The Suez Canal – 1869
With ordinary merchant ships, carrying nothing but cargoes of goods that would keep, the question was rather different. Steam is very much more expensive than sails, and at first, until the pace of the steamships was greatly increased, it was not worth while to spend the extra money on them. What was done instead for some time was to build better and better sailing vessels called clippers. But this came to an end with the opening of the Suez Canal, which made a short cut from the Mediterranean to the East.
Sailing ships could not easily enter the Canal at the Red Sea end, because the wind was almost always against them, and besides, they had to be towed through the Canal, which added a great deal to the cost of going through it, and hindered the other traffic. So they cannot use the Canal to any extent; and since that time all important cargoes have been carried by steam, though there are still a great many small coasting vessels, and some ocean-going ships, which use sails. The great mail-carrying steamship companies take cargoes as well as passengers, and there are also any number of smaller companies, firms, and private shipowners who take merchandise about to the most distant ports. We British have for a long time looked upon the sea as more our affair than anybody else’s; and so it seems quite natural that in spite of rapid progress in America and Germany we are still the great shipping nation of the world, and that goods belonging to many other countries go to and fro under the British flag.
The Admiralty, as we call the authorities who manage our Navy, were less eager than the merchants of the early nineteenth century to take up the new fashions in ships. They were rather reluctant to part with the wooden sailing battleships and frigates of the kind which had fought at Trafalgar; and indeed we cannot very much wonder at that, for the old ships had served us well. But before so very long a steamboat had to be built for the Navy, later on a few vessels were made of iron, and then it was only a question of time for the warship to become the huge and wonderful though certainly very ugly machine which it is to-day. A new and cheap process having been discovered for making steel, this soon replaced iron in shipbuilding; for it was both lighter and stronger to resist the powerful cannon which begun to be used in the Navy. Then steam-power, or afterwards electricity, was used for all sorts of work, such as loading and placing guns, hauling flags, and lowering boats, which in the old days had been done by hand. Any one who goes over a modern warship must be struck by the air of immense power in reserve which is given by the glittering steel and machinery everywhere. It seems as though a force which nobody could resist is waiting to be let loose by the turning of a handle or the pressing of a button.
The old kind of reckless, weather-beaten, naval seaman, kept in order by harsh punishment, whom we may read about in Marryat’s novels, went out of fashion with the wooden ship.
Excerpt from Landmarks of British History by Lucy Dale – 1910
Further Reading and External Links