The Age of Sail

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The story of the boat and the ship is as old as mankind itself and dates back to prehistoric and ancient times as does mankind’s relationship with water and the sea. Thus was born the Age of the Sail which helped build and maintain empires such as Greece, Rome, Carthage, Vikings and the more recent Dutch and British empires. The age of sail reached its zenith in the 19th and early 20th century with the arrival of the fast clipper ships such as the Cutty Sark which sums up all the speed, style and beauty of ocean sailing.

But around the same time the steam engine was invented. Soon this new technology began to have a major impact on ship design, but mainly in coastal and inland waters. But by the early 19th century this began to change as steam power spread to the oceans. With emigration from Europe to North America soaring in the 1800s, the transatlantic passenger trade was a profitable one for the shipowner, but a sailing ship had to go out on a very long route, heading south to the Azores to pick up the trade winds, then north along the American coast to the main destinations such as New York and Boston. Unlike other oceans the North Atlantic has no islands in the middle, so the voyage would have to be made in a single step, making great demands on the engines of the time. The Savannah, built in New York in 1819, had the honour of being the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, but no attempt was made to set up a regular service, for her owners wanted to sell her in Europe. However, during the crossing she used her engines for only about eight hours – the rest of the voyage was made under sail.

The next major advance came with the Sirius, built in Leith, Scotland, and the Great Western, designed and built in Bristol by British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Both crossed the Atlantic under steam power alone in 1838. Shipping magnate Samuel Cunard began his regular service from Liverpool to Halifax and Boston in 1840 with the Britannia, and the paddle steamer became an established alternative to the sailing ship on the route.

Soon inventors turned towards the idea of the Archimedes screw as another means of steam propulsion instead of the paddle steamer. Brunel took up the screw idea enthusiastically for his second ship, the Great Britain. Several designs were considered for her propeller, but the one used had six angular blades. The Great Britain was hailed as “the first modern ship”. In addition to being both the first ocean going vessel to be built of iron and to have a screw propeller, she was the largest ship of her day and she also reintroduced the idea of a balanced steering gear in the form of her iron rudder. A central pivot helped balance out the pressure on the surfaces, and made the rudder far easier to turn than a conventional one. The Great Britain was launched in 1843, but like many of Brunel’s projects she was a technological rather than an economic success. For some years, she inspired few imitators, although in 1850 the Inman Line was founded with the transatlantic voyage of the City of Glasgow, another iron screw steamer.

Development of the propeller continued throughout the 19th century with the aid of practical experience and test tanks, and over this period it took on a far more streamlined shape. Cunard Line’s Russia of 1867 was the first screw ship that could compete with the paddle steamers for speed on the transatlantic run, and it was about 1870 before the advantages of the screw propeller were clearly established in all ocean and seagoing trades – even Brunel reverted and used both a propeller and paddles for his third revolutionary ship, the Great Eastern.

In 1851, Brunel began to think of the possibility of a ship that could sail to India round the Cape of Good Hope without refuelling. He had already shown that the water resistance of a ship was proportional to the square of its dimensions, but the space available for fuel was proportional to the cube – in other words, a larger ship could carry fuel for a disproportionately longer voyage. He conceived a huge vessel, 211m (692ft) long and of 18,915 tons – nearly six times as large as any vessel yet built. With support from the Eastern Steam Navigation Company, he began construction on a site at Millwall on the north bank of the River Thames, in partnership with Scottish shipbuilder John Scott Russell. She was fitted with a double bottom and had both paddle and screw propulsion, as well as masts to carry sail. Enormous amounts of capital were tied up in the project, and the management structure could not cope with a succession of problems. The partners did not see eye to eye, and costs rose. The ship was so large that she had to be launched sideways, but on the appointed day of 3rd November 1857 she stuck fast, although chains were used to haul her towards the Thames. She finally took to the water at the end of January 1858. Brunel’s death in 1859 coincided with her completion, but there was no market for such a large ship. The Great Eastern made several voyages as a cargo passenger ship but was eventually used for cable laying. She served mainly as a warning about the dangers of expanding too fast, and it would be 40 years before the Kaiser Wilhelm II of 1901 exceeded her in tonnage, and nearly 50 years before the Mauretania of 1907 exceeded her in length.

The 19th century saw migrations to the New World on an unprecedented scale, facilitated by the steam liner.

Until the 19th century, each merchant ship was usually owned outright by a number of small investors, or larger ones who spread their capital over several ships. The coming of steam soon caused this to change. The building and operation of steamships required more capital, which was raised by joint stock companies (where capital provided by investors, large or small, is pooled in a common fund). During the mid 1800s, the law became more favourable to joint stock companies in several countries. Another factor driving the trend towards the new style of shipping company was that steamships, being less dependent on the weather, could run to a schedule. It therefore made good commercial sense for several ships to operate together, to maintain a regular service on the route.

The original idea for the shipping line came from the USA. Perhaps influenced by the “lines” that ran regular stagecoach routes, the Black Ball Line offered a fortnightly service between New York and London in 1816, to be followed by several other American companies, exploiting the good sailing qualities of American ships.

By the early 19th century Britain had achieved the commercial supremacy it had pursued over the previous century; and it no longer needed to protect its trade in the same way. The doctrine of laissez-faire, based on “The Wealth of Nations” of 1776 by Scottish economist Adam Smith and widely adopted by politicians suggested that government interference should be kept to a minimum and free trade would encourage competition, to the benefit of all. The Navigation Acts, which had regulated British trade since the 1650s, were largely abolished in 1849, and the requirement to have British crews on British merchant ships ended in 1854. At almost the same time, the government felt it necessary to legislate to ensure that there were qualified officers on each ship, and to pass various regulations for safety at sea. The monopoly of the chartered companies was no longer acceptable, and the East India Company’s monopoly was abolished in 1833. Shipping routes were fully opened to competition.

The British government opened the Post Office packet service, the world’s largest mail service, to private enterprise (the term “packet” is derived from packets of mail”). A mail contract demanded a regular service in good time. It guaranteed a certain amount of revenue on a shipping route, which could be supplemented by carrying passengers and freight, but penalties for late delivery were severe. In 1839, Samuel Cunard , who had won the transatlantic contract, agreed to pay Ł500 for every 12 hours his ships were late. In 1837 Arthur Anderson set up a steamship service between Falmouth and the ports of Spain and Portugal. His Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) was founded in 1840 and soon extended its services to India, with passengers travelling overland across the Isthmus of Suez, which separated the Mediterranean Sea from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean beyond.

In a separate development, shipowners began to use special flags, their house flags, to identify their ships. This began at the Lloyds station near Liverpool in 1771, which would hoist a signal to alert an owner that his ship was about to arrive in port, and house flags became common during the Napoleonic Wars. They were virtually universal by the mid 19th century, and in 1882 Lloyds issued the first edition of its “Book of House Flags”. The design and colours of the house flag had even more relevance to steamship lines when they began to apply it to their funnels, and the funnel attained great symbolism by the end of the 19th century. Alfred Holt & Company, based in Liverpool, was commonly known as the Blue Funnel Line and had one of the strongest identities of any cargo shipping company. The distinctive red funnels with black bands of Cunard Line became a favourite marketing tool in the company’s advertisements.

By the second half of the 19th century, the British steam shipping lines had lost some of their dominance. The largest German line, Hamburg Amerika, started in the transatlantic trade in 1847, and by the 1880s it was building some of the largest ships in the world. The other great German company, Norddeutscher Lloyd, began in 1856 with operations from Germany to Hull and London. In the 1860s and 1870s, it expanded with services to the USA. The Dutch line Holland America was founded in 1873 under a different name. By its 25th anniversary, it had carried 90,000 cabin and 400,000 steerage passengers to the USA, as well as five million tons of cargo, mostly the traditional Dutch exports of flower bulbs, gin and herring. The French Messageries Maritime grew out of the state postal service in 1835 and took the form of a major shipping line, sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III, in 1853. Its horizons expanded in 1857, when it took on the main services from Bordeaux to Brazil and the River Plate. By 1900 it had 60 ships and was the sixth largest in the world.

The first American shipping lines were less successful than their European competitors. In 1848, Edward Knight Collins founded the Collins Line, and two years later it began transatlantic services supported by US government subsidies. His five ships included the Atlantic and Pacific, larger than any Cunard liners, and faster, more comfortable, and better furnished. But Collins proved to be a better showman than businessman, and his ships were too expensive to run. After the Arctic sank in 1854, then the Pacific in 1856, the company was wound up leaving the North Atlantic steam trade under British domination for several decades to come.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had an immediate effect on world shipping. It shortened the distance from London to Bombay by 7,125km (4,425 miles). It made a steamship voyage to the east much more practicable, for it was largely in the sheltered waters of the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The same waters, especially those of the Red Sea, had unreliable winds and were unsuitable for sailing ships. As much as any technological innovation, the Suez Canal ensured the dominance of the steamship on long distance routes.

Although Britain was not involved in building the canal, the country’s interests in India and Australia meant that it could not afford to ignore its effect on trade routes. Soon two-thirds of the shipping passing through the canal was British. In 1875, as the Egyptian monarchy faced bankruptcy, the British government, led by the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, bought seven-sixteenths of the shares. The canal became a major factor in the trade, colonial, and foreign policies of Britain and France over the century after its construction. In 1882, the British occupied Egypt, largely to secure the canal, and it remained a British protectorate until 1922.

By the 1870s, with the advent of the efficient triple-expansion engine, iron and steel ships, the Suez Canal, and the electric telegraph, merchant ships began to evolve into two types – liners and tramps. A liner sailed from port to port on a schedule, carrying passengers, cargo, or a combination of both. For example, from 1881 the French state-owned Messageries Maritime ran a service from Marseilles to Port Said, Mahe in south west India, the island of Reunion, Mauritius, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, and the Pacific island of Noumea, servicing its own colonies as well as calling at a few of the more populous British ones. The best known liners were usually owned by the more prestigious shipping companies, who made some effort to attract wealthy passengers, so the name gradually came to take on a certain amount of glamour and became associated with long and medium distance passenger services. It was eventually transferred to any large passenger ship, though the modern cruise ship, with no regular route, is definitely not a liner in the original sense of the term.

If the liner tended to rise in status over the years, its counterpart fell. But the tramp steamer was always inferior in status to the liner, for it was usually smaller, run by a smaller company, and provided less regular employment. The main job of the tramp steamer was to carry a bulk cargo on behalf of a single charterer. Tramps were not passenger ships, although like all ships they were entitled to carry up to 12 passengers without extra certification, so they sometimes carried them on a casual basis.

Each nation had its own coastal trade, and the USA, for example, tended to protect it against foreign competition. Long distance tramping was largely a British phenomenon, carried out by countless small companies in ports around the country. Unlike liner seamen, the tramp sailor had no way of knowing when he would come home. Tramp steamers mostly carried cargoes of coal, but they could also take grain, wood, ore, esparto grass, fertilizer, and rice. Some were chartered by liner companies in busy periods and carried general cargoes on their routes.

Great Britain was right at the forefront of the introduction and development of the passenger ocean liner and remained the leading force in scheduled passenger ship operation throughout its long era from the early 1840s to the early 1970s. It was the ocean liners and their scheduled liner routes linking Britain with the diverse corners of the world that enabled people for the first time to travel long distances between continents on a regular basis. This traffic has since been succeeded by the aeroplane and the aviation age and today’s airlines serve a similar role but in less time that the ocean liners and their shipping companies did before.

Thus was born the ocean liner and its diverse worldwide routes connecting the Continents of the World.

        (c) The AJN Transport Britain Collection 2008                                                                                                                                                                                 A Edward Elliott