Ship shape: Captains have creatively stowed cargo for centuries
The tale of international shipping in the Chesapeake is as long as the history of European contact. From beads to barrels, tobacco to tomatoes, cargoes of all kinds have entered and left the Bay since the first known Spanish visitors in 1570.
Solving the problems of successfully loading and delivering intact cargoes began in antiquity. Modern technology's ability to explore shipwrecks has pushed back our insights on this trade to the edge of the Bronze Age. Inventories of ship cargo remains at Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun in Turkey show that as early as 3,360 B.C., well-developed trading networks crossed this sometimes treacherous reach of the Mediterranean Sea.
Goods flowed between Africa and Turkey, conducted by polyglot crews from Egypt, Cyprus and Syria. Copper and tin - the primary metals in the alloy bronze - were poured while molten into ingots shaped like animal "hides," more or less rectangular with four "legs" at the corners. This enabled easy handling by a couple of men as well as secure points to tie the ingots down during shipping.
Throughout antiquity, liquids were shipped in graceful necked pottery vases called amphorae. The amphora was as close to a containerized cargo unit as one could get in those times. While their dimensions varied with their purpose from narrow to almost globular, most had two handles, were relatively tall, had stoppered necks and were standardized by their manufacturers.
Handles were embossed (in the clay before firing) with their country of origin, using symbols easily understood by illiterate workers: a rose, a crab or bull's head, for example.
No amphora could stand on its own bottom because each ended in a point or knob. This may seem a counterproductive design, but they stacked in close contact with each other, necks nesting amongst bottoms, the rounded bellies fitting like eggs in a carton, so that sometimes more than a thousand of them fit into the rotund hull of a late Bronze Age sailing vessel.
As men carried them aboard, they cushioned them from the rigid hull of the ship or each other with dunnage - a layer of elastic matting or bundles of twigs - that served the same role as today's ubiquitous foam peanut.
This packing system was so effective that in many shipwrecks, the amphorae lie exactly as they were packed at Alexandria, Rome or Constantinople.
Modern chemical, even DNA, analyses of residues lingering in the porous clay, show that while many of these amphorae transported vast quantities of wine, they were also used for oregano, olive oil or, in smaller jars, the popular, smelly, fermented Pompeii fish sauce called garum. A garum amphora was found at Masada, Israel, as well as in wrecks from as early as 2,500 years ago.
Ships then, and for thousands of years afterward, were what the 20th century shipping industry called "break-bulk tramp" carriers. Shipmasters sought cargo where and when they could, scrabbling to maximize the space aboard, serving multiple ports en route to a final destination and trying to make the highest profit for the owners and themselves. They stuffed in small shipments around major items of marble sculptures or segments of huge stone columns.
Throughout the history of maritime commerce, many ships never made it to port, and those found on the sea floor allow the only glimpse of trade at the time they were lost.
The supply ships from England to the early Virginia Colony, on the other hand, left in the historical record vast lists of materiel, manifests that detail the items considered indispensable for establishing a foothold in the hostile New World: hoes, axes, saws, bolts of cloth, food for settlers inept at farming and trade goods for Native Americans. Ships returning carried whatever they could find: hand-split wooden clapboard, furs, test samples of various minerals, sailing ship spar stock and written accounts promoting the colony as an unfolding paradise.
When tobacco became the region's cash crop, the customary and eventually standard shipping container was the hogshead, a parallel-sided wooden cask into which bunches or "hands" of the partially dried leaf were mechanically compacted to allow a higher density of what was by nature a very light, loose cargo. Many old barns around the Chesapeake still have these screw-operated presses, called "prizes," beneath the rafters where cut tobacco was hung until packed.
In 1664, 50,000 hogsheads were shipped from the Maryland Chesapeake.
Ship space was valuable and the more weight in tons of hogsheads that could be stowed, the more profit per voyage could be made. The hogsheads, which contained relatively close to uniform weight, were rolled from the curing barns to the waters' edge by hand or with the help of oxen. Many of these routes retain their "Rolling Road" name.
Casks were rolled up ramps or lifted aboard with rope slings. Once stowed as tightly as possible in the ship's hold, the spaces between the round casks might be stuffed or "steeved" tightly with malleable cargo or suitably shaped objects. Imagine inventorying such a cargo, stopping pilferage or spoilage, then unraveling the whole mess in port at the other end after months at sea with storms shaking the contents, rats chewing it, and saltwater that leaked through the hull, deck and hatches soaking it.
Plantation owners preferred to sell their crop directly to the ship, because rolling it any distance broke up the leaf and resulted in a lower price. They often struck a better bargain for themselves directly with the captain, and might sometimes avoid the royal customs tax if they could freight a ship on some remote tributary.
If, on the other hand, ships from the tobacco fleet had to make a number of stops to gather a cargo, the vessel's trim (balance) and sailing characteristics had to be adjusted for each segment of the voyage, so tobacco was often "lightered" on small barges or chartered sloops to a central point.
This was expensive work, and as an incentive, William Fitzhugh, of Calvert County on the Patuxent, wrote to factors (agents) in England who were sending out Maryland-bound captains that he would have the product brought to him, thus saving them the labor and time of assembling a cargo. Fitzhugh, of course, having this head start on the market, offered the farmers within his trading range assured rates favorable to himself.
It was at lading that settlers or colonists enclosed letters to their factors in England asking that part of the proceeds be distributed as letters of credit to various merchants. For example, a letter from Fitzhugh dated July 1687 noted that Thomas Harris, haberdasher, was to be paid "5 pounds sterling, (and for) Plate A pair of middle Sized Silver Candlesticks...snuffers and snuff dish, Half a dozen Trenches Salts, the remainder in a handsom Silver Basin marked WFF." In this same letter, Fitzhugh inquired if some of his credit might buy recently vacated land in America.
Mail, in fact dispatches or communication of any sort, travelled haphazardly on any available ship. A written request, order for merchandise, or even royal edict could wander the larger part of a year before the writer received a response, if these packets were received and read at all.
Hugh Jones, a botanist bound for Maryland, wrote to England in 1697: "We entered the Capes of Virginia where we met with several shipps bound homeward but (the ship) on whom I sent you some letters was taken (captured, by pirates or Spaniards) as I heard afterward."
It was not until 1754 that a sporadic, dedicated trans-Atlantic service, mostly for military dispatches, was inaugurated. This meant that one could expect a letter posted in London on the first of January to be read in New York during the third week of February, lightning fast speed in those times. Even momentous events would be weeks or months before being reported in the New World, or the Old. News of the death of King George II took six weeks to reach America. This lag remained the case from roughly 1688 until 1818.
New York merchants Jeremiah Thompson, Isaac Wright & Son (William), Francis Thompson and Benjamin Marshall owned four ships: Pacific, Amity, Courier and James Monroe. In 1812, while the United States was at war with Britain, they conceived the idea to send out what they named a "packet ship," eastbound from New York at 10 a.m. on the 5th of every month, and from Liverpool, another packet ship, westbound, the 1st of every month.
In 1818, after the Treaty of Ghent settled matters between Britain and the United States, and trade with the United States burgeoned, the merchants commenced their venture. The foretopsails of each ship carried a "Black Ball" marking and they called themselves the Black Ball Line. This distinctive mark enabled ship spotters with telescopes at either end to announce that a packet ship, not just some tramp, would soon arrive.
This was the birth of the first regular trans-Atlantic service for mail or dispatches, general cargo and passengers. The trade was soon joined by more ships and more lines as the bold idea caught on. Aggressive skippers and tough crews manned the packets, and speed was always paramount. James Monroe, which incorporated features from the speedy Baltimore clippers that earned their fame during the War of 1812, crossed eastbound in 28 days.
Six years into this schedule, Amity, westbound to New York, was navigating by dead reckoning through fog, unable to take sextant sights of sun or stars. It ran onto the sandbars off the long, inhospitable coast of Squan Beach, NJ, and was wrecked. The weather being light, no lives were lost, and some of the cargo from its upper holds was taken ashore before the ship broke up.
Amity is significant to me because in 1955, the summer I turned 17, fishermen found her wreck 330 yards off the beach in front of my family's summer cottage.
I watched firsthand, as early scuba and hard-hat divers salvaged the remnants of her long-lost cargo and brought them through Manasquan Inlet and ashore to wondering eyes. There was a remarkable polyglot of barrels, bundles and stacks containing paper-wrapped steel cutlery from Sheffield, England, Italian harness chains, spun brass unfinished kettles from Morocco, barrels of muskrat traps, mixed lots packets of labeled needles almost identical to today's, bone-handled penknives and thousands of gold-plated metal buttons. I still have a number of the smaller artifacts.
Barrels, perhaps originally consigned for a particular merchant, were easily rolled along the waterfront or up inclined planes into a waiting wagon by dock workers. They were the cargo containers that served as amphorae once had. At the base of Amity's cargo pyramid were long bundles of wrought iron bar stock and tons of tin ingots - shades of that Bronze Age wreck thousands of years earlier.
The sheer complexity of such a cargo, stuffed in every nook and cranny of Amity's hull, must have been a clerk's, and then the insurer's, nightmare. It must have taken weeks to load and unload, with crews of stevedores hauling hooking and tackling it out piece and bundle at a time, and some bloke sitting there on a barrel tallying it all against the manifest. This inefficiency continued at least another 100 years.
It was 1829 before the first steam locomotive ran freight on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The proximity of a railhead adjacent the harbor would have major implications in the future.
Steam ashore meant steam at sea, further regularizing the transoceanic trade. In 1870, when steamers regularly plied the Chesapeake, the steamer New Jersey, sailing for the Old Bay Line, sank east of Chesapeake Beach, MD, after a fire aboard. Her cargo, like most, was break-bulk, about 750 tons including corn, sacks of flour, bacon and drums of petroleum, valued at $40,000.
When divers found her wreck in 1975, crumbled crates revealed scores of packed 1869 molasses pitchers. These were relatively rare in the antique trade, and had the divers, who were responsible researchers, chosen to do so, they could have flooded the market with this Chesapeake trove.
Next month: Trade was to undergo amazing changes - some positive and some negative - for the Chesapeake through the balance of the 19th century and throughout the 20th.
- Category: Heritage + History
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