Maritime Commerce

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It is an unfortunate truth that voyages of discovery and engagements of great naval fleets too often have at base a commercial motive. In a sense, then, literature of the sea is fundamentally based on commerce—its setting, characters, and plots molded to match particular maritime trades. Even yachting is the most conspicuous reward of successful commercial enterprise.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, maritime commerce undertaken by English-speaking peoples was still largely a function of the British Empire. The worldwide commercial empire predicted for Portugal by the poet Luis Vas de Camoëns in The Lusiad (1572) had been achieved by the British in the eighteenth century—and had been celebrated by William Julius Mickle (1735–1788) in the 150-page introduction to his translation of the Portuguese epic. The superiority and uncorruptibility of the British Empire was as obvious to Mickle in 1776 as it was diabolical to certain other English-speaking maritime communities on the eastern seaboard of North America. The Boston Tea Party (1773) was only the best known of their responses to British commercial policy. Although revolution and independence did not automatically establish a vast international trade for the fledgling United States, freedom from trade restrictions imposed on the colonies by the mother country did result in an explosive growth in merchant shipping to the "loose fish" (originally an unsecured whale, but applied by Herman Melville humorously to nations ready for exploitation) of the Far East, a trade interrupted by Thomas Jefferson's Embargo (or legal cessation of international trade) of 1807 and later by the War of 1812. But the growing markets of the interior of the continent, the accessibility of materials for shipbuilding, and at least nominally free trade ensured the growth of an American merchant marine. The first "Flowering of New England" (in the words of literary historian Van Wyck Brooks) may, in fact, have been commercial and maritime.

The first major maritime work of the period, David Porter's (1780–1843) Journal of a Cruise made to the Pacific Ocean (1815; heavily revised and expanded, 1822), recounts the adventures of the commerce-raider Essex, the first American flag vessel to wage war in the Pacific. Porter's work subsequently inspired, and was plundered by, writers of major sea fiction including James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) and Herman Melville (1819–1891). American writers of the sea, however, have usually made a thematic distinction between warfare and exploration on one hand and trade and fisheries on the other. The nature of the latter commercial activities shapes about half of American literature of the sea.

Deprived of a large navy and with most of their ports blockaded, during the Civil War (1861–1865) the Confederacy turned to commerce raiding—a form of warfare in which fast, lightly armed vessels specialize in destroying unarmed enemy commercial vessels. The Confederate raiders were few in number but huge in influence: they struck such fear into Northern merchants that insurance rates became prohibitive and vessels often languished in port or were reregistered under foreign flags. After the war, because of a technicality in American maritime law, the latter vessels were not allowed to resume their registry as American vessels. From this "flight from the flag" the American merchant marine never recovered.

The most famous of the Confederate raiders was the CSS Alabama, commanded by the flamboyant Raphael Semmes. A gifted writer as well as warrior, Semmes produced the best naval book to come out of the war, Memoirs of Service Afloat (1869).

The ship which was now running down for us was, as I have said, a picture, with her masts yielding and swaying to a cloud of sail, her tapering poles shooting skyward, even above her royals, and her well-turned, flaring bows—the latter a distinctive feature of New York–built ships. She came on, rolling gracefully to the sea, and with the largest kind of a "bone in her mouth." She must have suspected something, from our very equivocal attitude in such weather, and in such a place; but she made no change in her course, and was soon under our guns. A blank cartridge brought her to the wind. If the scene was beautiful before, it was still more so now. If she had been a ship of war, full of men, and with hands stationed at sheets, halliards, and braces, she could not have shortened sail much more rapidly, or have rounded more promptly and gracefully to the wind, with her main topsail aback. Her cloud of canvas seemed to shrivel and disappear, as though it had been a scroll rolled up by an invisible hand. It is true, nothing had been furled, and her light sails were all flying in the wind, confined to the yards only by their clew-lines, but the ship lay snugly and conveniently for boarding, as I could desire. I frequently had occasion, during my cruises, to admire the seamanship of my enemies. . . .

The prize, upon being boarded, proved to be the Lafayette, from New York, laden with grain, chiefly for Irish ports. We learned from newspapers captured on board of her, that news of our capture of the Brilliant and Emily Farnum off the Banks of Newfoundland, had reached the United States, and, as was to be expected, I found, when I came to examine the papers of the Lafayette, plenty of certificates to cover her cargo. In fact, from this time onward, I rarely got hold of an enemy's ship, whose cargo was not certificated all over—oaths for this purpose being apparently as cheap, as the much-derided custom-house oaths, that every ship-master is expected to take, without the least regard to the state of the facts. Upon examination of these certificates, I pronounced them fraudulent, and burned the ship.

Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat, pp. 481–482.


If Cooper invented the sea novel in 1824 with The Pilot, it was his third sea novel, The Water-Witch (1830), that first matched plot and vessel to a specifically commercial venture—smuggling around New York harbor. He returned to this theme in each phase of his literary career, with The Wing-and-Wing (1842) and Jack Tier (1845). In the two first romances, each book takes its title from the name of the sleek vessel on board of which most of the action takes place—in the former a brigantine, in the latter a felucca. In the more darkly realistic Jack Tier, remarkable among Cooper's sea novels for its contemporary setting, arms smuggling during the Mexican-American War juxtaposes a noble Mexican with the degenerate Captain Spike of the tired brig Molly Swash, named, as is the book, after Spike's long-lost sweetheart—now a dumpy transvestite sailor.

Cooper's middle years were powerfully influenced by the reappearance of a boyhood shipmate, the alcoholic Ned Myers. Myers's career may be taken to represent the average seaman's life in the first half of the nineteenth century. Unlike Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815–1882), whose Two Years before the Mast (1840) exposed the demeaning life of a common sailor in the California hide trade, Myers had no Boston family to return to. The biography of him that Cooper published in 1843 was subtitled "A Life before the Mast," and most of that life was spent bouncing from one vessel to another in most kinds of maritime trade in which America was engaged. Cooper cut the biography short, saving both Ned's narrative voice and the variety of his maritime experiences for the double novel Afloat and Ashore (1844). Notably supplemented by accounts from Washington Irving's (1783–1859) Astoria (1836) and the recent conclusion of the controversial U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838–1842), Cooper's work mimics and expands on previous summaries of commercial adventure exemplified by Edmund Fanning's Voyages round the World (1833) and Benjamin Morrell's Narrative of Four Voyages to the South Sea (1832), the latter of which also provided an important source for Edgar Allan Poe's gothic tale Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838).

The following excerpt is from chapter 13 of Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years before the Mast:

The next day, the cargo having been entered in due form, we began trading. The trade room was fitted up in the steerage, and furnished out with the lighter goods, and with specimens of the rest of the cargo; and Mellus, a young man who came out from Boston with us before the mast, was taken out of the forecastle, and made supercargo's clerk. He was well qualified for the business, having been clerk in a counting-house in Boston; but he had been troubled for some time with the rheumatism, which unfitted him for the wet and exposed duty of a sailor on the coast. For a week or ten days all was life on board. The people came off to look and to buy—men, women, and children; and we were continually going in the boats, carrying goods and passengers, for they have no boats of their own. Everything must dress itself and come aboard and see the new vessel, if it were only to buy a paper of pins. The agent and his clerk managed the sales, while we were busy in the hold or in the boats. Our cargo was an assorted one; that is, it consisted of everything under the sun. We had spirits of all kinds (sold by the cask), teas, coffee, sugars, spices, raisins, molasses, hardware, crockeryware, tinware, cutlery, clothing of all kinds, boots and shoes from Lynn, calicoes and cottons from Lowell, crepes, silks; also, shawls, scarfs, necklaces, jewelry, and combs for the ladies; furniture; and, in fact, everything that can be imagined, from Chinese fireworks to English cart wheels—of which we had a dozen pairs with their iron tires on.

The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves. . . . Things sell, on an average, at an advance of nearly 300 per cent upon the Boston prices. This is partly owing to the heavy duties which the government, in their wisdom, with the intent, no doubt, of keeping the silver in the country, has laid upon imports. These duties, and the enormous expenses of so long a voyage, keep all merchants but those of heavy capital from engaging in the trade. . . .

This kind of business was new to us, and we liked it very well for a few days, though we were hard at work every minute from daylight to dark, and sometimes even later.

Richard Henry Dana Jr., Two Years before the Mast (New York: Signet, 2000), pp. 67–68.

Cooper began and ended his career in maritime fiction with tales of the fisheries. In The Pilot, one of the episodes illustrating the three types of literary conflict at sea—man against man, man against the sea, man against the beast of the sea—the latter category is represented by a didactic but thrilling (only Cooper, perhaps, could combine the two) chapter on hunting the sperm whale, written in response to Sir Walter Scott's description of an attack on a stranded right whale in The Pirate (1821). In 1849 Cooper published The Sea Lions, in which the sealing industry of New England and Antarctica forms the background for a tale of religious conversion. This novel, reviewed by Melville in the Literary World (April 1849), capitalized on the sublime landscape of the polar continent, quite opposed to the sunny Mediterranean of The Wing-and-Wing, which also had ended in a conversion.


Herman Melville's literary career may have begun when he ran away from a whaler, but his actual sea service began, as Cooper's did, in the transatlantic trade. Redburn (1849), based on a round-trip voyage the young Melville made to Liverpool, thematically addresses questions of class while exploring inhuman treatment of sailors and passengers alike, a theme partially addressed by Dana not only in Two Years before the Mast, but also in his second work, The Seaman's Friend (1841) basically a guidebook to the rights and responsibilities of sailors and a work from which Melville borrowed heavily for Redburn.

Melville may have thought he had covered the whaling industry as much as it merited in his first three books—Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and the largely forgotten Mardi (1849). But to a suggestion from Dana that he treat whaling as he had the merchant service (in Redburn) and the navy (in White-Jacket [1850], a work also prompted by a letter from Dana, whom Melville then regarded as a sort of soul-mate), the younger author responded—perhaps less testily than he felt—that he was halfway in the work already. Nearly the next day he borrowed a set of William Scoresby's Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) and ordered a copy of Thomas Beale's Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), from each of which he adapted freely for the systematic account of the whale fishery that forms the center of Moby-Dick (1851) and its comprehensive exploration of cetology.

When Melville asked in Moby-Dick the philosophical question, "Who ain't a slave?" three million Americans would not have seen the question as rhetorical. Although the slave trade had been abolished in England and the United States as early as the first decade of the nineteenth century, slavery at sea remained a real as well as a literary issue. While Thomas Clarkson's History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament (1808) contributed the most lasting visual image of slaves crammed into subhuman spaces in the 'tween decks of slavers, Melville transformed Amasa Delano's account of the Tryall in A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817) into his chilling account of slave revolt in "Benito Cereno" (1855). And although the Amistad incident (1839) is better known, another episode, in which more than seventy-five slaves from Washington, D.C., sought their freedom—unsuccessfully—on the small schooner Pearl in 1848, found a moving literary treatment in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853).


Remarkably, American authors did not seem to respond to the greatest achievement of maritime commerce of the era—the rise and fall of the clipper ship, built and designed by such marine architects as Donald McKay, whose portrait forms the frontispiece to F. O. Matthiessen's classic of literary history, The American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941). The Civil War ended the golden age of American maritime commerce, as the havoc created by the CSS Alabama and her sister commerce-raiders drove insurance rates skyward and vessels to seek immunity under foreign flags. Raphael Semmes's Memoirs of Service Afloat, during the War between the States (1869) closed the literary age as Porter had opened it, with the record of burning whaleships fore-shadowing the end of commercial supremacy at sea.

See also"Benito Cereno"; Exploration and Discovery; Foreigners; Moby-Dick;Nautical Literature; Slave Rebellions; Two Years before the Mast;Typee


Primary Works

Cooper, James Fenimore. Afloat and Ashore. 1844. New York: AMS Press, 2004.

Dana, Richard Henry, Jr. The Seaman's Friend. 1841. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1997.

Porter, David. Journal of a Cruise. 1815. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986.

Samuels, Samuel. From the Forecastle to the Cabin. 1887. London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1974.

Semmes, Raphael. Memoirs of Service Afloat. 1869. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Secondary Works

Albion, Robert Greenhalgh. Rise of New York Port. New York: Scribners, 1939.

Albion, Robert Greenhalgh, William A. Baker, and Benjamin W. Labaree. New England and the Sea. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press for the Marine Historical Association, 1972.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783–1860. 1921. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941.

Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and theDevelopment of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Springer, Haskell, ed. America and the Sea: A Literary History. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

R. D. Madison