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PACIFIC STEAM NAVIGATION COMPANY

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The Pacific Steam Navigation Company was founded by William Wheelwright, the son of a Lincolnshire master mariner who was born at Newbury Port, Massachusetts in the USA on 18th March 1798. After being educated at Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts William went to sea in 1814 as a cabin boy on one of the family's ships and after serving his apprenticeship on sailing brigs out of New Orleans he achieved his first command at the age of 19 in 1817.
After his barque, the Rising Empire owned by William Bartlett, was wrecked at the mouth of the River Plate in 1823 he joined a ship sailing out of Buenos Aires bound for Valparaiso as a seaman. He then sailed for Guayaquil in Ecuador where he set up in business as a ship broker and chandler and eventually became the US Consul at the port.

In 1828 Wheelwright married Martha Bell at Newbury Port and when the couple returned to Guayaquil via Panama William found to his dismay that his business was in ruins with debts of almost $100,000. The couple moved back to Valparaiso, a port which had always fascinated Wheelwright because of its proximity to Santiago, the capital of Chile. There William acquired his first vessel, a schooner named the Fourth of July, and traded northwards up the coast.

At the time there were no roads and building them was impracticable. Both Wheelwright and the Chilean Government recognised that the coastal seaway offered the country's best form of communication. However, that particular coast frequently lacked wind and it was therefore necessary to introduce steam propulsion in order to maintain a regular service for the benefit of both the land based industries and the farmers.


Wm. Wheelwright 1798-1873

On 5th August 1835, the Chilean Government issued a decree granting Wheelwright the exclusive rights to operate steamships in Chilean waters for a period of 10 years. The decree also stated that steamer services should be operating within 2 years but, in reality, the project took some five years before it came to maturity. In the following year Peruvian merchants began to show an interest in the concept of steam and on 18th June the British Consul General convened a meeting at which a committee was appointed to study Wheelwrights' proposals. On 8th November of the same year the British Consul General convened another meeting at which he recommended that a company be formed to raise capital to build the steamships. Wheelwright set off for the USA but could obtain support for the project there so he continued on to Britain.
On 4th August 1837 the Chilean degree lapsed because the operation was not up and running within the stipulated two year period but the Government was impressed with the efforts being made to promote the project and power of attorney was granted to delete the two year implementation clause.

In Britain, Wheelwright was fortunate as the British Government was also interested in expending trade to the west coast of South America. A voyage to Valparaiso by sail round Cape Horn took at least four months so a route which included an overland leg across Panama was an attractive alternative. The Hon. Peter Scarlett, son of Lord Abinger, had put forward a proposal that a railway be built between an Atlantic terminal and a Pacific distribution port capable of feeding steamers which could then sail north, south or even east. At about the same time Baron Friedrich von Humbolt (1769-1859) advocated the possibility of building ship canal across the 50 mile isthmus.

The Pacific Steam Navigation Company Limited eventually came into being on 27th September 1838 at 5 Barge Yard, Bucklesbury, London with a share capital of £250,000. Divided into 5,000 shares of £50 each 1000 were reserved for South American investors. Mr George Brown was appointed as the first chairman and as he was also a founding director of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company the fortunes of both companies were firmly interlinked from the very beginning. The initial house flag was as shown but with the crown being replaced with Chile's White Star. William Wheelwright himself remained in Valparaiso as resident director because of his other business interests there.

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Interest in the new company was very slow; the only initial investors being the the directors whose qualifying shares raised £5000. Outside investors were awaiting the British Government's seal of approval through the grant of a Royal Charter which was eventually obtained some eighteen months later.
However, planning proceeded and Wheelwright proposed that three iron hulled steamers of 700 tons be built with a fourth as a reserve because of the lack of facilities in South America. On 31st August, 1839 orders were placed with Thomas Wilson & Co. of Liverpool for the first two ships but, because the Royal Charter had not been granted, the Board, in Wheelwright's absence, cancelled the order. Wheelwright was adamant and reissued the tenders but Wilson & Co. would have nothing to do with the under capitalised Chilean based concern so on 10th October, 1839 the order went to Curling & Young in London. Despite Wheelwright's opposition, the ships were to be wooden and not iron.

In January 1840 the Royal Charter was finally granted and the scene was set for the company to develop. To mark the event the White Star was replaced by the Crown of England. George Peacock was appointed as the company's first captain on 17th February, 1840 and Wheelwright was appointed as Chief Superintendent with a salary of £1,400 per annum. Peacock was also appointed Second Superintendent with responsibility for operating the two ships.

During same year the wooden sailing ship Elizabeth was purchased for the purpose of carrying coal to Valparaiso for use by the coastal steamers. However, the crew considered her to be unseaworthy for a voyage round Cape Horn, a view endorsed by William Wheelwight following his inspection, and, consequently, the wooden barque Portsea was acquired to replace her. Loaded with coal she sailed for Valparaiso where she was hulked. Two other ships, the Cecilia and the Jasper, joined her in Valparaiso where they were also hulked.

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