Vicente Mesina Hurtado
Several months ago, on looking at one of these collections of photographs, an interesting panoramic view of the bay of Valparaiso appeared, showing several ships of different types, an enormous sailing ship in the center, the roof of the Government Warehouses, and in the background the hills to the East of the bay with little visible habitation. The photograph could therefore have been taken between the years 1895 and 1914, shortly before construction commenced of the finger pier and breakwater. There were no other significant details apart from these. When I asked the names of some of the sailing ships or vessels which appeared in the scene, no one in the shop could say anything and the photograph in question remained there on sale at a far from moderate price.
At a much later date, when initiating a search for data regarding the progress of the nitrate ports and the intense dispute between German and French ship owners for the Chilean nitrate trade in Europe, the famous five-mast sailing ship again appeared on this author’s horizon. Therefore, this calls for an explanation.
As from 1879, due to circumstances often described, the Chilean government took control of the vast and rich nitrate zone North of Parallel 24. Production under the order and prosperity brought about by the new administration, multiplied several times. Nitrate was the simplest and most economic way to fertilize fields under cultivation in Europe, and was furthermore an important factor in the production of gunpowder and other explosives. The combination of these two factors led to the great demand for Chilean nitrate in Europe.
The rivalry between the French and German ship owners in the race to transport the nitrate to Europe was spectacular from the very beginning. Antoine Dominique Bordes of Bordeaux and Fritz Laeisz of Hamburg (one of them still a powerful potentate, with the solvency of an international bank) competed from 1874 onwards, and for their nations’ prestige, for the greatest tonnage and speed in the carriage of nitrate from Chile to their respective countries.
At that time, sailing ships were desperately trying to maintain the fight and their performance against triumphant steamers. The designs of the so-named nitrate race sailing ship “Clippers” were carried out and built with a view to absolute optimization in their performance and to sail sometimes loaded beyond the normal – the Lloyd load line. Many of these “Clippers” reached speeds which are memorable in the history of navigation.
The German competitor in this race, Laeisz, started his line modestly in 1874 with three vessels. By 1890 he already owned 17 barques! The flag of his line with a white background and his initials in red, had become popular all over the world. Laeisz entered this competition with over 1,500 to 2,000 ton sailing ships, built specially for him at the Blohm-Voss shipyards in Hamburg and Tecklenborg in Geestemunde. His ships, all bearing names starting with the letter “P”, “PLUS”, “PROMPT”, “PAPOSO”, “PALMYRA”, “PAMPA”, “PEKING”, “PAMIR”, “PISAGUA”, “PADUA”, “PASSAT”, “PRIWALL”, “PATAGONIA” and many others, became known simply as the German Flying P Line.
Competition between the two companies where the cargo and speed of the vessels were concerned gradually increased. At the beginning of the 1890 decade the Bordes company launched the five-masted 6,500 ton “France”, in the face of which Laeisz produced the 6,100 ton “POTOSI” entirely steel built. Her tallest mast reached 60 meters. Not content with this, almost seven years later Laeisz brought out another ship, even larger... certainly the largest sailing ship in the world, her name being suggested to Laeisz by the German Emperor William himself. Thus, the “PREUSSEN” (PRUSSIA) was launched in Geestemünde in 1902. This vessel had a displacement of 11,150 tons and her hatches could hold 8,000 tons of nitrate (62,000 sacks). This quantity of nitrate was sufficient to fertilize 40,000 hectares of land or provide gunpowder for a whole German army corps.
The “PREUSSEN” was entirely steel built, and has been the only entirely square-rigged sailing ship. She measured 133.5 meters long and 16.4 in breadth. She carried 48 sails with a surface of 59,000 square feet. Her mainmast measured 68 meters and utilized 13,000 meters of steel cable. Winches, hoists and pumps were worked by mechanized winches and she was possibly the first vessel of her class equipped with wireless telegraphy.
On her first voyage, under the command of Captain B.R. Petersen and with a crew of 48 men, she made the crossing from Geestemünde to Iquique in 65 days. Her second voyage to Chile - from Hamburg to Iquique - was made in 57 days. This voyage attracted the attention of all the specialists in this world.
In 1910 the “PREUSSEN” had undertaken 13 round trips to Chile; only one of these, however, was not direct (that is, straight to Iquique), as in 1907 she was seen, and only once, in Valparaíso. That is when the photograph was taken which originated this article and which we include herein.
Valparaiso, August 2003.