New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

What Was the Big Deal About the Marco Polo?

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From the blog at

One cannot live in Saint John, and go to school there, without hearing of the ship the Marco Polo. However, to praise the Marco Polo is more a matter of local patriotism than it is a reflection of actually knowing anything about it. And so, I was wondering,

What Was the Big Deal About the Marco Polo?

James Smith began his career working in the shipyards at Saint John, but went on to become a shipbuilder on his own. He was the first to build at Courtenay Bay, and his first production was the ship Courtenay, launched there in about 1835. He is believed to have built about sixty ships over the years, including the Marco Polo in 1851.

Marco Polo

The Marco Polo

From a painting by Thomas Robertson, 1859, State Library of Victoria, Australia, and the web site

The Marco Polo was a three-masted clipper ship, 184 feet long, 36 feet wide, and with a 29 feet draught. She displaced 1,625 tons. The ship was launched on April 16, 1851, but Courtenay Bay was shallow except at high tide and was not deep enough for the operation. The Marco Polo fell on her side and became stuck in the mud. She was re-floated after about five days, but was soon grounded again. She made it clear of Courtenay Bay only after another two weeks of effort. One of James Smith’s relatives denied these details, saying that James would never have allowed it to happen; but it appears to be true nonetheless.

“A large and elegant vessel called the MARCO POLO was launched on Thursday morning last from the building yard of Mr. James Smith at Courtenay Bay. He is also the owner. She has three complete decks, measures 1,625 tons, and her length aloft is upwards of 184 feet. We presume that although not quite the largest that has been built in the Province this splendid ship is probably the longest that has been built in the Province. She is named after the celebrated Venetian traveller who discovered the coast of Malabar.”

“We regret to learn that after this fine vessel had got clear of her ways in launching, she touched the bank of the creek and the wind blowing fresh at the time, went over on her beam ends, in consequence of which, some of the persons on board were hurt. One boy saved himself by jumping overboard and swimming ashore. The vessel, we understand, was not injured.”

(The New Brunswick Courier, Saint John, April 19, 1851)

There is some difference of opinion about how elegant the ship was, or wasn’t:

“She was a bluff, ugly vessel, just like hundreds of her sisters before and after. She had no pretensions to beauty….”

(The Age, Melbourne Australia, May 19, 1934)

The first sailing was from Saint John to Liverpool in 1852, carrying a load of timber. That crossing was made in fifteen days. Some other crossings followed, before she was sold in that same year to James Baines of Liverpool, representing the Black Ball Line. The ship was then converted to passenger service for the immigrant traffic to Australia. The decorating of the ship was ‘over the top’:

“One morning eighty-three years ago the Marco Polo lay in Liverpool with a broom at her mast head, signifying she was for sale. James Baines, the founder of the Liverpool Black Ball line of clipper packets had an eye for a ship. He bought her cheaply, refitted her, and made many alterations and improvements, and loaded her for Melbourne. The contemporary descriptions of her saloon decorations and her cabins wonderful in her day are amusing to us. There was a wealth of embossed red velvet and rare woods; there was plate glass and stained glass wherever it could be fitted; a plate glass table top in the saloon served to illuminate the cabins below; panels with coins of all nations in high relief served to decorate the dining saloon, and so on.”

“On her first passage to Melbourne from Liverpool this little ship not only broke all records for speed, but brought 930 ‘Government immigrants.’ These, together with a crew of sixty and her officers, would total close to 1,000 persons. The excellence of her accommodation is revealed by the fact that there were only two deaths. In those days a few score dead would arouse little or no comment.”

(The Age, Melbourne Australia, May 19, 1934)

That first sailing took 76 days in each direction and, with time spent in port, the total time away from Liverpool was 5 months and twenty one days. That was the first time that a ship had made a round trip to Australia in less than six months. Some people have given slightly different details:

“Under the command of Captain James Nicol Forbes she made the voyage from Liverpool to Port Phillips Head in 76 days on the18th of September. An epidemic of measles among the children aboard caused 52 deaths during the voyage. After three weeks she returned to London in another 76 days, arriving on Boxing Day. This was the first recorded round trip in less than six months, or to be exact 5 months 21 days.”


“On her first voyage, under the command of Captain James ‘Bully’ Forbes, she left Liverpool, England for Melbourne, Australia with one [thousand] passengers on board, and made the passage in an unheard of 68 days, and returned to Liverpool again with a record passage of 74 days. The whole shipping world was astounded.”


Bully Forbes is quoted in one document, in order to demonstrate his character:

“His slogan was ‘Hell or Melbourne’, and he habitually gave his passengers a generous preview of the former through his hunger for speed. An apocryphal story has him padlocking the sails during a gale to prevent any of the more timid in his crew hauling in the dangerously strained canvas.”


In the days of the Australian gold rush, rickety ships would arrive full of immigrants having spent months at sea. The situation is reminiscent of the history of Partridge Island in Saint John, where inspectors examined passengers for communicable diseases and for evidence of mistreatment at the hands of ships’ captains. The Marco Polo was not a rickety old ship, but accommodations were not the best either. Regulations required that sleeping mats be a minimum of six feet long and 18 inches wide, for example, and at least one of those on the Marco Polo barely met the standard, being 20 inches wide.

Darren Watson told a story about a day in late 1854, when four ships, including the Marco Polo, arrived from London and Liverpool, with merchandise and a total of 1,078 passengers, plus crews. Four ships arriving at once pointed toward a delay in processing, and the Marco Polo had already taken too long at sea. Captain William Wild was in no mood for a further delay which was inevitable when it was discovered that several deaths had not been properly logged in the immigration papers.

William Ward had served under Bully Forbes and was of a similar temperament. The inspectors were harassed and prevented from performing their duties. The Marco Polo then ran the blockade and, it was thought, would become the subject of an enquiry. There was no enquiry, however, and they seem to have got away with it.}

There were other incidents of note in the history of the Marco Polo, such as when she was used to save people from the burnt ship, the Eastern City in 1858; and a month later carried nearly 47,000 ounces of gold out of Australia. She struck an iceberg off Cape Horn in 1861 and required heavy repairs. (All from

The Marco Polo’s glorious career was coming to an end and, in 1867, she no longer met the requirements for passenger service and was again consigned to carrying cargo. Following that, she was modified for the cargo business and sold several times. She was carrying lumber from Quebec when she sprung a leak in July of 1883, off the coast of Prince Edward Island. The pumps could not handle the flow and the captain grounded her near Cavendish, PEI. The masts were cut down to reduce her profile in the wind; attempting to avoid further damage.

The community rushed to the beach to witness what was going on, including a small girl, Lucy Maud Montgomery, with her grandfather. She wrote:

“That day we had a terrible windstorm in Cavendish. Suddenly the news was spread that a vessel was coming ashore. Everyone who could, rushed to the sandshore and saw a magnificent sight! A large vessel coming straight on before the northern gale with every stitch of canvas set. She grounded about 300 yards from the shore (on a sandbar) and as she struck the crew cut the rigging and the huge masts went over with a crash that was heard for a mile, above the roaring storm. The next day the crew of twenty men got ashore and found boarding placed about Cavendish. Being typical tars they painted our quiet settlement a glowing scarlet for the remainder of the summer.

Quoted in from Alpine Path.

The next month she was sold for salvage and the work of taking off the lumber began. A gale arose one night, when the salvage crew were staying onboard. The gale continued all the following day, and the community gathered again. A heroic effort was put forth to save the salvage crew, and this was successful. That was the end of the salvage operation, all was lost. Souvenirs washed ashore and were widely dispersed among the local residents.

These are the things that I have learned about the Marco Polo, and why she was such a ‘big deal.’ She was likely the longest sailing ship ever built in Saint John, and was renowned for her speed. She was called the fastest ship in the world. She had a long career carrying immigrants to Australia, and they say that one in twenty Australians can trace their ancestry to those passengers (Wikipedia). Upon her return from the record breaking round trip to Australia,

“A waterman meeting Mr. James Baines in the street said ‘Sir, the Marco Polo is coming up the river.’ ‘Nonsense man’ returned Mr. Baines. Marco Polo is not arrived yet.’ In less than an hour Mr. Baines was face to face with the commander.”

(The Daily Telegraph, Australia, November 17, 1883, at

She was also famous in Liverpool:

“There are probably none who lived in Liverpool some 30 years ago but will have a lively recollection of the Marco Polo. Her name in Liverpool was a household word, and her praise was on the lips of all who knew her.”

(The Daily Telegraph, ibid.)


Written by johnwood1946

February 25, 2015 at 9:18 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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