Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 22. The nitrate coast, Chile, 1912

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Postcard Taltal, Chile, 1912

Postcard Taltal, Chile, 1912

Taltal, in Chile, was a sprawl of single storey houses and sheds clustered round a solitary spire on the edge of the Andes. It was a bleak open anchorage battered by the Pacific, indistinguishable from dozens of other barren little ports strung out along 1,600 km of what became known as the nitrate coast.

Behind them from Arica in the north to Coquimbo in the south, stretched the Atacama desert, where no rain is said to have  fallen for a thousand years. It was once the only known known source of naturally occurring sodium and potassium nitrates – saltpetre, as Bert Sivell knew it – fertiliser and explosive for the munitions factories and fields of industrialised Europe.  Wars were fought over it. Fortunes were made.

The nitrate king, John Thomas North, Avery Hill, London

The nitrate king, John Thomas North, Avery Hill, London

Teeming Iquique, at the northern end of the treeless, dusty strip, had been a small fishing village in Peru when the “white gold” rush started in the 1830s. Foreign capital had poured in, building railways and processing plants and even an opera house, and men had flocked to the desert lands to live out their dreams in mining concessions with names like Adventure, Perseverance and Chance. Bolivia, Peru and Chile fought for control of the rich territory, and Chile won.

By the 1890s there were sometimes a hundred vessels at a time loading in Iquique bay and sailing ships rocked in Chilean anchorages from Talcahuano (known to British sailors as “Turkey Warner”) in the south to tiny bleak Caleta Buena near the new border with Peru. By 1912 Chile was exporting two million tons of nitrates a year.

Monkbarns arrived in Taltal in June and left again at the end of August. In between, all hands discharged their Australian coal and heaved the nitrate – nowadays considered dangerous to actually handle — bag by bag down the hatches for two months. Bert sent postcard views of the exposed bay, the long jetties battered by the breakers, and the cross-hatch of distant roofs and railway lines that petered out into rubble tracks up into the surrounding mountains. Thirty or forty ships heaved and rolled with the swell in lines beyond the surf, as restless as if they were in the open sea.

Taltal, Chile, postcard 1912

Taltal, Chile, postcard sent by Bert Sivell 1912

The nitrate trade was one of the last in which sailing ships could compete against steam. Sailing ships did not rely on expensive supplies of coals and water and so could afford to hang about beyond the sand bars for months while an awkward cargo was ferried out to them slowly, boat by boat. Guano was worse, a throat-catching green powder of ancient bird droppings shovelled off rocky outcrops further north, off Peru, and stowed in the holds by men who could only work 20 minutes at a time before they choked. The crews of guano ships were known to flee into the rigging to escape the ammoniac fumes. But the nitrate was in many respects no better.

Nitrate was white, mined and stewed in the distant desert where no rain falls from one year to the next and until the railways came, carried to the sea by pack mules that died of thirst along the way. It had to be stowed dry. But out in the anchorages, in the holds lifting and falling in the long Pacific swell, the evaporation from the bags was known to kill rats and even woodlice, and ships’ cats who curled up on the sacks in dark corners grew lethargic and died.

Day after day, from six in the morning to six at night, the crews would shovel the Australian coal out through the hatches and tip it basket by basket into the waiting lighters, until the dust grated in their lungs and ground itself into their skin. There would be arguments with the Chilean tally clerk, a stray foot on the scales to mask a bit of pilfering for the fo’c’sle stove, and then finally shanties and cheers as the last basket was hoisted out followed by a well-earned tot of whisky for all hands. But the following day the work would go on, cleaning out the holds before the long, tedious, unhealthy process of stowing the saltpetre began.

It came aboard in bags of 200lbs and was stacked into pyramids in the holds for six weeks by a single stevedore, who could drop each bag into place off his shoulders with absolute precision, never stooping to shift one. Monkbarns took 34,000 sacks, Bert wrote. (About 3,000 tons). The great, beautiful four- and five-masted clippers that set records and made fortunes for AD Bordes of Bordeaux and F Laeisz of Hamburg did the same job with up to 5,500 tons of nitrate in eleven days flat, but they had steam winches – four to a hatch, a small army of cadet officers and shore staff.

Out in the anchorages, the boys from humbler ships made social visits up and down the lines, held sailing races or fished – sometimes with sticks of dynamite, depending how sporting the master was and how much they wanted fresh fish. Even in one-eyed places like Taltal and Caleta Buena there were regularly new faces. Of the 106 sailing ships that left Newcastle NSW for nitrate ports that autumn, according to Lloyds List, a third were British, a third German or Norwegian, and the rest French, Russian, Italian or Swedish. When it was at last time to go, the send-off was exuberant. Home for everyone was round the Horn and language was no barrier.

As the last bag of saltpetre was swung aboard, the smallest boy would leap on it and be hoisted high into the rigging, up and down, for all to see, waving the national flag and bellowing “three cheers for the captain, officers and crew” of whatever ship it might be. There would be answering cheers from each ship in the line, French, German, Finnish, Norwegian or Italian, and at nightfall all would ring their bells, starting with the homeward bound ship, but chiming in until every clapper on every ship in the anchorage was clanging. The din could sometimes be heard for miles out to sea. As it died away the departing ship would solemnly “raise the Southern Cross”, a constellation of lamps lashed to a wooden frame – indicating the direction home.

Then the cheering began again, calling and answering, rippling across the bay. There were chanties and whistles, flaming torches and sometimes – insanely, surely – fireworks. It all took hours, particularly if there was more than one ship preparing to depart. But eventually only the occasional burst of cheering would disturb the sleepy anchorage and ten o’clock would find the homeward-bounder surrounded by work boats, like piglets round a sow. In the saloon, the captain would be entertaining other captains and their wives and shipping people from shore, and in the half deck the apprentices would be doing likewise among the cronies who had rowed their masters over.

Laeisz's four-masted barque Pamir

Laeisz’s four-masted barque Pamir – the last commercial square rigger to sail round the Horn, in 1949

The following day the ship would sail away to the south-west, turning into the Westerlies towards the ice bergs and the gales and the mountainous seas round the Horn and a three or four month passage home. Bert Sivell arrived back in the UK from Taltal just before Christmas 1912, after a passage of 97 days at sea. Laeisz’s flying “P” line did the trip rather faster – and Potosi set a record of 57 days in 1904 – but demand kept even the smaller, slower ships busy.

The nitrate trade eventually died in the 1930s, after the invention of synthetic ammoniac during the first world war. The last British-registered ship to hoist the Southern Cross was John Stewart & Co’s William Mitchell in August 1927. After weeks in Tocopilla loading saltpetre, her apprentices and remaining crew began to cheer the last bag out – but their shanties met no reply. William Mitchell was the only sailing vessel left in the bay and the dreary steamers and motor ships around her did not trouble even to ring a bell.

Read on: Desertions and war, 1914
Previously: Monkbarns apprentice – Harry Fountain

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll


13 Responses

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  1. […] Read on: The nitrate coast, Chile, 1912 […]

  2. […] deposits (sodium nitrate) in the Atacama desert of Chile came onto world markets. Chile’s nitrates were a crucial intermediate for […]

  3. My biography of John Thomas North, entitled ‘The Nitrate King’ has just been published by Palgrave-Macmillan, in the University of London series ‘Studies of the Americas’. This is the first book-length biography of this fascinating man. Since your text refers to the nitrate trade, and to ‘The Nitrate King’ I thought this news might be of interest. William Edmundson.

    William Edmundson

    June 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm

  4. Hi

    Beautiful post and so sad at the end! I found a record of a British brig called Canning that caught fire in the Strait of Magellan in December 1845. It cargo was salpetre or sodium nitrate. I am inclined to think this brig was a steamer as the strait is a narrow passage not suitable for sailing ships. What do you think? Can a brig ever be powered by steam?



    November 22, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    • Hi Adriana,
      Great to hear from you. A brig is a two masted sailing ship. I wouldn’t think anyone would have bothered to put more than a steam winch in her at most, but I could be wrong. They were considered very manoeuvrable. There are various mentions of Canning – including off a guano island in 1844 [http://www.cultrans.com/carlisle-patriot/sept-20-1844/2100-mutiny-at-ichaboe] and being rescued by HMS Frolic after the incident you mention in 1847 [http://www.pbenyon.plus.com/18-1900/F/01902.html]. Funnily enough, her bad luck seems to have continued – she was aground again off Estonia in 1849, judging by a posting on ancestry.co.uk – [http://boards.ancestry.com/thread.aspx?mv=flat&m=483&p=localities.scan-balt.estonia.general]. Life in sail wasn’t easy or safe. Do you have a particular interest in her?

      Jay Sivell

      November 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm

      • Hi

        I am the great great grand-daughter of Henry who went to Chile with the first British diplomatic legation. He arrived there in 1823 and became first consul in Concepcion and then Valparaiso. I am reading through 50 years worth of letters held at the National Archives and writing a blog about the things that catch my eye – although, unlike you, I am no writer : )

        It is just interesting for me.

        The incident of the Canning appears in one of the letters I am planning a post about it so your info is really interesting:

        Santiago, January 13th, 1847

        ‘I yesterday received the melancholy intelligence contained in the enclosed account of the Merchant Brig “Canning” having been destroyed by fire in the Straits of Magellan on the 11th of December last. This loss having been united with that of the carpenter and two of the men who were supposed to be incapable of reaching the deck.

        Her cargo seems to have consisted of salpetre, bark and 30,000 dollars in money.’

        At the end of my post, I would like to add a link to this one. Are you OK with that?



        January 16, 2012 at 3:52 pm

      • Hi Adriana. I assume you are descended from Henry William Rouse. My book ‘A history of the British presence in Chile’ has 5 page references to Henry, and plenty of background information. I think you will find it interesting, and it is now available in paperback. William (Eddie) Edmundson.

        William Edmundson

        January 16, 2012 at 6:27 pm

  5. I am trying to finish a short pamphlet about Captain Thomas Carter Fearon (1856-1931) who was my paternal grandmother’s eldest brother. The latter part of his career was spent on voyages to and from the Nitrate Coast in sailing ships such as the ‘Castlehead’, ‘Fitzjames’ and the ‘Grace Harwar’. I am looking for pictures of the various ports on the coast for the period 1890 – 1912 and any other useful information.

    Paul Fearon Haslam

    April 28, 2012 at 9:50 pm

  6. […] might give the impression of a romantic traveller’s idyll; in reality, as described in this wonderfully informative account, it was a punishing […]

  7. John North, the Nitrate King, formed North’s Navigation Collieries (1889) Ltd in south Wales and, towards the end of his life, he promoted the Port Talbot Railway from his collieries to new docks at Port Talbot. The port became a major coal exporter to Chile, with Iquique the major importing port in 1904 (73,000 tons, 11% of the coal exports from Port Talbot). Some of the largest sailing ships in the world sailed on the route from south Wales to Chile. Owners included: B. Wencke-Sohne, Hamburg; A.D. Bordes, Dunkirk (the two leading ship owners); Leroux & Co, Rouen; Briggs & Co, Glasgow; G. Siemers, Hamburg; John Hardy & Sons, Glasgow.

    David Lewis

    January 25, 2014 at 10:27 pm

  8. Hullo Jay,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your piece above on life aboard the nitrate clippers, a very engaging read. I live in Australia and I am writing a novel loosely based on the adventures of an ancestor who signed aboard a clipper ship on the east coast of the US. It was 1856 and he had just signed off the Dorrigo which had arrived in Norfolk after bringing ice from Richmond. The agents for a ship called the Arey were requiring a crew to take a clipper called the Arey upriver to Baltimore. The ship was under tow to the US warship the Warbash and the captain and the 1st mate were being taking to trial for murdering the crew on the previous voyage. The Arey had arrived in Norfolk from Mexico with a load of guano. I have found no documentary evidence of events on this voyage other than newspaper ship movements which show the Arey had sailed out of NY to San Francisco with coal, then probably to Navassa, or possibly Chincha before returning home. I have read the documented accounts of conditions on these ships and they were fairly horrific – rounding the Horn with a load of nitrates or guano would not have been pleasant. Anyway, I would love to find out what actually happened, as I think the truth may be far more interesting than the fiction I am inventing. It was just prior to the Civil war and there were all sorts of alarms and events going on, including Harpers Ferry and the development of the Confederate gunpowder industry. Apologies for the long ramble, but I would appreciate it if you could point me towards some useful research sources for this type of endeavour (preferably online).

    Kind regards,
    Graham Franklin-Browne


    April 27, 2015 at 11:43 pm

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