The Old Merchant Marine
by Ralph D. Paine
Public Domain Books
Chapter I. Colonial Adventurers in Little Ships
The story of American ships and sailors is an epic of blue water which seems singularly remote, almost unreal, to the later generations. A people with a native genius for seafaring won and held a brilliant supremacy through two centuries and then forsook this heritage of theirs. The period of achievement was no more extraordinary than was its swift declension. A maritime race whose topsails flecked every ocean, whose captains courageous from father to son had fought with pike and cannonade to defend the freedom of the seas, turned inland to seek a different destiny and took no more thought for the tall ships and rich cargoes which had earned so much renown for its flag.
Vanished fleets and brave memories--a chronicle of America which had written its closing chapters before the Civil War! There will be other Yankee merchantmen in times to come, but never days like those when skippers sailed on seas uncharted in quest of ports mysterious and unknown.
The Pilgrim Fathers, driven to the northward of their intended destination in Virginia, landed on the shore of Cape Cod not so much to clear the forest and till the soil as to establish a fishing settlement. Like the other Englishmen who long before 1620 had steered across to harvest the cod on the Grand Bank, they expected to wrest a livelihood mostly from salt water. The convincing argument in favor of Plymouth was that it offered a good harbor for boats and was “a place of profitable fishing." Both pious and amphibious were these pioneers whom the wilderness and the red Indian confined to the water’s edge, where they were soon building ships to trade corn for beaver skins with the Kennebec colony.
Even more energetic in taking profit from the sea were the Puritans who came to Massachusetts Bay in 1629, bringing carpenters and shipbuilders with them to hew the pine and oak so close at hand into keelsons, frames, and planking. Two years later, Governor John Winthrop launched his thirty-ton sloop Blessing of the Bay, and sent her to open “friendly commercial relations” with the Dutch of Manhattan. Brisk though the traffic was in furs and wampum, these mariners of Boston and Salem were not content to voyage coastwise. Offshore fishing made skilled, adventurous seamen of them, and what they caught with hook and line, when dried and salted, was readily exchanged for other merchandise in Bermuda, Barbados, and Europe.
A vessel was a community venture, and the custom still survives in the ancient ports of the Maine coast where the shapely wooden schooners are fashioned. The blacksmith, the rigger, the calker, took their pay in shares. They became part owners, as did likewise the merchant who supplied stores and material; and when the ship was afloat, the master, the mates, and even the seamen, were allowed cargo space for commodities which they might buy and sell to their own advantage. Thus early they learned to trade as shrewdly as they navigated, and every voyage directly concerned a whole neighborhood.
This kind of enterprise was peculiar to New England because other resources were lacking. To the westward the French were more interested in exploring the rivers leading to the region of the Great Lakes and in finding fabulous rewards in furs. The Dutch on the Hudson were similarly engaged by means of the western trails to the country of the Iroquois, while the planters of Virginia had discovered an easy opulence in the tobacco crop, with slave labor to toil for them, and they were not compelled to turn to the hardships and the hazards of the sea. The New Englander, hampered by an unfriendly climate, hard put to it to grow sufficient food, with land immensely difficult to clear, was between the devil and the deep sea, and he sagaciously chose the latter. Elsewhere in the colonies the forest was an enemy to be destroyed with infinite pains. The New England pioneer regarded it with favor as the stuff with which to make stout ships and step the straight masts in them.
And so it befell that the seventeenth century had not run its course before New England was hardily afloat on every Atlantic trade route, causing Sir Josiah Child, British merchant and economist, to lament in 1668 that in his opinion nothing was “more prejudicial and in prospect more dangerous to any mother kingdom than the increase of shipping in her colonies, plantations, or provinces.”
This absorbing business of building wooden vessels was scattered in almost every bay and river of the indented coast from Nova Scotia to Buzzard’s Bay and the sheltered waters of Long Island Sound. It was not restricted, as now, to well-equipped yards with crews of trained artisans. Hard by the huddled hamlet of log houses was the row of keel-blocks sloping to the tide. In winter weather too rough for fishing, when the little farms lay idle, this Yankee Jack-of-all-trades plied his axe and adze to shape the timbers, and it was a routine task to peg together a sloop, a ketch, or a brig, mere cockleshells, in which to fare forth to London, or Cadiz, or the Windward Islands--some of them not much larger and far less seaworthy than the lifeboat which hangs at a liner’s davits. Pinching poverty forced him to dispense with the ornate, top-heavy cabins and forecastles of the foreign merchantmen, while invention, bred of necessity, molded finer lines and less clumsy models to weather the risks of a stormy coast and channels beset with shoals and ledges. The square-rig did well enough for deepwater voyages, but it was an awkward, lubberly contrivance for working along shore, and the colonial Yankee therefore evolved the schooner with her flat fore-and-aft sails which enabled her to beat to windward and which required fewer men in the handling.
Dimly but unmistakably these canny seafarers in their rude beginnings foreshadowed the creation of a merchant marine which should one day comprise the noblest, swiftest ships driven by the wind and the finest sailors that ever trod a deck. Even then these early vessels were conspicuously efficient, carrying smaller crews than the Dutch or English, paring expenses to a closer margin, daring to go wherever commerce beckoned in order to gain a dollar at peril of their skins.
By the end of the seventeenth century more than a thousand vessels were registered as built in the New England colonies, and Salem already displayed the peculiar talent for maritime adventure which was to make her the most illustrious port of the New World. The first of her line of shipping merchants was Philip English, who was sailing his own ketch Speedwell in 1676 and so rapidly advanced his fortunes that in a few years he was the richest man on the coast, with twenty-one vessels which traded coastwise with Virginia and offshore with Bilbao, Barbados, St. Christopher’s, and France. Very devout were his bills of lading, flavored in this manner: “Twenty hogsheads of salt, shipped by the Grace of God in the good sloop called the Mayflower . . . . and by God’s Grace bound to Virginia or Merriland.”
No less devout were the merchants who ordered their skippers to cross to the coast of Guinea and fill the hold with negroes to be sold in the West Indies before returning with sugar and molasses to Boston or Rhode Island. The slave-trade flourished from the very birth of commerce in Puritan New England and its golden gains and exotic voyages allured high-hearted lads from farm and counter. In 1640 the ship Desire, built at Marblehead, returned from the West Indies and “brought some cotton and tobacco and negroes, etc. from thence.” Earlier than this the Dutch of Manhattan had employed black labor, and it was provided that the Incorporated West India Company should “allot to each Patroon twelve black men and women out of the Prizes in which Negroes should be found.”
It was in the South, however, that this kind of labor was most needed and, as the trade increased, Virginia and the Carolinas became the most lucrative markets. Newport and Bristol drove a roaring traffic in “rum and niggers,” with a hundred sail to be found in the infamous Middle Passage. The master of one of these Rhode Island slavers, writing home from Guinea in 1736, portrayed the congestion of the trade in this wise: “For never was there so much Rum on the Coast at one time before. Not ye like of ye French ships was never seen before, for ye whole coast is full of them. For my part I can give no guess when I shall get away, for I purchast but 27 slaves since I have been here, for slaves is very scarce. We have had nineteen Sail of us at one time in ye Road, so that ships that used to carry pryme slaves off is now forced to take any that comes. Here is seven sail of us Rum men that are ready to devour one another, for our case is desprit.”
Two hundred years of wickedness unspeakable and human torture beyond all computation, justified by Christian men and sanctioned by governments, at length rending the nation asunder in civil war and bequeathing a problem still unsolved--all this followed in the wake of those first voyages in search of labor which could be bought and sold as merchandise. It belonged to the dark ages with piracy and witchcraft, better forgotten than recalled, save for its potent influence in schooling brave seamen and building faster ships for peace and war.
These colonial seamen, in truth, fought for survival amid dangers so manifold as to make their hardihood astounding. It was not merely a matter of small vessels with a few men and boys daring distant voyages and the mischances of foundering or stranding, but of facing an incessant plague of privateers, French and Spanish, Dutch and English, or a swarm of freebooters under no flag at all. Coasts were unlighted, charts few and unreliable, and the instruments of navigation almost as crude as in the days of Columbus. Even the savage Indian, not content with lurking in ambush, went afloat to wreak mischief, and the records of the First Church of Salem contain this quaint entry under date of July 25, 1677: “The Lord having given a Commission to the Indians to take no less than 13 of the Fishing Ketches of Salem and Captivate the men . . . it struck a great consternation into all the people here. The Pastor moved on the Lord’s Day, and the whole people readily consented, to keep the Lecture Day following as a Fast Day, which was accordingly done . . . . The Lord was pleased to send in some of the Ketches on the Fast Day which was looked on as a gracious smile of Providence. Also there had been 19 wounded men sent into Salem a little while before; also a Ketch sent out from Salem as a man-of-war to recover the rest of the Ketches. The Lord give them Good Success.”
To encounter a pirate craft was an episode almost commonplace and often more sordid than picturesque. Many of these sea rogues were thieves with small stomach for cutlasses and slaughter. They were of the sort that overtook Captain John Shattuck sailing home from Jamaica in 1718 when he reported his capture by one Captain Charles Vain, “a Pyrat” of 12 guns and 120 men who took him to Crooked Island, plundered him of various articles, stripped the brig, abused the crew, and finally let him go. In the same year the seamen of the Hopewell related that near Hispaniola they met with pirates who robbed and ill-treated them and carried off their mate because they had no navigator.
Ned Low, a gentleman rover of considerable notoriety, stooped to filch the stores and gear from a fleet of fourteen poor fishermen of Cape Sable. He had a sense of dramatic values, however, and frequently brandished his pistols on deck, besides which, as set down by one of his prisoners, “he had a young child in Boston for whom he entertained such tenderness that on every lucid interval from drinking and revelling, I have seen him sit down and weep plentifully.”
A more satisfying figure was Thomas Pounds, who was taken by the sloop Mary, sent after him from Boston in 1689. He was discovered in Vineyard Sound, and the two vessels fought a gallant action, the pirate flying a red flag and refusing to strike. Captain Samuel Pease of the Mary was mortally wounded, while Pounds, this proper pirate, strode his quarter-deck and waved his naked sword, crying, “Come on board, ye dogs, and I will strike YOU presently.” This invitation was promptly accepted by the stout seamen from Boston, who thereupon swarmed over the bulwark and drove all hands below, preserving Thomas Pounds to be hanged in public.
In 1703 John Quelch, a man of resource, hoisted what he called “Old Roger” over the Charles--a brigantine which had been equipped as a privateer to cruise against the French of Acadia. This curious flag of his was described as displaying a skeleton with an hour-glass in one hand and “a dart in the heart with three drops of blood proceeding from it in the other.” Quelch led a mutiny, tossed the skipper overboard, and sailed for Brazil, capturing several merchantmen on the way and looting them of rum, silks, sugar, gold dust, and munitions. Rashly he came sailing back to Marblehead, primed with a plausible yarn, but his men talked too much when drunk and all hands were jailed. Upon the gallows Quelch behaved exceedingly well, “pulling off his hat and bowing to the spectators,” while the somber Puritan merchants in the crowd were, many of them, quietly dealing in the merchandise fetched home by pirates who were lucky enough to steer clear of the law.
This was a shady industry in which New York took the more active part, sending out supplies to the horde of pirates who ravaged the waters of the Far East and made their haven at Madagascar, and disposing of the booty received in exchange. Governor Fletcher had dirtied his hands by protecting this commerce and, as a result, Lord Bellomont was named to succeed him. Said William III, “I send you, my Lord, to New York, because an honest and intrepid man is wanted to put these abuses down, and because I believe you to be such a man.”
Such were the circumstances in which Captain William Kidd, respectable master mariner in the merchant service, was employed by Lord Bellomont, royal Governor of New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, to command an armed ship and harry the pirates of the West Indies and Madagascar. Strangest of all the sea tales of colonial history is that of Captain Kidd and his cruise in the Adventure-Galley. His name is reddened with crimes never committed, his grisly phantom has stalked through the legends and literature of piracy, and the Kidd tradition still has magic to set treasure-seekers exploring almost every beach, cove, and headland from Halifax to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet if truth were told, he never cut a throat or made a victim walk the plank. He was tried and hanged for the trivial offense of breaking the head of a mutinous gunner of his own crew with a wooden bucket. It was even a matter of grave legal doubt whether he had committed one single piratical act. His trial in London was a farce. In the case of the captured ships he alleged that they were sailing under French passes, and he protested that his privateering commission justified him, and this contention was not disproven. The suspicion is not wanting that he was condemned as a scapegoat because certain noblemen of England had subscribed the capital to outfit his cruise, expecting to win rich dividends in gold captured from the pirates he was sent to attack. Against these men a political outcry was raised, and as a result Captain Kidd was sacrificed. He was a seaman who had earned honorable distinction in earlier years, and fate has played his memory a shabby trick.
It was otherwise with Blackbeard, most flamboyant of all colonial pirates, who filled the stage with swaggering success, chewing wine-glasses in his cabin, burning sulphur to make his ship seem more like hell, and industriously scourging the whole Atlantic coast. Charleston lived in terror of him until Lieutenant Maynard, in a small sloop, laid him alongside in a hammer-and-tongs engagement and cut off the head of Blackbeard to dangle from the bowsprit as a trophy.
Of this rudely adventurous era, it would be hard to find a seaman more typical than the redoubtable Sir William Phips who became the first royal Governor of the Massachusetts Colony in 1692. Born on a frontier farm of the Maine coast while many of the Pilgrim fathers were living, “his faithful mother,” wrote Cotton Mather, “had no less than twenty-six children, whereof twenty-one were sons; but equivalent to them all was William, one of the youngest, whom, his father dying, was left young with his mother, and with her he lived, keeping ye sheep in Ye Wilderness until he was eighteen years old.” Then he apprenticed himself to a neighboring shipwright who was building sloops and pinnaces and, having learned the trade, set out for Boston. As a ship-carpenter he plied his trade, spent his wages in the taverns of the waterside and there picked up wondrous yarns of the silver-laden galleons of Spain which had shivered their timbers on the reefs of the Bahama Passage or gone down in the hurricanes that beset those southerly seas. Meantime he had married a wealthy widow whose property enabled him to go treasure-hunting on the Spanish main. From his first voyage thither in a small vessel he escaped with his life and barely enough treasure to pay the cost of the expedition.
In no wise daunted he laid his plans to search for a richly ladened galleon which was said to have been wrecked half a century before off the coast of Hispaniola. Since his own funds were not sufficient for this exploit, he betook himself to England to enlist the aid of the Government. With bulldog persistence he besieged the court of James II for a whole year, this rough-and-ready New England shipmaster, until he was given a royal frigate for his purpose. He failed to fish up more silver from the sands but, nothing daunted, he persuaded other patrons to outfit him with a small merchantman, the James and Mary, in which he sailed for the coast of Hispaniola. This time he found his galleon and thirty-two tons of silver. “Besides that incredible treasure of plate, thus fetched up from seven or eight fathoms under water, there were vast riches of Gold, and Pearls, and Jewels . . . . All that a Spanish frigot was to be enriched withal.”
Up the Thames sailed the lucky little merchantman in the year of 1687, with three hundred thousand pounds sterling as her freightage of treasure. Captain Phips made honest division with his backers and, because men of his integrity were not over plentiful in England after the Restoration, King James knighted him. He sailed home to Boston, “a man of strong and sturdy frame,” as Hawthorne fancied him, “whose face had been roughened by northern tempests and blackened by the burning sun of the West Indies . . . . He wears an immense periwig flowing down over his shoulders . . . . His red, rough hands which have done many a good day’s work with the hammer and adze are half-covered by the delicate lace rues at the wrist.” But he carried with him the manners of the forecastle, a man hasty and unlettered but superbly brave and honest. Even after he had become Governor he thrashed the captain of the Nonesuch frigate of the royal navy, and used his fists on the Collector of the Port after cursing him with tremendous gusto. Such behavior in a Governor was too strenuous, and Sir William Phips was summoned to England, where he died while waiting his restoration to office and royal favor. Failing both, he dreamed of still another treasure voyage, “for it was his purpose, upon his dismission from his Government once more to have gone upon his old Fishing-Trade, upon a mighty shelf of rock and banks of sand that lie where he had informed himself.”