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Passing of the Ringleader.

The Ringleader was one of the fastest of the California clipper ships. Built by Hayden & Cudworth for Howes & Crowell of Boston in 1853, she was used in the California trade while the gold rush lasted. After the gold rush was over, the clipper ships of the extreme type ceased to be built. For a time they were used in the trade with the Orient, in the tea trade to Europe and America. As tea deteriorates very fast at sea, the early American ships, on account of their speed, had the business all to themselves for a time. But the British soon constructed tea clippers which averaged nearly or quite as fast and could be operated at a lower cost. The American merchant vessels had been the pioneers in developing the commerce with various continents in the first part of the century and skimmed the cream of the trade, one after another, from these countries.

So, after the California gold rush was over, the foreign commerce in American ships had noticeably begun to decline, even before the Civil War and the advent of steam navigation, as more profitable investments could be found for capital, and the cost of operation was less [p. 59] for the foreign shipping. The clippers were often hard pressed to find a cargo. Many of the ships were used in carrying guano and other undesirable trades and they often had to pick up what cargo they could find. The Ringleader was one of these. She had sailed from Hong Kong in May, 1863, bound for San Francisco with a load of about five hundred coolies. When a few days out she was caught in a typhoon. The dismay can be imagined when on May 9 the rapidly falling barometer and the ominous hush indicated something terrible was impending. Lifelines had been set up on each side of the deck. All sails had been furled and secured with studding sail tacks and long gaskets. Topgallant masts and yards had been sent down on deck and the tops cleared. Relieving tackles had been put on the tiller, scuppers cleared, and the pumps ready. Each man wore a belt to secure himself, if necessary, to the most convenient place. It was in every way similar to the experience of the steamship Nan-Shan, even to her cargo of coolies, so vividly described by Conrad in his story,‘Typhoon’:

An outburst of unchained fury, a vicious rush of the wind. . . . It was something formidable and swift, like the sudden smashing of a Vial of Wrath. It seemed to explode all around the ship with an overpowering concussion and a rush of great waters, as if an immense dam had been blown up to windward.

She was like a living creature thrown to the rage of the mob, hustled terribly, struck at, borne up, flung down, leaped upon.

The typhoon of this date was an unusually severe one and was followed by a tidal wave.

Nobody,—. . . who caught sight of a white line of foam coming on at such a height that he couldn't believe his eyes,— nobody knew the steepness of that sea and the awful depth of the hollow the hurricane had scooped behind that running wall of water. . . .

She pitched into the hollow straight down as if tumbling from a cliff. . . . Instead of recovering herself she hung head down while the souls of men on board cried aloud to her to rise.

[p. 60]

The coolies had been ordered below and the hatches battened down. They clung to every stanchion and wherever a hold could be found, hanging on for dear life. They swarmed on the companion ladder like ‘bees on a branch.’ There could not have been places of refuge for such a number, and at times there must have been

an inextricable confusion of heads and shoulders, naked soles kicking upwards, fists raised, tumbling backs, legs, pigtails, faces. . . . With a precipitated sound of trampling and shuffling of bare feet and with guttural cries, the vague mound piled up to port, detached itself from the ship's side, and shifted to starboard, sliding, inert and struggling, to a dull, brutal thump.

The western circumference of the typhoon reached to the mainland and moved with a circular motion, the direction of the wind being from the circumference toward the center, which was near Formosa. Consequently a vessel caught in any part of the storm had almost no chance of escape, and after making a hopeless attempt to weather Formosa, she went ashore.

The Boston Shipping List, August 1, 1863, has this item: ‘Ship Ringleader, of Boston, White, from Hong Kong for San Francisco, was totally lost May 9, on the S. W. end of the Island of Formosa. The crew and passengers were saved. Captain White arrived at S. F. 23 inst. in bark E. Banning.’ Also the following: ‘Aug. 22, 1863. Hong Kong, June 13. The officers and crew of the American ship Ringleader have reached Shanghai in safety, with the exception of two seamen who were drowned.’

There is an ominous silence concerning the cargo of coolies and the worst can be imagined.

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