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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
switched. Seamen slept in tight wooden berths six feet long and 22 inches wide,
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
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
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
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
sick with the illnesses that made the rounds.
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
and malnutrition aggravated the problem. Seamen were searched
for weapons as soon as they came on board, but they spent free time
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
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
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
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
on the route
taken. Little entertainment was available, especially for the
majority of the crew who were illiterate. Officers could read
play board games, and write letters to friends and family.
Ordinary seamen sang songs as they worked and also for entertainment,
substitutes out of things they found around the ship, fished,
gambled (although it was
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
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
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.