Going to Sea a Hundred Years Ago

by R. J. Cleveland

 

In the ordinary course of a commercial education, in New England, boys are transferred from school to the merchant’s desk at the age of fourteen or fifteen. When I had reached my fourteenth year it was my good fortune to be received into the counting-house of Elias Hasket Derby, Esq., of Salem; a merchant, who may justly be termed the father of the American commerce to India; one whose enterprise and commercial sagacity were unequalled in his day, and, perhaps, have not been surpassed by any of his successors. To him our country is indebted for opening the valuable trade to Calcutta; before whose fortress his was the first vessel to display the American flag; and, following up the business, he had reaped golden harvests before other merchants came in for a share of them. The first American ships, seen at the Cape of Good Hope and at the Isle of France, belonged to him. His were the first American ships which carried cargoes of cotton from Bombay to China; and among the first ships which made a direct voyage to China and back, was one owned by him. He continued to prosecute a successful business, on an extensive scale, in those countries, until the day of his death. In the transaction of his affairs abroad, he was liberal, greatly beyond the practice in modern times, always desirous that every one, even the foremost hand, should share the good fortune to which he pointed the way; and the long list of masters of ships, who have acquired ample fortunes in his employment, is a proof, both of his discernment in selecting and of his generosity in paying them.

Without possessing a scientific knowledge of the construction and the sparring of ships, Mr. Derby seemed to have an intuitive faculty in judging of models and proportions; and his experiments, in several instances, for the attainment of swiftness of sailing, were crowned with a success unsurpassed in our own or any other country. He built several ships for the India trade, immediately in the vicinity of the counting-house; which afforded me an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the building, sparring, and rigging of ships. The conversations, to which I listened, relating to the countries then newly visited by Americans, the excitement on the return of an adventure from them, and the great profits which were made, always manifest from the result of my own little adventures, tended to stimulate the desire in me of visiting those countries, and of sharing more largely in the advantages they presented. Consequently, after having passed four years in this course of instruction, I became impatient to begin that nautical career on which I had determined, as presenting the most sure and direct means of arriving at independence; and in the summer of 1792 I embarked on my first voyage. It was one of only three months’ duration; but it was sufficient to produce a most thorough disgust of the pursuit, from the severe suffering of sea-sickness; so that, if I had perceived, on my return, any prospect on shore equally promising, I should have abandoned the sea. None, however, presenting itself, I persevered, and finally overcame the difficulty.

Having in this, and other voyages to the East and West Indies and to Europe, acquired the experience and nautical skill deemed sufficient to qualify me for taking the command of a ship, I was invited, in the autumn of 1795, by the eldest son of Mr. Derby, to take charge of his bark Enterprise, and proceed on a voyage to the Isle of Bourbon. The confidence, thus evinced, in intrusting the management of a valuable vessel and cargo to so young and inexperienced a man, for I had then only attained my majority, was very gratifying to my ambition, and was duly appreciated.

In those almost primitive days of our commerce, a coppered vessel was scarcely known in the United States; and on the long East India voyages, the barnacles and grass, which accumulated on the wooden sheathing, retarded the ship’s sailing so much, that a third more time, at least, was required for the passages, than is needed since the practice of sheathing with copper has been adopted. A year, therefore, was generally consumed in a voyage to the Isle of France or Bourbon; and mine was accomplished within that term. The success attending it was very satisfactory to my employer, of which he gave evidence in despatching me again, in the same vessel, on a voyage to Europe, and thence to Mocha, for a cargo of coffee.

While at Havre de Gr‚ce, in the summer of 1797, engaged in making preparations for pursuing the voyage, I had the mortification to learn, by letters from my employer, that some derangement had occurred in his affairs, which made it necessary to abandon the Mocha enterprise, and to place in his hands, with the least possible delay, the funds destined for that object. Among the numerous commercial adventures, in which our merchants, at that time, had been engaged to the eastward of the Cape of Good Hope, no voyage had been undertaken to Mocha. To be the first, therefore, in an untried adventure was highly gratifying to my ambition; and my disappointment was proportionately great when compelled to relinquish it. To have detained the vessel in France, while waiting the slow progress of the sale of the cargo, would have been injudicious; and she was therefore despatched for home, under charge of the mate, William Webb, of Salem.

Being thus relieved from the necessity of an immediate return to the United States, I flattered myself, that, even with the very contracted means which I possessed, I might still engage, with a little assistance, and on a very humble scale, in some enterprise to the Isle of France and India. When, therefore, I had accomplished the business with which I had been charged, by remitting to the owner in Salem his property with me, I began earnestly to put to the test the practicability of the object of which I was so desirous. A coincidence of favorable and very encouraging circumstances aided my views. A friend of mine had become proprietor of a little cutter of thirty-eight tons burden, which had been a packet between Dover and Calais. This vessel had been taken for a debt; and the owner, not knowing what to do with her, offered her to me for a reasonable price, and to pay when I had the ability. This credit would enable me to put all my capital in the cargo, excepting what was required for coppering and fitting the cutter for the contemplated voyage, about five hundred dollars; leaving me fifteen hundred to be invested in the cargo. On making known to others of my friends the plan of my voyage, two of them engaged to embark to the amount of a thousand dollars each, on condition of sharing equally the profits at the end of the voyage. Having become proprietor of the cutter, which, with all additional expenses, cost, ready for sea, about one thousand dollars, an investment of articles best suited to the market of the Isle of France, was purchased to the amount of three thousand five hundred dollars; making vessel and cargo amount to four thousand five hundred. It is not probable that the annals of commerce can furnish another example of an Indiaman and cargo being fitted and expedited on so humble a scale.

I had now the high gratification of uncontrolled action. An innate love of independence, an impatience of restraint, an aversion to responsibility, and a desire to have no other limits to my wanderings than the globe itself, reconciled me to the endurance of fatigues and privations, which I knew to be the unavoidable consequence of navigating in so frail a bark, rather than to possess the comparative ease and comfort, coupled with the restraint and responsibility, which the command of a fine ship belonging to another would present.

As there are, doubtless, many persons, not excepting those, even, who are familiar with commercial and maritime affairs, who will view this enterprise as very hazardous from sea risk, and as offering but a very small prospect of emolument, it is proper, so far as I am able, to do away with such impressions by briefly stating the object I had in view. On my late voyage to the Isle of Bourbon, I had perceived a great deficiency in the number of vessels requisite for the advantageous conveyance of passengers and freight to and from the Isles of France and Bourbon. If my cutter had been built expressly for the purpose, she could not have been more suitable. With a large and beautifully finished cabin, where passengers would be more comfortably accommodated than in many vessels of greater dimensions; with but small freighting room, and requiring, therefore, but little time to load, and of greater speed in sailing than the generality of merchant vessels, I had no doubt of being able to sell her there for more than double the cost; or I might find it to be more advantageous to employ her in freighting between the islands. In either event, I felt entire confidence in being amply remunerated for the time and risk. On the cargo, composed of such articles as my late experience had proved to be most in demand, I had no doubt of making a profit of from fifty to one hundred per cent on its cost. The proceeds of vessel and cargo, invested in the produce of the island, and shipped to Europe or the United States, would, at that time, have yielded a clear gain of thirty-three and one-third per cent. Thus, in the course of one year, I should make two hundred per cent on the original capital; a result which might be considered abundant compensation for the time it would consume, and should take from the enterprise the character of quixotism, with which it had been stigmatized.

As soon as it became known at Havre, that my destination was the Isle of France, some of my friends, anxious for my safety, and perceiving in the enterprise only the ardor and temerity of inexperienced youth, endeavored to dissuade me from it, by painting to me, in glowing colors, the distress and probable destruction I was preparing for myself and men. But, however friendly and considerate the advice, I felt myself more competent to judge of the risk than they were, and, consequently, disregarded them.

The vessel, being all ready for sea on the 20th of September, 1797, was detained several days by the difficulty of procuring men. Those who were engaged one day would desert the next; and the dangerous character of the enterprise having been discussed and admitted among the seamen in port, I began to be seriously apprehensive, that I might not succeed in procuring a crew. At length, however, with much difficulty, and some additional pay, I succeeded in procuring four men; and, having previously engaged a mate, our number was complete.

To delay proceeding to sea a moment longer than was necessary, would have been incurring a risk of the loss of my men, and the pay I had advanced them. Hence, I was induced to sail when appearances were very inauspicious. A strong north wind was blowing into the bay with such violence as already to have raised a considerable sea; but I flattered myself, that, as the sun declined, it would abate; that, if we could weather Cape Barfleur, we should make a free wind down channel; and that, if this should be found impracticable, we could, at all events, return to Havre Roads, and wait there a more favorable opportunity.

With such impressions, we sailed from Havre on the 25th of September. A great crowd had assembled on the pier head to witness our departure, and cheered us as we passed. It was about noon, and we were under full sail; but we had scarcely been out two hours, when we were obliged to reduce it to a double-reefed mainsail, foresail, and second-sized jib. With the sail even thus diminished, the vessel, at times, almost buried herself; still, as every part of the equipment was new and strong, I flattered myself with being able to weather the Cape, and pressed forward through a sea in which we were continually enveloped, cheered with the hope that we had nothing worse to experience, and that we should soon be relieved by the ability to bear away and make a free wind. I was destined, however, to a sad disappointment; for the wind and sea having increased towards midnight, an extraordinary plunge into a very short and sharp sea completely buried the vessel, and, with a heavy crash, snapped off the bowsprit by the board. The vessel then luffed into the wind, in defiance of the helm, and the first shake of the foresail stripped it from the bolt rope.

No other alternative now presented, than to endeavor to regain the port of Havre; a task, under existing circumstances, of very difficult and doubtful accomplishment. The sea had increased in so great a degree, and ran so sharp, that we were in continual apprehension of having our decks swept. This circumstance, combined with the sea-sickness, which none escaped, retarded and embarrassed the operation of wearing round on the other tack. The violent motion of the vessel had also prevented the possibility of obtaining sleep; indeed, no person had been permitted to go below before the disaster; and none had the disposition to do so afterwards; but all were alert in the performance of their duty, which had for its immediate object the getting of the vessel’s head pointed towards Havre.

This was at length effected; but, as we had no spar suitable for a jury bowsprit, we could carry only such part of our mainsail as was balanced by a jib, set in the place of a foresail. With this sail, we made so much lee way, that it was evident, as soon as daylight enabled me to form a judgment, that we could not reach Havre; nor was it less evident, that nothing but an abatement of the gale could save us from being stranded before night. With the hope of this abatement, the heavens were watched with an intensity of interest more easily imagined than described; but no favorable sign appeared; and before noon we had evidence of being to leeward of the port of Havre. We now cleared away the cables and anchors, and secured with battens the communications with the cabin and forecastle. While thus engaged, the man at the mast head announced the appalling, but expected intelligence, of “breakers under the lee.”

This information had the effect of an electric shock to rouse the crew from that apathy which was a natural consequence of twenty-four hours’ exposure to great fatigue, incessant wet and cold, and want of sleep and food; for we had not been able to cook anything. The rapidity with which we were driven to leeward, soon made the breakers discernible from deck; and they were of such extent, as to leave us no choice, whether we headed east or west; for the forlorn hope of being held by our anchors was all that remained to us. No one on board possessed any knowledge of the shore we were approaching; but our chart denoted it as rocky. It was easy to perceive, that to be thrown among rocks, by such a sea, must be the destruction of us all. Hence it was of the utmost importance to discover, and to anchor off, the part of the shore which appeared to be most free from rocks; and with this view the mate was looking out from the mast head. As he perceived an apparently clear beach east of us, and within our ability of reaching, we steered for it; and when the water was only six fathoms deep, we lowered our sails and came to anchor. But as our anchor dragged, a second was let go, which, for a moment only, brought the vessel head to the sea, when one cable parted; and as we were drifting rapidly with the other, we cut it, then hoisted the jib, and steered directly for the clear space in the beach. Going in with great velocity, on the top of a high breaker, we were soon enveloped in its foam, and in that of several others which succeeded. The vessel, however, notwithstanding she struck the ground with a violence which appeared sufficient to dash her in pieces, still held together, in defiance of this and several minor shocks; and, as the tide was falling, she soon became so still, and the water so shoal, as to enable us to go on shore.

As the alarm gun had been fired, the peasantry had come down in great numbers; and when they perceived us leaving the vessel, they ran into the surf, and, with such demonstrations of humanity and kindness as our forlorn situation was calculated to excite, supported us to the shore, which we had no sooner reached, than they complimented us on the judicious selection we had made of a place to come on shore. And it was now obvious to us, that if we had struck half a mile, either on one side or the other from this spot, there would have been scarce a possibility of saving our lives.

We were fortunate, not only in the selection of the spot, but also in the circumstance of its being nearly high water when the vessel struck. The concurrence of two such circumstances turned the scale in my favor; and immediately after landing I was convinced, that the vessel and cargo, though much damaged, would both be saved. When the tide had so fallen as to leave the vessel dry, the inhabitants showed no disposition to take advantage of our distress, by stipulating for a certain proportion of what they might save, before going to work; but, prompted by their humane feelings, set about discharging the vessel, in such numbers and with such earnestness, that before sunset she was completely unloaded, and the cargo carried above high water mark.

The gale, towards evening, had very much abated, and, before the next high water, was fortunately succeeded by a calm and a great decrease of sea. In the mean time, the leaks, made in the bottom, were stopped, as well as time and circumstances would permit; an anchor was carried as far as the retreat of the tide would admit, and the cable hove taut. Having made these dispositions, I engaged a pilot and a sufficient number of men, to attend, at full tide, to heave the vessel off, and to endeavor to remove her into the river Orme, which was near by. These arrangements being made, I went with my men to an inn, in the neighboring town of Oistreham, to get some refreshment, and to pass the night; compelled by exhaustion to place entire dependence on those who were strangers to us, for getting the vessel afloat, as well as to secure the cargo from being plundered.

Though worn out by fatigue and anxiety, my distress of mind was so great, that I could not sleep. The thoughts, that I had contracted a debt which I might never be able to pay, that no insurance had been effected, that, without credit, I might be compelled to sacrifice what had been saved to defray the expenses incurred, and that my fortune and prospects were ruined, were so incessantly haunting my imagination, that the night rather added to, than diminished my feelings of exhaustion.

The following morning, I found the vessel lying safely in the river Orme; and men were also there, ready to make those temporary repairs which were indispensable to enable us to return to Havre. In the forenoon it was required of me to go to Caen (two or three miles distant) for the purpose of making the customary report to the municipal authorities, which was a business of very little intricacy, and of very speedy accomplishment. An examination of the vessel and cargo satisfied me, that the former could be repaired at very trifling expense, and that the latter was not damaged to much amount. The alacrity to render us assistance, in the people of this place, from the beginning of our disaster, was extended to the period, when, the cargo having been transported to the vessel and re-shipped, we were prepared to return to Havre.

As in cases of vessels stranding, it seems to be a practice, sanctioned by long established usage (particularly on the other side of the channel), to consider the unfortunate as those abandoned by Heaven, from whom may lawfully be taken all that the elements have spared, I was prepared for a demand of salvage to a considerable amount. But in this expectation I found I had done great injustice to these good people; for, on presenting their account, it appeared they had charged no more than for ordinary labor, and that at a very moderate rate. It is a circumstance, also, very creditable to them, that notwithstanding some packages of the cargo, of much value, and of such bulk as to be easily concealed, were in their possession, exclusively, for several days and nights, yet nothing was lost. Although these transactions are of a date so remote, that probably many of the actors therein have “ceased from their earthly labors,” yet I never recall them to mind, without a feeling of compunction that I had not ascertained the names of the principals in the business, and made that public acknowledgment for the disinterested and important services rendered me, which gratitude, no less than justice, demanded. For this omission my perturbed state of mind is my only apology.

With a favorable wind for Havre, we proceeded for that port, where we arrived in about ten days after having sailed from there. The reception I met with at Havre, from my friend James Prince, Esq., of Boston, who was more largely interested in the adventure than any other individual excepting myself, was kind and friendly in the extreme, and tended to counteract the effects of my deep mortification, and to raise my spirits for the prosecution of the original plan. He relieved my anxiety relative to the means of defraying the expenses of repairs, by engaging to provide them. He gave me a room at his house; and while I was ill there (for this I did not escape) he facilitated my recovery by his care and kindness. With such attentions, my health was soon reŽstablished, my spirits renewed, and I pursued the repairing and refitting the vessel with my accustomed ardor.

On examination of the cargo, it was found to be very little damaged. The vessel was considerably injured so near the keel, that it was necessary to lay her on blocks, where it was discovered that the lower plank was so much broken that several feet of it would require to be replaced with new. This being accomplished, the other repairs made, and the cargo again put on board, there was nothing to prevent proceeding immediately to sea, excepting a difficulty in procuring men, which seemed to be insurmountable. No one of my former crew, excepting a black man (George), would try it again. We had arrived at the close of the month of November; and each day’s delay, by the advance of winter, increased the difficulty and danger of our enterprise. Indeed, the westerly gales were already of frequent occurrence; the nights had become long, and when I heard the howling winds and beating rain, and recollected in what a frail boat I had to contend with them, I wished that my destiny had marked out for me a task of less difficult accomplishment.