In Part 1 we left David Thomas and the schooner Mercury at Wellington, New Zealand. A long way from home port of Aberdeen and facing the relatively short hop to New South Wales Australia. Setting sail on the 14th October Thomas had chartered for a cargo of coals in the British colony which meant sailing in ballast. But needs must, at least there was something to be gained in Newcastle.
Arriving there about 24th October Thomas had the ballast discharged, preparing to load 538 tons of coals. It’s worth reflecting on how 150 years later the dynamic of coal has changed. Now in the age of the Anthropocene, the age where human activity has profoundly altered the Earth’s climate; where the use of fossil fuels has brought on potential global catastrophe, that the trade in coal is now not just largely a question of the hazards presented to miners but the hazards to the human and other species.
Paradoxically, David Thomas’s sailing ship used the “green” energy of the wind and tides to take him to the customers for fossil fuel. To this extent the Mercury’s carbon footprint must have been relatively small.
Having readied his schooner 538 tons were loaded, a job done by “lumpers” trudging back and fore, coal emptied down chutes to the hold where men trimmed the coal, ensuring that cargo was level and well stowed. Yet more arduous labour and dangerous as coal could shift while being trimmed. Trimming was very important as the stability of the vessel depended upon well-ordered cargo.
Consigned by the Pacific Mail Steam Ship Company the coal was destined for discharging at Yokohama, Japan about 5000 miles port to port. Mercury sailed for Japan on the 17 November and arrived on 7th January 1873. Japan was then in the throes of being integrated to the dynamics of American and European global business. Coal was a key element in this, with western capital forcing the Japanese state to open its markets to overseas trade. As it happened at the very time James Elsmie’s ship was carrying coals from Australia’s Newcastle to Japan, another North East of Scotland man was making something of coal in Japan. This was merchant adventurer Thomas Blake Glover who, following a bankruptcy, was then managing Japan’s only advanced mine at Takashima close to Nagasaki.
Within three days the master had signed a contract to take 455 tons of rice to Sydney. Broker on this occasion was Walsh, Hall & Co an American firm that established itself following the gun boat diplomacy of the 1850s which opened Japan to western traders. And so, with nine man crew including David Thomas, it was back to Australia for Mercury where on 14th March the cargo of rice was discharged. So swift was the double passage -Sydney-Yokohama-Sydney- of three months and 14 days that the Sydney Morning Herald informed it readers that this was fastest voyage ever made to and from these Home Colonies . . . a voyage never before equalled by any vessel in these waters. The Mercury came west of New Caledonia and reports moderate weather whole passage.
But as there is no rest for the wicked so there was no rest for Thomas. The ship was towed to Newcastle where yet another cargo of coal was loaded, 550 tons from the New Lambton Colliery which had been worked since about 1870. Then there was re-provisioning including not only brandy but also the seaman’s defence against scurvy, lime juice.
About 25th March the ship sailed for Nagasaki (arriving on 3rd May) and then onward to Yokohama, making that port about a fortnight later where Thomas once again went through the procedure of unloading. Having cleared the hold 160 tons of shingle ballast was taken aboard. With settlement of this leg of his maiden voyage David Thomas calculated that personally he had been making a wage of about £12 a month whereas his crew’s wages ranged from about £3 to £4 per month.
The master’s next Charter Party was with Smith, Baker & Company of Yokohama yet another western firm which took advantage of the opened markets in Japan but at the same time was, like others, contributing to the expansion of the Meiji economy which gave a foundation for future developments in the early 20th century. The contract with Smith, Baker & Co had Mercury carrying tea loaded at Yokohama (337 tons) and a further 373 tons taken on board at Hyogo. In carrying tea Mercury was emulating the once glorious days of the tea clippers racing across the oceans bringing expensive new year’s growth to wealthy clients. Notable in this commercial struggle was the Aberdeen built Thermopylae, launched 1868, registered as 947 tons and with the famous Aberdeen Bow. However, the more modest Mercury although facing the same hazards as the better known clipper, and with the fast Aberdeen Bow,was destined to be “tramp” sailing vessel. Indeed, the famous clipper ships of the tea trade were themselves to succumb. quickly to forces of change and become vessels more likely to carry cargoes which were not wanted urgently in a luxury market. Steam power and the Suez canal eventually consigned them to the “Great Days of Sail”.
But no matter how old technology the sailing ship was when Mercury docked at Pier 36, New York on 10th December Captain Thomas was able to call on the the cutting-edge messenger service of the Transatlantic Telegraph to inform James Elsmie that his ship had arrived safely. Whereas, before the introduction of the electric telegraph it might have taken many weeks for the owner to know the ship’s situation now master and owner could be in touch swiftly if not quite instantaneously: the pilot boarded the vessel on the 9th, it docked on the 10th and James Elsmie in Aberdeen had the message on the 11th December.
Mercury was next towed to Hunter’s Point to discharge boxes of tea and load 12,900 cases of what was described as oil which probably meant kerosene. But before sailing for Smyrna in the Mediterranean with the inflammable cargo David Thomas purchased some yards of canvas and replaced the ship’s mainsail. Mercury was then towed from Hunter’s Point to open water. Once again steam power was used to quickly shift the vessel, ready for seaward passage.
On February 11th 1874 James Elsmie received a telegram from Malta telling him that the ship was safe and well and making for Smyrna with the oil. Thomas arrived there about 1st April. The vessel must have been showing signs of wear and tear as Thomas had the decks re-caulked and yet again took on a cargo, this time it was 491 tons of linseed and 60 tons of “humming stone” bound for Hull. At last David Thomas was making towards the home port.
And Mercury was off. She was in Hull by early June. Unload and look to to the next passage was the usual procedure. But this time it was different. No doubt with an eye to getting the schooner shipshape the captain hired riggers to clean and tidy the yards. Not only this even the sextant and telescope were overhauled and cleaned plus some additional caulking to decks. Then it was a tow to the dry dock at Grimsby and then into the Union Graving Dock at Hull in preparation for the ship and its crew’s great moment: returning to the home port of Aberdeen.
Pride in the vessel was paramount. In the graving dock the hull of the ship was smartened up with a coat of black paint from the ship’s rail to the copper sheathing. Some of the sheathing was replaced with old copper being sold to John Powell for the not so princely sum of £2-14shillings. Not content with this he went further and had the ship’s name and port of registry (Aberdeen) on bow and stern repainted and gilded. He even bought new carpenter’s tools, cordage and canvas as well as buying current gazetteers of world tide tables and lights. And, unsurprisingly, Thomas made sure that provisions for the journey from Hull to Aberdeen were up the mark with brandy, whisky and gin,
Crew and captain must have been buoyant when on 8th July Mercury was towed by the steam tug Monarch to open water. Sadly this one moment of glorious return to Aberdeen is missing from the documents. While we have great details on most of the voyages this period has not been saved leaving it to our imagination to picture and reconstruct the relief, pleasure and welcomes that greeted the ship and crew as they crossed the bar at Aberdeen harbour, making for families and friends, For something like 33 months crew and vessel had sailed thousands of miles, always in hope of a fair wind and good business. What David Thomas, James Elsmie and the rest of the trading and manufacturing world could not know was that “depression” was about to hit global capitalism and good business would become problematic.