First Cotton From China to America.
During the palmy days after the opening of the River Yangtse--when freights were taels 22 per ton from Hankow to Shanghai, a distance of six hundred miles--I was in command of the "Neimen," an auxiliary ship-rigged vessel, engaged in this trade until near the end of 1863, and saw some of the exciting times of the Taiping Rebellion in that part of China. By the end of 1862 the steamers "Huquang" and "Firecracker" had come from New York round the Cape of Good Hope, and later the "Chekiang," "Kiu-kiang," and other paddle steamers were put on the river, and the freights were reduced to taels 4 1/2 per ton. Then we had to clear out.
My employers ordered me to Hongkong to meet new boilers for the "Neimen." Later I received instructions to sell the "Jedda," belonging to the same owners, which was done. Then I had an offer from Mr. Paul Forbes to buy the "Neimen." This arrangement was completed, and I agreed with the new owners (Russell & Co.) to take the engines out of the vessel, and to change the rig from ship to barque, with the object of loading cotton for New York--the first from China to America. After completing our alterations, and after painting the ship in Whampoa, we came to Hongkong to load at the beginning of May, 1864. The weather and water being warm and the paint new gave a favorable opportunity for the barnacles to attach themselves to the vessel, and by the time we started the barnacles were like coarse gravel on her sides.
On the 24th of May, 1864, we sailed from Hongkong, and when we got out into the China Sea we had no monsoon, but met with a continuance of calms and squalls. The ship was unable to stand up under her canvas, having no ballast, and being, as it were, stuffed with cotton. Well, at last we reached Anjer, eighty-four days from Hongkong. The ship was one mass of barnacles as large as "egg-cups." I sent overland to Batavia to buy some garden spades, to be fitted on to long poles, so as to try to chop off some of the shells, which we did, and after five days' delay we sailed again. From Sunda Straits we had a good run till near the Cape. Here we had calms again, and the grass and barnacles grew very fast. Indeed, the ship's bottom was like a half-tide rock, and when the water washed up the sides, as she rolled, the noise made by the barnacles was like the surf on a sea-beach. We were followed for several days by a shoal of dolphins, which we caught in great numbers night and morning. Finally we got round the Cape, and to St. Helena, where we stayed four days, and employed men to assist us in chopping off grass and barnacles as far as we could reach. Then we proceeded on our way once more.
We had a wearisome time in the "doldrums" about the equator, only enlivened by catching dolphins and watching crabs, which would leave the grass for a swim and then return to the ship. After getting clear of the calm belt, we had a very good run to Bermuda, where we encountered a heavy gale, with tremendous heavy seas.
When the weather moderated we found to our dismay that the rudder was adrift, the pintles having been broken by the heavy seas. I was now compelled to put before the wind and run for St. Thomas, in the West Indies, and when near the entrance of the port a passenger, Captain George Adams, "went off his head," and thus gave no little addition to my anxieties. Finally we arrived safely in port. Here more troubles began. I was advised to do many things, some of which would have been much to the benefit of some of my advisers. One thing was to land and store the cargo.[*] This I positively refused to do. But after all I found that there was only one European blacksmith in the place, and he had but a small shop. This man contracted to do the repairs, and after I had got the rudder to his shop he coolly asked me if I had a good carpenter or other handy man to help him, as the job was too heavy for his negro assistant to weld. I proposed to him another plan. So at last the work was done satisfactorily, and we went on our way with partly a new negro crew, some of the old crew having left. We made very good progress and were nearly off New York when we got into a violent snowstorm, which greatly amused the negro sailors, who had never seen "white rain" before, but unfortunately for three of them, they got frostbitten and lost their legs. We got into New York at last on the 25th of January, 1865, eight months from Hongkong!
Although the voyage was so long, I believe the venture turned out to be a good one financially. Gold was at a very high premium,--about two dollars and eighty cents at this time,--and our cotton sold for one dollar and fifty cents per pound. The "Neimen" went into dock, and people came in hundreds to see the strange sight. She was covered with shells like a rook. Some of these shells were sent out to China, and Messrs. Russell & Co. (the owners) had them mounted in silver as inkstands.
28th June, 1898.
[*] To land and store cargo should never be done by a shipmaster without authority from the owners.