Maiden Voyage Part 2

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.

Queen’s Wharf Newcastle 1875 Courtesy State Library Victoria

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.

Yokohama 1860s

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.

Life of the Schooner Mercury

On Saturday 16 September 1871 the three-masted Aberdeen schooner Mercury was launched. Built at John Duthie’s Footdee (Fittie) shipyard the spanking new vessel was described as handsome. This 361 ton schooner was designed for global trading and in the twenty years she sailed the world’s oceans detailed records of voyages, cargoes and lives of the late 19th century merchantmen were kept by master of the vessel David Thomas and the vessel’s principal owner James Elsmie of Aberdeen.

Drawing on hundreds of the ship’s documents I intend capturing a sense of what it was to be a merchant seaman in the final days of sail.

Aberdeen in the 1870s was a thriving city. It had connected to the national rail network in 1850 but the harbour remained the transport hub through which most imports and exports moved. Local exports such as grain, granite and textiles all passed through the harbour with imports arriving daily.

Mercury’s registered owner was George Elsmie & Son, a business which grew from the early years of the 19th century, the founder having business interests in shipping, including whaling as well as managing the Gilcomston Brewery just north of the city centre. From an office on the quayside George’s maritime business prospered and it was from there that his sons, George junior and James learned their trades. By 1871 when Mercury came off the shipyard stocks it was James that ran the business. His older brother George having moved to work in Southampton in the 1840s.

The schooner of 1871 was the second of Elsmie’s vessels named Mercury. The first. an iron-hulled ship, was dashed against the North Pier at the harbour’s entrance on 30 December 1866. She broke in two and sadly the cook John Hutcheon drowned. Like most of Elsmie boats this one was a coastal trader, on its final voyage was carrying coals Sunderland to Aberdeen. The coal trade became the core business of Elsmie and Son and frequently the only cargo the later ocean-going Mercury could find.

The Maiden Voyage Part 1

Perhaps having witnessed the iron hull of his vessel split in two in 1866 James Elsmie decided the replacement Mercury would be built of traditional material: wood. Registered A1 by Lloyds with carvel construction and boasting a female masthead figure the relatively small ship left its home port in November 1871, heading for Mill Dam at South Shields. Arriving safely, Welshman Captain Thomas telegrammed the owner telling him the ship arrived safely and that “it appears to work well”. Confidence in seaworthiness had however to be matched with finding suitable customers; Mercury after all was a working ship. It had to pay its way and the £8000 spent on building had to be recouped. From the start David Thomas had to negotiate with agents which in November meant working with broker Roby who hinted that there might be cargoes to Messina, Alexandria and Brindisi. But this came to nothing and eventually Thomas chartered coals to Palermo.

First telegrams to Aberdeen telling owner of progress of ship

This was no Mediterranean cruise. With five men taken on as crew at Aberdeen the work of loading the vessel began. With the help of a steam tug and a local pilot Mercury docked for coaling. Thereafter coal trimmers had to be hired, water taken onboard, provisions for the trip to the Med. including “filling medicine chest”; and finally yet another tow to open water with the assistance of the pilot. These were all working expenses as were any harbour dues which needed paying. Wages to the crew varied with the number of men employed. The vessel left home port with a core crew of known and respected men. Thereafter new men would be taken on or discharged at the ports visited.

Ship’s expenses at Shields

With time spent confirming a charter (customer contract) preparing the ship and finding weather to take Mercury south east to Sicily the schooner finally arrived at Palermo in February 1872. Global trade in the age of sail was as extensive as anything found in the present century but much slower. As with all legs of a voyage the ideal situation was to find a local charter and avoid sailing in ballast (without a cargo). Find a “Charter Party”, and find yet more. This was the imperative which pushed the owner, the master, the crew and the ship to travel the world’s oceans.

From Palermo David Thomas took his ship to Licata on the south coast of Sicily where he oversaw the loading of bags of pumice and 250 tons of sulphur. Sulphur mining was an industry which, as Sir Thomas Oliver described it, was barbaric in the exploitation of labour. Miner’s health was destroyed; young boys carrying immense loads were crippled. But it was all part of global trade and of no concern to the master of Mercury. His job was to find a cargo, load and move on. And move on he did, crossing the Atlantic, taking the ship in April to Sandy Hook to be towed to the inner harbour of New York.

April 1872 Thomas signed a contract to carry general cargo from the States to Australia and New Zealand with no immediate prospect of returning to the home port of Aberdeen.

Preparation for the long trip included purchasing four charts for the pacific passage. Ready as he would ever be David Thomas sailed from the eastern seaboard of the United States. It was mid June 1872. The vessel berthed at Port Chalmers, Dunedin in September, after 109 days passage, where after discharging mixed cargo including tobacco, cut nails and turpentine 515 sacks of grain were loaded by lighter along with other cargo. Then it was ready for the off. Eighteen tons of ballast was taken aboard, and after advertising in the Otago Daily Times that Mercury made passage first for Wellington on the North Island of New Zealand and then onward to Newcastle in Australia; Mercury set sail on 2 October. Four days later she berthed at Wellington on the 6th. Her arrival was greeted by the Wellington Independent:

No doubt celebrating the “ordinary passage” and looking to the future David Thomas bought, at favourable rates, a case of Loch Katrine whisky and a case of Hennessy brandy from the shippers Turnbull & Co. And as the newspaper wrote there was no time to tarry. Thomas was away on the 14 October, on this occasion in ballast but with Mrs and Mr Batement and child and a Mr A. Haines as passengers bound for Newcastle, Australia.