tuck, as in the contest between the English Lord of the Isles and the American clipper bark Maury in 1856. The prize was a premium of one pound per ton for the first ship to reach London with tea of the new crop. The Lord of the Isles finished loading and sailed four days ahead of the Maury, and after thirteen thousand miles of ocean they passed Gravesend within ten minutes of each other. The British skipper, having the smartest tug and getting his ship first into dock, won the honors. In a similar race between the American Sea Serpent and the English Crest of the Wave, both ships arrived off the Isle of Wight on the same day. It was a notable fact that the Lord of the Isles was the first tea clipper built of iron at a date when the use of this stubborn material was not yet thought of by the men who constructed the splendid wooden ships of America.
For the peculiar requirements of the tea trade, English maritime talent was quick to perfect a clipper type which, smaller than the great Yankee skysail-yarder, was nevertheless most admirable for its beauty and performance. On both sides of the Atlantic partizans hotly championed their respective fleets. In 1852 the American Navigation Club, organized by Boston merchants and owners, challenged the shipbuilders of Great Britain to race from a port in England to a port in China and return, for a stake of $50,000 a side, ships to be not under eight hundred nor over twelve hundred tons American register. The challenge was aimed at the Stornaway and the Chrysolite, the two clippers that were known to be the fastest ships under the British flag. Though this sporting defiance caused lively discussion, nothing came of it, and it was with a spirit even keener that Sampson and Tappan of Boston offered to match their Nightingale for the same amount against any clipper afloat, British or American.
In spite of the fact that Yankee enterprise had set the pace in the tea trade, within a few years after 1850 England had so successfully mastered the art of building these smaller clippers that the honors were fairly divided. The American owners were diverting their energies to the more lucrative trade in larger ships sailing around the Horn to San Francisco, a long road which, as a coastwise voyage, was forbidden to foreign vessels under the navigation laws. After the Civil War the fastest tea clippers flew the British flag and into the seventies they survived the competition of steam, racing among themselves for the premiums awarded to the quickest dispatch. No more of these beautiful vessels were launched after 1869, and one by one they vanished into other trades, overtaken by the same fate which had befallen the Atlantic packet and conquered by the cargo steamers which filed through the Suez Canal.
Until 1848 San Francisco had been a drowsy little Mexican trading-post, a huddle of adobe huts and sheds where American ships collected hides--vividly described in Two Years Before the Mast--or a whaler called for wood and water. During the year preceding the frenzied migration of the modern Argonauts, only two merchant ships, one bark and one brig, sailed in through the Golden Gate. In the twelve months following, 775 vessels cleared from Atlantic ports for San Francisco, besides the rush from other countries, and nearly fifty thousand passengers scrambled ashore to dig for gold. Crews deserted their ships, leaving them unable to go to sea again for lack of men, and in consequence a hundred of them were used as storehouses, hotels, and hospitals, or else rotted at their moorings. Sailors by hundreds jumped from the forecastle without waiting to stow the sails or receive their wages. Though offered as much as two hundred dollars a month to sign again, they jeered at the notion. Of this great fleet at San Francisco in 1849, it was a lucky ship that ever left the harbor again.
It seemed as if the whole world were bound to California and almost overnight there was created the wildest, most extravagant demand for transportation known to history. A clipper costing $70,000 could pay for herself in one voyage, with freights at sixty dollars a ton. This gold stampede might last but a little while. To take instant advantage of it was the thing. The fastest ships, and as many of them as could be built, would skim the cream of it. This explains the brief and illustrious era of the California clipper, one hundred and sixty of which were launched from 1850 to 1854. The shipyards of New York and Boston were crowded with them, and they graced the keel blocks of the historic old ports of New England--Medford, Mystic, Newburyport, Portsmouth, Portland, Rockland, and Bath--wherever the timber and the shipwrights could be assembled.
Until that time there had been few ships afloat as large as a thousand tons. These were of a new type, rapidly increased to fifteen hundred, two thousand tons, and over. They presented new and difficult problems in spars and rigging able to withstand the strain of immense areas of canvas which climbed two hundred feet to the skysail pole and which, with lower studdingsails set, spread one hundred and sixty feet from boom-end to boom-end. There had to be the strength to battle with the furious tempests of Cape Horn and at the same time the driving power to sweep before the sweet and steadfast tradewinds. Such a queenly clipper was the Flying Cloud, the achievement of that master builder, Donald McKay, which sailed from New York to San Francisco in eighty-nine days, with Captain Josiah Creesy in command. This record was never lowered and was equaled only twice--by the Flying Cloud herself and by the Andrew Jackson nine years later. It was during this memorable voyage that the Flying Cloud sailed 1256 miles in four days while steering to the northward under topgallantsails after rounding Cape Horn. This was a rate of speed which, if sustained, would have carried her from New York to Queenstown in eight days and seventeen hours. This speedy passage was made in 1851, and only two years earlier the record for the same voyage of fifteen thousand miles had been one hundred and twenty days, by the clipper Memnon.
Donald McKay now resolved to build a ship larger and faster than the Flying Cloud, and his genius neared perfection in the Sovereign of the Seas, of 2421 tons register, which exceeded in size all merchant vessels afloat. This Titan of the clipper fleet was commanded by Donald’s brother, Captain Lauchlan McKay, with a crew of one hundred and five men and boys. During her only voyage to San Francisco she was partly dismasted, but Lauchlan McKay rigged her anew at sea in fourteen days and still made port in one hundred and three days, a record for the season of the year.
It was while running home from Honolulu in 1853 that the Sovereign of the Seas realized the hopes of her builder. In eleven days she sailed 3562 miles, with four days logged for a total of 1478 knots. Making allowance for the longitudes and difference in time, this was an average daily run of 378 sea miles or 435 land miles. Using the same comparison, the distance from Sandy Hook to Queenstown would have been covered in seven days and nine hours. Figures are arid reading, perhaps, but these are wet by the spray and swept by the salt winds of romance. During one of these four days the Sovereign of the Seas reeled off 424 nautical miles, during which her average speed was seventeen and two-thirds knots and at times reached nineteen and twenty. The only sailing ship which ever exceeded this day’s work was the Lightning, built later by the same Donald McKay, which ran 436 knots in the Atlantic passage already referred to. The Sovereign of the Seas could also boast of a sensational feat upon the Western Ocean, for between New York and Liverpool she outsailed the Cunard liner Canada by 325 miles in five days.
It is curiously interesting to notice that the California clipper era is almost generally ignored by the foremost English writers of maritime history. For one thing, it was a trade in which their own ships were not directly concerned, and partizan bias is apt to color the views of the best of us when national prestige is involved. American historians themselves have dispensed with many unpleasant facts when engaged with the War of 1812. With regard to the speed of clipper ships, however, involving a rivalry far more thrilling and important than all the races ever sailed for the America’s cup, the evidence is available in concrete form.
Lindsay’s “History of Merchant Shipping” is the most elaborate English work of the kind. Heavily ballasted with facts and rather dull reading for the most part, it kindles with enthusiasm when eulogizing the Thermopylae and the Sir Launcelot, composite clippers of wood and iron, afloat in 1870, which it declares to be “the fastest sailing ships that ever traversed the ocean." This fairly presents the issue which a true-blooded Yankee has no right to evade. The greatest distance sailed by the Sir Launcelot in twenty-four hours between China and London was 354 knots, compared with the 424 miles of the Sovereign of the Seas and the 436 miles of the Lightning. Her best sustained run was one of seven days for an average of a trifle more than 300 miles a day. Against this is to be recorded the performance of the Sovereign of the Seas, 3562 miles in eleven days, at the rate of 324 miles every twenty-four hours, and her wonderful four-day run of 1478 miles, an average of 378 miles.
The Thermopylae achieved her reputation in a passage of sixty-three days from London to Melbourne--a record which was never beaten. Her fastest day’s sailing was 330 miles, or not quite sixteen knots an hour. In six days she traversed 1748 miles, an average of 291 miles a day. In this Australian trade the American clippers made little effort to compete. Those engaged in it were mostly built for English owners and sailed by British skippers, who could not reasonably be expected to get the most out of these loftily sparred Yankee ships, which were much larger than their own vessels of the same type. The Lightning showed what she could do from Melbourne to Liverpool by making the passage in sixty-three’ days, with 3722 miles in ten consecutive days and one day’s sprint of 412 miles.
In the China tea trade the Thermopylae drove home from Foo-chow in ninety-one days, which was equaled by the Sir Launcelot. The American Witch of the Wave had a ninety-day voyage to her credit, and the Comet ran from Liverpool to Shanghai in eighty-four days. Luck was a larger factor on this route than in the California or Australian trade because of the fitful uncertainty of the monsoons, and as a test of speed it was rather unsatisfactory. In a very fair-minded and expert summary, Captain Arthur H. Clark,* in his youth an officer on Yankee clippers, has discussed this question of rival speed and power under sail--a question which still absorbs those who love the sea. His conclusion is that in ordinary weather at sea, when great power to carry sail was not required, the British tea clippers were extremely fast vessels, chiefly on account of their narrow beam. Under these conditions they were perhaps as fast as the American clippers of the same class, such as the Sea Witch, White Squall, Northern Light, and Sword-Fish. But if speed is to be reckoned by the maximum performance of a ship under the most favorable conditions, then the British tea clippers were certainly no match for the larger American ships such as the Flying Cloud, Sovereign of the Seas, Hurricane, Trade Wind, Typhoon, Flying Fish, Challenge, and Red Jacket. The greater breadth of the American ships in proportion to their length meant power to carry canvas and increased buoyancy which enabled them, with their sharper ends, to be driven in strong gales and heavy seas at much greater speed than the British clippers. The latter were seldom of more than one thousand tons’ register and combined in a superlative degree the good qualities of merchant ships.
* “The Clipper Ship Era.” N.Y., 1910.
It was the California trade, brief and crowded and fevered, which saw the roaring days of the Yankee clipper and which was familiar with racing surpassing in thrill and intensity that of the packet ships of the Western Ocean. In 1851, for instance, the Raven, Sea Witch, and Typhoon sailed for San Francisco within the same week. They crossed the Equator a day apart and stood away to the southward for three thousand miles of the southeast trades and the piping westerly winds which prevailed farther south. At fifty degrees south latitude the Raven and the Sea Witch were abeam of each other with the Typhoon only two days astern.
Now they stripped for the tussle to windward around Cape Horn, sending down studdingsail booms and skysail yards, making all secure with extra lashings, plunging into the incessant head seas of the desolate ocean, fighting it out tack for tack, reefing topsails and shaking them out again, the vigilant commanders going below only to change their clothes, the exhausted seamen stubbornly, heroically handling with frozen, bleeding fingers the icy sheets and canvas. A fortnight of this inferno and the Sea Witch and the Raven gained the Pacific, still within sight of each other, and the Typhoon only one day behind. Then they swept northward, blown by the booming tradewinds, spreading studdingsails, skysails, and above them, like mere handkerchiefs, the water-sails and ring-tails. Again the three clippers crossed the Equator. Close-hauled on the starboard tack, their bowsprits were pointed for the last stage of the journey to the Golden Gate. The Typhoon now overhauled her rivals and was the first to signal her arrival, but the victory was earned by the Raven, which had set her departure from Boston Light while the others had sailed from New York. The Typhoon and the Raven were only a day apart, with the Sea Witch five days behind the leader.
Clipper ship crews included men of many nations. In the average forecastle there would be two or three Americans, a majority of English and Norwegians, and perhaps a few Portuguese and Italians. The hardiest seamen, and the most unmanageable, were the Liverpool packet rats who were lured from their accustomed haunts to join the clippers by the magical call of the gold-diggings. There were not enough deep-water sailors to man half the ships that were built in these few years, and the crimps and boarding-house runners decoyed or flung aboard on sailing day as many men as were demanded, and any drunken, broken landlubber was good enough to be shipped as an able seaman. They were things of rags and tatters--their only luggage a bottle of whiskey.
The mates were thankful if they could muster enough real sailors to work the ship to sea and then began the stern process of whipping the wastrels and incompetents into shape for the perils and emergencies of the long voyage. That these great clippers were brought safely to port is a shining tribute to the masterful skill of their officers. While many of them were humane and just, with all their severity, the stories of savage abuse which are told of some are shocking in the extreme. The defense was that it was either mutiny or club the men under. Better treatment might have persuaded better men to sail. Certain it is that life in the forecastle of a clipper was even more intolerable to the self-respecting American youth than it had previously been aboard the Atlantic packet.
When Captain Bob Waterman arrived at San Francisco in the Challenge clipper in 1851, a mob tried very earnestly to find and hang him and his officers because of the harrowing stories told by his sailors. That he had shot several of them from the yards with his pistol to make the others move faster was one count in the indictment. For his part, Captain Waterman asserted that a more desperate crew of ruffians had never sailed out of New York and that only two of them were Americans. They were mutinous from the start, half of them blacklegs of the vilest type who swore to get the upper hand of him. His mates, boatswain, and carpenter had broken open their chests and boxes and had removed a collection of slung-shots, knuckle-dusters, bowie-knives, and pistols. Off Rio Janeiro they had tried to kill the chief mate, and Captain Waterman had been compelled to jump in and stretch two of them dead with an iron belaying-pin. Off Cape Horn three sailors fell from aloft and were lost. This accounted for the casualties.
The truth of such episodes as these was difficult to fathom. Captain Waterman demanded a legal investigation, but nothing came of his request and he was commended by his owners for his skill and courage in bringing the ship to port without losing a spar or a sail. It was a skipper of this old school who blandly maintained the doctrine that if you wanted the men to love you, you must starve them and knock them down. The fact is proven by scores of cases that the discipline of the American clipper was both famously efficient and notoriously cruel. It was not until long after American sailors had ceased to exist that adequate legislation was enacted to provide that they should be treated as human beings afloat and ashore. Other days and other customs! It is perhaps unkind to judge these vanished master-mariners too harshly, for we cannot comprehend the crises which continually beset them in their command.
No more extreme clipper ships were built after 1854. The California frenzy had subsided and speed in carrying merchandise was no longer so essential; besides, the passenger traffic was seeking the Isthmian route. What were called medium clippers enjoyed a profitable trade for many years later, and one of them, the Andrew Jackson, was never outsailed for the record from New York to San Francisco. This splendid type of ship was to be found on every sea, for the United States was still a commanding factor in the maritime activities of South America, India, China, Europe, and Australia. In 1851 its merchant tonnage rivaled that of England and was everywhere competing with it.
The effects of the financial panic of 1857 and the aftermath of business depression were particularly disastrous to American ships. Freights were so low as to yield no profit, and the finest clippers went begging for charters. The yards ceased to launch new tonnage. British builders had made such rapid progress in design and construction that the days of Yankee preference in the China trade had passed. The Stars and Stripes floated over ships waiting idle in Manila Bay, at Shanghai, Hong-Kong, and Calcutta. The tide of commerce had slackened abroad as well as at home and the surplus of deep-water tonnage was world-wide.
In earlier generations afloat, the American spirit had displayed amazing recuperative powers. The havoc of the Revolution had been unable to check it, and its vigor and aggressive enterprise had never been more notable than after the blows dealt by the Embargo, the French Spoliations, and the War of 1812. The conditions of trade and the temper of the people were now so changed that this mighty industry, aforetime so robust and resilient, was unable to recover from such shocks as the panic of 1857 and the Civil War. Yet it had previously survived and triumphed over calamities far more severe. The destruction wrought by Confederate cruisers was trifling compared with the work of the British and French privateers when the nation was very small and weak.
The American spirit had ceased to concern itself with the sea as the vital and dominant element. The footsteps of the young men no longer turned toward the wharf and the waterside and the tiers of tall ships outward bound. They were aspiring to conquer an inland empire of prairie and mountain and desert, impelled by the same pioneering and adventurous ardor which had burned in their seafaring sires. Steam had vanquished sail--an epochal event in a thousand years of maritime history--but the nation did not care enough to accept this situation as a new challenge or to continue the ancient struggle for supremacy upon the sea. England did care, because it was life or death to the little, sea-girt island, but as soon as the United States ceased to be a strip of Atlantic seaboard and the panorama, of a continent was unrolled to settlement, it was foreordained that the maritime habit of thought and action should lose its virility in America. All great seafaring races, English, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Dutch, have taken to salt water because there was lack of space, food, or work ashore, and their strong young men craved opportunities. Like the Pilgrim Fathers and their fishing shallops they had nowhere else to go.
When the Flying Cloud and the clippers of her kind--taut, serene, immaculate--were sailing through the lonely spaces of the South Atlantic and the Pacific, they sighted now and then the stumpy, slatternly rig and greasy hull of a New Bedford whaler, perhaps rolling to the weight of a huge carcass alongside. With a poor opinion of the seamanship of these wandering barks, the clipper crews rolled out, among their favorite chanteys:
Oh, poor Reuben Ranzo, Ranzo, boys, O Ranzo, Oh, Ranzo was no sailor, So they shipped him aboard a whaler, Ranzo, boys, O Ranzo.
This was crass, intolerant prejudice. The whaling ship was careless of appearances, it is true, and had the air of an ocean vagabond; but there were other duties more important than holystoning decks, scraping spars, and trimming the yards to a hair. On a voyage of two or three years, moreover, there was always plenty of time tomorrow. Brave and resourceful seamen were these New England adventurers and deep-sea hunters who made nautical history after their own fashion. They flourished coeval with the merchant marine in its prime, and they passed from the sea at about the same time and for similar reasons. Modernity dispensed with their services, and young men found elsewhere more profitable and easier employment.
The great days of Nantucket as a whaling port were passed before the Revolution wiped out her ships and killed or scattered her sailors. It was later discovered that larger ships were more economical, and Nantucket harbor bar was too shoal to admit their passage. For this reason New Bedford became the scene of the foremost activity, and Nantucket thereafter played a minor part, although her barks went cruising on to the end of the chapter and her old whaling families were true to strain. As explorers the whalemen rambled into every nook and corner of the Pacific before merchant vessels had found their way thither. They discovered uncharted islands and cheerfully fought savages or suffered direful shipwreck. The chase led them into Arctic regions where their stout barks were nipped like eggshells among the grinding floes, or else far to the southward where they broiled in tropic calms. The New Bedford lad was as keen to go a-whaling as was his counterpart in Boston or New York to be the dandy mate of a California clipper, and true was the song:
I asked a maiden by my side, Who sighed and looked to me forlorn, “Where is your heart?” She quick replied, “Round Cape Horn.”
Yankee whaling reached its high tide in 1857 when the New Bedford fleet alone numbered 329 sail and those owned in other ports of Buzzard’s Bay swelled the total to 426 vessels, besides thirty more hailing from New London and Sag Harbor. In this year the value of the catch was more than ten million dollars. The old custom of sailing on shares or “lays” instead of wages was never changed. It was win or lose for all hands--now a handsome fortune or again an empty hold and pockets likewise. There was Captain W.T. Walker of New Bedford who, in 1847, bought for a song a ship so old that she was about to be broken up for junk and no insurance broker would look at her. In this rotten relic he shipped a crew and went sailing in the Pacific. Miraculously keeping afloat, this Envoy of his was filled to the hatches with oil and bones, twice running, before she returned to her home port; and she earned $138,450 on a total investment of eight thousand dollars.
The ship Sarah of Nantucket, after a three years’ cruise, brought back 3497 barrels of sperm oil which sold for $89,000, and the William Hamilton of New Bedford set another high mark by stowing 4181 barrels of a value of $109,269. The Pioneer of New London, Captain Ebenezer Morgan, was away only a year and stocked a cargo of oil and whalebone which sold for $150,060. Most of the profits of prosperous voyages were taken as the owners’ share, and the incomes of the captain and crew were so niggardly as to make one wonder why they persisted in a calling so perilous, arduous, and poorly paid. During the best years of whaling, when the ships were averaging $16,000 for a voyage, the master received an eighteenth, or about nine hundred dollars a year. The highly skilled hands, such as the boat-steerers and harpooners, had a lay of only one seventy-fifth, or perhaps a little more than two hundred dollars cash as the reward of a voyage which netted the owner at least fifty per cent on his investment. Occasionally they fared better than this and sometimes worse. The answer to the riddle is that they liked the life and had always the gambling spirit which hopes for a lucky turn of the cards.
The countless episodes of fragile boats smashed to kindling by fighting whales, of the attack renewed with harpoon and lance, of ships actually rammed and sunk, would fill a volume by themselves and have been stirringly narrated in many a one. Zanzibar and Kamchatka, Tasmania and the Seychelles knew the lean, sun-dried Yankee whaleman and his motto of a “dead whale or a stove boat." The Civil War did not drive him from the seas. The curious fact is that his products commanded higher prices in 1907 than fifty years before, but the number of his ships rapidly decreased. Whales were becoming scarce, and New England capital preferred other forms of investment. The leisurely old sailing craft was succeeded by the steam whaler, and the explosive bomb slew, instead of the harpoon and lance hurled by the sinewy right arm of a New Bedford man or Cape Verde islander.
Roving whaler and armed East Indiaman, plunging packet ship and stately clipper, they served their appointed days and passed on their several courses to become mere memories, as shadowy and unsubstantial as the gleam of their own topsails when seen at twilight. The souls of their sailors have fled to Fiddler’s Green, where all dead mariners go. They were of the old merchant marine which contributed something fine and imperishable to the story of the United States. Down the wind, vibrant and deep-throated, comes their own refrain for a requiem:
We’re outward bound this very day, Good-bye, fare you well, Good-bye, fare you well. We’re outward bound this very day, Hurrah, my boys, we’re outward bound.