Part 21 1889-1890 Round the Horn, Russian Flu. and 400 Tons of Animal Fat

Leaving Lobos on the 2nd September 1889 Mercury and her crew were faced with passage via Cape Horn then northward making for the English port of Falmouth: from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, a route which was emphatically shortened with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the first work had begun as long ago as 1881. Captain Thomas’s passage to Falmouth entailed a journey of some 10,000 nautical miles whereas if he had been fortunate enough to have had passage via the Panama Canal the distance would have been about halved.

Artist’s impression of rounding Cape Horn with icebergs

Cape Horn, The Horn, one of the most dangerous passages that a vessel could take. David W, Bone in the classic story The Brassbounder captured the struggle, the danger and the drama that was the lot of many a sailing ship as it travelled east or west round the extreme tip of South America:

“Underfoot we felt the ship falter in swing-an ominous check to her lift to the heaving sea. Then out of the blackness to windward a swift towering crest reared up – a high wall of moving water, winged with leagues of tempest at its back. It struck us sheer on the broadside, and shattered its bulk aboard in a whelming torrent . . . We were swept to leeward at the first shock, a huddled mass of writhing figures, and dashed to and fro with the sweep of the sea, Gradually as the water cleared, we came by foothold again, sorely bruised and battered.”

David Thomas’s report of his sweep round The Horn is more prosaic, to the point and briefer:

“a lot of Westerly wind from 20 North which kept us back . . . had some heavy weather about the Horn but the cold bothered me more than the wind but in the whole I have been very well.”

The extent of being “kept back” was significant to the extent that Thomas had optimistically estimated 80 days from Lobos to Falmouth. Arriving at Falmouth on 13th December the passage was 102 days to reach home waters this in the depth of winter.

After three days anchored at Falmouth the captain received orders to proceed to Antwerp and there discharge the cargo of guano. The Belgium port was made on 18th December, three days after leaving Falmouth. Things had not been easy. Bad weather and contrary wind had delayed the vessel. As the captain explained:

“had rather a hard time coming up from Falmouth. I expected to get a pilot about Dungeness but too much wind they would not come out so I had to come up through the Downes and anchored at N. Foreland blowing strong SSW. The anchor was only down about 2 hours when the wind flew to west so started again about 6 o’clock on Friday night and arrived at Flushing about daylight yesterday [21st] without pilot. I was pretty well knocked up but I am pretty well today and finding the old lady [Mrs Thomas] here waiting me was more than I expected but she wears out wonderful.”

Within days David Thomas was ill, “I have been laid down with a new attack of this trouble that is raging here they call it influenza it started to me on Monday night when going to bed. I thought I was burning up altogether and settled in the weak place in my back so could not move”. Soon Margaret, David’s wife was hit by the flu. As the captain put it, “Me and the old lady has had a bad week of it. We are both better but not well. It has been very cold these last few days but fine weather easterly wind. We wish you all a happy New Year”.

French cartoon satirising the flu epidemic courtesy httpscreativecommons.orgpublicdomainmark1.0

As Thomas hinted the influenza was widespread, indeed, of pandemic proportions, with global spread. Dr Parsons’s report of 1890 noted the disease was first recorded in October 1889, in Russian territory and from there spread westward. By the end of November it was estimated that 50% of the population of St Petersburg were infected. By the 17th of December physicians were reporting outbreaks in Antwerp. The Thomas couple obviously quickly contracted the disease. Being elderly presumably made them highly vulnerable (both aged about 57). By the 24th it was calculated that as much as 30% of the Antwerp’s population were suffering; thankfully the influenza in the port was of a “mild form”. David and Margaret Thomas would no doubt have been pleased to hear that the outbreak in Aberdeen was similarly mild, apparently characterised by “fine flowing catarrh”. Influenza hit the Granite City round about Christmas- time with cases breaking out amongst troops in barracks, reported on the 27th, as well as further across the town. Aberdeen was fortunate in having quite limited spread of the disease in a far from virulent form. It’s worth saying here that, as with the Covid pandemic, global trade played no small part in carrying the virus from place to place, country to country. For example, Dr Parsons was of the opinion that the first cases recorded in Scotland, at Leith, was spread by a ship’s crew recently arrived from Riga in the Baltic.

Influenza medication

Unwell or not, discharging the guano continued. We can well understand that with illness and delays David Thomas’s patience must have been frayed and as he’d done on previous occasions it was members of the crew who were given their characters by the captain. The mate, the bosun and the cook were the targets of the captain’s spleen with the mate John Wood said to have been agitated about the monies he owed the ship:

“the mate was terribly frightened he was charged too much, he is a poor useless piece of humanity it is a wonder I have not knocked his brains out before this through fair aggravation. This is all he had done during the whole voyage. He has no sense and about every change of moon he is a little bit cranky besides being so home sick and jealous. And that cook is if possible worse, the laziest clite that ever shipped. All the others were as good as I could wish only I think I did wrong in making Stephen Bos’n as I think he is inclined to follow in the others’ footsteps.”

David Thomas did sign off this letter wishing “all a merry Christmas”.

By Boxing Day the captain was considering two offers of carrying freight to South America. Neither one was favourably received as they were expected to be “mostly rails and glass”. The ship’s broker Dick was suggesting a charter might be forthcoming from Tyne or Grangemouth for Buenos Aires-Rosario. Into 1890, with David Thomas still unwell (“I am sometimes scarcely able to get along”) the option of crossing the North Sea was favoured which would require taking ballast onboard. Discharging the guano was completed on 4th January 1890, four months after departing Peru. Sand ballast was loaded and when preparing to sail broker Dick gave the far from welcome news that rates for coals to Argentina had fallen. Thomas’s stoicism kicked in and he wrote to the broker “I suppose it is our ill-luck . . . we had better fix”. This was written on 8th January with the master of Mercury at times unable to stand upright, still suffering lingering illness.

On the 10th he prepared to sail but with the wind unfavourable it was two further days before the ship was towed to Flushing only to find insufficient wind and thick fogs so, “no chance getting out”. But out he did eventually get and telegrammed James Elsmie from Grangemouth on 23rd January. The short passage had not been trouble free. David Thomas made some navigational error, misjudging distance and found rather than being off the Firth of Forth Mercury was in fact in sight of Girdleness, by Aberdeen. Back to the south it was to tie-up at Grangemouth where some carpentry work was carried out and the captain waited for the coals to be loaded. And all the while Thomas continued to suffer the ill-effects of influenza but he could report home that the physician treating him “was better pleased with the action of the heart”. He makes no reference to the health of his crew. We have no reason to believe that they were any less susceptible to the flu than were Mrs and Mr Thomas. Coals were completed loading on 15th February and the captain said “I can’t say I am quite well but I can say I am no worse than I expect to be”; this was written in a very poor hand perhaps an indication of his physical and mental state. Mercury was at South Foreland on the 26th and readied to sail for Buenos Aires.

The South American port was reached on 17 April 1890 after a passage with “fine weather throughout”. This was to be the last time that the captain and Mercury were to visit the now oh-so familiar city. On this the final visit David Thomas was directed to Boca to discharge coals after which he would arrange to load a cargo of tallow in “pipes and half pipes” with bones and horn-piths at Atalaya south east of Buenos Aires – a pipe was a standard measure of volume equivalent to either 108 or 126 imperial gallons. With coal out on 12th May it was off to take on tallow and bones only to find he was stymied by a lack of depth of water; the ship lay for three weeks with no work done. Frustration must have been immense as the cargo was onshore waiting to be loaded. But as with so many frustrations the problem passed and work commenced. Thomas reflected, “this is most miserable as I expected to be away clear of the plate [River Plate] before this time. I suppose there is no help for it but wait”. Waiting went with the job. Patience was needed. The pungent smelling cargo was fully stowed in the first week of July, about 400 tons. Tallow, rendered fatty tissue of cattle and sheep, was widely used in a number of processes, most importantly soap manufacture and candle-making not to mention as a lubricant to literally help keep the wheels of industry revolving. (In fact as late as the 1960s I recall using tallow in cutting metal threads at an engineering works).

Soap and candle making

Now it was off to Europe, to Le Havre, making port on the 16th September 1890. Thankfully it was a straightforward voyage across the Atlantic and the satisfaction felt by the captain must have increased immeasurably when he found his wife Margaret there to greet him. Margaret did say that she’d expected James Elsmie to come to the French port but sadly, once again, it seems James would not leave the mainland of Britain to welcome the hard working captain and crew. Thomas told his Aberdeen friend that he’d missed a grand opportunity to come as “the Channel is as smooth as the docks”. Whether James Elsmie had been reluctant to meet with the captain because of the mariner’s pessimism we do not know. What we do know is that David Thomas continued to be full of doubt as to the viability of the trade for after extolling the smoothness of the Channel he told the Aberdeen office that “outward is again miserable” and pointedly asked Elsmie “what do you think we should do next”? As it happened this captain’s dilemma was to be resolved in the coming year, 1891.

Eugene Boudin’s representation of the harbour Le Havre

Part 20 1889 Peru for 550 Tons of Bird Dung

As we have seen over the previous eighteen years the mixed cargoes carried by Mercury ranged from hazardous commodities such as glass and kerosene to the staple of coal; there was also sugar and the strong smelling camphor, not forgetting the freight of live mules. We can well imagine that facing weeks at sea particularly pungent cargoes must have been trying on the senses. Carriage of sandalwood from Fremantle and then onward to Lima’s port Callao carrying tea and rice perhaps the these passages were more acceptable than some others. But all relatively good things have their limits. Both master and crew were to find their senses challenged with the next charter from Peru to Falmouth: this was the pleasure of loading and carrying Guano, bird excrement; no less than 500 tons of the organic fertiliser.

Having sailed from Hong Kong on the 26th March 1889 Mercury made port at Callao on July 5th. Well before the month was out David Thomas had fixed a charter to take guano at the Lobos Islands, to the north of Lima, an estimated 3 to 4 days of sailing. So far from home and with another passage by Cape Horn, nonetheless, the captain was anticipating being back in Britain “before the year is out”. Departing Callao on 21st July the ship arrived at Lobos on the 27th and prepared to load the highly prized Peruvian fertiliser.

Although the indigenous population had a long history of feeding their crops with guano exploitation of the excrement as a commodity on the world market was of recent origin. Unsurprisingly it was British capital which led the field, this circa 1839 (various dates are given) when Myers & Co. of Liverpool imported a small quantity of guano to gauge what the demand might be. British agriculture was then probably the most “improving” agriculture in the world. Over many decades investments had been made and new modes of crop rotation had been introduced. Crucially property relations on the land were by the 1830s dominated by cash crop production entailing the creation of a pool of wage labourers to work the land to meet the demands of an ever larger urban population. Part of this process was the drive to increase productivity by selective breeding of livestock and selection of cereals and vegetables, especially turnips; this was buttressed by careful scientific study of the impact of various fertilisers upon the land and specific crops. Chemistry became an adjunct of agriculture. As early as 1805 Humphry Davy had experimented with a small quantity of guano, identified its chemical composition and concluded “it might be supposed to be a very powerful manure”. But it took over three decades for the strong smelling guano to become an established fertiliser in British agriculture.

Its subsequent rapid adoption across Britain gives an indication of not only how efficacious, if expensive, guano was, but also tells us a great deal about the network of agricultural societies and publications which swiftly carried news of the latest developments in the industry. As early as 1841 it was being indirectly imported and sold in Aberdeen, Mercury’s home port. Merchants Nisbet & Robertson of the city’s Marischal Street had managed to obtain “a few tons” and not only offered it for sale but also said they were willing to instruct buyers on how the new-fangled manure might be used. Helpfully they published what they said was the chemical constituents of sea-bird dung. Being a valuable commodity it attracted nefarious characters selling adulterated manure, as one dealer in Peterhead to the north of Aberdeen wrote in 1843 “an immense deal of spurious trash” was on the market.

Not a source of trash but a competitor in the local market for fertiliser was the Aberdeen chemical manufacturer John Miller of Sandiland’s Chemical Works; founded in 1848, near the city’s Links and adjacent to recently opened new gas works: it was the availability of the coal-gas by-products which was the spur to establishing the chemical factory. Miller’s business argued that its chemical alternative to guano, superphosphate of lime, was the equivalent of the growth stimulant found in the organic manure. Not only this, the manufacturer warranted his inorganic fertilisers “free from adulteration”. In 1856 the company argued that the continued use of guano exhausted the soil whereas his artificial fertiliser, with a balance of ammonia and potash did not deplete the land, it was, the company claimed, “superior to guano, or any other manure used singly”. In a very interesting address he made to Aberdeen Philosophical Society John Miller argued against the import of organic manures, seeing it as a drain on the country’s financial resources. Additionally the manufacturer accused farmers of unwittingly making their lands sterile this, he said, was because the agricultural industry repeatedly applied the same foreign fertilisers without replacing the natural “salts” of the soil. His answer was to cease applications of guano and look to local alternatives, specifically artificial fertilisers used in combination with natural manures including human faeces. The businessman’s enthusiasm knew no bounds. He calculated the annual volume of human waste produced in Aberdeen, estimated its value and from a notional average diet (based on the meals supplied in the city’s Poorhouse to make the estimate deliberately conservative) came up with an approximation for the manurial value of Aberdeen’s human waste.

Chincha Guano Islands

John Miller’s appeal of 1855 did nothing to stop the market in bird dung. There were various sources for guano, such as off the west coast of Africa none, however, could compete with the quality of the Peruvian product, the most prized being that mined from the vast deposits found in the three Chincha Islands. The fact that the climate there was very dry, with little rain, gave the sun-baked dung a naturally high chemical concentration. In 1853 the American agricultural journalist Solon Robinson wrote “The effect of guano is greater than any other highly concentrated manure ever discovered and applied to any soil. Its benefits are immediate, continuous, and unlike lime, without exhausting the soil of any of its organic matter”. In other words, Solon contradicted the claim made by John Miller and vindicated the experimental conjecture made by Humphry Davy. For brokers and shipowners the very dry nature of Peruvian guano had the added advantage of being lighter than the wetter varieties from elsewhere meaning a greater volume could be carried in ships’ holds.

Over thirty years after publication of Solon Robinson’s report guano continued to be mined for use on the agricultural land of Britain, Europe and America. So valuable had it become to the Peruvian economy that the State had after apparently selling the islands to a trading company, rescinded the sale, reclaimed ownership and henceforward controlled exploitation of the manure through a system of licensing and competitive bidding. Regular exports started in the early 1840s. Hundreds of thousands of tons were cut from the mountain of dung. Over twelve months hundreds of ships arrived and departed with the pungent commodity. In 1857, for example, 620 vessels came to the islands and carried off some 490,000 tons of guano. It was, of course, a finite resource and in a report of 1860, from the original estimate of the islands having tens of millions of tons of dung available in the 1840s it was now calculated that so severe had been extraction the supply would be exhausted by 1883. In the event this proved to be wildly optimistic: the Chincha Islands ceased to be a major source of guano by the beginning of the 1870s. Mining engineer A. J, Duffield reminisced in 1877, “When I first saw them twenty years ago, they were bold, brown heads, tall and erect, standing out of the sea . . . Now these same islands looked like creatures whose heads had been cut off, or like vast sarcophagi, like anything in short that reminds one of death and the grave”.

Hence the search was on for alternative supplies within Peruvian waters which was why the Lobos Islands north of Lima were found and exploited. Fifty years after first treating guano as a potential global marketable commodity David Thomas was taking his ship into far from easy waters. There was no comfortable quayside berth with onshore attractions. Thomas said that there “was not a drop of water or a blade of grass” to be seen. It was a matter of lying-off the islands with loading from the many lighters servicing the waiting vessels, between them conveying as much as 300 tons per day. Not only this, such were the tides that holding position to load was problematic. Mercury was he wrote was lying on the “weather side” of Lobos . . . So there is no shelter”

Chincha Islands Guano Shoots

He continued in his letter to James Elsmie: “There is never much wind but often too much surf for lighters to work . . . We have been unfortunate since we have been here with our anchors, we have lost two, but we have got them again; first the stream anchor aft. The 15 fathom [?] worked out then one of the bow anchors. They say there is some kind of worm that eats out the wood pins. I hope we shall not lose any more as it is a bad job to get them again as we are in 14 fathoms of water”. Continuous pitching of the ship did not help with loading: gauging the weight of manure stowed, “cannot tell rightly as we are alwise rolling and kicking about I cannot judge rightly by the draft” wrote Thomas. Descriptions of the method of loading at the Chincha Islands give some idea of the kind of difficulties that crews faced. Solon Robinson wrote:

“When a vessel is ready to take in a cargo, she is moored alongside the rocks almost mast head high, from the top of which the guano is sent down through a canvas shute directly into the hold of the ship . . . several hundred tons can be put on board in a day. The trimming of the cargo is a very unpleasant part of the labor. The dust and odour is almost overpowering; so the men are obliged to come often on deck for fresh air. The rule is to remain below as long a a candle will burn . . . The guano . . . is so compact it has to be dug up with picks.”

Guano was welcomed by many in the agricultural industry who recognised how beneficial it was in raising productivity, if only it had been as kindly to the workers who mined the manure. One commentary of the 1850s caught the nightmare of the miners, “Their grim faces showed the effects of merciless treatment – long working hours, scarcity [of] food, no recreation. Scantily clothed the coolies bared their skin to the hot sun and the knotted ropes of negro task masters who kept them working at a fast pace. Their lives were short for they soon died or leapt off the cliffs crazed by torture”. Yet another report, “For the enslaved Chinamen the day dawns with labour . . . a labour which will bring no good fruit to him, and the shadows of night provide him with nothing but dreams of tormenting routine which awaits him tomorrow”. And it continues, “no hell has ever been conceived . . . equalled in the fierceness of its heat, the horror of its stink, and the damnation of those compelled to labour”.

Guano Wagon and Labourers, Chincha Islands

We might well ask how labour could be attracted to such a hell? Simple, by a mixture of trickery, lies and the use of convicts. In 1863 the The Illustrated London News described most of the labour force as “free” but those who were on seven-year contracts were only free insofar as they were locked on islands of dung, with no way off and under the strictest discipline. And, as much as workers were contracted for a fixed term there was nothing in the contract committing employer to take workers to the mainland and home. As Thomas Hutchinson wrote, “this liberation rarely proves more than a delusion”. Most of the labourers were imported from China, often with stories of going to the gold diggings of California only to find themselves all but prisoners on the manure islands. In a sense they were “lucky” to have survived the passage from China to Peru. Many men died on the long passage reaching, in the case of the ship Antares, a mortality rate of 31%; 263 had embarked only 181 reached Callao. In 1872 the average death rate was 8%.

Such was the background of Captain Thomas’s journey to first Callao and then onward for hundreds of mile to the Lobos Islands where he oversaw the stowing of about 550 tons of good Peruvian guano. Then it was off on the 2nd 1889 September, round Cape Horn, making for Falmouth and home.

Ships waiting to load with guano Chincha Islands httpsyaffle53.wordpress.com20140522a-history-of-the-peruvian-guano-industry

Part 19 1888-1889 Sandalwood to Hong Kong and the Ship’s Medicine Chest

Southern Tip of North Island New Zealand

Whanganui some 90 miles north of Auckland was reached on the 13th September 1888. Sailor Wilson had been left behind at Nelson that is he’d been jailed, given 30 days imprisonment for causing trouble ashore. David Thomas expected the “complete pest” on release to join the ship at Whanganui.

Loading 550 tons of coals at the northern port was not straightforward as the quayside berth could be very shallow forcing the vessel into deeper water and consequent loading from lighters. Regardless of this the speed of taking coals onboard proved to be too quick to see crewman Wilson back with the ship. Thus it was that when the ship sailed for Albany in western Australia at the end of September it was without the so-called pest. Thomas sent Wilson’s clothing back to Nelson and instructed ship’s broker Cock to give the fractious seaman £5 to assist his passage back home. Discharging coals was trouble-free at Albany and all was out by the second week in October. Thomas expected the strike at New South Wales to be soon over so the financial bonus of taking coals to Australia from North Island New Zealand was a one-off, a brief moment of good trading in otherwise difficult times.

Looking for his next charter his eyes turned to freight heading east specifically, to carry wood from Fremantle, north west of Albany. A mixed cargo of sandalwood timber and the plant’s roots was agreed, this for delivery to Hong Kong. Export of the intensely perfumed wood from the Australian port was of recent introduction, 1843 when a meagre 4 tons was sent. Compare this with the 169 tons of timber and 156 tons of roots shipped by Mercury. It’s almost needless to say but sandalwood is yet another species which was turned into a globally traded commodity and suffered over-exploitation. By 1847 so potentially profitable was the trade from south western Australia that “mania gripped” the area, land was grabbed, trees cut down, roots torn up, labourers left jobs to get a share in the sandalwood “gold rush”. With the loss of labour the area’s pastoral farmers sought government support in the form of forced labour from convicts. That the British government responded to this call by classifying the area as a convict colony might not have sat easily with the farmers. Boom and bust, the characteristics of commodity speculation, continued leaving in its wake losers including denudation of land and loss of species.

Albany circa1890

Before sailing for Fremantle Thomas had to deal with a problem with an apprentice Leakie. First he had to call in a doctor to diagnose and treat some ailment suffered by the “boy”. Physician and surgeon Frederick J, Ingoldby charged 2 guineas (£2.2shillings) for his services. Dr Ingoldby’s receipt makes no mention of the nature of Leakie’s illness, the best we have is the captain’s note that the apprentice “contracted a disease at Dunedin that I could not manage as I never had the like case before so I had to get him cut on our arrival”. Cut here could be mean being bled using a razor-sharp scarifier with cup or perhaps simply lancing some infected tissue. It tells us something about another duty expected of a ship’s master namely, caring for apprentices and using whatever medicine’s were available onboard (always basic) and when necessary calling in a doctor, only possible once port was made which could be many days at sea before professional assistance could be given. A glance at the purchases made from druggists in various ports visited by Mercury give a good indication of just how basic the captain’s medicine chest was. Not for merchantmen the luxury of carrying a surgeon looking to ailments and disease. Very limited knowledge and a great deal of experience was all that was available.

Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

It’s apparent from the medicines purchased that digestive problems were common which given the many months at sea, far from fresh fruit and vegetables, not to mention the monotonous diet of cured meats this is not a surprise. Thus the medicine chest contained castor oil, described by one medic as “a mild purgative, and may be given at any time that bowels require to be opened . . . the dose is about one tablespoonful”. And if pain was involved laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol), it was said, could be added. In a similar vein there was tincture of rhubarb (not rhubarb of the rhubarb crumble variety) said to be a very mild purgative. When in Nelson, New Zealand the captain added “Black Wash” to his medicine chest. This was probably the Senna laxative often sold as Black Draught. Pain could be treated with opiates as well as cayenne pepper, useful as a counter-irritant for rheumatic pain not to mention it was also prescribed as a “powerful stimulant . . . used in dyspepsia, taken as a drink with water, salt, sugar and vinegar”. With frequent backache Captain Thomas probably treated himself with Opodeldoc, a soap plaster medication, a liniment with camphor as major constituent. Other items found in the medicine chest included Elixir of Vitriol a treatment for scurvy as well as for fever. Regarding the dangerous condition of scurvy, Thomas, like generations of ship-masters, took onboard gallons of lime juice. Friar’s Balsam was treatment for wounds and sores and it was claimed “useful to stop bleeding of the lungs”. Sweet spirits of nitre, another management for digestive problems was in the cabinet as was sulphate of quinine, treatment for malaria, usually known as ague. Masters were advised to dispense this medicine with care. Confronted with symptoms presented these rudimentary drugs seem to have been of no use in treating the apprentice Leakie

Spring Loaded Scarifier

Whatever the problem Leakie had it was a problem which cost the ship 2 guineas. But the cost turned out greater as the ungrateful, embarrassed, shamed or simply fed-up apprentice jumped ship: “about the boy Leakie I have had a lot of trouble with and to finish up he deserted through the night before leaving Albany”. Quickly informing the local police of the desertion David Thomas continued, “I have not heard of him yet but expect to get [him] sent on as they have to be smart if the police does not get them”. What with the doctor’s bill and previous allowances given at New Zealand and Australia the apprentice had drained, if that’s the word, £10 from the ship’s kitty. This is the last we hear of Leaky, David Thomas makes no further reference to the apprentice .

The sandalwood charter was fixed in mid-October 1888, for delivery to Hong Kong. This freight seems to have been at a good price, 40 shillings per ton for the more straightforward timber and 42 shillings for the roots. Roots were more awkward to stow but provided a more intense source of essential oil than timber and was consequently more valuable. It did, of course, entail killing the plant.

Loading Sandalwood circa 1905 State Library of Western Australia

It was late December before Mercury departed Fremantle. The captain was faced with bad weather but the ship, after 42 days passage, arrived safely at Hong Kong with no significant damage. Arriving on the 4th February 1889 discharging the scented freight was delayed, Mercury had docked during celebrations marking the Chinese New Year. Thomas was also delayed in organising some re-coppering and caulking of the schooner. Business was back to normal within a week, unloading had commenced, new copper had been ordered and the old worn metal had been sold. Not only this, a charter had been fixed: passage to Callao, Peru with “a complete cargo of lawful merchandise”. So, rather than going west and homeward it was off on another distant passage, this time round Cape Horn and north. David Thomas asked his partner James Elsmie to keep this news from his, the captain’s, family “as they expect me home” from Hong Kong. It’s reasonable to assume that when Margaret Thomas was eventually told her husband was in far-off South America she would have been to say the least disappointed. On the other hand David Thomas’s mood at this time seems to have been surprisingly upbeat, not that there is any sense of not wanting to go home rather it seems to have been a combination of him feeling physically well and the reasonably good freight prices negotiated, first for the coal to Albany followed by the money made from carrying the sandalwood, even allowing for the slight loss of weight as the timber dried out below decks.

With over 16,000 miles in prospect it must have given Captain Thomas and his crew some confidence when Mercury went on to the Kowloon patent slip for stripping old copper and fitting new metal. At the same time carpenters refitted various components including new hatch covers. This refit cost the ship over £400, a not insignificant sum but necessary for the schooner to keep its A1 Lloyd’s registration. Both Elsmie and Thomas would have been relieved that no work was needed on the ship’s main timbers and even decking which was “somewhat thin” would do a turn before replacement was necessary. And, despite the many setbacks experienced David had still some pride in his ageing schooner enough for him to report the carpenters’s opinion that “they have never seen a vessel look so well at our age . . . not a particle of decay to be seen”. Doubtless written with the long-standing hope that Mercury might be sold sooner rather than later.

With the ship looking “quite fresh” some 3000 boxes with rice and tea were taken on board (564 tons) and optimistically Thomas expected to take about 70 days Hong Kong to Callao which was considerably faster than master of a nearby American vessel estimate of 120 days. So confident was DT that he seems to have had no qualms about his estimate being incorporated in the charter. Fixed for Peru Thomas asked the Aberdeen office to look to finding a freight from Peru to Britain-Europe.

Mercury sailed from Hong Kong on the 26th March 1889 and arrived Callao on 5th July. Not quite the 70 days expected. With few words David Thomas said to James Elsmie “We were longer on the passage than expected”. Time lost was in a sense made up for with very fast unloading, the tea and rice was out by the 17th of the month.

Callao circa 1913

Part 18 1888 Brain Fever, Strike-Breaking and Aberdeen’s Colonial Investments

Mercury docked at Port Chalmers on 3rd August 1888: as was reported, “47 days from Mauritius. She encountered a heavy south-east gale on the 23 ult, which carried away part of the bulwarks on each side, smashed a boat and did other damage. The gale lasted three days. The Mercury brings 11,051 packages of sugar for Dunedin and 11,322 packages for Nelson”.

Port Chalmers Courtesy State Library of South Australia

With this battering at the end of passage from Mauritius it is no surprise to find Captain Thomas once again speculating that now might be the time to be getting rid of the schooner. Aware that James Elsmie was not as taken by the notion of selling the ageing vessel Thomas informed the Aberdonian that there had been enquires but told prospective buyers that nothing could be done without Elsmie’s approval. With the physical dangers, anxieties and the seemingly constant toil of running the schooner not to mention the struggles to find charters David Thomas’s preference for sale of the vessel is easily understood. James Elsmie’s more comfortable working environment at his office on Regent Quay was quite another thing. Running the ship even in a declining market seems to have been very acceptable to the senior partner. David Thomas did his best to nudge Elsmie towards disposal, especially attractive at Dunedin D.T. said as “they have still a liking for the Mercury here”.

Thomas emphasised his own physical vulnerability, that he was prone to illness which made for a hard life at sea: “Now sir I am sorry to say I have been very unwell for the past 2 or 3 weeks. First I think a severe cold and afterward Brain Fever [perhaps high temperature?]. I am now getting better but still very unwell but hope to get over it. The weather here is cold wet and disagreeable. It has been rain and fog all the time since we arrived”. This was written less than a week after arrival at Port Chalmers. Over the next five days, with no improvement in the weather, resulting in problems of unloading sugar David found time to speak to potential buyers. As much as Dunedin’s shipping agents might have had a liking for the schooner it’s clear, to the captain’s irritation, that as the world-over, when it came to dealing the New Zealanders were looking for a bargain. They might have expressed sympathy for the Thomas’s troubles but buying the ship was a separate matter. When Thomas wrote to Elsmie on 13th August he reiterated the possibility of finding a buyer, however, he said (and this was not likely to encourage his fellow shareholder in Aberdeen) that, “I have been bothered with enquiries about selling. They seem to think we have just run out to give her away for anything they like to offer. I have not asked anyone their idea about price neither have I said anything but some think their ideas is far below the mark. I have told them I expect a letter from you in a few days and give them an answer as I would say nothing until I got your letter”. Nothing here to suggest a good deal could be made and although there is little doubt that David Thomas would have kept a weather eye out for a purchaser nothing acceptable seems to have come forward and the captain on 16th September responded to a negative letter from Elsmie: “think by the reading you do not care about selling so refused all offers. I think their ideas would be about £1200”.

We can imagine how gruelling and disappointing the affair must have been but this was just one moment in the busy life of a captain which was made that bit harder by his physical and his mental condition. So unwell did he feel that when James Elsmie proposed finding freight for North America David Thomas recoiled, writing “I am some afraid to try that as I don’t think I could stand the passage as I feel I am breaking down. I am some better than I was but still far from well and I wish we were getting to a little warmer weather”. The captain must have been discombobulated not only by what he considered sky-high harbour dues but also the irritation of being told that the cargo of sugar for Dunedin was short, that 152 packages had been damaged by sea water and 25 bags were empty! Regardless, the schooner sailed for Nelson at the end of August. Putting sugar ashore the next thing was to fix a new charter which Thomas did. This was to carry coals from Whanganui, 90 miles north of Auckland to Albany, western Australia.

With extensive worked coal deposits in Australia’s New South Wales the obvious question is why take coals from New Zealand’s north island to a land with its own Newcastle? The answer as the broker John H. Cook explained was simple: “This charter was possible only through extensive strike now onward at the Newcastle N.S.W. coalmines”. In other words Mercury was to play a small part in helping to break a strike. The price offered at 27shillings and sixpence per ton gives a fair indication of how industrial action in one place can generate profitable business in another.

Broker’s Letter referring to Miners’ Strike

I am almost certain that the irony of the situation was lost on the captain. The forces of competition which were driving the sailing merchant fleet into deeper and deeper economic crisis were, in their own way, those which gave Mercury momentary advantage. The economic and social imperatives which led to a three month strike by miners in New South Wales hinged upon attempts by mine owners to, at one and the same moment, limit competition between companies and yet gain an advantage. Somewhat like Aberdeen’s granite merchants who formed a self-protection association as a way of fending-off competition colliery owners in the 1880s came together to set prices at which coal might be sold. Forming a cartel was seen as a way of sharing market demand. Of course as different collieries had different productive rates and consequently differing rates of profit this attempt to harness the inherent nature of capitalist production was bound to stumble.

Again like the Granite City’s stone merchants the cartel was weakened as individual producers broke regulations and sought advantage by undercutting the price at which coal was sold. The miners had no say in the matter although it does seem, and this was the case in Aberdeen’s granite trade, that control of prices and the reduction in competition across the region was a good thing for labour. We can well see the sense this made but workers and their representatives failed to grasp the necessary dynamic of the economy.

Nordenfeldt gun Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For some four years following the formation of the cartel in 1881 business thrived, profits accumulated and labour was in great demand. Struggles broke out over wages, safety and the length of the working day. Since the 1860s the miners had shown themselves to be militant with a growing sense of trade union identity. By the mid 1880s the area had joined with the Amalgamated Miners’ Association to form a more cohesive and stronger fighting force. It was in this guise that the general strike of 1888 erupted with Lambton Colliery at the centre of events. There miners had demanded more favourable piece rates to compensate the high volume of stone found in the workings; the prevalence of stone meant lower wages. Management refused to entertain any change to the rate and in response the miners’ association threatened a general strike. Whether the mine owners counted on the large pool of miners in the region (immigration from the United Kingdom had swelled the potential labour force) whether they had counted on this undermining solidarity across the industry is uncertain. And as it happened, if owners had sought disunity they found only solidarity. Men came out in August 1888 and conflict lasted three months. Miners and their families found they not only confronted the rage of owners but also the police, the Governor of New South Wales and the military who were called in to protect the interests of business. Starting at a relative low level thirty police officers protected six strike breakers when they entered Lambton pit. By the 20th September, when only four blacklegs could be found, a mixed force of 173 police and military were holding off pickets who threatened the strike breakers. And raising the stakes even higher the forces of the Australian state intimidated miners by mounting a Nordfeldt field gun on a colliery rail truck. This multi-barrelled “deadly weapon” could in skilled hands fire up to one thousand rounds a minute. It was primarily a show of force, shock and awe. Miners reacted with anger. Arrests were made and men were charged with making “great riot and disturbance, to the terror and alarm of Her Majesty’s subjects”. Which implies that the strikers and their families were not included amongst Her Majesty’s subjects irrespective of the fact that source of much of the wealth of New South Wales came from their skills and labour. But such is the way of the world of capital and labour. The strike ended on 24th November 1888. (See

Armed Militia at Lambton Pit

In a final note on the Scottish connection to the dispute, the company owning Lambton Colliery was the Scottish Australia Mining Company which had its origins in the Aberdeen Scottish Australian Investment Company, founded in 1840 with a capital of £100,000. Scotsmen and women on the make you might say. Australia was the land of opportunity albeit one which threatened traditional ways of life of indigenous peoples and which in part was founded on forced labour from transported criminals.

Within a year of its foundation the investment company had appointed two men to oversee and extend the opportunities in Australia. These men were Robert Archibald Alison Morehead, appointed Manager and his assistant Sub-Manager Matthew Young. 1840-41 was an opportune time for the Aberdeen company to find investment. Agricultural depression had hit the country which meant property and stock market prices were favourable to buyers. Morehead and Young guided investment, purchasing mortgages and making investments in land and trade in wool. By the mid 1840s their attention had turned to mining as a a potential source of profit. Copper and coal was the main interest although there were suggestions that gold might be found. Thirteen years since founding the investment company owned upward of 12,000 acres in what was described as “the most improving localities of the Colony known to contain coal”. Investment had realised “regular and remunerating profits”. The copper bearing property was at Burra Burra, in New South Wales. Being an Aberdeen business it comes as no surprise that the company called the main mine “Bon-Accord”, the city’s motto. And to hammer home the north east of Scotland connection some 40 acres of land was acquired in the small township of Aberdeen which had been founded in the 1830s north west of Newcastle.

Scottish Australian Investment Company Prospectus 1840

Industrialisation which consumed ever greater volumes of minerals made investment an attractive prospect for those with capital. Aberdeen’s Scottish Australian Investment Company benefited but in the process the north east connection was undermined as ownership of the company flowed to investors resident outside not only Aberdeen but also the country. By 1853 it was claimed that ⅔ of stock was held by English investors. With the move towards a portfolio of business extending beyond simply property ownership to the exploitation of minerals the company decided that Aberdeen was unable to fully exploit commercial possibilities as it was, in the words of William Henry Dickson, said to be “very difficult to find a board there possessing the necessary qualifications for conducting the affairs of the company”. Before the year was out the business moved its registered office to Gresham Street in London. In parallel with this move to the south shareholders debated how best to exploit mines. The outcome of this was the decision to form companies with the narrow focus on mining coal and copper rather than have this side of the business subsumed within the general trading of the company. As it transpired the Bon-Accord copper workings were a disappointment, apparently never yielding quantities anticipated this despite abutting a highly productive and profitable mine at Burra Burra. Concentrated operations were undertaken 1846-49 and 1858-62 but to little avail. As final slap in the face to the expectations of shareholders the end of the mine was brought on by the decline of operations at Burra Burra, specifically when the pumps which drained workings were stopped. Bon-Accord flooded.

More successful was the monies invested in coal particularly development of the Lambton Colliery which became the focal point of the strike of 1888. Well beyond the days when the Investment Company was based in Aberdeen Lambton was opened in 1863 owned under the title of Scottish Australian Mining Company, an outgrowth of the original business. Echoing the belief in free-trade espoused by the senior manager Robert Archibald Alison Morehead, Thomas Croudace who was responsible for the colliery claimed the mine’s success was a result of competition. Indeed, the principal of free trade was, said Croudace, a good with universal application: “All the advantages of civilisation they were now enjoying were the results of competition”. Thomas Croudace was antagonistic to the companies which sought to impose a price cartel across the New South Wales coal industry which played no small part in the run up to the strike of 1888.

Lambton Colliery

All the advantages of civilisation, as Thomas Croudace put it, had of course its losers but in the coal manager’s world were perhaps seen as unfortunate victims but a necessary consequence of progress. To be regretted, if possible might be mitigated but in the end the dynamism of economic competition left some cultural practices out of step with and a impediment to progress so were bound to be swept away. A big loser in this move to “civilise” Australia were indigenous peoples who found land being privatised, absolute ownership being taken into the hands of either individual proprietors or as in the case of Scottish Australian Investment Company owned by an array of shareholders many thousands of miles from Australia. Traditional hunting and pastoral rights were lost. In the process associated cultural activities were undermined. The Ngadjuri peoples for example lost “freedoms” previously enjoyed (if that’s the word). True, the “uncivilised” could to some extent be absorbed into the new economy. Ngadjuri as early as the 1840s were working as shepherds, were employed as shearers, were labouring and they might well have been content but must necessarily have gradually lost the elements which created their distinctive culture. More immediate and deadly were the diseases which the colonisers brought with them: such as scarlatina, measles and smallpox which devastated the Ngadjuri.

We can reasonably assume that the investors who met in Aberdeen’s Royal Hotel in October 1840 were all imbued with some sense of the Christian spirit but with little sense of the profound effects which their commitment to financial enterprise was to have on distant peoples just as they could have no notion of the destructive implications of the massive exploitation of coal resources were to have on later generations. But for good and ill the dynamism of the capitalist economy consumes both natural resources and peoples.

Corroborree by Walter Preston

PART 17 1887-1888 Eaten Up With Mosquitoes and Mules to Mauritius

And so the Mercury was at Alloa, loading coals. Over the next months the ship and its crew found themselves in oh-so familiar territory. The passage from the Scottish town was delayed because of bad weather and when the ship sailed in late February 1887 it was initially a frustrating affair with “a heavy breeze . . . After light winds & fog we were 5 days to anchor between Kent & North Forelands, calm and dense fog”. Later in the crossing to South America “we had 15 days of very heavy weather before entering the [River Plate]”. Laconically adding “Lost some bulwark and again 2 chain plates of main rigging broken. Still nothing serious”. The vessel arrived at Buenos Aires in the second week of May where Thomas found the previously jailed crewman Davidson “still knocking about . . . scarcely making a living” this after trying his hand at farming and working on the railway. David Thomas had described the man in August 1886 as “a bad character” but not so bad that the captain refused to give him work when Davidson turned up at the quayside. In late June Davidson signed-on as crewman of a schooner which was sailing for Antwerp.

Hotel del Norte Buenos Aires Courtesy Archivo General de la Nación Argentina

As for Thomas, he contracted to carry maize and wheat in bags for an as yet unnamed British port, to be loaded at Boca which he described as “a bad place”. Presumably more acceptable was the master’s five days stay in the Hotel del Norte in Buenos Aires while he dealt with shipping details. He was directed to Plymouth, England, for orders where Mercury arrived on 25th August; then it was onward to Rotterdam with little prospect of much for passage back to Britain. All he found was 75 tons of straw in pressed bales for Burntisland on the north shore of the Firth of Forth; supplemented with 100 tons of fine sand ballast, Thomas hoping to sell this for 2 shillings per ton. We do not know if he made anything from the sand ballast. We do know that with straw unloaded at Burntisland it was deeper into the Firth of Forth, making for Grangemouth where no suitable charter was found and so David Thomas decided that taking coals on the ship’s account was the answer, “I don’t think we could lose anything” he told James Elsmie, optimistic that the cargo could be sold at 28 shillings per ton at Buenos Aires. He bargained with the Duke of Hamilton’s colliery to take on 572 tons of discounted “splint coals”. And ever watchful of expenses Thomas decided to increase the number of barrels of cured beef taken aboard as the price of pickled pork was too high, making for an even more monotonous at-sea diet than usual. His decision to substitute beef for pork might also have been influenced by unexpected expense, “I had to get something for the crew as some of them had no clothes”.

Hotel Receipt

Mercury left Grangemouth on 22nd October. It’s unlikely that the money saved by taking beef rather than pork covered the cost of repairs which the vessel very soon needed. On the 2nd November 1887 the schooner was in Falmouth having hit bad weather, losing sails and bulwarks: “This last week has been the worst weather that I have ever experienced, it still continues blowing heavy” he wrote.

Sailing from Falmouth on 7th November Buenos Aires was reached on 26th of following month, “a fine passage”. But to the captain’s dismay his high hopes of finding enthusiastic customers for his coals were dashed, telling Elsmie “I fear we have come to bad market as there is a great quantity of coals . . . I would suppose there is full one hundred thousand tons in the ships”. Nothing was to be had at Boca thence Rosario was tried. Mercury made Rosario on 28th December David Thomas reflecting, “there has been no rest we have been completely eaten up with mosquitoes. Archangel is something bad but this is possibly 10 times worse”. At Rosario he found equally difficult trading conditions but managed, as he thought, to find a buyer for coals, a Mr Gowland. Whether there was a misunderstanding or the trader had acted in an underhand manner is far from clear but Captain Thomas was again frustrated, “I hardly know what to say” he wrote, “as there was no part of the cargo sold altho I had a letter from Mr Gowland saying there was 350 tons sold 9 dollars Gold. I have been completely taken in [by] Mr Gowland”. Thomas found himself having to “ try and get out of it the best way I can. After a few days here we sold at first 160 tons or 170 tons at 8½ Gold”. In other words it was selling in dribs and drabs eventually discharging the last of the cargo at the end of March 1888. Three months since arriving at Buenos Aires. Thomas’s thoughts turned to selling the schooner. He asked James Elsmie, if “anything offered for Mercury what would you be willing to to take for her as I can’t see any prospect of keeping out of debt by sailing”?

Captain Thomas did have the satisfaction of having signed an onward cargo from Rosario at the end of January. The downside of this, and there always seems to have been a downside for the master, was that it was to carry live animals to Mauritius: a “cargo of mules alive, as much as the Ship can stow & carry, to be placed in the lower hold of the vessel on sand ballast and here she [the vessel] measures 16 feet in width and 6 feet high – each animal to occupy a space 20 inches in width; with the necessary fixtures, water casks and provender for the voyage.” It was the ship’s responsibility to fill casks with river water for the animals and the proviso that feed would not be charged as freight. With the prospect of carrying live mules over 6000 nautical miles Thomas was filled with some doubt, “I think the cargo will be troublesome. I will try and do the best I can with them”. The charterer did contract to send one or two muleteers to assist in caring for the beasts. The 90 mules which were eventually loaded, in space of 20 inches width, are unlikely to have had a comfortable passage. George Elsmie & Son were to be paid £4 for every live mule unloaded.

Mauritius and Port Louis

Even before leaving the River Plate on the 31st March the captain and crew had a hard time handling the live cargo, as Thomas put it, “much trouble in working the ship and looking after the animals. There has been no time for anything else. . . The animals is alright as yet but very wild. I hope we carry them safe.”, Unsurprisingly the six thousand mile passage saw the death of nine mules which meant a loss of £32. The mules “were sold at a good price so the shippers will make a fine profit” was David Thomas’s comment. Mercury had reached Port Louis, Mauritius on 22nd May. As for the 28 mules surviving it is possible that they were used to power “horse-mills” in local sugar plantations.

Thomas found a charter to take 475 tons of sugar to New Zealand. Mauritius like so much of the globe was one trading point in European world trade. First the island had been occupied by the Dutch, later by France hence the alternative name “Isle de France” and then following the defeat of Napoleon was captured by Britain in 1810. Sugar was the island’s main export and remained so until the 1970s. Until emancipation in 1834-35 African slave labour was the backbone of production. With the freeing of black labour and apparently reluctance of former slaves to fall back into the clutches of previous masters not to mention possible fear that the long history of collective black exploitation might generate a labour force capable of united struggle; responding to these concerns much of the black labour was replaced with the introduction of indentured workers from India, cheap and it seems a plentiful supply was found in Bengal. By the 1870s close to 70% of Mauritius’s population was Indian in origin; the ex-slave portion was 20%. The indentured workers were policed via a pass system, forced to carry papers showing they had employment and the right to be on the island. It’s worth noting that the compensation demanded by the island’s slave owners following emancipation was over £2million claimed to be payment for 66,343 unfree African workers. One commentator, Reverend Patrick Beaton, described the cash settlement as “dishonestly obtained”.

Somewhat like the sailing merchant marine the trading pattern of Mauritius was changed with the opening of the Suez Canal in the 1860s. Gradually as more and more merchant steamers and British naval vessels used the much shorter route to the Indian Ocean, the strategic importance of Mauritius declined. No longer was it necessary for vessels making for India and beyond to take passage via the Cape. That’s not to say that the island’s economy collapsed, it did not. In particular the production of sugar remained a highly tradeable commodity. A sailing ship’s master could make a decent charter if his vessel arrived at an opportune moment, with few vessels at Port Louis and sugar to be exported then something could be done. This seems to have been the situation which Thomas found. As he said, “freights are fairly good”. The only cloud on the horizon was the seaworthiness of Mercury and the opinion of Lloyd’s surveyor.

Thomas was worried about Mercury’s hull. A diver was sent down to inspect the copper sheathing, he found number of copper plates were missing. Fortunately there was no necessity to dry-dock the vessel as the diver was able to replace them, presumably a case of nailing sheets of metal directly to the ship’s timbers. However, as local shippers knew there was some weakness in the vessel’s hull they were unwilling to charter Mercury for passage westward round the Cape. And so it was eastward and south taking 275 tons of sugar to Dunedin and 200 tons to Nelson. But first things first. Before sailing for New Zealand in June 1888 he had to collect crewman Wilson from jail: “he has been a complete pest he was in prison near all the time in Mauritius. I paid his fine and took him out when coming to sea”. This was not the last time Wilson was to trouble the master.

Receipts for Work done to Mercury

Part 16 Five go to Prison in Zarate and Mercury Tied-Up in Aberdeen 1886-87

At Zarate, taking on Maize with orders for Falmouth. If only life was so straightforward. Yet again the captain’s letters tell of trouble with the crew, more serious than any he’d previously faced as master of Mercury. Let him speak for himself:

July 13th, ten weeks after arrival at Buenos Aires,

“A lot of trouble again with the crew. There was five of them on shore one night and got into trouble with people on shore. 3 was released but they have kept the Bos’n and one other man. They have been in prison now nearly one month and I am not sure if the Bos’n will get out so he was either using or threatening to use his knife and they may keep him for sometime. So you had better stop his pay until you hear from me again which I hope will not be many days laying [when] we are finished loading. The boy Crystal was one in the row and I have to say soon learn their business. They were all more or less hurt and cut one was severely cut in the head. He is now better. I am not very well have a had a sore back for some days. It is getting a little better now.”

The Demon Drink

4th August on loading and looking to clear to sail for past eight days,

“but could not clear owing to the trouble there was with the sailors as I mentioned in my last[letter]-and now I have to leave them all in prison and ship others in their place.”

Taking the train to Buenos to sign on crew, he continues,

“I have to leave here shortly by train and the men with me and if the wind will allow start at once . . . I had to pay the advance in cash I must try to keep the men when I get them on board. I have taken 4 in place of the 5 they have kept. Davidson & Chrystal & 3 sailors are the prisoners. I suppose you will have stopped Davidson’s pay as I mentioned in my last . . . I have been worked off my feet this last 8 days and could get no satisfaction from any one and Zarate is near 100 miles from here. I have been several times up and down. I trust I shall get away now without more trouble.”

12th August, about to leave Buenos Aires roads,

“I suppose the Consul will send the Boy Chrystal home when he gets out of prison. I have most of his clothes on board. I believe Davidson is a bad character as I have seen another master here that had the same trouble with him 5 or 6 years ago. Alwise fighting when he go on shore . . . The Pilot is now leaving.”

Temperance Image of Fate of Drunkards

The apprentice Chrystal was home in Aberdeen by the 18th October. Despite the seriousness of the incident David Thomas remained perfectly willing for the apprenticeship to continue, instructing James Elsmie to keep the boy in the city as it would be too expensive to return him to the ship which was then discharging cargo at Rouen in France. Perhaps a clue to the degree of stress Thomas was under is witnessed in the unusually scribbled handwriting of the note he sent James Elsmie from Falmouth where the captain was given orders to sail to France. His anxiety centred once again on the progress of his elder son David’s business.

Captain Thomas’s Note of October 1886

The vessel was in Rouen on 12th October, two calender months after sailing from Buenos Aires. In the French port he was faced with the continuing ruinous terms of trade. Over the next month he came to the firm decision that there was nothing to be made by heading south and the best that could be done would be to sail north to Shields in ballast and there take on a cargo of coals on the ship’s account in hope that it might be profitably sold in the home port of Aberdeen where, with some 400 tons of coals, the ship arrived on 14th November. So poor was the state of business that Elsmie and Thomas agreed that for the present the schooner would tie-up in Aberdeen in the expectation that conditions might improve.

In a letter acknowledging receipt of £30 pounds dividend payment Mercury shareholder William Murray gave voice to the way the ship’s profitability had slumped from the golden days of the early 1870s. Murray wrote “I am thankful even for small mercies – it was really unexpected – altho a little different from one of £400 which I once received . . . but shipping times are sadly changed”. In passing the farmer referred to David Thomas and how the ship being laid up for a period might affect him: “Thomas will not take well with an idle life, the painting of the Mercury may amuse him for a while”. In other words it was expected that regardless of the anxieties of the captain it would be difficult for him to to accommodate himself to weeks of uncertainty with little to do in Aberdeen.

The vessel was tied-up for a brief period. By the beginning of February 1887 the schooner was being provisioned for passage to Alloa to take on coals, these to be carried to Argentina. A crew was signed-on, advances in wages were made and apprentices were welcomed aboard. David Thomas did comment that the short sail from Aberdeen to Alloa upset the boys, “All the boys were as sick as if they had never been at sea before. So it will not do to remain in harbour so long again”.

We don’t know how the relative inactivity of the port-bound captain played on the mariner’s mental state. The correspondence gives no indication of how he might have filled his time assuming he was not preoccupied with a twelve hour day re-painting the ship. Maybe putting the paint brush down captain might have spent an evening at Her Majesty’s Theatre, taking in the drama “Man to Man; or on a lighter note gone to M’Farland’s Varieties for Dr Cavendish, comic performer described as a “wondrous man. That he spent most of his working life at sea it was unlikely that gardening was high on his list of things to do but he could have been attracted by the Grand Winter Flower Show of chrysanthemums at the Music Hall. Or there was a Bicycle Contest at Bon-Accord Recreation Hall. As the period ashore for Thomas was the run up to Christmas and New Year we find festive offerings throughout December including a dashing tale of Rob Roy; ice skating at Queen’s Cross “if frost continues”; a performance of “Messiah”; cakes, shortbread in decorated boxes and biscuits in enamelled tins on offer from local baker Mitchell & Muil of Schoolhil. And should David Thomas’s thoughts have turned to the evils of drink then on New Year’s Day Aberdeen Temperance Society was staging a Grand Festival. In the event of the captain looking for a non-alcoholic alternative Strachan of Market Street was offering customers the opportunity of purchasing coffee from a small estate at Lake Nyasa, sent to Aberdeen, it is claimed, by Dr Laws of Livingstonia, one of the city’s best known Christian missionaries. This coffee was said to be “very much superior to what has hitherto come from Africa” and could be had at one shilling and sixpence per pound.

Baker to Queen Victoria

Perhaps the captain kept himslf amused by having time to take in activities at and news of the city’s harbour. With old age gradually coming on he might well have been put off wandering the quays, the weather was harsh with heavy snowfalls. At the harbour snow was too deep for a single horse-drawn carts. Coal waggons carrying fuel for the gasworks were at a standstill. As would be expected the winter season saw fewer vessels from overseas entering Aberdeen harbour. With favourable weather the commissioners expected seven foreign ships a week but between late November and mid December 1886 traffic was reduced to a single vessel, Venus which had sailed from Varberg, Sweden with 190 tons of granite for stone merchants Bower & Florence. This import of granite to the Granite City was one of the small indicators of the relative decline of Aberdeen’s mighty stone trade. Swedish granite, it was said. had “evoked great admiration” locally. If David Thomas had managed to fight his way through the snow he might have seen S.S. Llangorse departing with 1800 tons of “old rails”, bound for New York. The ship got caught in a storm in the Atlantic off the Scottish coast, her cargo shifted and steering gear was “carried away” forcing the steamer to take refuge in Stornoway.

Also at the harbour he would no doubt have been agitated by the struggle of shore labourers to get a firm guarantee that their employer, Adam & Co., honour an agreement to pay men on night work, discharging coal in barrels at fourpence halfpenny an hour. The labourers claimed Adam had broken a bargain and was paying a penny less than had been promised. When the coal merchant refused to give his signature to the deal, insisting the men should trust him and accept “his word as a gentleman”, the labourers went on strike. With the business interests of the captain and his disciplinary role as master it is unlikely he would have cast a favourable eye over the militancy of labourers and their attempts to build a trade union. But we shall never know. More likely is him having sympathy for the plight of the city’s unemployed, men and women thrown out of work with the onset of winter. Before the days of even the meagre state benefits of the present period the bulk Aberdeen’s unemployed had to turn to a mixture of private and civic charity to survive which meant for many hundreds relying on handouts from the city’s Soup Kitchens. This was a seasonal enterprise. The winter charity 1886 began on 4th December, meals being served at the central kitchen on Loch Street and small premises across the city such at Fittie where labouring populations were housed. A kitchen portion consisted of “a large roll, a basin of soup, with a piece of meat”. Charity it was and undoubtedly must have gone some way to keeping body and soul together but it was not free. Users of the kitchen had to pay one penny for a meal which was estimated to cost two and a half pennies to make. Unsurprisingly even one penny was beyond the means of some, for example at the outlying kitchen opened at Wellington Road Hall where “many are unable to pay the penny for the soup owing to the long continued want of work”. At St Margaret’s Schools on the Gallowgate -one of the poorest areas in the heart of Aberdeen – needy children were fed and had the benefit at times of donations in kind from better-off folk such Mr Leith of Glekindie who “sent us some rabbits, which were a very great treat to the children”. Let us hope that David Thomas and family as well as crewmen of the tied-up Mercury had a brighter two months of “unemployment” than some of the city’s labouring poor.

Loch Street Soup Kitchen

Part 15 Repaired, Onto Grangemouth, in the Firth of Forth and Scotch Beef 1886

Dunkirk Slipway

Berthed in Dunkirk David Thomas set about dealing with consequences of the collision including the hassle of clearing his name. He resented the claim that lack of seamanship on his part was in any way responsible for the collision with the Dragut. Rejecting the notion that the schooner had “not been properly navigated” he placed blame with the master of the steamer, “I alwise understood the ship to windward must keep out of the ship to leeward. They speak as if they had a right to run over anything that may chance to be in the way . . . it was their ship that was not properly navigated”. Thankfully for Thomas it did not take long for the French company to admit liability.

Over the month of December 1885 the master of Mercury was kept busy and apart from miscalculating the size of the bowsprit which needed rectifying the work went smoothly if not always to the complete satisfaction of David. The vessel was put on to Dunkirk’s gridiron ( a form of dry dock) and it was arranged for a new figurehead and various sails to be got from Aberdeen. A new cutwater was made, fore part of of ship’s stem, which Thomas believed would be as strong as the original fitting if not as aesthetically pleasing. Captain Thomas found that greenheart timber was not available locally which he favoured and had to make do with what he termed French oak. Greeenheart was preferred because of its density, durability and resistance to timber borers such as the Teredo worm. Some caulking was done at Dunkirk but this the captain kept to a minimum as he had a very poor opinion of local workmanship and preferred to get the job done on the other side of the channel.

It appears that once again Thomas came up against the business ethics of his partner James Elsmie. From brief remarks made in the correspondence it seems that the seaman thought there was some way of claiming “salvage” following grounding of the vessel when under tow. He quickly put this right and wrote to Aberdeen “you do not approve of what I have done we must let the matter drop” and “I can only say I am sorry for what I did before asking your advice for I know you would not allow me to do anything that was not altogether straight”. Thomas was on firmer ground when it came to running of the ship and spoke of the difficulties he was having with the crew. Once more he was finding that being tied up for any length of time seamen and drink became a problem. He had paid off some men but the remaining ones were difficult : “I shall have to pay off the rest of the crew as I can get nothing out of them now with drink. It is hard after being so long with little doing and now when there is work to be done they are useless. I am much deceived by Anderson I fear he will turn out a bad character as for Davidson he is quite useless when he begins with drink. Their manners come hard on me now when there is so many things to be done.” This was written on 27th December; two days later we find some degree of discipline had been restored, enough for 77 tons of straw to be loaded and the vessel made ready to sail for Grangemouth where it arrived on 11th January 1886 “after stormy passage”.

Mercury remained in Scotland until the end of February as final repairs were made, new sails arrived, crew was signed-on and a suitable charter was found. The refit included installation of the new figurehead made by Mr Allan (James?) of Aberdeen who came through to Grangemouth to fit the carving which Thomas said “will look better than I expected”.

Firth of Forth

As regards the crew, men from Aberdeen who were trusted as reliable these he did not call to the ship until well into February. “our sailors will be getting tired at home” he wrote, “but there is no use of them coming through here until we have something to do”. Oddly he favoured Mr Galashan again becoming a crewman. This was the mate he described as “stupid” and all but useless (see part 8). Nonetheless, he was now happy to invite him aboard, Thomas, was willing “to keep the berth open” for the fellow seaman. In the event Galashan did not join the ship as he was unwell. One John Wood signed on as 1st Mate. After a visit to Leith to enlist final crewmen the schooner was ready to sail on 18th February. With the usual coming and going David Thomas had contracted to carry 568 tons of coals to Buenos Aires: “The crew is all on board I think we have a good lot”. Also on board albeit only until the ship sailed was Margaret Thomas, remaining on Mercury when it temporarily shifted to anchor in the Firth of Forth, this to save on harbour dues; the wind which was easterly was unsuitable for making for open water. Mrs Thomas left the vessel on 19th February.

Four days later little progress had been made. Conditions remained unfavourable, highlighting the inherent weakness of sailing vessels. At one point Mercury was in the Firth lying off Limekilns, east of Grangemouth. A tired and frustrated captain told the office in Aberdeen, “I am sorry to say we had a very tiresome week since we left on Saturday morning. S.E. Winds very thick and dirty weather. We have been about St Abbs Head. I feel these 3 days more fatiguing than at any time I have felt before at sea”. Captain Thomas’s fatigue was made worse by the ship “making some more water than usual. I will look around the bows to see if I can find anything as I think it is mostly above water”. And this was with the prospect of the long crossing to Argentina. The peregrinations of the ship had taken it to the south east of the Firth only to head north west to lie off Limekilns.

Conditions improved and passage from Grangemouth to Buenos Aires was made with continuing anxiety over the leak at the stem. Thomas in his mid 50s, no doubt feeling his age (at Grangemouth he’d been plagued with a bad back) must have been daunted by the prospect of inspecting the problem as the ship crossed the Atlantic. But it needed doing and this was the captain’s responsibility. So not a restful crossing: “alwise make a lot of water, it is not all at the leaf of the stem. I have been into the water several times trying to get something into it but we were alwise jumping too much and could do nothing with it. We will get it made right now. The whole thing has made me near crazy”. This was written from Buenos Aires where he had arrived in the roads on 3rd May 1886. The ship did make it without mishap, clearly, and damage done was mostly to David Thomas’s peace of mind. Needless to say his unease was heightened when it came to finding a charter as “there is no appearance of any improvement in freights . . . so I suppose I must leave this time in ballast”. But first he had to discharge coals at Barracas a short passage which had its own small misfortune, two sails split causing a 24 hour stoppage for repairs.

We can well imagine that when it came to final unloading of coals the anger felt by Thomas when he discovered the cargo was some thirteen tons light of the contracted freight, “there is nothing but cheating in all things now” he said; and then he was hit by additional cargo dues which he claims were not mentioned by the consignee and was not in the signed charter, this he said “is a new dodge”. All this ate into the profits of the ship. Despite his baneful cry that it would be necessary to sail in ballast from South America the great pessimist did sign a contract with Antonio Maria Delfino of Buenos Aires with orders “to proceed to Zarate and there secure on board a full & complete cargo of maize in bags”. Signed on 24th May. Passage for the maize required a tow by steam boat to the Parana River.

William M’Combie

Maize was the product Aberdeen built Mercury was to carry but this was not the only agricultural commodity traded from Argentina. And it was not the only one which had a connection to North East Scotland. Aberdeenshire played a formative role in establishing the famous herds of the Pampas which were raised to feed the burgeoning and increasingly better-off populations of Europe and Britain. Key in this process was importation of the Aberdeen-Angus breed of cattle: naturally polled (without horns) dominantly black and renowned for the quality of its beef. Through selective breeding William M’Combie of Tillyfour on Donside was one of a number of farmers who contributed to establishing the Aberdeen-Angus as the butcher’s and the consumer’s first choice of meat for the table. M’Combie described the ideal animal found in his breed : “even from end to end as an egg . . beef from the lug [ear] to the heel”. The British market did not favour the staple Argentinian cattle as the beef was said to be “lean tough meat”. What consumers wanted was the “marbled” and more succulent product associated with the Aberdeen-Angus.

In 1879, a year before William M’Combie died, Don Carlos Guerrero of Argentina came to Britain to purchase the beginnings of a quality herd. And so the South American visited agricultural shows to view and buy some prize specimens of the breed. When he left before the end of the year he’d purchased two heifers, Aunt Lee and Cinderella, and the bull Virtuoso. These animals came from pedigree herds raised by John Hannay the Earl of Fife’s factor, and Colonel Ferguson of Pitfour. From the small rolling parks of North East Scotland it was off to vast rich grasslands of the Pampas to be herded by Gauchos. Don Carlos like those landowners who were to follow his example required not only pedigree beasts to establish a herd but an efficient, reliable and profitable means of carrying the product, beef, to customers many thousands of miles distant: refrigeration was the key.

As early as the 1860s a freezing works had been built in Australia intended to meet the British demand for beef and mutton which unsurprisingly threatened to undermine the “home nation’s” livestock industry, this by undercutting British farming prices. It all sounds so familiar. Improved technologies and techniques of chilling and freezing made it possible for carcasses to be carried profitably although, initially with little experience in the practice of refrigeration and the occasional failures of chilling plant, it was not unknown for cargoes to arrive with beef and mutton in various stages of decay. In 1877 the French vessel Frigorifique (Refrigerated) demonstrated what might be done when it carried a chilled cargo from the River Plate to Rouen albeit with loss of some of the cargo The following year the Paraguay sailed from Buenos Aires, bound for Le Havre with 5,500 carcasses, arriving in good condition at the French port. A clear signal that Argentinian merchants expected the trade to be profitable was construction in 1883 of shore-based refrigeration works at Campana and Barracas, founded by the River Plate Fresh Meat Company and S. G. Sansinena & Co.

Frozen Meat Works

Aberdeen’s local newspaper the Evening Express was reporting to its reader that by the end of 1884 over 54,000 frozen meat carcasses had been imported to Britain from Argentina. It was, however concerned that customers were being “bamboozled” by unscrupulous butchers who were selling South American beef and mutton “under false pretences that it is the genuine article drawn from the stock of the British breeder”; a fear which apparently would not have been applicable to the pedigree herd Don Carlos was raising. Regardless of any fraud going on imported frozen meat was cheaper than the British equivalent putting it on the menu for the burgeoning working class populations across the country thus encouraging Argentinian livestock farmers, refrigeration companies and shipping firms to increase investment to exploit the new market.

And so the North East of Scotland made its own contribution to this trade. William M’Combie’s Aberdeen-Angus breeding programme was a moment in the growth of a global frozen food market which at one and the same time widened and improved the diets of urban populations and became part of the problematic which is Climate Change.

As for David Thomas and the Mercury, fresh meat in port was the luxury to be savoured otherwise it might be salted-cured beef on a long voyage. The closest the vessel got to refrigeration was when it hit freezing conditions in the North Atlantic. Before this digression of Aberdeen-Angus and frozen carcasses we had left the merchantman preparing to take on maize at Zarate, as it happened just north of Campana where Sansinena & Co. were chilling beef. At Zarate Thomas’s temperature was about to rise as he confronted the consequences of drunken sailors.

Refrigerated Merchantman, S.S. Rangatira

Part 14 Collision At Sea And Colonising Capers 1885

1921 Advert for Shipping Company Owner of Dragut

Eerily, with an apparent sense of foresight, the captain made sure that all the paperwork pertaining to business in Buenos Aires was in order before he sailed from Plymouth, making for Dunkirk. Of course he could not really have known what the future held in store for his ship, but he did promptly post his accounts to James Elsmie telling the boss in Aberdeen, telling him, “I enclose my account for Buenos Ayres in case anything should happen from here up”. Not that the letter carries any sense of foreboding, in fact unlike so much of David Thomas’s correspondence it is uncharacteristically positive, praising “lads” (apprentices) sailing on Mercury. They, he wrote, “wanted nothing [cash at Plymouth]. So far they are very good and Harry is very good considering it’s his first voyage. He is the best Steersman I have and he will be a smart chap if he follow up the sea”. This was dated 6th November 1885. No matter how good a steersman young Harry was it’s unlikely he had the knowledge and experience to cope with what was soon to be on the horizon.

Five days later it was all change. Mercury was in Newhaven, about 160 nautical miles east of Plymouth. A brief telegram to James Elsmie carried the news that his schooner had collided with another vessel at sea:

“Run into by French steamer coming in – we know the name of the steamer lost bowsprit

jibboom headgear cutwater stem broken wire instructions”.

On 11th November:

“Vessel in port I consider she is safe [to] tow Dunkirk Survey held tomorrow Have insisted steamers agent meet my surveyors bill Will protect our interests No tug here capable of towing have asked Watkins London his charges If detained here will you come”.

The eleventh was a day for a number of telegrams to wing their way to Aberdeen. Following the above, one told his home office that he thought the vessel could be discharged and repaired in Newhaven despite Thomas also observing “so far as I see no dock or slip”.

Before the day was out David Thomas heard from surveyors that they did not consider the ship safe to tow to Dunkirk, “stem badly split down to fourteen foot mark”.

There followed a telegram from the broker in Dunkirk to Elsmie, “If Mercury can be towed here think advisable for benefit of all concerned” that was if surveyor gave the ok.

Collision at Sea Telegram

What with sending off telegrams, arranging the survey and contacting broker in Dunkirk the captain was kept busy. And he still had to give the Aberdeen office a full story of the collision. This was also done on the 11th .

“The collision occurred about midnight on Monday night with the French Steamer

Dragut’ of Marseilles, Capt. Sylvestre, belonging to the Great Transatlantic Co.

which vessel towed me off. At the time of the collision we were on the starboard

tack, wind east heading about north north east, sailing about three knots, our

lights burning brightly, so were the steamers which we saw fully half an hour

before the collision, but it appeared that he had not seen us, until we called out

to him when he ported his helm & struck us on the starboard bow. He took all

our headgear away, and split the stem down to the water’s edge, but the vessel

has made no extra water since the collision, the weather being fine & water


Captain Thomas emphasised that responsibility for the collision lay entirely with the master of Dragut and that he expected James Elsmie to contact the vessel’s owners at St Nazaire.

Thomas received the survey report also on 11th November. It confirmed what his seamanship had identified as major damage. The surveyors, one a master mariner the other a shipbuilder, gave the Mercury‘s captain the bad news that with the stem split to water line it would be necessary to strip timber back to ascertain full extent of the damage before approval for a tow to Dunkirk could be given.

Over the next five days Thomas busied himself with making the ship sufficiently seaworthy to cross the Channel. First there was removing timber facing from the stem to gauge damage: cleared by the surveyor. Where timber had been split a temporary repair was made, nothing more than a sheet of lead nailed across the gap. On top of this he dealt with the French company’s London agent who, not surprisingly, would not acknowledge liability. Moreover, the agent asked that Elsmie & Son refrain from detaining the Dragut by taking a writ against the ship. Resolution of this was reached by Thomas travelling to London, meeting with lawyers for both parties and agreeing that vessels could leave port. A positive result made more acceptable by the fact that David’s wife Margaret had met with her husband at Newhaven and additionally clearance had been given by the insurance underwriters for the ship to be towed to Dunkirk.

Towed by William Watkins & Co steam tug Ben Nevis it was off on 16th for Dunkirk. “The wind” wrote Thomas, “is easterly, fresh, weather being clear I think we shall have a fine night. Glass very high”. Fate had it otherwise. Writing from Dunkirk on the 19th David told how the short passage had not been without mishap: “we caught the ground two or three miles to the westward of this port and remained fast for 2 ½ hours. We had a miserable time in towing up blowing heavy the whole time”. The captain did then have the satisfaction of beginning to discharge the cargo of maize – “looks fully better than expected” – at the French port. A week later he gave a wee bit more detail, “there was no pilot on board. I was preparing to let go anchor. At the time we were on the north bank of the channel about 3 miles from Dunkirk. Light steam boat about 100 fathoms ahead or rather on my port bow. Dunkirk light is new and and very powerful which deceived me and master of the steamer. There was no pilots at sea that night.”

Meanwhile Dragut had made for its home port of St Nazaire. Following Mercury‘s passages across the globe it has been unmistakable how significant the trading links of European states were in the emergence and progress of world commerce. The early history of the French vessel captures a particular moment in the extension of French power. Built by Scott & Co of Greenock for Campagnie Generale Transatlantique of Paris, one of a trio of vessels ordered by the important shipping company, Dragut was commissioned to run mails, general cargo and passengers between Marseilles and the colony of Algeria. Registered at 550 tons the steam ship was launched in May 1880. This was the era when European powers were stretching their imperial arms and coming to accommodations on some sharing of global power and designating spheres of influence.

Congress of Berlin 1878

Two years prior to the launch of Dragut representatives of these nations had met in Berlin to come to agreement on who would have influence where, central to this was Russian imperial power, control in the Balkans and the the rights of the Ottoman Empire. The latter was a declining force in world politics irrespective of the very long and important role it had played in European and eastern politics. Where this concerns Dragut is that with its North African Algerian colony France was more than willing to undermine Ottoman influence over the neighbouring Tunisia. To this end the French cajoled and threatened the Sadok Bey ruler of the country forcing him to come into line with the decisions of the 1878 Congress of Berlin. He was pressured into signing the Treaty of Ksar Said/Bardo in May 1881. Needless to say such a blatant power grab did not please many Tunisians and within a month of signing a revolt had broken out in Sfax (Ṣafāqis); an ideal pretext for the French to stamp their authority on the territory. Gunboats were sent, the city was bombarded and “order” (a new order) was re-established. Tunisia became a French Protectorate which was said to have been “silently approved” by Britain and Germany.

Enter Dragut. The vessel became an instrument in the process of colonisation. this by taking “refugees” off the ironclad Alma which had been one of six vessels reducing part of the city of Sfax to rubble. The refugees were probably Europeans displaced by shelling of the quarter they occupied in Sfax, More directly, the Scottish built Dragut aided French power by carrying troops to Al Qayrawan/Kairouan in September of 1881, on this occasion refusing to take civilian passengers as the vessel had been contracted to carry only military personnel. In this way the French merchant vessel played its own particular role in the creation of a web of power and commercial relations which in one way or another remains with us today.

As a passing note on the ironies of history. The steamer Dragut for the next fifty years of its life at sea passed through the hands of various owners. In 1931 it had been renamed Hilal and was owned by a Turkish company. In March of that year on passage to Istanbul with a cargo of coals the vessel was wrecked in the Black Sea, in the domain of the power which the Dragut had helped contain and repress, albeit that by 1931 with the creation of the Republic of Turkey the Ottoman Empire had passed into history.

Meanwhile, Mercury was in Dunkirk and Thomas had to deal with repairs and the reluctance of Dragut‘s owners to acknowledge liability.

Sadok Bey Ruler of Tunis

Part 13 Aberdeen the Granite City, Mercury Refit and Captain Thomas in Sea Boots 1885

Aberdeen Receipts

We left Mercury and what remained of her crew unloading glass and fertiliser at the quayside in Dundee, about to make the short passage north to Aberdeen. New Year breaking with still no sign of an upturn in the world-wide trade for the schooner.

Doom and gloom was widespread. One correspondent for the Pall Mall Gazette bemoaned the state of shipbuilding. On a visit to yards on the River Tyne in late 1884 the journalist glimpsed an industry in depression. The famous Palmer’s yard was “closed but clean swept” with the “long slipways down which stately hulls used to glide . . . dry and covered in”. Smaller yards he found much the same. At the sharp end of the merchant marine, ships seeking charters, the slump was equally in evidence: “Right up the river the boats lay at their moorings”. For all the state of trade it is perhaps remarkable that Captain Thomas still found business and managed to keep his vessel at sea.

Aberdeen Free Press greeted the new year of 1885 with the message to readers: “Perhaps with the beginning of another year we may see the beginning of reviving times, and the prospect of some improvement on the rather sombre experiences of the year about to expire”. Not that everybody was full of doom and gloom. Aberdeen’s granite industry, for example, was of international importance. From the 1760s granite paving had found a ready market across Britain with Aberdeen’s harbour busy with the bustle of loading stone for export. By the 1880s Aberdeen was established as the Granite City. The industry had been mechanised although fine cutting and sculpting of the hard stone remained a highly skilled manual craft. At the time Mercury was battling to make the port of Dundee the skilled stone cutters of the granite industry had the opportunity to admire their work in the completion of Aberdeen Art Gallery and Industrial Museum. The new building, it was reported, “is designed in Italian architecture of the fifteenth century, and has all the grace of detail and simplicity of outline, and even of the softness and beauty of colour of Italian architecture”. Sadly, as this monument to skills of granite workers was being completed Alexander Macdonald of Kepplestone near Rubislaw quarry died, on 27th December 1884. Alexander Macdonald was son of the man who in the 1830s introduced steam-powered machinery to drive the granite industry forward. The son became a prominent figure in the industry and did much to promote the appreciation of fine arts in Aberdeen.

Alexander Macdonald, second from right, and Friends

Despite the emergence of competition from outside Aberdeen, including internationally, the city still managed to be pre-eminent in granite manufacture. In the 1880s many hundreds of men were employed in the stone-yards and the granite quarries of North East Scotland. Competition did eventually press upon the stone trade resulting in first relative decline and in time all but death of the industry. Mercury‘s pattern of trade, with coals more often than not being loaded for freighting overseas, was not such that it was likely ever to be taken granite from the city to another port. It would have been a pleasure to find the ship carrying worked stone from Aberdeen but nothing in the extant business papers suggest this was ever done. Coincidentally, in early 1885 the South Bridge Granite Works in Aberdeen’s Holburn area cut a nine foot high stone which was exported to Bahia in Brazil, in memory of John Ligertwood Paterson, who for some forty years had a medical practice at Pernambuco. Graced with a fine representation of the architectural crown which sits atop the university in Old Aberdeen the memorial displays the talents of granite cutters as well marble sculptors. John Ligertwood Paterson came from rural Midmar near Aberdeen, he died December 1882.


Granite Polishing circa 1900

And so there was Thomas, berthed in Dundee, Christmas 1884; three of his crew deserted and the captain worrying that more might go. With a brief visit to Aberdeen it was back to the Mercury preparing the ship for passage to his adopted city. He sailed north and on the 28th December was being taken across the bar by a local pilot. This was to be a lengthy visit to Aberdeen as Thomas got his wish of having a refit done by local men, “I alwise think the work is better done” in Aberdeen he said.

From the end of December 1884 until late March 1885 it was weeks at home for David Thomas with the ship in dry dock having its hull re-sheathed in copper. The major supplier of sheathing was Nevill Druce & Co of Llanelly, Wales. As “Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History” notes this company despite increasing competition remained an important supplier of this material (,_Druce_and_Co). Thirteen cases of sheathing were supplied comprising just over 1000 sheets of copper of differing weights with 8 bags of composition nails. Refit of Mercury was undertaken by the original builder, John Duthie & Sons. No doubt Mercury and similar vessels built at the yard were of high quality but the firm found itself at a disadvantage locally and nationally as it seems to have relied upon the older technologies of wooden built ships and was late in constructing its first composite, iron and wood, sailing ship in 1869 by which time other yards were beginning to manufacture steam-powered iron vessels. Having centred production on sailing ships Duthie’s had no engine building workshops, By the 1880s, according to website “Aberdeen Built Ships” the company had shifted most of its business to meeting the demands of the new expansive trawling industry of the city. Nonetheless, in 1885 when Mercury required re-sheathing in copper it’s safe to assume the old skills of wooden shipbuilding were expected to be found in Duthie’s yard. Certainly the refit was good enough to satisfy Lloyd’s Register who issued a certificate of seaworthiness on the 14th March 1885. When the bill came for the refit Thomas seemed to have been stoical about the charge of about £360 and regardless of how good a job was made he was pessimistic as to recouping the outlay. Wearily he told James Elsmie the cost was “quite enough for the times and fear you will not get it back again”. As we shall shortly see the coming passage across the Atlantic resulted in some anxiety on the captain’s part as to whether the sheathing of the hull was as good as it might have been,

Account for Copper Sheathing

Refit completed it was off south in ballast to Newcastle with the intention of loading coals. Brokers offered charters for Corfu and Brazil but David finally signed to accept some 570 tons to Buenos Aires. The previous year the ship had been to the Portuguese colony to the north. Now it was on to Argentina colonised by Spain in the early 16th century. James Elsmie was not pleased with the contract which in turn annoyed David. He, David Thomas, snapped back to the disgruntled senior partner “I am sorry the charter does not meet your views, we cannot get things as we like in these times”. Thomas had earlier told Elsmie that he was asking for a charter rate of 28 shillings per ton but the charter was signed at 24 shillings which presumably exasperated the Aberdonian. Having discharged his ballast and waiting for the opportunity to go under “the drops” to take on coals the vessels was tied to a buoy in the River Tyne which made it awkward for the captain’s coming-and-going in Newcastle but eventually the ship took on coals and was ready for the trans-Atlantic crossing on the 12th April 1885. David Thomas’s natural pessimism was not helped when, in expectation that Sunderland rather than Newcastle was the place to find cheap provisions, he discovered to his cost that a better deal could have been made in the latter city. Incidentally, Captain Thomas makes no mention of many ships tied up on the Tyne.

It turned out to be one of his more difficult crossings. Seventy eight days of toil: “we have got here at last all well. A miserable long passage no kinds of wind for getting along and now we have been here 3 days and no communication with the shore bad weather so by all appearance long detention”. A week later, on 9th July, he further explained:

“We had a miserable time in getting out no kind of winds for getting along. Never exceeded 2 or 3 knots from Finester to the equator. In the Bay [Biscay] we had a few days of bad weather from S.W. . . This is a miserable place no getting along without Sea Boots.” The captain’s negativity extended to local labour who, it seemed to him, lacked a firm commitment to work at a pace Thomas was concerned to as fast a turn around as possible, have the ship ready for the next passage. He said “people don’t care whether they work or not”. Making matters worse and undoubtedly with some hesitancy after his insistence that the ship’s refit had to be undertaken in Aberdeen, he told his Aberdeen friend “We are not quite so tight as we were before the repairs hope they have not missed some small place”. In other words the ship was taking some water. Not enough, however, to prevent it sailing. Miserable for the captain and the crew it might have been but not every body was so negative about the South American port in mid-winter. The Mulhall brothers who founded the Buenos Aires Standard wrote “In these roads [anchorages] the winter is preferable to summer, because the common winds are S.W. to N.W. which leaves a smooth river and easy communication”.

Buenos Aires early 19th century

With the coals unloaded Mercury was made ready to take on maize in bags, the ship’s next cargo. Tied up at the quayside at La Boca experiencing frost much like a Scottish winter, it was late July, David Thomas passed on his best wishes to James Elsmie and his sisters who, it seemed, were having a more leisurely time “taking the waters” at some English resort. Thomas took the waters of the Atlantic on 7th September making for Falmouth for orders.

As Robert Burns wrote “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”. Being at the mercy of the man-made forces of supply and demand gave the captain a hard time. In much the same way when Nature turned against him with contrary winds it was a case of using what was available and making for an alternative port. And so it was not Falmouth but Plymouth Mercury reached on the 4th November 1885. As the captain reported “we were taken with northerly wind yesterday so could not fetch Falmouth”. Orders were for Mercury to cross the Channel to discharge maize at Dunkirk. This worried him as he found the cargo was “heating” a circumstance he put down to the soil that the maize had been grown in rather than storage conditions. The wind which had carried the schooner to Plymouth he now found against him for leaving the Devon port. Little did he realise that soon his ship would be in a collision at sea, more costly and dangerous than lying in anchorage at Plymouth.

Aberdeen Art Gallery 1880s

Part 12 Sailing down to Rio and the Sweet Taste of Slavery 1884

Discharging Cargo by Lighter at Rio

Arriving in Rio on the 14th January 1884 David Thomas, because of the much earlier colonisation of South America by European “adventurers” in the 15th century, came to a nation which had gradually become an integral part of the chain of commodity exchange. Unlike the business of the Aberdeen built schooner the intention of the Spanish and Portuguese was, apart from bringing Christianity to indigenous peoples, seeking wealth, particularly silver and gold, taken by force: this looting, tribute and cultural imperialism brought parts of the continent into the European orbit.

David Thomas’s world of trade was quite different from that of “conquistadors”. The charters that he and his fellow merchant captains entered into were contractual agreements governed by the restraints of property, the movement of commodity prices, supply and demand, in other words, the competitive relations of capitalism.

January 1884, close on four hundred years since the arrival of Europeans in the so-called New World and many years before the impact of the recent nightmare of Brazilian President Bolsanaro overseeing the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the Covid-19 epidemic, David Thomas in his modest vessel once again faced the necessity of filling his holds with something that would turn a profit. Conquistador he was not.

Before sailing from London Thomas had seen to replacing chain plates, fore-staysail, jib and main gaff-sail as well as loading 550 tons of cement in barrels. Provisions taken on for the lengthy passage included port, brandy, whisky and lime juice. Nine new men had been signed on as crew with bonuses ranging from £1-19 shillings to £5-19 shillings awarded to John Meakin, the man replacing Galashan as Mate. Finding a second in command took 2 days of the captain’s time with potential candidates asking £8 or £9 monthly wages. John Meakin agreed to sign on at £6 with the rest of the crew at £3.

There had been various offers made for return charters from South America, such as carrying sugar and phosphate, but the master decided better deals could be made on the other side of the Atlantic. Thus prepared, Mercury left London on the 3rd December 1883. Forty three days later the ship arrived at Rio where the captain found “there is a little sickness here now but I can only hope we may keep clear of it”. His vessel, like others, could not tie up at the quayside having to stand-off for quarantine reasons. Nonetheless, by the end of January the 3667 barrels of cement had been discharged and having secured a charter to take 361 tons of sugar from Bahia to New York Mercury was made ready by loading 260 tons of ballast.

Bonus paid to Mate John Meakin

It was all very well having ballast aboard what he lacked was a full compliment of a crew. In early February 2 men deserted the ship and David was saying of his sailors: “a rough lot some has already gone and I think they will all go before we are finished discharging”. By the 15th of the month he told James Elsmie “I have much trouble with the crew” and at he beginning of March he wrote to Aberdeen that “I had to go on board in a hurry as there was trouble on board almost amounting to murder. Capt. Pearson of Newcastle came on board with me and stopped overnight”. There was no murder and the captain managed to discipline his men sufficient to sail for Bahia which was fourteen days from Rio. As said in a previous chapter having men in port was the moment of weakness in a chain of command whereas at sea the need for an efficient and safe running of a vessel could and did act as a self-disciplining force in the management of men. Not that crewmen necessarily felt any less animosity working for a ship and master simply the realities of a passage demanded seamanship and some degree of discipline. David Thomas recognised this but also knew that once in port men could just as easily resort to desertion: “this fortnight at sea has straightened them out but they are a bad treacherous lot”. Hoping to ease the situation, remove what he saw as troublesome elements the captain discharged the cook and the bosun, writing that “he had no trouble since. I hope to finish the voyage in peace”. Peace in the crew was not reflected in the conditions at anchor off Bahia: “the weather is very disagreeable here heat rain and musketoes [sic] so there is very little peace”. Eventually loaded with 361 tons of sugar the ship sailed for New York arriving there on 18th March 1884. Some damage was found in his cargo of sugar; ninety one of the 8000 bags loaded had to be replaced at the ship’s expense. Yet more frustration and a small drain on profits.

Brazil’s sugar industry was another example of the global reach of Europe as merchants and monarchs looked further and further afield for precious metals and raw materials. Brazilian sugar plantations, led by Portuguese power, emerged in the early 16th century, beginning with a mixture of wage and slave labour. Attempting to develop indigenous peoples as the pool of potential workers the colonisers found that locals with their knowledge of the region, family and tribal ties and very different patterns work and leisure refused to be disciplined. So slave labour from Africa became the staple. Tens of thousands of Africans were taken by traders and shipped to South America with an estimated 60,000 in Brazil before the mid 17th century. The country became one of the key users of African slaves and saw its sugar industry rise to become an attractive commodity for European investment, especially Dutch capital. As is the way with global competition new producers entered the market in sugar and the Brazilian industry went into relative decline; this decline was also apparent in its share of the local economy and the country’s exports, falling from 30% in 1810 to 10% by the 1880s, with coffee supplanting the sweet stuff as leading export.

One of the firms which supplied plantation machinery in 19th and 20th centuries was William McKinnon of Aberdeen

This was the historical background to the sugar David Thomas loaded in March 1884. As anxious as he might have been about the viability of the charter he would no doubt have been happy at the thought that he did not face the hazards that earlier merchantmen had confronted: between 1589-1591 some 69 ships with cargoes of sugar valued at over £100,000 had been seized by English privateers. Traders countered this danger by travelling in convoy. Thomas finding ninety ones bags of sugar damaged was little compared to capture by privateers although economic cycles and business swings could just as effectively end the career of a merchant ship.

David Thomas’s letters home from New York are full of the oh-so familiar stories of difficult times with the now customary acceptance of a charter of “refined petroleum”, 13000 cases, destined for Port Said, Egypt. Passage to the Mediterranean was chosen as the captain was determined to then make for a home port with the intention of going into dry dock to overhaul the ship’s hull and its copper.

Mercury sailed from New York on the 4th June 1884, arriving at Port Said on 24th July where the captain immediately set about finding a charter home. His preference was to take barley from Cyprus, hoping his “oil people” in the Egyptian port could assist. In the event there was nothing doing from Cyprus but there was barley from Gaza, that land at present, and since 1967, under the military and economic domination of Israel. With Palestinian peoples subject to blockade, oppression and when it suits the Israeli state bombing. As the late Mike Marqusee wrote “it’s the Palestinians, not Israelis, who are besieged, isolated and vulnerable”. Indeed, the words of Captain Thomas as he contemplated the depressed state of trading from Gaza could be said to capture a sense of the present day nightmare for Palestinians: “it is hard times we have come to at last and I doubt better prospect of a change for the better in our time”.

David Thomas had no worries about attack from the air by aircraft built and supplied by the USA, no the merchantman was only bothered by his choice of mate, John Meakin. With barley loaded and sailing with orders to be given at Falmouth he regretted the fact that he was not entering the English port as he was desperate to get rid of his second in command. No reason is given. Thomas was stuck with him at least until making the port of Antwerp as he’d been directed at Falmouth. Antwerp was reached on 1st November, the cargo of 520 tons discharged and two cargoes of glass loaded, one for Dundee and the other for Aberdeen as well as phosphate for the former town.

Ruminating on the sorry state of trade for wooden sailing ships David turned his thoughts to the larger condition of the merchant marine and recognising that the collapse in charter rates for his vessel was born of the tonnage of ships chasing business, especially the number of iron ships available. He was drawn to the subject by his intention to have the ship and cargo insured for the relatively short passage from Belgium to Scotland “as it would be hard now to loose all should anything happen after so long being full insured”. It seems underwriters were showing little enthusiasm and generosity for insuring wooden vessels: as he said,

“I am sorry for all concerned that the wood ships are so little thought of but I think underwriters on Mercury has not had much to complain of as yet. I know the whole leaning of shippers is for iron but the whole trouble is is the amount of tonnage afloat, perhaps before long some owners [will] see they have overdone the thing.”

But to keep the vessel worthy of insurance it had to maintained to a standard acceptable to Lloyd’s surveyors. To this end the the captain had been putting out feelers, looking for builders who could do decent work at prices which were not crippling. John Westacott of Appledore in Devon for example offered to re-class the ship at a reasonable price. But Thomas was determined to make it to Aberdeen rather than sail for Devon which he said was too distant and in winter season “may be long in getting round” and perhaps more importantly the east coast in his opinion gave better work.

Leaving the Belgium port on the 8th December it was another twelve days before the schooner arrived safely in Dundee. A distance of just over 400 nautical miles making a daily average of 35 miles per day. Foul weather had made for a hard passage. Thomas gave a brief description of the passage across, capturing a sense of the buffeting and the way in which sailing vessels could be captive of the weather. He wrote that having left Antwerp, sailed north east to Flushing which took two days; he arrived there on the 10th December, “that night blew a gale from west had to go outside [to open water for safety] . . . I could not get inshore again. Alwise blowing gales from the westward we have been in off Buchan Ness and south again to near Flamborough Head alwise from 50 to 100 miles off. On Thursday night off Girdleness so far as we could see it when the wind went north-west and fetched in” to Dundee on 20th.

Mercury was to lie in the Scottish port, south of Aberdeen for Christmas. Wagons were scarce at quayside so discharging was slow, compounded by customs personnel not normally working on the 25th and asking “too much for extra work” on a holiday. In other words more delay. This was bad enough, made worse when three of his sailors deserted. There was, however, the compensation for the captain that he could, and did, take a steamer from Dundee to Aberdeen and presumably spent some time with family and friends over Christmas.

Busy scene at quayside at Antwerp