Keble Chatterton on the origins of the schooner

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E Keble Chatterton on the origin of schooners

I’m reading the 1922 second edition E Keble Chatterton’s book Fore and Aft Craft, which explains the history and development of the fore and aft rig, and in particular the influence of the Dutch. It’s an eye-opening work and I was particularly struck by this section on the invention and origins of the schooner. I remain puzzled by the fact that two-masted fore and aft rigged craft are depicted earlier in the book and I’d be intrigued to know what other countries known for their schooners (such as the Portuguese) would say were the origins of their craft. Even more, I find the image he includes difficult to interpret – but what he says is intriguing and certainly makes a good story. (Beware though – the comments below strongly suggest it may not be entirely true!)

It all starts with mention of two masted sloepes depicted in painting dating from 1629 to 1642.

‘Some of these so-called sloepes were about 24 ft long in the mainmast, 42 ft in length overall, with a beam of 9ft. Now we referred some pages back to the colonisation of northern America by the Dutch, who called their territory the New Netherlands, and that which is now known as New York was called by them New Amsterdam.  Along that Atlantic coast stretching northwards to Gloucester and Boston, are to be seen to this day perhaps the very finest class of schooners in existence, or ever conceived by the mind of designer. The reason is to be found in the fact that the Dutch colonists took over the Atlantic not merely their ideas of cutters and single-masted sloops, but also the other notions of craft, including this kind of vessel depicted in the Boijmans’ Museum.

‘It was in 1664 that, during the Anglo-Dutch War, the British seized New Netherlands, but that did not mean that the whole Dutch colony vanished , nor that the Dutch-American shipping was instantly to be swept out of sight. Undoubtedly, this two-masted sloepe held on. But in the year 1713 there came a change: there was seen to be room for improvement, for it was realised this “two-sticker” could be made a better craft by adding a triangular jib as in the single-masted sloops. And so this was done. The foremast was already very far forward in the eyes of the ship, and so a broeksprit or bowsprit, had to be added also on which to set the jib, and so with this the schooner as belonging to the years 1800  to 1850 came into being. It was then distinctly a Dutch-American craft, and not British, and the date of the first of this new type was, as stated, 1713. Captain Clark relates that as she was leaving the launching ways some one exclaimed: “See how she scoons,” and from that day this prototype and her descendants have been called schooners.

‘The place where this vessel orginated was Gloucester, and this early reputation for the two-masted fore-and-after has been since continuously maintained by that port. Two separate reasons have contributed to the development of the Gloucester schooner. First there was a demand for an able type of vessel that should be capable of riding out bad weather in the Atlantic; and, secondly, the type that was required muust also have a good turn of speed, for two separate kinds of people needed just such a vessel as possessed these qualifications. In the first place there was the brotherhood of pilots, who were so keen on getting to the incoming ship that they would race for many a long mile out into the ocean so as to arrive first. Secondly, there were the fishermen who earned their living by going to fish off the Grand Banks. Having filled up with the spoil of the sea, it was their duty to hurry back to market, and obtain the best prices for their catch.’

5 thoughts on “Keble Chatterton on the origins of the schooner”

  1. Missing from the story are the Bahama's and Carribean Islands which were hubs on the trade routes to Europe, the Americas and Africa. These were terribly important places in the 17th and 18th centruries and I suspect they were home to a lot of innovation for sailing craft.

  2. As Peter Spectre noted in his book on the passenger schooners of Maine, "A Passage Through Time," there is no known meaning, past or present, for the verb "scoon" (I scoon, you scoon, he/she/it scoons), so the Capt. Clark quote is almost certainly apocryphal and not the true source of the word "schooner."

  3. I defer in all things historical to Mr. Holtzman. But Capt. Clark certainly was precient in recognition of a superior craft, which was to eventually prove decisive in combat with the overwelmingly powerful British, which as Ed notes, extended well into Carribean waters. The Captains and crew of these fine vessels were considered renegades and pirates on the strength of their skill as sailors.

  4. Hi again.

    Another very interesting topic.

    On the part of the Portuguese shipbuilding and their sailing schooners, I am sure that they had the New England influence, for their obvious success in transport and fisheries. The codfishing White Fleet developed many schooners built in Portugal, influenced by the American design, but our shipyards also adapted (and inovated) sometimes this design to that kind of North Atlantic dory fishing, for instance with the big 4-masted ones. The great success (and beauty) of Gloucester and Essex, Massachusetts schooners, adapted by the Portuguese to 4.000 nautical miles and 6 month high sea campaigns.


  5. Small schooners, known as wherries were in widespread use on both sides of the Irish Sea by the eighteenth century for fishing, pilotage cargo carrying and as passenger ferries on the Mersey for example.
    These small schooners were also known as shallops and I believe the word to have the same etymological origins as sloop ie chaloupe in French.


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