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.
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.
The Peru (1) was launched on 18th April 1840 followed by the Chile (1) three days later. On 27th June the Chile sailed from Falmouth bound for Valparaiso and on the following 15th July the Peru sailed from Plymouth. It was intended that both ships would rendezvous in the Straits of Magellan and then sail into Valparaiso Bay together but the historic aspect of the event was overshadowed by Cunard’s Britannia which entered service at the same time.
The ships arrived on 16th October to a tumultuous welcome after a voyage of 8,600 miles undertaken in 52 days. Nine days later the Peru inaugurated the service between Valparaiso and Callao in Peru.
A service was maintained but during 1841-2 there were problems the main one being the inability to maintain a continuous supply of coal. At one time the steamers had to be laid up for three months through lack of it. On 5th October 1843 Wheelwright returned to London and was promptly dismissed by the Board for ‘bad management’. He responded by circulating a report to the shareholders who promptly voted for the removal of his accusers with the exception of George Brown. Wheelwright returned to the Board as Joint Managing Director.
By this time the majority of the shareholders were Liverpool merchants and, consequently, the Head Office was moved to that city. As Wheelwright had to return to Valparaiso William Just of the Aberdeen & London Steam Ship Co. was appointed as a second Joint Managing Director to manage the London end of the operation. At the same time Wheelwright’s powers were extended to cover Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama as well as Chile. However, by this time, out of a capital of £94,000, £72,000 had been lost.
In 1846 the Ecuador (1) was based at Callao and extended the Valparaiso service via Guayaquil to Panama where there was a connection to Royal Mail’s Southampton to Colon service creating the Panama – Overland route to Valparaiso which could be achieved in 40 days instead of four months via Cape Horn. The New Granada joined the Ecuador at Callao later in the same year.
Prosperity improved and in September 1850 the Liverpool Board were able to declare a 10% dividend. In the following year the growth of trade around the coast and the granting a mail contract enabled the company to order four ships at a cost of £140,000 to replace the wooden hulled Chile and Peru and to augment the Bolivia. By 1852 the four ships had been delivered and PSNC was able to operate a fortnightly service between Valparaiso and Panama. The company were also awarded the British Government mail contract.
However, the company’s development was not without its problems. The new smaller vessels ordered for the coastal service had first to make a hazardous ocean crossing from Britain to Valparaiso and in 1853 both the Perlita and the Osprey were lost during their delivery voyages. In the same year the Quito was wrecked on the coast and the hulk Hope was lost. In 1854 the Panama was lost after striking a rock during her maiden voyage.
During 1854 the Panama Railway across the isthmus was completed which opened up a ‘through’ route to the west coast of South America. In 1856 the compound engine was invented and the management of PSNC wasted no time installing the new economic machinery in its ships; the Valparaiso and the Inca being among the first to have the direct acting version. It was some 14 years before other shipowners followed suit on a regular basis, Alfred Holt being the foremost.
The company continued to expand and in 1859 acquired the island of Morro in Panama Bay for use as a workshop and stores which became known as the ‘North Station’. At the end of the company’s twentieth year in 1860 the company’s fleet was comprised of twelve steamships. Boliviar (1), Lima (1), Bogota (1), Inca (1), Valparaiso (1), Callao (1), Cloda, Anne, San Carlos, Guayaquil, Morro (1) and the Peruano.
In 1865 the Charter was extended to include the establishment of steamer services between the West Coast of South America and the River Plate including the Falkland Islands and ‘such other places in North and South America and other foreign ports as the said company shall deem expedient’. At a special meeting of the shareholders in December 1867 it was agreed that a monthly service between Liverpool and Valparaiso via the Straits of Magellan be established. This decision was taken as a consequence of the Panaman Railroad Co’s continued refusal to grant the PSNC the same advantageous through rates that applied for cargo bound for ports in the USA.
The company’s share capital was increased to £2,000,000 and five screw steamships were ordered. But the company was anxious to start the new venture as quickly as possible and on 13th May 1868 the paddle steamer Pacific sailed on the inaugural voyage from Valparaiso for Liverpool with 170 passengers. Her three sisters, Santiago, Limena and Panama, quickly joined the service which was then able to undertake sailings every six weeks. These four ships had the distinction of being the only compound paddle steamers on transatlantic routes and their route was Liverpool – Bordeaux – Lisbon – Cape Verde Island – Rio de Janeiro – Montevideo – Punta Arenas – Valparaiso.
The first of the new screw steamships, the Magellan (1), came into service at the beginning of 1869 quickly followed by the Patagonia, the Araucania and the Cordillera. During the same year the famous John Elder, named by PSNC after the inventor of the compound engine, an engine which had revolutionised the economic viability of the coastal service, was delivered. Unfortunately, John Elder died before the commissioning of the ship named after him.
In 1870 the Liverpool to Valparaiso service was extended northwards to Arica, Mollendo and Callao. As the Directors had also agreed to increase the sailings to three per month and four new steamers were ordered. During 1870 orders were placed for a total of eleven ships, the largest order at that time.
The first group of the new class of vessels, the Chimborazo, the Cuzco, the Garonne and the Lusitania, arrived for the Liverpool – Valparaiso – Callao through service in 1871. In the following year a mail subsidy of £10,000 was granted to enable a weekly service to Callao and the company’s share capital was increased to £3,000,000. At the same time the White Star Line attempted to enter the same market when, on 5th October, 1872, their Republic sailed for Valparaiso and Callao. PSNC’s new steamer Tacora was lost near Montevideo during her maiden voyage while racing against the Republic.
On 8th January 1873 the Sorata (1) commenced the first weekly sailing and operating under a new mail contract. At the age of 75, William Wheelwright died on 26th September, 1873, during a visit to London where he was planning to reside and by the end of that year the imposing trans-Atlantic fleet was complete and, if the coastal fleet was included, PSNC was the largest steamship company in the world. A fitting tribute to its founder, William Wheelwright.
However, serious problems were just around the corner as the company had over-stretched itself and both passenger income and freight fell short of expectations. To add to the problem both White Star Line and the Ryde Line had ships operating the route and the Compagnie Général Transatlantique was operating a service to Chile. Ryde Line was operating a four ship service between Antwerp – Montevideo – Buenos Aires and Valparaiso on the strength of a Belgian Government contract but after a few voyages it failed. Adding to the problems, a local company, Compania Sud Americana de Vapores, was founded with a base at Valparaiso. Their ships were distinguished by having a red funnel with a black top, a livery which is still used today.
By 1874 the problems encountered by the company were serious as there was simply not enough trade to support a weekly service from Liverpool. Although Ryde and White Star had withdrawn, their effect on the trade was minimal. To ease the situation the directors decided to reduce the Atlantic sailings to once every fortnight and, at the same time, increase the passage time by reducing speed by one knot in order to save fuel.
During the same year the relatively new Tacna was lost following an explosion and the Limena and Oroya (1) were sold to the Peruvian Government. To make the company self sufficient in South America a dry dock was built in Glasgow, dismantled and shipped to Callao where it was re-assembled. This provided a facility for the company’s coastal fleet to be overhauled locally.
The reduction in service left the company with surplus ships and no fewer than eleven of the deep sea fleet were laid up in Birkenhead. In an attempt to find alternative employment for the vessels the company sought and obtained permission to amend the Royal Charter allowing them to deploy the surplus ships on routes other than to South America. Two of the laid up ships, the Puno and the Corcovado went to the Royal Mail Line.
In February 1877 the directors of PSNC were approached by Anderson, Anderson & Co., and F. Green & Co. with a proposal to establish a jointly operated steamship company to trade to Australia in competition with P&O. The aim was to operate a monthly service out via Cape Town returning via the Suez Canal. The Orient Steam Navigation Company was incorporated and, pending the delivery of its own newly built ships, four PSNC ships were chartered with Orient having the option to purchase if the venture turned out to be a success. The new service was inaugurated with the Chimborazo, the Cuzco (1), the Garonne and the Lusitania, four sister ships all built in 1871. The first voyage was undertaken by the Lusitania which sailed from Plymouth for Melbourne on 28th June 1877, arriving on 8th August knocking 10 days off the previous record passage time. Around the same time the Magellan (1), the Araucania and the Cordillera commenced a short lived service from Liverpool to Buenos Aires with a call at Bordeaux.
The new service to Australia became so popular that Anderson, Anderson & Co. eventually exercised their option to purchase the ships which, having become well established, retained their original names. Demand was such that the service was increased to provide fortnightly sailings.
During 1879 the Mendoza joined the fleet and was the first liner ever to be equipped with electric lighting. In February of the same year war broke out between Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Peru and Bolivia had signed a defensive alliance in 1873 and in 1878 Bolivia imposed an export tax on nitrates. In an act of retaliation Chilean troops occupied the Bolivian nitrate port at Antofagasta and declared war on Peru on 5th April 1879. The war lasted for four years, which seriously interrupted PSNC’s trade and had internal repercussions as management at local level tended, quite naturally, to take sides. This was contrary to Head Office instructions as the company has always maintained strict neutrality in political matters. As a point of interest, the incumbent Chairman of PSNC was always appointed Honorary Consul for Chile in Liverpool regardless of which political party was in power in the country.
In April 1879 the company signed an agreement with its Australian route partners to operate a fortnightly service under the Orient Steam Navigation Co. banner with PSNC adding six more ships to the fleet making a total of ten in all. The John Elder commenced the first sailing under the new name in the May followed by the Iberia, the Aconcagua, the Sorata, the Liguria and the Cotopaxi. The final member of the fleet was the Orient, the first ship built for the Orient Line. From then on all mail passenger ships of both PSNC and Orient Line were prefixed with ‘Or’, a tradition which continued until 1931 when the Reina del Pacifico was delivered.
Despite the war the company acquired six new ships in 1881 among them being the Osorno and the tender Morro (2), the company’s first twin screwed ships. In the following year James G. Robinson replaced Lawrence R. Bailey as Chairman and the Iberia was requisitioned for troopship duties for the Arabi Pasha Egyptian Campaign. In 1885 the Lusitania and the Britannia were requisitioned for possible use as Armed Merchant Cruisers during the ‘Russian Scare’ when their troops invaded Afghanistan on 30th March. War was averted when the troops later withdrew.