The Clipper Ship Era: An Epitome of Famous American and British Clipper Ships, Their Owners, Builders, Commanders, and Crews, 1843-1869

Hey folks, this is another review in my series on the Tea Clipper Races. This one gets a bit into the weeds (both the review and the book itself), but hopefully you can find something useful here. For someone new to the tea clippers I might suggest starting with something a bit more manageable like Running Her Easting Down. Thanks!

clipper ship eraWhere as Basil Lubbock was a prolific sailing enthusiast with only a couple years of experience, Clark presents the history of clipper ships from the perspective of a captain. Clark himself commanded the Verena, the Agnes, and the steamships Manchu, Suwo Nada, Venus, and Indiana between 1863 and 1877.

Clark’s account of clipper history both benefits from and suffers from his perspective as an American ship’s officer. A lot of space is taken up with individuals Clark knew personally. While on the one hand we gain access to personal anecdotes to fill out these men’s lives, we also lose some objectivity. Lots of captains are described as “good men” who are “worthy of every honor.” It’s hard not to come away with the impression that at times Clark is circling the wagons to protect the reputations of men he knows.

This skews his perspective when discussing topics like shipboard disciplinary tactics like beatings, whippings, and confinement. His (not entirely unjustified) feelings are displayed pretty clearly.

The ” skippers,” ” maties,” and ” jackies ” alike belonged to the lowest stratum of British social classification, which, according to the chronicles of those days, was pretty low. They were coarse, vulgar, ignorant men, full of lurid oaths; their persons emitted an unpleasant odor of cheap rum and stale tobacco; they had a jargon of their own and were so illiterate as to be unable to speak or write their own language with any degree of correctness.

Captain Waterman

Captain Waterman

In the famous case of Captain Waterman of the Challenge, Clark is likely to see conspiracy among the ship’s hands as the cause of the kerfuffle and ensuing legal battles, rather than any wrongdoing by the captain himself. Clark passed away in 1911, before many of the protections for seamen came to be written or enforced, and this book reflects the feelings of captains at the time. He describes lawyers much the same way crimps and Shanghaiers are described elsewhere.

In those days there was a class of persons who did their utmost to degrade an honorable profession by calling themselves lawyers. The ports of New York and San Francisco were the scenes of their most lucrative exploits. When a ship arrived, these fellows would waylay the sailors and follow them to dance-halls, gin-mills, and other low resorts, worming their way into the confidence of the too easy mariners by fairy tales and glittering prospects of large sums of money to be recovered as damages from their late captains, until they succeeded in extracting a narrative of the last voyage, including alleged grievances. They would then libel the ship and commence legal proceedings against the captain and officers. These cases would be tried before juries of landsmen who, having no practical knowledge of sailors or of the usages of the sea, frequently awarded damages, though in many cases the captain and officers were able to disprove false complaints or to justify their actions upon the ground of necessity in maintaining proper discipline.

16255733This is the opposite view of Richard Dillon’s  who believed that these court cases alleging abuse at sea were the first step toward seaman rights. Late in the book, Dillon describes a sailors’ union publication in terms that are also fitting for his own book: “In a long calendar of horrors, almost monotonously the same, Macarthur listed the hellships Bohemia, Iroquois, John McDonald, M. P. Grace, May Flint, and others. But again and again the courts came back with “insufficient evidence,” “case dismissed,” “no malice, hatred or revenge proven,” “justifiable discipline,” and “conflict of testimony” in exculpation of masters and mates guilty of gross brutality.”

Clark would disagree with the premise of the cases, much less the value of the rulings. In Clark’s world, no amount of violence could be found as unjustified, and no captain’s actions should ever be brought into a US court of law.

…a large number of the men who had shipped in New York as able seamen were grossly incompetent and desperately mutinous; that the food had been of the best, in fact, the same quality of beef, pork, and flour that had been used in the cabin had also been served to the crew without stint, and that no more punishment had been inflicted by the officers than was necessary to maintain proper discipline for the safety of the ship and her cargo.

Despite the obvious bias, I learned a great deal from Clark. Including evidence some taunting invitations from American shipping companies to engage in an official clipper race, before the tea races began in earnest on their own.

The American Navigation Club challenges the ship-builders of Great Britain to a ship-race, with cargo on board, from a port in England to a port in China and back. One ship to be entered by each Competition in the China Trade 203 party, and to be named within a week of the start. These ships to be modeled, commanded, and officered entirely by citizens of the United States and Great Britain, respectively… The stakes to be £10,000 a side, satisfactorily secured by both parties, to be paid without regard to accidents, or to any exceptions, the whole amount forfeited by either party not appearing. Judges to be mutually chosen.

Sadly, this challenge was never responded to or accepted. Clark believes because they were sure they would lose. There are also a few fictions included in this text, perhaps to buoy up the reputations of Clark and his fellow captains. Some of his claims seem too far-fetched to be believed.

In the old days captains used to lay in large stocks of chickens, eggs, etc., for their crews at Anjer Point, but before the ship was half-way across the Indian Ocean, the men would begin to crow in the dog watch, and come aft in a body, asking that their salt junk might be restored to them.

On the whole, though, I’ve got to say I learned quite a bit from this book, and even its inaccuracies only further served to elucidate the perspective of captains at the time. Among them, that sea shanties began as work songs developed by enslaved Africans in the American south. The book is replete with period detail and fascinating anecdotes, and while obviously biased, offers a window into the period that would be difficult to attain any other way.

My chief complaint with the edition I read has less to do with its content than in how it was scanned from a print copy into a digital eBook. This book was made available by the Internet Archive and Cornell University Library. The scan is deplorable. At times it was nothing but longs strings of incoherent numbers and letters. Words are humorously misrepresented. It took some work to decode things. All this could be avoided by paying a library assistant minimum wage to look through the scan for obvious errors. It really messed with the reading experience. Here’s an example:

I ‘X’HE origin of the word clipper is not quite clear, y 1 though it seems to be derived from the verb / clip, which in former times meant, among other I things, to run or fly swiftly. Dryden uses it to I describe the flight of a falcon ^:

Hopefully either scanning technology will improve, or those responsible for the scanning will take greater care in presenting a decent finished product. The book is worth checking out though, if you are interested in the history of the clipper ship.

I maintain a Twitter account that follows the history of the Cutty Sark and the famous tea clipper races in real-time. Please follow @CuttySarkLog by clicking here.

Cutty Sark Log on Twitter


Joshua Rigsby is a writer, tea-drinker, and planet 9 enthusiast based in Southern California.

Leave a Comment Here


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: