RETURN TO THE HOMEPAGE                                                                                                                                                                          Transatlantic Sailing Packet JAMES MONROE 1815

The sailing packet James Monroe was a remarkable and exceptionally historic transatlantic sailing packet. This ship pioneered the scheduled transatlantic crossing and in many ways is the sailing predecessor of the transatlantic ocean liner. The Black Ball Line was founded in 1817. Owned by a group of American merchants, it owned and operated a fleet of sailing packets, purchased from various shipbuilders, that sailed between New York and Liverpool on regular sailing dates, the first and fifteenth of every month. The James Monroe was the ship that inaugurated this pioneering scheduled transatlantic service in 1818.

The James Monroe and the Birth of Black Ball Line:

Soon after America's "War of 1812" New York’s seagoing trade began to boom, though at first the balance on the import side. America’s westward growth created an increasing demand for manufactured goods that America’s embryonic industries was unable to provide. At the same time the British pursued a policy of deliberate dumping in order to stifle the new American industries.
Yet the European market for American foodstuffs and raw materials was reviving. If America’s export trade had languished it was largely because of the chaotic conditions that prevailed in the shipping industry. Ships sailed only when they were good and ready i.e. when they had a full cargo. Cargoes moved only when a ship happened to be available. Under such conditions costs mounted and it was impossible to fulfil contracts or guarantee deliveries.

Cotton from New Orleans, tea and silks from China, barrels of flour and apples from the Hudson Valley were piled up high on the dockside or in warehouses in New York’s South Street. Impatient passengers were forced to wait around and while away time in bars. So considerable disquiet developed, but it was felt that ships couldn’t be hurried. It was considered bad business to send a ship out without a full hold; also a ship was rarely sent to Liverpool, Havana or other foreign ports without assurance that a cargo would be available for the return voyage. The combination of cargo, passengers and ship all destined for the same place at the same time was not easy to find.

“Regular traders” had plied the seas since 1700, when the Britannia was launched for the London trade, but, despite their designations, these vessels did not operate on regular schedules. They were as likely as not to turnoff from their direct route to pick up or discharge cargo. Traders as they were, but scarcely regular. The merchants who used them could guarantee neither shipment nor delivery.

Before 1817 the nearest approach to scheduled sailings was achieved by packet brigs of the British Government mail service, operating between Falmouth and New York on what approximated to a monthly schedule. These little ships had a high record of achievement in a colonial service but carried few passengers and no cargo other than mail. In their design, stability had been sacrificed for speed; as a result they were difficult to handle and dangerous. Losses at sea were so frequent that they became nicknamed “coffin brigs”. The remedy for this poor state of affairs was the establishment of a line providing regular sailings between New York and foreign ports. Thus the Black Ball Line was founded in 1817. This group of American merchants owned and operated their own fleet of sailing packets, purchased from various shipbuilders, that sailed between New York and Liverpool on regular sailing dates, the first and fifteenth of every month.

On the 24th October 1817, five New York shipowners published the following statement in the Commercial Advertiser:

“In order to furnish frequent and regular conveyance of GOODS and PASSENGERS the subscribers have undertaken to establish a line of vessels between NEW YORK and LIVERPOOL, to sail from each place on a certain day in every month of the year”.

The advertisement was signed by Isaac Wright and Son., and Francis Thompson. Later the names of Benjamin Marshall and Jeremiah Thompson were added. Four vessels were chosen for the venture; one was to sail from New York on the 5th, and one from Liverpool on the 1st of every month.

On the morning of the 5th January 1818, the sailing packet James Monroe lay at her berth alongside Pier 23 on South Street, her three lofty masts towering above the warehouses, ship chandlers’ shops and mercantile establishments across the street. The first American packet liner was about to set sail for Liverpool on schedule, whether she had a full complement of passengers and freight or not. From her main truck fluttered a new house flag, a red pennant with a black ball in the centre. Another black ball, much larger, was sewn on her fore-topsail, high up where it would be visible even when the sail was partly furled. This symbol was later to give the line its name “Black Ball Line”. Only 8 passengers ventured aboard, although there were accommodations for 28. The cargo, well below the ship’s capacity, consisted of 71 cotton bales, 14 bales of wool, and small quantities of cranberries and turpentine.

The South Street wharf at Pier 23 bustled with unusual excitement on the cold, windy morning of the 5th January 1818. Whirling gusts of biting snow, while perhaps annoying, hardly kept those scurrying about the James Monroe from their appointed tasks and last minute errands. The owners of the Black Ball Line and their subordinates busily looked after every last-minute detail that demanded their attention. Captain James Watkinson glanced at his watch and judged that all was proceeding along to plan. The James Monroe would sail with the tide. The James Monroe was a well-sparred vessel of less than 400 tons. She was 100 feet long and was all spruced up from a recent painting. Her new canvas blended in with the falling snow. She was named after the U.S. President James Monroe who had been newly elected at the time.

Church bells chimed out the hour of departure and soon the last dispatches were placed aboard. The tide turned and Captain Watkinson gave the word. Sailors sprang to life and cast off the gaskets as the topsails were mastheaded. Lines were hauled in as the James Monroe slid out past the wharf into the East River while passengers and spectators cheered. Sailors hoisted up smartly the fore topmast staysail and hauled the sheet to windward. Her cannons rang out a smart parting salute as the first liner sailed past the cheering crowds down the East River and out to sea, just like her proud far-sighted owners. Meanwhile, another Black Ball ship, Courier, left Liverpool on the 1st January on the westbound run bound for New York.

The James Monroe arrived in Liverpool on the 2nd February 1818, a respectable time for the season, especially when compared with the majority of other ships sailing at the same time. The return passage started on the 3rd March, but the ship was forced to return to Liverpool for repairs after a storm in the Irish Sea. James Monroe returned to New York only a week before her next scheduled sailing to Liverpool.

The Heyday of the Transatlantic Sailing Packets:

And thus, on the 5th January 1818, the departure of the first packet ship to leave New York marked the only improvement in transatlantic travel since the 'Mayflower', an achievement ranking with the later triumphs of Marconi and Lindbergh. The James Monro inaugurated the common carrier line service on a dependable schedule. A policy of sailing regularly and accepting cargo in less-than-shipload lots enabled the Black Ball Line to revolutionise shipping. 

The owners of the Black Ball Line of sailing packets had decided that freight and passengers between New York and Liverpool could and should be shipped on a fast, regular schedule, thus breaking with a long tradition of cautious, fair-weather sailing. They promised that one ship would sail from New York on the fifth of every month, and one from Liverpool on the first. Four ships ('Amity', 'Pacific', 'Courier', and the 'James Monroe') were equipped for this purpose, and each, the advertisement claimed, had ample storage space for freight as well as "uncommonly extensive and commodious" accommodations for passengers.

The new line did not immediately prosper. Turpentine, cotton and naval stores, shipped coastwise from the South to New York, were loaded for Liverpool. Return cargoes included salt, coal and cloth. These items were shipped in half cargoes and resulted in certain loss. Passengers used to the tradition of waiting for a ship and bargaining with a skipper for passage were slow to change their ways and took time to get used to the new system. Eventually merchants and travellers were forced to recognise the advantages of the line principle, and by 1820 the venture was assured of success. Quality freight soon became virtually a Black Ball monopoly. Rates on the Black Ball Line rose, and the owners found that they could choose their cargo and passengers. Jeremiah Thompson paid good wages; food and working conditions were superior for the times, and he picked his crews carefully from the cabin boy right up to the captain. Among masters and seamen, Black Ballers became renowned as the finest of that era.

The ships, though essentially no different from any of the individually owned “regular traders”, were brand new and excellently equipped. They were all flush deck, with a caboose or galley and the housed-over long boat between the fore- and main-masts. The long-boat, which was, of course, securely lashed, carried the livestock, - pens for sheep and pigs in the bottom, ducks and geese on a deck laid across the gunwales, and on top hens and chickens. The cow-house was lashed over the main hatch, and there were also other small hatch-houses and a companion aft leading to the comfortable and well appointed cabins. The steerage passengers lived in the between-decks amidships, and the crew’s forecastle was in the fore-peak. Freshly killed ducks, geese and chicken were available for the First Class passengers, while fresh milk became a regular feature.

Still, they were considered superior to the British and French packets of the day that carried the important mail and dispatches to American ports. The packet service from England was considered most unsatisfactory, for the small British vessels always stopped at either Bermuda or Nova Scotia when traveling in both directions. A westward crossing usually took at least two months and a three-month voyage was not uncommon.

The James Monroe and her three sister ships, the Amity, Courier, and Pacific, were all about 400 tons. Soon, other ships joined the line; some of them 500 tons register. Joining the Black Ball "Downhill" races across the North Atlantic to Liverpool were New York, Eagle, Orbit, Nestor, James Cropper, William Thompson, Albion, Canada, Britannia, and Columbia.

"Downhill" was the sailor slang term for the faster passage from America to Europe. The westward "uphill" passage had to sail against the prevailing winds and currents.

The Black Ballers were broad of beam and blunt of bow; sturdy sailing ships built for cargo and safety rather than for speed. They had fine straight lines and were heavily sparred to carry a vast spread of canvas. By crowding on sail they could increase their speed considerably, but it was dangerous going. Many a packet was lost in a storm, before her great array of sails could be furled.

One of the early packet disasters to occur was the sinking of the Black Ball Liner Albion, off the Irish coast, near Kinsale, in 1822. However despite these dangers and the occasional disaster, the packets kept to their schedules with remarkable accuracy. The speed with which their hardy masters and mates drove their ships across the Atlantic is still the marvel of seafaring men. The packets established an average time schedule of 22 days from New York to Liverpool and 40 days on the more difficult return voyage. This schedule seldom was departed from by more than a day or two.

Early records were set by the Black Ball Liner Canada with a 15-day, 8-hour Liverpool passage and 36-day passage back to New York.  A record-breaking passage was all-important to the merchants of the various lines, and the racing across the North Atlantic was fast and furious. Night and day captains would lay on all the sail they could to catch the winds through calm and stormy sea right up to the point of disaster. From the time they cast off from the South Street wharf to the time they arrived at the Liverpool Pier Head on the River Mersey, the race was on.

The term “packet”, later used to designate the famous “line” ships, had from the first been loosely applied and has caused much confusion. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a packet design; before 1817 “packet” meant any vessel, whether brig, sloop or square-rigger, that functioned as a carrier of freight. The Black Ball Line called its ships packets to distinguish them from the irregular “regular traders”. The name clung to scheduled vessels through the evolution of naval architecture from the bulbous prow and broad beam of the Black Ballers to the sharper-bowed more graceful ships of the clipper era.

Nobody tried to compete against the Black Ball Line for the first few years, but by 1821 everybody wanted a sailing packet line. In 1821 Thomas Cope of Philadelphia started a successful line of Liverpool packets.  Meanwhile in New York, South Street merchants launched competing lines to race against the Black Ball Line. The first competitor was the Red Star Line with the Panther, Meteor, Hercules and the second Manhattan Then came the Grinell, Minturn & Co.'s Swallow Tail Line. Napoleon, Silas Richards, George, and York joined the packet fleet. Grinell, Minturn & Co. started up their London Line in 1823 with the Brighton, Columbia, Cortes, and Corinthian.  John Griswold's competing London Line offered up the Sovereign, President, Cambria, Hudson, and the second Ontario.

By the 1830s the American packets sailed at fixed times to predetermined destinations regardless of the weather and with them went the government mail and important private commerce. Passengers, both American and foreigners, hailed this new service and flocked to South Street to book passage to Europe. Foreigners, Canadians, West Indies merchants and English officers from the Canadian provinces preferred sailing the fast American packets home to England to their own fleet. The New York packets were the dominant force in the transatlantic trade.

It was in the years 1835-40 that the packets reached their peak. Some of the ships built during this period exceeded 1000 tons. In 1840 at the height of the packet era, New York, with 414,000 tons had more than one fifth of all the USA’s tonnage registered. Though only one third of this total was engaged in the packet service, this third carried the cream of the freight and passenger trade. New York’s total tonnage was greater than that of any city in the world except London. 500 to 700 sailing vessels and some 50 steamboats docked in the Port. The value of merchandise loaded and unloaded on South Street had risen from $84 million in 1825 to $146 million in 1836.

The Rise of the Steamship:

However alongside the rise of the Sailing Packets, steam began to compete on the transatlantic crossing, however it was not until after 1850 that this competition began to really be felt by the sailing packet lines.

The first steam vessel to cross the Atlantic was the Savannah, financed in Savannah, Georgia, USA but built in New York. A New York-built full-rigged ship just over one hundred feet long in the hull, the Savannah was closely akin in design to the newly introduced Black Ball packets. Her uniqueness lay in her engine and boilers. Their 72 horsepower drove specially designed sidewheels, which could be dismantled and folded when not in use. A further innovation was her “bent smokestack,” fitted with a slanted and swivelled top section to aim smoke and sparks clear of the sails. On the 22nd May 1819 (now forever celebrated in America as National Maritime Day), she left Savannah bound for Liverpool, where she arrived on the 20th June. She dropped anchor at Liverpool twenty-nine days and four hours later, having run from Tybee Light at the mouth of the Savannah River to Cape Clear on the Irish coast in twenty-three days and twenty-one hours.  However she used steam power for 80 hours of the trip. She was highly praised by the British. She was visited and commended by the President of the United States, the King of Sweden, and the Tsar of Russia. However the Americans ignored her ingenuity and the steamship technology and soon the Savannah became a coastwise sailing packet until her loss on Fire Island in November 1821.

But for the next two decades there were no ocean crossings by steam vessels out of New York. In the late 1830s interest in transatlantic steamships was revived. In 1830 the Dutch steamer Curacao had crossed between the Netherlands and Curacao, while in 1833 the Royal William had crossed from Nova Scotia to Liverpool.

The British and American Steam Navigation Company had expected to open the first steam-powered regularly-scheduled "packet" transatlantic service with their S.S. British Queen. However this ship was still under construction in the shipyard. Therefore as they realised that their rival ship S.S. Great Western (Great Western Steamship Company) was already completed and ready to sail, they quickly chartered the Sirius.

Sirius, which was an Irish Sea steam packet travelling between London and Cork. The Sirius had a displacement of 700 tons and was 178 feet (54 m) long with a breadth of 26 feet (7.9 m), considerably less than the Great Western. Part of the passenger accommodation was removed to make room for extra coal bunkers. The Sirius set off from the River Thames on the 28th March 1838 heading for Cork, where she replenished her coal bunkers and left for New York on the 4th April with 97 passengers. Though the Sirius narrowly beat the Great Western to New York, arriving on the 22nd April, they had to burn the cabin furniture, spare yards and one mast to do it, inspiring the similar sequence in Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days (1872). The Great Western meanwhile arrived the following day, with 200 tons of coal still aboard, and after only 15 days at sea. Great Western was subsequently awarded the Blue Riband for setting the record for fastest transatlantic crossing at 8.66 knots (16.04 km/h), beating Sirius which clocked in at 8.03 knots (14.87 km/h). The Great Western had completed the crossing in just 14.5 days.

In many ways the P.S. Great Western was the first Transatlantic Ocean Liner. She continued to sail between Liverpool and New York carrying passengers until 1846, completing 45 crossings in eight years. In 1847 she was sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and used on the West Indies run. Later, after serving as a troopship in the Crimean War, she was broken up at Castles' Yard, Millbank on the River Thames in 1856.

Then in 1840 Samuel Cunard inaugurated his scheduled transatlantic steamship service from Liverpool to Boston, USA with the P.S. Britannia that the sailing packets really experienced serious competition. Later the North American terminus was moved to New York. But Cunard had learned from the regularity of the schedule offered by the old sailing packets of Black Ball Line and combined it with the steamship technology showed off by the P.S. Great Western and put the two together. As a result he created a scheduled transatlantic steamship service and gave birth to Cunard Line. Samuel Cunard had won the Royal Mail contract from the British Government and eventually Cunard Line dominated the transatlantic passenger liner business.

The James Monroe, the ship had started it all, continued in service until 1850 when she was wrecked off the Tasmanian coast, however happily all on board were saved in a daring rescue by a passing ship.

In 1850 the steamship was really making itself felt with the sailing packet lines. The steamship City of Glasgow set the pace in 1850 when a profit was made by carrying 400 emigrants. By 1863, 45% of British emigrants to America travelled by steamship and just three years later the figure had risen to over 80%. The major sailing packets continued for a wile, but three of the five largest sailing packet lines all closed down just before 1878. By the summer of 1878, even the famous Black Ball Line had closed. The steamship had won and forced the sailing packets out of business on the transatlantic crossing. It was the end of an era.

By 1870 the square-rigged sailing clipper ships were still profitable on the longer runs from America and Europe to China and Australia, but the day of the clipper ship was a short one, and steam was soon to replace even these "ocean greyhounds."

(c) The AJN Transport Britain Collection 2008                                                                                                                                                                                 A Edward Elliott