Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ships and Mariners: 19th c Cape and Natal 13 Bell

At the beginning of the 1840s the winds of change were ruffling Cape waters, a breeze that would soon blow into a gale. Steam was the new watchword and its effects would be far reaching in the mercantile marine. Bell would no doubt have had some pithy comment about odious comparisons made in the press concerning the new coastal steamer, Phoenix, and his schooner Conch.
The great advantage of Steam communication on our coast is strongly exemplified at the present moment. The steamer Phoenix and the Conch, one of our fastest sailing Coasters, put to sea on Thursday the 3rd …  the latter was compelled in consequence of the strong south-easter to put back on the 7th and still remains in Table Bay, whilst … the Phoenix arrived in Mossel Bay on Saturday morning and left again on Sunday morning at 7 o’clock for Algoa Bay. Her return [to Table Bay] is advertised as expected tomorrow.

The Enterprise, 1825
Steam navigation made its initial impact on the Cape two decades earlier, when the Enterprise became the first steamship to reach South Africa on 13 October 1825. Captain James Henry Johnston, an ex Royal Navy man with a sense of the dramatic, brought her into Table Bay, reporting that though they had been off Table Mountain at midnight on the 12th he thought ‘the inhabitants of Cape Town would be disappointed if we anchored in the night, [so] lay to until morning and ran in about 9 o’clock.’

The populace, seeing the unaccustomed smoke, thought a ship was on fire and a crowd gathered. When the significance of the historic event dawned upon them, commotion ensued, people pouring forth to every viewpoint. During the Enterprise’s short stay before she continued her voyage to Calcutta, it’s said that 4 000 of the town’s residents had boarded the ship to sightsee.

Enterprise was a paddle steamer, with two engines of 60 h.p. each, and sails (barque-rigged) for back-up. ‘The mechanism was so elaborate and took up so much room that no cargo could be carried as all the remaining space, apart from the accommodation for passengers and crew, was required for coal.’ There, in a nutshell, was the difficulty: quarters were cramped, stowage of fuel led to some accidental fires, which, though speedily quenched, alarmed passengers. Shovelling coal out of the ballast tanks proved exhausting for the crew – Johnston had to make an unscheduled stop en route to allow them to recover - and as the ship steamed full ahead everyone became covered in coal-dust.* 

Surely there could be no future for such an intolerable mode of travel? How could it ever compare with the graceful lines and clean progression of the sailing ship?

It would be some time before regular steamship services became feasible at the Cape, because the small coastal sailing vessels filled most needs. The Enterprise, a ship which (almost) passed in the night, is remembered while the early coasters and their mariners are largely forgotten - except perhaps by the latter's descendants. Let's keep their light burning bright.

The Nemesis, first iron steamship to round the Cape of Good Hope, 1840.
The East India Company frigate, Nemesis, 700 tons, was on her way to Chinese waters and her appearance in those parts caused considerable consternation among the local pirates who found a steamship a novel and uncomfortable proposition to tackle.* 

*Ships and South Africa: Marischal Murray (OUP 1933)

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