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Pioneers At Sea

July 2024
4min read

The story of America, we frequently remind ourselves, is the story of the conquest of a continent. It begins at Jamestown, at Plymouth, or wherever one chooses, and goes through forests, mountains, and prairies all the way to the sunset; and it shows a restless, acquisitive, and usually indomitable breed of men converting an immense stretch of land to the uses of a large, energetic, and intricately organized society. The pioneer of course is the hero, complete with such artifacts as the axe, the long rifle, and the covered wagon, going west with prodigious strides, followed presently by the promoter, the sturdy artisan, and the far-seeing man of business. It is a fabulous story, and we could recite it in our sleep.

What we sometimes overlook is the fact that before the pioneer could conquer this continent, he first had to cross the ocean. After he had crossed it and settled down to his wilderness-taming, he had to get supplies from the old country, find markets there for the products he was wresting from the new land, make money enough to finance further pioneering, and arrange for a sea-borne transportation system that would intimately link this new country with the larger, older, and wealthier countries beyond the seas. He had to conquer the oceans, in other words, as well as the land, and his salt-water pioneering was as important as anything he did ashore. Along with his seven-league boots he had to have webfeet.

This restatement of the obvious is evoked by Carl C. Cutler’s excellent new book, Queens of the Western Ocean , which shows how an important part of that deep-sea pioneering was accomplished and what it meant to America.

Mr. Cutler addresses himself chiefly to one aspect: the establishment of regular, scheduled lines of sailing vessels connecting the eastern seaports with England and Europe, and the simultaneous creation of scheduled lines running along the American coast, all the way from New England to Louisiana. Here, he remarks, was one of the most significant chapters in American history. It was a short chapter, running through forty-odd years up to 1860; after that the nation focused its attention on shoreside matters and let someone else do its sea-borne carrying. But while it lasted it represented the extension of a discovery made early in the game—that the colonies, like the young republic which grew out of them, had to build and control their own merchant marine if they were going to prosper.

The going was tough. In the colonial period there were restrictive laws designed to keep colonial trade in the hands of British shippers. There were extensive wars, during which naval cruisers and privateers harried the sea lanes; and at all times American vessels had to compete with bigger, richer, better-established shipping firms overseas. As a result—whether he was dodging the king’s revenue cutters, getting away from sea raiders, or simply trying to beat his rival into the market—the American sailor had to have a fast ship. The design had to be good, and the seamanship had to be superb. Right from the beginning, the American merchant mariner learned to put a high value on a speedy passage.

It paid off. The growing merchant fleet, made up for the most part of small vesssels but handled by canny traders with the acutest competitive instincts, found markets for American exports, and—Mr. Cutler insists—actually served to finance a good part of the development of the new nation. By the time the War of 1812 was out of the way and the world at last was at peace, America was ready for deep-sea trade on a large scale. The nation had a big surplus of exportable surpluses, and Europe had war-emptied warehouses waiting to receive them. Also, there were increasing numbers of immigrants eager to take ship for the United States.

There were boom times for a couple of years, then there was a recession. The surpluses had been exported, Europe’s most pressing needs had been met, and during the boom the merchant fleet had been overbuilt. By 1817 the trader had to scratch for what he could get. It was time for really sharp competition.

Out of this came the packet lines. The first of these, the famous Black Ball line of sailing ships between New York and Liverpool, was based on the idea that it would pay to compete for the high-priced trade-passengers, and package merchandise. The competition would be based on something new under the sun: ships that would sail on regular, established dates, whether or not they had filled their holds.

It sounds simple now: that is the way all ships go. But nobody had ever done it before. A ship would be posted to go from New York to Liverpool, and it would lie at its wharf, week after week, passengers fretting unavailingly, until at last it had a cargo, and then it would leave. Here, for the first time, was a fixed schedule. A traveler could say, “I am going to leave next Friday,” and next Friday he would leave, no matter how slowly his ship might go. It was revolutionary … and, after a few hard years, it paid.

Queens of the Western Ocean , by Carl C. Cutler, with a foreword by Chester W. Nimitz. United States Naval Institute. 672 pp. $12.50.

It paid so well that many other lines followed, giving birth to the expression, “ocean liner.” There were regular schedules everywhere—from American ports to England and Europe, and from one American port to another American port; ships were made larger and faster, they were driven harder and harder, and a successful packet captain was a public figure of renown. The passenger had a chance—for the first time—to travel in something like comfort. Staterooms previously had been pigeonholes, five feet high and six by six; now they had modern dimensions and livability, and their occupants were not compelled to have a Spartan attitude toward life.

This coincided with the period of America’s great growth and development; it was part of it, and it contributed measurably to it. As Mr. Cutler remarks, the vision, daring, and resourcefulness of these sailing-ship men “advanced by many years the financial and industrial growth of the nation, and, in addition, provided the funds to purchase the vast territories that now comprise two thirds of its area.” Steam caught up with them, to be sure, in the 1850’s. The very demand for regularity and speed which they had evoked made their ships and their skills out of date, at last, and the sailing packet became one with the Phoenician galley. But it was a great day while it lasted.

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