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
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