Nov/Dec 2011 Issue 198: Hurrah for the Black Ball Line

Up to around 1817 there existed two types of maritime trade — the tramp sailing ships and the traders. The tramp or “transient” sailing ships carried cargo from port to port, picking up new cargo wherever the ship was. This was not always financially profitable as sometimes there would be no cargo that was worthwhile. Then there were the trader sailing ships that stayed in service between two or three ports — for instance, those ships that sailed between Europe and America, making two passages yearly in the fall and in the spring.

It wasn’t until 1817 that a group of Quaker businessmen, who were both exporters of raw cotton and importers of woolens from England, decided to try something new. Instead of having ships waiting around the docks until their cargo holds were full, why not begin a service from New York to Liverpool that sailed on a regular schedule no matter whether the holds were filled or not.

The men in question, headed by Isaac Wright, Jeremiah and Francis Thompson and Benjamin Marshall, created the model for regular trans-Atlantic service that continues to this day. They owned four sailing ships: Amity, Courier, James Monroe, and Pacific — all about 100 feet and 400 tons.

The service was to begin with the sailing of James Monroe from New York on Jan. 5, and Courier from Liverpool on Jan. 1. The name of this new regular service was the Black Ball Line. The house flag was a red swallowtail with a black ball in the middle. A black ball was also sewn into the fore topsail.     

Initially the Black Ball Line suffered economically, but the owners were armed with deep pockets and patience. By 1820 the Black Ball Line was thriving. The line was ultimately so successful that it spawned other regular packet services between New York and Europe: the Swallowtail Line, the Dramatic Line, and the Red Star Line.

Let’s join the skipper of James Monroe on a cold late January day as the full-rigged ship makes its easting. In those days of sail, every skipper knew enough to do a noon sight and run down the latitudes. The day in question is Jan. 23 (we’ll use the 2011 Almanac), and Capt. James Watkinson stands on the quarterdeck, sextant in hand waiting the time of LAN. He has been shooting the sun for a few minutes and notices that it is no longer increasing in altitude. The ship pitches and Watkinson braces himself against it. He finds the sun and slowly, in tune with the rocking of the ship, he lowers the image onto the wavy horizon. He adjusts the vernier scale and, finally satisfied, takes the sextant from his eye and goes below to calculate the latitude. The DR position on this day is 38° 25’ N by 60° 15’ W. The lower limb sight of the sun yields an Hs of 32° 02.4’. Height of eye is about 20 feet. The exact time of the shot is unimportant, but by the ship’s clock it was 1613. The beauty of the noon shot was that it can be done without a timepiece and is relatively simple to reduce. It is a tried and true shot and I hope that some of the readers of this page occasionally dust off their sextants so they can stay in touch with tradition.

A. What is the Ho?
B. What is the latitude?

A: Ho is 32°12.8’
B: Latitude is 38° 22.1’

By Ocean Navigator