Early American Trade with China

Trade Routes & Trading Strategies

Economics of the China Trade

Contrasting Views of Trade

Life on a Merchant Ship


Teacher Background

Clipper Ships and Crews

By the 18th century, sailing ships had become fast and effective. They were used in war as naval ships and in trade as merchant ships. At the end of the 1700s, long distance trade had become so important that ships were being built with larger and more elaborate sails in order to make them faster. By the 1830s the first clipper ships were being built in Baltimore shipyards. Clipper ships were distinguished from other sailing ships by their narrow design, three high masts, and numerous sails controlled by elaborate rigging. The emphasis was on speed, and these ships dominated long distance commerce until the late 1860s when steam-powered vessels proved to be even faster.

The Crew

As trade expanded during the 19th century, so many sailing ships were in use that the demand for skilled seamen increased. However, demand outstripped supply and ships’ captains were forced to hire whoever they could find.

A merchant ship would usually have a crew of fifty to sixty men, twenty to thirty of whom were general seamen. These seamen were at the bottom of the crew’s hierarchy of command and were mainly engaged in the dangerous and strenuous jobs on board the ship. These men often had few job skills of any sort, let alone sailing experience, and came on board ill-prepared for the experience of a South Atlantic voyage where ice storms and freezing temperatures were common. Already in poor health and malnourished, these men embarked on a job that required strength, agility, discipline, hardiness, and an ability to live in very cramped quarters on a minimal ration of food (much of which became rancid during the voyage), fresh water, and rum. The job was dangerous, and seamen were not well paid. But for men who were having a hard time finding employment (ex-convicts and unskilled laborers), the brisk clipper ship trade created many jobs.

A certain number of skilled craftsmen were required in addition to the general seamen. Sailing ships were either entirely or mostly wood except for the sails and rigging, and craftsmen were needed to keep the ship in good repair. A carpenter was responsible for determining how much wood should be brought on a voyage and for making repairs to the ship on route. He would also be called upon to make the occasional coffin. A cooper made barrels for carrying provisions and for doing odd metalwork around the ship.

Every ship was required to have a licensed surgeon on board who made sure the ship’s medicine chest was adequately stocked before leaving port and kept sick men segregated and cared for while at sea. The ship’s cook rationed out provisions and prepared meals. Sail makers were constantly patching and repairing sails that were torn by winds or worn out from rubbing against ropes and spars.

Among the ship’s officers were the Captain who had total responsibility for the ship and the crew. The First, Second, and Third Mates carried out his orders. The Quartermaster did the steering. The Boatswain and his mates acted as foremen, responsible for directing the work of the seamen adjusting the sails. The Purser kept the ship’s books and arranged for provisions. All ships had at least one Gunner on board, who kept watch and manned a gun if the ship needed to protect itself. Merchant ships had a “supercargo” on board, a person directly responsible to the financiers of the voyage and responsible for selling the cargo and carrying out the business transactions at each port of call.

The Sails

When looking at a picture of a clipper ship, the most obvious feature is the sails. Clipper ships had two to three thousand yards of canvas sail, supported on three main masts by an elaborate system of ropes, knots, and hardware (the rigging). The speed and direction of the ship were controlled by the sails that were taken in or let out depending on the navigational adjustments that needed to be made. As winds changed, the sails needed to be adjusted. If winds suddenly became gusty, an entire mast could be snapped if the sails were not quickly brought in. Adjusting the sails required a number of men, who would climb the mast, walk out on each side of the beam supporting the sail (called the “yard”), and in unison gather it up or let it out. Seamen sometimes lost their footing and fell, which usually resulted in death or serious injury if they landed on the ship’s deck, or drowning if they fell into the water.

Life on Board

Seamen’s sleeping quarters were usually just below deck at the front of the ship in an area called the “forecastle.” At night, half the crew slept while the other half was on duty; every four hours they switched. Seamen slept in tight wooden berths six feet long and 22 inches wide, or in hammocks which were even smaller—only 14 inches wide.

Food on board the ship was carefully rationed and was often rotten or full of maggots after a while at sea. Stopping at ports was always exciting because it was a chance to bring on fresh provisions—even some fresh vegetables and fruit for which the crew was usually desperate. The bulk of the seamen’s menu consisted of bread, biscuits, salted fish or meat, barley and other grains, coffee, and grog (one part rum to two parts water). The lack of adequate food weakened the seamen as the journey progressed, and it was normal for more and more of the men to be unable to show up for work as the months at sea wore on. Scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency which caused bleeding, tremors, and eventually death, was common. Captains knew that giving their crew lemon or lime juice helped prevent and treat scurvy, but many captains still did not provide an adequate amount of it to keep the crew healthy during a long voyage. The ships officers ate and slept separately from the rest of the crew and ate better food, so they were less likely to be afflicted with scurvy or to fall sick with the illnesses that made the rounds.

Common Problems

Malnutrition and close living and working quarters meant that illnesses spread quickly among the crew. A “sick bay” area was designated in attempt to segregate sick crew members, but it was close to impossible to effectively contain a contagious disease on board a ship. When seamen died they were wrapped up in a piece of sail canvas or put in a simple wooden coffin and thrown overboard.

Living and working in such close quarters with the same people for months at sea resulted in frequent conflicts. The additional strain of boredom, fatigue, and malnutrition aggravated the problem. Seamen were searched for weapons as soon as they came on board, but they spent free time creating weapons out of things they found around the ship. Fist fights were common, as were crimes like theft, stabbing, and attempted murder.


Captains had to keep their crew in line because everyone was confined to the ship together for long periods of time. When crew members injured each other in fights or were distracted by disagreements, the crew’s effectiveness at sailing diminished. Even a more frightening prospect for most captains was the prospect of a mutiny. If a seaman refused to work and encouraged others to do the same, the ship and everyone on it would soon be endangered. People had to work to keep the ship in one piece during bad storms. Seamen who caused trouble could not be replaced, at least not until the ship reached its next port. To keep strict control on board the ship, the Captain, First Mate, and Boatswain often resorted to harsh discipline. For common misdemeanors like talking back to a ship’s officer or working too slowly, seamen were put in chains on the deck for a few days with no protection from the weather. For more serious crimes like theft or fighting, men were tied to a mast and flogged. If the captain believed a man had attempted to create a mutiny or insurrection, the accused could be hanged. For crimes that affected everyone on board, like stealing food or water, a man could be made to “run the gauntlet.” In such cases, all the crewmen, each holding a short piece of rope fashioned into a whip, lined up into two rows, and the guilty party was forced to walk between the two columns so that everyone got a chance to contribute to the punishment.

Since captains often used harsh (and sometimes unjust) discipline, they were often not well liked by the crew. With the added stresses of life at sea and poor treatment, the prospect of seamen taking over the ship was very real, and mutinies occurred from time to time. For every successful mutiny many more were planned or attempted. Even if a mutiny was unsuccessful, the rest of the voyage became a nightmare for the ship’s captain and officers, who now realized the crew was desperately unhappy and wanted them dead.

Entertainment and Recreation

Crews on a merchant ship destined for China could expect to be at sea for about nine months, although the length of the journey depended on the route being taken. Little entertainment was available, especially for the majority of the crew who were illiterate. Officers could read novels, play musical instruments, play board games, and write letters to friends and family. Ordinary seamen sang songs as they worked and also for entertainment, prepared tobacco substitutes out of things they found around the ship, fished, gambled (although it was often strictly forbidden by the captain), were tattooed, read or wrote letters for illiterate friends, sewed and repaired their clothing, and looked after exotic pets like monkeys and colorful birds which they acquired while anchored in tropical ports. Although both fighting and gambling were prohibited by ship captains, fist fights provided entertainment plus a chance to place bets.


Life on board a merchant ship in the 18th and 19th centuries was dangerous, difficult, and tedious. However, life on land for unskilled or manual laborers was also fraught with hardship. In some ways, seamen may have even been better off than family and friends on land, since they were guaranteed a ration of food everyday, however poor it may have been. In the days before any kind of social safety net or welfare system existed, having any kind of job was more desirable than being destitute.

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