American Maritime History
The maritime history of the United States goes back to the first successful English colony that was established in 1607, on the James River at Jamestown. It languished for decades until a new wave of settlers arrived in the late 17th century and set up commercial agriculture based on exports of tobacco to England. Settlers brought horses, cattle, sheep and hogs as well as tools and the current technology to the Americas.
From the very first days of the founding of the North American colonies shipbuilding was naturally one of the industries that chiefly engaged the attention of the colonists. At the time of the breaking out of the American Revolution and for a long time afterwards more of the people in New England were actually engaged in shipbuilding and ship sailing than in agriculture, even in spite of the restrictions imposed on the building of ships in the English colonies. The statement is made that at one time during this period Massachusetts was estimated to have one vessel for every hundred of its inhabitants.
One out of every four signers of the Declaration of Independence was a shipowner or had been a ship captain.
The Massachusetts Bay colony launched its first sea-going vessel in 1631. By 1638 the first American shipyard had been established near Portland, Maine, employing 60 men. Along the Atlantic seaboard, the ocean and its tributaries quickly became highways of commerce for a fledgling country. Although dependent upon a triangular trade with England before the Revolution, trade acts and wars soon focused America’s attention elsewhere.
The year after the 1783 Treaty of Paris confirmed the United States’ independence, the New York merchant ship EMPRESS OF CHINA crossed the Atlantic and rounded the Cape of Good Hope, bound for Macao and Canton to open up the fabulously profitable China trade. Five years later, 15 American vessels called at Canton on a single day. During the same period “Yankee Mariners” visited Baltic, Mediterranean, and African ports, and traded with West India, Sumatra, and India.
This valuable and growing trade had to be protected. Attacks by Barbary pirates as well as French and British warships and privateers — armed merchantmen — resulted in a loss of some 600 ships and about $20 million before Congress, finally outraged, in 1800 raised the first U.S. Navy under the federal Constitution. In this early period of our history, the American merchant marine was a formidable “auxiliary” that at times outperformed its commissioned Navy counterparts. Privateers were a critical element of U.S. sea power in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. In 1776, the colonies had only 31 public ships, and only one of these actually survived the Revolution. Five years later the Americans had 449 privateers mounting 6,735 guns. These armed merchant vessels were responsible for three-quarters of the 800 British vessels, valued at $24 million as prizes of war that were captured during the first two years of the conflict. During the War of 1812, 515 U.S. privateers took 1,345 British ships.
As a result, the United States, with about four percent of the world’s steamships, entered World War I woefully unprepared to carry troops, equipment, and material to the fight. The Shipping Act of 1916 hurriedly put in place a mechanism to build desperately needed ships, but the Great War ended before most could be delivered. In early 1917, only 61 shipyards — 24 of them capable of building wooden vessels only — operated in the United States. A year later, with promises of $3 billion in government ship orders, 341 shipyards boasted 1,284 launching ways. Production ultimately quadrupled pre-war rates, but nearly one-third of the ships built under the 1916 Act were begun after the Armistice was announced. Throughout the next decade, ships that had cost as much as $400 per ton to build were sold for as low as $14 per ton.