Maritime Activities in American History—An Introduction

Text excerpted from Voyages: Stories of America and the Sea, by Andrew W. German

Overseas trade

The American Revolution, which was largely fostered in the early seaports and partly tied to the trade restrictions imposed on the American colonies by England, resulted in the expulsion of the new American states from the trading family of the British Empire. The United States was not a self-sufficient nation, so trade by sea became essential. Adventurous merchants sent out their ships to find new trading partners. In the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and Asia, they sought markets for American materials where they could get the sugar, rum, manufactured goods, cloth, slaves, tea, and spices they had come to depend upon.

The trade in goods and passengers across the Atlantic quickly returned to its former prominence. So important was sea trade to the new American nation that the customs duties on imports paid ninety percent of the government budget. From 1792 to 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars between England and France, American merchants found a lucrative niche as “neutral traders,” taking advantage of international law to carry goods to both warring nations from their colonies after first landing the goods in the U.S. temporarily to make them “American.” Even though more than twenty percent of these neutral traders were captured by the warring forces, the trade brought great prosperity to American seaports.

By the 1850s America’s deep-water merchant fleet rivaled Britain’s in size and quality of ships. Large, full-bodied packet ships and regular traders crisscrossed the Atlantic while smaller tramps wandered between ports. Sleek, heavily rigged ships nicknamed “clippers” had been developed since the 1840s, first to rush home with tea from China; then after the gold rush, to combine that service with the delivery of goods to the growing communities of California. Southern cotton had become the nation’s leading commodity, much of it traveling from New Orleans (the country’s second-leading port), Mobile, or Charleston to European textile mills aboard hundreds of large American sailing ships. American homes reflected the range of sea trade: cotton cloth from England or India, silk from China, ceramics from England or China, copper kettles from Europe, shoes made from South American hides, wine from France, tea from China, coffee from South America, sugar from the Caribbean islands, and fruit from as far away as the Mediterranean.

Working alternating four-hour watches day and night, eating salted provisions, sometimes suffering abuse by tyrannical officers, and often spending months at sea between ports, the sailor’s life combined both the adventure of travel and the boredom of routines at sea, the perils of storms at sea and the specialized skills to handle a ship in all conditions. Until the 1850s, seafaring offered opportunities for young men to advance and make their fortunes at sea. As the merchant marine shrank and opportunities declined, the general seafaring population became less skilled and more marginalized. Federal legislation helped reduce the physical and financial abuse of sailors, but the romanticized image of the “jolly tar” no longer fit reality.

America’s Fisheries

For thousands of years the inhabitants of North America have ventured onto the water to hunt fish, whales, and seals; to gather shellfish and plants; to cultivate marine life; to recover salt, minerals and petroleum; and even to harness the power of moving water. Americans today still depend on the sea’s many essential resources.

When the English sent John Cabot to explore the North Atlantic in 1497, he discovered the great population of codfish around Newfoundland. Cod was considered an ideal source of protein because it can be dried and preserved with salt. Within a few years, hundreds of European vessels were fishing those waters in summer. French, Spanish, and Portuguese fishermen pickled their cod on board, while English fishermen established “stages” on shore to salt and air-dry their fish before returning home. These fishing camps were the first European outposts in English America.

European settlements in North America were intended to produce resources for their mother countries. Without precious metals or great agricultural potential, the New England colonies developed the natural products of timber and fish. Salted cod became a principal commodity of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s trade with England and southern Europe. By the mid-1700s, New England harbored a fleet of several hundred small vessels with perhaps 10,000 fishermen-who also split and salted the catch-and packers. Other coastal species of fish and shellfish were gathered for domestic consumption.

In Moby-Dick Herman Melville proclaimed: “But though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! For almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn around the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!” As Melville suggested, the oil rendered from the whale’s insulating blubber was processed to produce lamp oil used in U.S. lighthouses as well as in house lamps across the nation. As factory production of textiles and other manufactured goods expanded, whale oil found new uses as a lubricant for machinery. Sperm whale oil was the finest lubricant, and the cleanest burning oil, and the waxy spermaceti still made the best candles. The other whale product of value (besides the ambergris occasionally recovered from sick sperm whales, which was used as a perfume base) was the baleen-called “whalebone” by whalemen-from the mouths of nontoothed whales. This flexible material was used in ways we would use plastic today, from stiffening women’s corsets to making umbrella ribs and buggy whips.

The hunt for whales expanded greatly after 1820. Most northeastern ports entered the industry at least briefly, but through the 1800s it was centered in Nantucket and New Bedford, Massachusetts, and New London, Connecticut. By 1845, when 731 U.S. vessels and more than 20,000 men were engaged in whaling, the fleet was three times the size of all other whaling fleets of the world combined.

Finding Inspiration

Just as the sea has shaped the American coastline, its awesome grandeur has nourished our artists, writers, musicians, and dreamers, and inspired feats of heroism that have become part of our national mythology.

From the crudest piece of “folk art” to a Winslow Homer seascape, from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to the poetry of Langston Hughes, from Joshua Slocum to today’s kayak voyager, the sea inspires creativity. As Melville proclaimed in Moby-Dick: “There is a magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries-stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water.”

Sailors go to sea to go to work. But even those who are isolated by the sea, who know the awesome power of water, and whose hours are shaped by the demands of operating a vessel can find creative expression there. The “arts of the sailor,” the functional and decorative knotwork practiced on board, or the decorative embroidery of naval uniforms, were the simplest ways in which the sea influenced the creativity of mariners. Some sailors took up modeling, building small representations of their vessels in their spare time. Whalemen might pass the time on their long voyages by carving or engraving whale ivory and bone into fanciful or practical items.

Throughout American history, the sea has figured prominently in the fine arts. Building on the Dutch, English, and French traditions of maritime art in the 1600s and 1700s, American artists expressed a romantic idealism through natural scenes. James Buttersworth combined the play of light on clouds and the sea with dramatic perspectives of ships and their tiny sailors awash in a boisterous ocean. In these works, humans are often dwarfed by the sea, bold riverscapes, and flaming or threatening skies. A later generation of artists placed humans more prominently in relation to the sea. Winslow Homer turned to the sea and inland waters in the 1870s, creating hopeful images, fluid watercolors of mountain fishing and Florida workboats, as well as more intimidating views of the sea’s menacing powers in his later works. Thomas Eakins turned an incisive eye to boating near Philadelphia, composing paintings that are both character studies and accurate depictions of riverlife.

Since 1900, artists as varied as Maurice Pendergast, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, and Andrew and James Wyeth have placed settings, patterns, or colors from the sea in their work.

Images of the sea, ships, and sailors have long been a part of our popular vocabulary, from clothing to music. The influence of the sea on fashion has been evident for years. As shown in this portrait, several generations of American children were unconsciously linked to the sea through the popularity of the “sailor suit” as children’s clothing.

For more than 150 years, songs and their accompanying sheet music have featured the sea in songs of parting, loss, and reunion. The songs of sailors and fishermen-the working chanteys and the off-duty fo’c’sle songs-also came ashore, preserved as folk music, especially as the way of life that created them came to an end in the 1900s. By the 1900s the sea also represented recreation in popular music, a trend reflected in much sheet music of the 1910s and 1920s, and more recently epitomized by the surfing tunes of the Beach Boys in the 1960s.

American filmmakers have often taken their inspiration from the sea. Their movies cover a broad range, from tales of maritime life, including Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) which included Mystic Seaport’s Charles W. Morgan, to World War II naval films The Fighting Sullivans (1942), Destroyer (1943) and Victory at Sea (1945), to adventure films such as Jaws (1975) and Titanic (1998), and films of social conscience, from On the Waterfront (1954) to Amistad (1998).

Another form of inspiration is the challenge to excel. We are not creatures of the sea, and only by our wits and our technology can we survive there. Even the shortest passage, or the most relaxed swim off the beach, tests our skill. When the sea was solely a place of work, sailors (and passengers) faced this fact daily.

Heroic rescues of people in peril on the sea were the greatest tests of skill and endurance. On the open sea, sailors were normally ready to risk their lives to rescue strangers from another ship, knowing they might require similar assistance someday. Alongshore, a number of local rescue organizations on dangerous coasts was superseded by the U.S. Life-Saving Service in the 1870s, which became part of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915. Like the surfmen of 1900, Coast Guard boat handlers of 2000 train to master the worst sea conditions for the sake of saving human lives.

By the mid-1800s some Americans began to seek out ways to challenge themselves at sea. In 1866, the first transatlantic yacht race tested recreational vessels and sailors (most of them professional crews) against the North Atlantic in winter. In 1896, George Harbo and Frank Samuelson of New Jersey successfully rowed a boat across the Atlantic. Their passage came in the middle of what is still considered a maritime milestone: Captain Joshua Slocum’s solo voyage around the world, described in his popular book Sailing Alone Around the World.

Coming to America

Beginning in the early 1600s, European colonists began to settle permanently on the wild coast of North America. These pioneers endured the uncertainty, exposure, and privation of a long sea passage before their arrival in an unfamiliar land. Some came for a more fruitful life; other groups came to practice their religion without the persecution they faced at home, enduring a disorienting ordeal at sea to reach their goal.

The Mayflower, which brought 102 Pilgrims to the New World in 1620, was the first of many ships to carry religious refugees across the ocean to establish spiritual freedom in America. United in a common faith and purpose, these groups included Pilgrims bound for Plymouth, Puritans bound for New England, Catholics bound for Maryland, Quakers bound for Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Mennonites, Amish, and Moravians bound for Pennsylvania, and later Mormons bound for Utah. Like many to come after them, when their ship dropped anchor after 10 weeks at sea the Pilgrims “fell upon their knees & blessed ye God of heaven, who had brought them over ye vast & furious ocean, and delivered them from all ye periles & miseries therof, againe to set their feete on ye firme and stable earth, their proper elemente.”

Between 1502 and the 1860s, almost 10 million Africans were sold into slavery to develop the resources of the New World. For 350 years, the slave trade procured Africans through kidnapping or war, delivered them to ports along a 2,000-mile stretch of West African coast, and shipped them by the hundreds under horrific conditions. Eleven-year-old Olaudah Equiano was forced aboard ship in 1756. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, being so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspiration, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This deplorable situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered it a scene of horror almost inconceivable, . . . and I began to hope that death would soon put an end to my miseries. . . .

At least 15 percent of these unwilling passengers died during the terrible 8-week “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic, some during revolts, most from disease and despair. Estimates vary, but at least 660,000 unwilling Africans were landed in North America between 1619 and the end of the legal slave trade in 1808, and 50,000 more may have arrived before U.S. slavery was ended as a result of the Civil War.

Irish immigrants had made their way to North America for 150 years before famine and politics caused a mass exodus between 1845 and 1855. In this land of tenant farmers under British rule, the failure of the potato crop, beginning in 1845 caused a million deaths and the failure of the economy. Unable to pay their rent, many tenants fled to America; to reduce their taxes, many landlords sent their tenants to America. During a 10-year period, more than 1.5 million Irish, including Henry Ford’s father and John F. Kennedy’s great-grandfather, boarded sailing ships large and small, old and new, for the 6-week passage to America. Already weakened by hunger and despair, they were crammed into ships’ holds with an allotment of 12 square feet for each adult. Required to bring much of their own food, which was cooked on deck when the weather permitted, many of them sickened and died of typhus and other diseases.

The 6.25 million German-speaking people who arrived in America after 1820 made up the largest immigrant group. Between 1870 and 1925 they were part of a well-organized shipment of labor to the United States. Displaced by war, poverty, and oppression, northern, eastern, and southern Europeans flocked to America as pioneers or to join relatives as part of a chain migration. By 1875 the principal European steamship lines—Hamburg-America, North German Lloyd, Cunard, White Star, CGT, Red Star, and Holland-America—had established networks to collect these passengers and ferry them to America. In steerage compartments housing as many as 1,500 3rd-class passengers, these hopeful immigrants crossed the Atlantic in less than 2 weeks. Those who entered the principal port of New York after 1886 were greeted by the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island opened to process arriving immigrants in 1892, but the flood was reduced to a trickle by the National Origins Act of 1924.

For Asians who crossed the Pacific by ship, America was an opportunity to work. The Chinese, who first came to California around 1850 during the gold rush, viewed America as the “Gold Mountain.” Devoted to their families and culture, young Chinese men came only to work and earn a fortune before returning to China. Often they were contract laborers, who had pledged up to a year of their earnings for passage across the Pacific and a job. The realities of life in America meant that few earned enough to make the return passage. As miners, railroad builders, fishermen, service workers, and menial laborers they faced increasing hostility from European-Americans as the U.S. economy worsened in the 1870s. About 250,000 Chinese had arrived before further immigration was greatly limited by Act of Congress in 1882. By the 1890s young Japanese men were coming to Hawai’i and the West Coast for agricultural work, also intending to return home with enough money to marry. Like the Chinese, Japanese migrants faced restrictions and harsh discrimination, especially after the “Gentlemen’s Agreements” of 1900 and 1907-08 limited further immigration. Detained at San Francisco’s Angel Island immigration station, one Chinese immigrant expressed his despair in a poem:

. . . . I ate wind and tasted waves for more than twenty days.
Fortunately, I arrived safely on the American continent
I thought I could land in a few days.
How was I to know I would become a
prisoner suffering in the wooden building?
The barbarians’ abuse is really difficult to
take. . . .

Beginning with the Camarioca “boat lift” of 1965, several hundred thousand Cubans have attempted to make the 90-mile passage to Florida aboard small boats or even rafts. Fleeing the brutal regime in Haiti, tens of thousands of Haitians attempted the 600-mile passage to the U.S. aboard sailboats and other local craft, beginning in 1972. Uncounted numbers of Cubans and Haitians perished during their hopeful passage to freedom. Many survivors were turned back by the U.S. Coast Guard, which was ordered to control unauthorized immigration. Among those who completed the journey and settled in the U.S. as modern ocean immigrants were Luis Cuadras and 18 family members and friends, who used their family fishing boat, Analuisa, to cross the Florida Straits in 1994 and were picked up by a passing cruise ship. A more famous Cuban balsero (rafter) is Orlando Hernandez, “El Duque,” the major-league baseball player who brought his athletic skills to the U.S. in a desperate raft journey in 1997.