Maritime column: When Cork’s West Indiamen fleet ruled the commercial waves

Maritime column: When Cork’s West Indiamen fleet ruled the commercial waves

A busy commercial and export scene from the Port of Cork in the early 1900s. But by this point the importance of the port was waning from British favouritism legislation and the arrival of steam powered boats that replaced the square-rigged sailing boats that defined the trade in the 1800s. Picture: Cork Examiner archives

THE ‘West Indiamen’ were a large fleet of square-rigged sailing cargo vessels which were a major economic part of Cork Port for over 60 years between 1800 and 1864.

This was a time when Cork was described as “almost exclusively supplying the West Indies with candle manufacturies” which was an extensive export trade alongside exports of butter and beef.

Bleached linen and other cloths were exported from mills in Dripsey and Blarney. On the return voyages back to Cork imports carried by the ships included large cargoes of sugar and coffee.

Merchants of Cork 

There were many ‘West India merchants’ as they were known in the city, who were shipowners with vessels of various sizes on Leeside in those years.

The company with the biggest fleet was Simeon Hardy & Sons, a number of whose vessels were built in Cork. Some of them had family names – the full-rigged Hardy, of 456 tons, built in 1854; the barques Simeon Hardy of 224 tons, built in 1837 and Mary Hardy of 451 tons, built in 1854.

The company also owned the brig Xarifa of 206 tons which was built in 1841 and the Glanmire of 246 tons, as well as the 413-ton Woodland which was built in Trieste.

Other Cork-based merchant shipowners of that time were Morgan & Reeves; Large & Adams; McMullens; Knight & Co.; Joseph Wheeler and Joshua Carroll, who founded a company of the same name and was a major shipping figure in the city for many years. His company also owned a number of Canadian-built fully-rigged ships.

Carroll was also a director of the Cork Steamship Company which was founded in 1826. His company developed a trade to the East Indies for which they used two of the Canadian vessels, built in Quebec. They were known as ‘East Indiamen.’

Downturn following British legislation 

The larger vessels traded principally to Barbados, but they were not the only ones to cross the Atlantic. Smaller brigs and schooners also did. From the mid-1860s there was a downturn in Cork’s trading situation which was affected by British legislation.

Being the ruling authority of the time the UK government decided to favour using British ports for trade networks which Cork had dominated. Instead of direct trading, Cork became a ‘feeder’ to UK ports.

The rapid decline in direct overseas trading had its effect on the shipowners. Simeon Hardy sold off all of their large fleet, keeping only the little barque Mary Hardy which traded to London.

In 1951 a book Sailing Ships of Ireland – A Book for Lovers of Sail, being a record of Irish sailing ships of the 19th Century’ written by Ernest B.Anderson was published.

Of the ‘Cork West Indiamen’ he wrote: “They gave steady employment to the vast majority of the big square-riggers registered in the port between 1800 and 1864. It cannot be said that these Indiamen which were ‘built-by-the-mile-and-cut-off-by-the fathom.’ as an old saying had it, were in most cases much to look at, but some of the later ships that were built in the 1850s were capable of a good turn of speed and carried a very lofty suit of sails. They were built as carriers and were invariably good sturdy sea-boats. From 1864 onwards, however, the general cargo trade was not sufficient to give profitable employment to the Cork fleet and the majority of them were sold off.”

The development of steam-power was also taking over. It was the technology of the age and change was inevitable. The days of the square-riggers being Cork’s dominant merchant shipping was coming to an end.

Cork shipbuilders were amongst the pioneers of steamships, the ‘first steam-powered paddle ship’, as she was described ‘ever to be built in Ireland’ came from the yard of Andrew and Michael Hennessy at Passage West.

Most of the vessels for the Cork Steamship Company were built in Ebenezer Pike’s Shipyard. From Blackrock, he was a major figure in establishing the company.

He started a shipyard in the 1840s which launch its first steamship, the Pelican, for the Cork Steamship Company in 1850.

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