Nitrate Race

Synthesis of an article written by Mr. Enrique Bunster, prepared by
Rear-Admiral Roberto Benavente, President of the Chilean Section A.I.C.H.

The development of merchant shipping lines served by fleets of long range sailing ships originated in the Nineteenth Century until mid-Twentieth Century, from the need to reach distant countries in search of raw materials which in Europe were becoming scarce or were not produced. They made history where merchant navigation was concerned and played an important role in worldwide maritime tradition. These were the tea race to India and China, the wheat race to Australia, the coffee race to Brazil and the nitrate race to Peru and Chile. The incorporation of steam and the opening of the Panama Canal – as well as the two World Wars – swept their ornamental beauty from the oceans and did away with an incentive to the spirit of adventure which can never be replaced.

From many points of view, the nitrate race was the most characteristic. Its ships not only had to cover an immense distance – a 14,000 mile round trip – but also had to face the most difficult seas and the most dangerous passage of all the routes: the rounding of Cape Horn.

At one specific moment in Iquique, Chile, there were 60 ships loading nitrate, which allows us to affirm that this race acquired gigantic proportions. It had a kind of original folklore and a typical jargon. The first load of unprocessed bulk nitrate was shipped to England in 1820, but found no market and was therefore jettisoned in Liverpool. Ten years later a Chilean industrialist, Santiago de Zavala, chartered out his brigantine INTREPID to France with processed nitrate, a product which became sought after due to its recognized qualities to improve agricultural soil and produce explosives.

The French and the Germans were outstanding in the resulting competition where its transportation was concerned. In fact, Antonin Dominique Bordes, of Bordeaux, and Ferdinand Laeisz, of Hamburg, developed their own fleets of merchant sailing ships which plowed the seas between Europe and America. A.D. Bordes entered the nitrate race towards 1868 developing a fleet of around 800-ton barks and frigates, generally three-masted and with passenger accommodation (it was customary for the captains to travel with their wives and sometimes their children).

This great Bordeaux ship owner was the indisputable "ace" until 1874 when his Hamburg competitor came on the scene, starting with a small fleet consisting of the frigate POLINESYA and the barks PROFESSOR and HENRIETTE VEHN, all of medium

tonnage. Later, all the ships he owned were given names starting with the letter P and thus his company came to be known as the P Line.

The demand for transport of Chilean nitrate was enormous and the capacity of the fleets became insufficient. Laeisz began to increase his by building two 1,000 to 2,000 ton clippers. By 1890 he owned 17 excellent frigates in service, under the command of the best sailing ship captains.

Brotherhood and healthy good-fellowship prevailed among these people. When in port there was frequent visiting from one ship to another and if a captain was fortunate enough to complete his voyage in record time, it was customary for him to be congratulated by all. With the same feeling of fellowship, when necessary they sent their men to help with other cargo operations.

When loading was completed the ceremony commenced celebrating the end of the work. When the last bag was hoisted by the boom, the youngest apprentice allowed himself to be hoisted with it, holding his country’s flag. Waving it in the air, he would shout calling for three "cheers" for the ship’s crew and then for all the other crews around him. The boom would lower and hoist him three times for him to be seen and to give everyone the chance to reply. Saluted by the general uproar, the apprentice would finally disappear, along with the sack and the flag, into the cargo hold.

Impressive farewell activity would then follow. At 8 o’clock at night the ship, ready to sail to its home country, would ring its bell in joyous signal of farewell. Immediately all the rest of the fleet anchored in the bay would reply, originating a concert which filled the air and which darkness made doubly fantastic. This would continue for ten to fifteen minutes and the echoes could be heard several miles away at sea. Meanwhile, the captain would be holding a "Rendezvous" in his cabin with his colleagues, who would offer a toast for safe passage. They would attend this reunion in formal attire, together with their wives.

It was then that the guest of honor would call for a framework with blue riding lights alit representing some constellation – the Southern Cross or Centaurus – to be hoisted aloft on the foremast. It would remain in place during the peal of the bells and when lowered was the pretext for further cheers from the crews.

At 10 the ship would sail with the first evening breeze with the crew members in maneuvering positions, singing "Homeward Bound" at the top of their voices.

O, fare you well, I wish you well!
Good-bye, fare you well; good-bye fare you well!
O, fare you well, my bonny young girls!
Hoorah, my boys, we are homeward bound...!

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the nitrate race was reaching its peak. The Laeisz fleet still had twenty ships in service, whereas the Bordes fleet had forty-six, sailing on all the seas of the world.

Four years of war were sufficient to ruin the fleet of sailing ships.German submarines and mines caused the downfall of nearly half the Bordes fleet, whereas the whole of the Laeisz fleet was captured or interned in Allied and neutral ports.

In 1927 the British bark WILLIAM MITCHELL when in Iquique tried to repeat the historic ceremony of the old sailing ships. The prosaic "steamers" did not reply to the peal of the ship’s bell nor to its cheers, and the solitary sailing ship sailed with the sadness of a lonely survivor.

Iquique, 1900

Valparaíso, May 2002.