Joshua Slocum


Joshua Slocum was the first man to sail single-handedly around the world. He was a Nova Scotian-born, naturalised American seaman and adventurer, and a noted writer. In 1900 he wrote a book about his journey, Sailing Alone Around the World, which became an international best-seller. He disappeared in November 1909 while aboard his boat, the Spray.

Nova Scotian childhood

Joshua Slocum was born on February 20, 1844 in Mount Hanley, Annapolis County, Nova Scotia, a community on the North Mountain within sight of the Bay of Fundy. The fifth of eleven children of John Slocombe and Sarah Jane Slocombe née Southern, Joshua descended, on his father's side, from a Quaker, known as "John the Exile" who left the United States shortly after 1780 because of his opposition to the American War for Independence. Part of the Loyalist migration to Nova Scotia, the Slocombes were granted of farmland in Nova Scotia's Annapolis County.
Joshua Slocum was born in the family's farm house in Mount Hanley and learned to read and write at the nearby Mount Hanley School. His earliest ventures on the water were made on coastal schooners operating out of the small ports such as Port George and Cottage Cove near Mount Hanley along the Bay of Fundy.
When Joshua was eight years old, the Slocombe family moved from Mount Hanley to Brier Island in Digby County, at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. Slocum's maternal grandfather was the keeper of the lighthouse at Southwest Point there. His father, a stern man and strict disciplinarian, took up making leather boots for the local fishermen, and Joshua helped in the shop. However, the boy found the scent of salt air much more alluring than the smell of shoe leather. He yearned for a life of adventure at sea, away from his demanding father and his increasingly chaotic life at home among so many brothers and sisters.
He made several attempts to run away from home, finally succeeding, at age fourteen, by hiring on as a cabin boy and cook on a fishing schooner, but he soon returned home. In 1860, after the birth of the eleventh Slocombe child and the subsequent death of his kindly mother, Joshua, then sixteen, left home for good. He and a friend signed on at Halifax as ordinary seamen on a merchant ship bound for Dublin, Ireland.

Early life at sea

From Dublin, he crossed to Liverpool to become an ordinary seaman on the British merchant ship Tangier, bound for China. During two years as a seaman, he rounded Cape Horn twice, landed at Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, and visited the Maluku Islands, Manila, Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, and San Francisco. While at sea, he studied for the Board of Trade examination, and, at the age of eighteen, he received his certificate as a fully qualified Second Mate. Slocum quickly rose through the ranks to become a Chief Mate on British ships transporting coal and grain between the British Isles and San Francisco.
In 1865, he settled in San Francisco, became an American citizen, and, after a period of salmon fishing and fur trading in the Oregon Territory of the northwest, he returned to the sea to pilot a schooner in the coastal trade between San Francisco and Seattle. His first blue-water command, in 1869, was the barque Washington, which he took across the Pacific, from San Francisco to Australia, and home via Alaska.
He sailed for thirteen years out of the port of San Francisco, transporting mixed cargo to China, Australia, the Spice Islands, and Japan. Between 1869 and 1889, he was the master of eight vessels, the first four of which he commanded in the employ of others. Later, there would be four others that he himself owned, in whole or in part.

Family at sea

Shortly before Christmas 1870, Slocum and the Washington put in at Sydney. There, in about a month's time, he met, courted, and married a young woman named Virginia Albertina Walker. Their marriage took place on January 31, 1871. Miss Walker, quite coincidentally, was an American whose New York family had migrated west to California at the time of the 1849 gold rush and eventually continued on, by ship, to settle in Australia. She sailed with Slocum, and, over the next thirteen years, the couple had seven children, all born at sea or foreign ports. Four children, sons Victor, Benjamin Aymar, and James Garfield, and daughter Jessie, survived to adulthood.
In Alaska, the Washington was wrecked when she dragged her anchor during a gale, ran ashore, and broke up. Slocum, however, at considerable risk to himself, managed to save his wife, the crew, and much of the cargo, bringing all back to port safely in the ship's open boats. The owners of the shipping company that had employed Slocum were so impressed by this feat of ingenuity and leadership, they gave him the command of the Constitution which he sailed to Hawaii and the west coast of Mexico.
His next command was the Benjamin Aymar, a merchant vessel in the South Seas trade. However, the owner, strapped for cash, sold the vessel out from under Slocum, and he and Virginia found themselves stranded in the Philippines without a ship.

The Pato

While in the Philippines, in 1874, under a commission from a British architect, Slocum organized native workers to build a 150-ton steamer in the shipyard at Subic Bay. In partial payment for the work, he was given the ninety-ton schooner, Pato, the first ship he could call his own.
Ownership of the Pato afforded Slocum the kind of freedom and autonomy he had never experienced before. Hiring a crew, he contracted to deliver a cargo to Vancouver in British Columbia. Thereafter, he used the Pato as a general freight carrier along the west coast of North America and in voyages back and forth between San Francisco and Hawaii. During this period, Slocum also fulfilled a long-held ambition to become a writer; he became a temporary correspondent for the San Francisco Bee.
The Slocums sold the Pato in Honolulu in the spring of 1878. Returning to San Francisco, they purchased the Amethyst. He worked this ship until June 23, 1881.
The Slocums next bought a third share in the Northern Light 2. This large clipper was 233 feet in length, 44 feet beam, 28 feet in the hold. It was capable of carrying 2000 tons on three decks. Although Joshua Slocum called this ship "my best command", it was a command plagued with mutinies and mechanical problems. Under troubling legal circumstances he sold his share in the Northern Light 2 in 1883.

The Aquidneck

The Slocum family continued on their next ship, the 326-ton Aquidneck. In 1884, Slocum's wife Virginia became ill aboard the Aquidneck in Buenos Aires and died. After sailing to Massachusetts, Slocum left his three youngest children, Benjamin Aymar, Jessie, and Garfield in the care of his sisters; his oldest son Victor continued as his first mate.
In 1886, at age 42, Slocum married his 24-year-old cousin, Henrietta "Hettie" Elliott. The Slocum family, with the exception of Jessie and Benjamin Aymar, again took to the sea aboard the Aquidneck, bound for Montevideo, Uruguay. Slocum's second wife would find life at sea much less appealing than his first. A few days into Henrietta's first voyage, the Aquidneck sailed through a hurricane. By the end of this first year, the crew had contracted cholera, and they were quarantined for six months. Later, Slocum was forced to defend his ship from pirates, one of whom he shot and killed; he was tried and acquitted of murder. Next, the Aquidneck was infected with smallpox, leading to the death of three of the crew. Disinfecting of the ship was performed at considerable cost. Shortly afterward, near the end of 1887, the unlucky Aquidneck was wrecked in southern Brazil.

The Liberdade

After being stranded in Brazil with his wife and sons Garfield and Victor, he started building a boat that could sail them home. He used local materials, salvaged materials from the Aquidneck and worked with local workers. The boat was launched on May 13, 1888, the very day slavery was abolished in Brazil, and therefore the ship was given the Portuguese name Liberdade.
It was an unusual junk-rigged design which he described as "half Cape Ann dory and half Japanese sampan". He and his family began their voyage back to the United States, his son Victor being the mate.
After fifty-five days at sea and 5510 miles, the Slocums reached Cape Roman, South Carolina and continued inland to Washington D.C. for winter and finally reaching Boston via New York in 1889. This was the last time Henrietta sailed with the family. In 1890, Slocum published the accounts of these adventures in Voyage of the Liberdade.

Voyage of the Destroyer

In the northern winter of 1893/94, Slocum undertook what he described as, at that time, being "the hardest voyage that I have ever made, without any exception at all." It involved delivering the steam-powered torpedo boat Destroyer from the east coast of the United States to Brazil.
Destroyer was a ship 130 feet in length, conceived by the Swedish-American inventor and mechanical engineer John Ericsson, and intended for the defence of harbours and coastal waters. Equipped in the early 1880s with sloping armour plate and a bow-mounted submarine gun it was an evolution of the Monitor warship type of the American Civil War. Destroyer was intended to fire an early form of torpedo at an opposing ship from a range of 300 feet, and was a "vessel of war partially armored to attack bows-on at short range".
Despite the loss of the Aquidneck and the privations of his family's voyage in the self-built Liberdade, Slocum retained a fondness for Brazil. During 1893, Brazil was faced with a political crisis in Rio Grande do Sul and an attempt at civil war that was intensified by the revolt of the country's navy in September.
Slocum agreed to a request by the Brazilian government to deliver the Destroyer to Pernambuco, Brazil. His motive was also financial. As Slocum describes, his contract with the commander of government forces at Pernambuco was, "to go against the rebel fleet, and sink them all, if we could find them – big and little – for a handsome sum of gold …" In addition, Slocum saw the possibility of getting even with the "arch rebel" Admiral Melo : "Confidentially: I was burning to get a rake at Mello and his Aquideban. He it was, who in that ship expelled my bark, the Aquidneck, from lIha Grand some years ago, under the cowardly pretext that we might have sickness on board. But that story has been told. I was burning to let him know and palpably feel that this time I had in dynamite instead of hay".
Towed by the Santuit, Slocum and a small crew aboard the Destroyer left Sandy Hook, New Jersey, on 7 December 1893. The following day the ship was already taking on water: "A calamity has overtaken us. The ship's top seams are opening and one of the new sponsons, the starboard one, is already waterlogged". Despite all hands pumping and bailing, by midnight the seas were extinguishing the fires in the boilers which were kept alight only by throwing on rounds of pork fat and tables and chairs from the vessel.
With a storm continuing to blow on the 9th, the crew was able to lower the level of water in the hold and plug some of the holes and leaks. Bailing out water using a large improvised canvas bag continued from the 9th to the 13th and succeeded in maintaining the level of water in the hold below three feet. On the 13th they were again hit by a storm and cross seas and had to bail all night. On the 14th, heavy seas disabled the rudder. By the afternoon of 15 December, the Destroyer was to the southwest of Puerto Rico, heading for Martinique, and still weathering storms.
By this time, with the fires in the boilers extinguished, all hands were bailing for their lives: "The main hull of the Destroyer is already a foot under water, and going on down". The crew had no other option than to keep bailing and try to keep the ship afloat, as the vessel "could not be insured for the voyage; nor would any company insure a life on board". By the morning of the 16th the storm had abated, allowing the Destroyer to anchor to the south of Puerto Rico.
Although the ship's best steam pump had been put out of action on 19 December, more favourable seas allowed the crew to reach Martinique, where repairs were made before again setting sail on 5 January 1894. On 18 January the Destroyer arrived at Fernando de Noronha, an island some 175 miles from the coast of Brazil, before finally reaching Recife, Pernambuco, on the 20th.
Slocum wrote: "My voyage home from Brazil in the canoe Liberdade, with my family for crew and companions, some years ago, although a much longer voyage was not of the same irksome nature".
At Pernambuco, the Destroyer joined up with the Brazilian navy and the crew was again engaged in repairs as the long tow in heavy seaways had severed rivets at the bow, resulting in leaks.
Wet powder led to a failed test firing of the submarine gun and the ship was grounded to remove the projectile. But the strain of the swell led to a further leak. Following further repairs the Destroyer made for Bahia with replenishments of powder for the Brazilian fleet, arriving on 13 February. Once there, however, Admiral Goncalves of the Brazilian navy seized the ship. At the Arsenal at Bahia, an apparently incompetent alternative crew grounded the Destroyer on a rock in the basin. The vessel was holed and subsequently abandoned.