By Jeff McCord
Slave Ship Redeemed as Beloved “World’s Oldest Sailing Vessel”
The recent discovery of a remarkably well-preserved 18th century ship’s hull in an Old Town Alexandria building site brought to mind the unlikely story of another sturdy vessel from the 1700s. Built along the shores of the Chesapeake in 1794, the Baltimore Clipper Schooner Vigilant worked Atlantic and tropic waters until 1928. During her incredible 134 years afloat, she fought the British in 1812, pirates in the Caribbean and served as an inter-island mail and passenger packet in the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands). Declared the “world’s oldest sailing vessel” by an American journalist in 1905, she continued in service for another 23 years. The Vigilant‘s amazing life-span provides a window onto slices of history — some abhorrent, some valiant.
She was first christened the Nonsuch in a Baltimore boat yard. In the 1790s, Baltimore Clippers frequently did the West Indies run, taking cargoes of flour and cotton down and returning with coffee and sugar. Clippers’ legendary speed derived from their then revolutionary “V” shaped bow, long bowsprit carrying multiple head and jib sails and their famous aft-raked masts. Their promise of fast passages made Clippers perfect for transporting perishable goods, including, sadly, enslaved human beings.
“The Vigilant has been by turns a pirate, privateer, a slaver, and a man-of-war,” wrote Charles Edwin Taylor, a St. Thomas physician who knew the boat well. Writing in his 1888 book Leaflets from the Danish West Indies, he continued:
“Her first appearance in St. Thomas was at the beginning of the present [19th] century. She was then known as the Nonsuch and sailed under the American flag employed in the slave trade. [A]n old sketch of her hold full of slaves hung at the Moravian Mission in St. Thomas.”
The horrors of the “middle passage” between Africa and the West Indies are well known. Death rates among the enslaved aboard Danish ships varied from 43 percent to one percent, depending upon how they were “packed” and cared for, according to St. Thomas historian Isidor Paiwonsky. No wonder sharks followed slavers the whole voyage.
The War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain ended the Nonsuch‘s role in that ghastly trade. When hostilities began in June of 1812, former President Thomas Jefferson famously advised the government to do “everything possible” to encourage privateering. Privateers were private merchant ships armed by their owners and licensed by the government to attack enemy ships. Entrepreneurs could amass great profits by capturing and selling ships and cargoes, rather like legalized piracy.
“Our privateers will eat out the vitals of [British] commerce,” Jefferson wrote. According to a U.S. Naval Institute article, Jefferson argued that privateers provide the “best way to distress and harass the enemy and compel him to peace.”
By the autumn of 1812 — just three months after war was declared — more than 40 ships had been sent to do battle by profit seeking owners in New York and Baltimore. The Nonsuch was one of several who sought British ships along the Eastern seaboard and in the West Indies.
She was “an active and successful privateer armed with 12 cannons and 100 men,” an 1864 Harpers Magazine history article tells us. The Nonsuch‘s men were armed with muskets, cutlasses and boarding pikes. She likely had a 90 foot long main deck and was probably about 29 feet wide. Yet, her keel only drew about 10 feet. She was able to work in shallow island waters and thread through coral reef passages.
In a Caribbean battle that made her famous, the Nonsuch challenged two British ships — one a larger warship — off the island of Martinique. She actually sailed between them, putting up a fierce fight. The heat and vibrations from constant firing dismounted her cannons from their gun carriages. Nearly helpless and with heavily damaged rigging, the Nonsuch fled. The British praised the crew’s “extreme bravery,” although an American newspaper described the battle as “gallant, but unprofitable,” Harpers reports.
That action must have caught the eyes of Danish West Indies’ authorities because they purchased the Nonsuch, renaming her the Vigilant. Employed as a coast guard vessel, the Vigilant was outfitted with 12 three-pounder cannons (six on each side). These guns fired projectiles weighing three pounds and were nick-named “grasshoppers” because of their severe jump-like recoil.
Dr. Taylor, in his Leaflets described the Vigilant‘s duel with a Spanish pirate named LaForcada who sailed a well-armed brig:
“[On July 10,] 1825, when a Spanish pirate, cruising in the passage between St. Thomas and Porto Rico, made things hot for the merchant vessels trading in these islands, the Danish Government promptly dispatched a [large] man-of- war after her; but, the pirate being smaller and better acquainted with the dangerous shoals and rocks abounding thereabouts, easily eluded the pursuit of the heavy ship of war.
“[The Danes then sent out the Vigilant under] a brave Danish officer, Second Lieutenant Irminger, with thirty soldiers. After a few hours’ sail, she came up with the redoubtable pirate, who, mistaking the little schooner for an easy prize, prepared to board and take her. As he was about to do so, the [Danish] soldiers leaped up, poured in their fire, and before the pirates could recover from their confusion, became masters of the vessel.”
A Vigilant crew member described how the pirate ship’s “cook ran out of the galley with a fire-brand to fire the long swivel gun on her main deck, which would have created havoc among [our] soldiers had not one of them fortunately shot him down before he had time to apply the match.”
Pirate captain LaForcado was killed and surviving members of his crew were tried and hung. Two of the pirate’s bronze cannons captured by the Vigilant can today be found at the Danish Maritime Museum in Copenhagen.
After her coast guard service, the Vigilant became an inter-island mail and passenger ship. It was the Vigilant, for instance, that brought news to St. Thomas and St. John that Governor Peter von Scholten had emancipated the enslaved on St. Croix on July 3, 1848.
Nearly half a century later, Maturin Ballou, the first editor of the Boston Globe, visited the islands on a steam ship in 1892. He reverently described the Vigilant in St. Thomas harbor:
“There lay a schooner-rigged craft . . . [with] her jaunty, graceful lines, tall, raking masts, and long bowsprit suggesting the famous old Baltimore clippers. There is a fascinating individuality about sailing vessels [unlike] steamships. Seamen form romantic attachments for the former. The officers and crew of [our steam vessel] cast admiring eyes upon this handsome schooner, anchored under our lee.
“That same evening, the Vigilant spread her broad white wings and glided silently out of the harbor, gathering rapid way as she passed its entrance, until feeling the spur of the wind and the open sea, she quickly vanished from sight.”
Despite the Vigilant‘s reputation for speed and passenger safety, in the early 20th century the Danish government reportedly sent a new steam ship as a replacement. But, she developed serious engine trouble and was sent back to Europe for refitting. Without any engine, the Vigilant reliably carried on.
In my fact-based novel Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea, I place the Vigilant in Charlotte Amalie harbor when the deadly San Narciso hurricane of 1867 struck St. Thomas. And, unfortunately, on September 12, 1928 the Vigilant was destroyed beyond repair by another severe hurricane.
Constructed in a candle-lit world during George Washington’s presidency, the Vigilant perished in a world lit by electricity and propelled by oil