Setting Sail: An Excerpt From “The Edwin Fox”

The following is an excerpt from the prologue of The Edwin Fox: How an Ordinary Sailing Ship Connected the World in the Age of Globalization, 1850–1914 by Boyd Cothran and Adrian Shubert, which is available now wherever books are sold.

It began as a small, slow, and unadorned sailing vessel—in a word, ordinary. Later, it was a weary workhorse in the age of steam. But the story of the Edwin Fox reveals how an everyday merchant ship drew together a changing world and its people in an extraordinary age of rising empires, sweeping economic transformation, and social change.

Setting Sail
Calcutta, India, 1853

On the morning of December 14, 1853, William Taylor Salmon, the thirty-two-year-old master of the Edwin Fox, stood outside the formidable timber gates of the Union Docks construction yard and waited. It was just before six in the morning. The first rays of dawn shone from beneath the horizon as he gazed across the Hooghly River toward the tightly packed settlement to the east. The weather was cool and dry, a welcome respite from the torrential monsoon rains that swelled the river each year. It had not been a severe season: June saw heavier than usual rains, causing flooding and damaging crops in the west. But as the rainfall subsided, life on the river assumed a more industrious pace. Men piled into their red- and blue-painted country boats. Women washed clothes on the submerged white steps of the ghats. Young boys with slender poles coaxed their gilt-horned oxen into and out of the river, churning up the chestnut-colored waters of the slow-moving Hooghly. And through it all, a constant din of bells and drums echoed in the background—the hum of life, motion, and shipborne commerce: American schooners, Chinese junks, Arab dhows, and tiny boats with names Salmon may not have known.

As he stood on the pier and took it all in, the young captain reflected on the cosmopolitan nature of this place, and how he would soon leave it. Earlier that morning, the harbormaster had worked the Edwin Fox free from the fore and aft moorings and towed the ship around a bend to an anchorage near the Palladian mansions lining the river at Garden Reach. All he needed now was for his pilot to show up.

Born to a family of sailors in Rochford in Essex, Captain Salmon was an experienced seaman who served as master for numerous ships until his final, fateful journey aboard the steamer Persia, lost in the Bay of Bengal to a cyclone on October 5, 1864. He knew the importance of a steady pilot to help navigate the Ganges delta. Even if the Edwin Fox made this maiden voyage with a light cargo of rice, rapeseed, linseed, safflower, horn tips, castor oil, cowhides, jute, and various other miscellany, the ship’s draft—twenty-one feet, six inches—made crossing the shallow waters and hidden sandbars of the Hooghly perilous.

Salmon had done everything he could to prepare. He had checked and rechecked the boatswain’s loading job to ensure that the bulkheads were secured and that the vessel sailed on an even keel. He had walked the black-and-white taffrail and inspected the transoms. And from the quarterdeck, he had ordered his men to inspect everything from the halyards to the deadeyes. Five days earlier, the port authorities had also surveyed the Edwin Fox and declared it seaworthy, recording its description and issuing its registration certificate as Calcutta no. 12/1853.

At a registered tonnage of 836, it was well below the 1860 average of 1,200 tons, and with an overall length of 157 feet and the staid, square rigging of a man-of-war, the Edwin Fox was neither fast nor particularly large. It was exceptional for being unexceptional and, in some ways, old-fashioned even before the keel was laid down. Its design derived from the “apple-cheeked” Blackwall frigates built on the Thames in London as replacements for the lordly and lugubrious East Indiaman. Round-bottomed and sturdy, more suited to carrying London general merchandise than for setting speed records, it had none of the prestige of the great tea and opium clippers like the Cutty Sark, which captured the public imagination at the time. Yet the Edwin Fox and workaday merchant ships like it played a far greater role in connecting the world in the late nineteenth century than their more famous relatives.

The Edwin Fox and workaday merchant ships like it played a far greater role in connecting the world in the late nineteenth century than their more famous relatives.

As if on cue, the pilot appeared just before dawn with his entourage. Salmon greeted the men, and together they embarked on a skiff to board the larger vessel. With the master and pilot aboard, the Edwin Fox was a hive of activity. It had a full complement of sixty-five men and five officers. Although no crew agreements survive from this maiden voyage, the ship was likely manned almost entirely by Indian sailors known as lascars. If so, the Edwin Fox was not alone: although British regulations had long discriminated against Indian crews (the British Navigation Act of 1651 required that all trade between England and its colonies be conducted by vessels built in Britain and sailed by a British crew), these restrictions loosened during the Napoleonic Wars, and by the 1820s lascars accounted for an estimated two-thirds of the crew members on London-bound ships out of India. Although the profusion of Indian sailors led to additional regulations intended to constrain the lascars’ role in the British shipping industry, by the time the Edwin Fox set sail in the winter of 1853, virtually all restrictions on the employment of lascars had been lifted.

If British shipping interests out of India were reluctant to employ local sailors, they showed no such compunction when it came to employing Bengali craftsmen and material. In fact, Calcutta’s shipbuilding industry flourished during the first half of the nineteenth century. This boom resulted partly from the lower costs of building and repairing ships in the East—British-built vessels cost up to twice as much—and partly from the superior quality of the craftsmanship and material used.

The Edwin Fox was well built and fashioned to last. It was made of teak, considered among the finest timber in the world for shipbuilding, and morung sal, or saul (Shorea robusta), a hearty wood native to north and central India. Insurance companies such as Lloyd’s of London gave discounted rates to ships made of teak. Many shipwrights preferred it over even the hardest English oak because of its natural resistance to Teredo navalis, the dreaded naval shipworm whose rapacious appetite could destroy a ship’s hull in a matter of months, especially in warmer equatorial waters. Built from Burmese teak by Bengali craftsmen and manned predominately by lascars, the Edwin Fox was shaped, carved, rigged, and sailed by Indian hands. It was truly a daughter of the East.

The Edwin Fox was well built and fashioned to last. It was made of teak, considered among the finest timber in the world for shipbuilding, and morung sal, or saul (Shorea robusta), a hearty wood native to north and central India.

Fully loaded and cleared for departure, the Edwin Fox began its journey down the Hooghly, past Manikhali Point and Moyapur Bar around the James and Mary Shoals through Diamond Harbour to the Saugor Roads, where the river opens wide into the Bay of Bengal—a voyage of nearly 120 miles from the Union Docks in Calcutta. From the quarterdeck, Captain Salmon ordered his men to bring the ship about, calling on them to haul tight on the mizzen to take full advantage of the gentle breezes typical of that time of year. It was December 24, Christmas Eve, and the Edwin Fox was sailing for London via the Cape of Good Hope.

Boyd Cothran is associate professor of history at York University.  

Adrian Shubert is professor emeritus of history at York University and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.