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The Age of Steam


The"Cuaraçao"was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic (CHA).

The 1850s and 60s saw important new developments in the island's shipping sector, with the introduction of steamers and the rise of new international shipping firms and connections. The industrial revolution in Europe and the United States sparked a huge increase in transport demands worldwide, as well as resulting in new technological developments that allowed engines to be installed on ships for the first
time. The first all steam crossing of the Atlantic was made by a small Dutch paddle steamer, the "Curaçao," as early as 1826; it made the voyage in just twenty-eight days. The era of steam ships, however, was not to belong to the Dutch. The new vessels were made in the major industrial ports of Germany, Great Britain, France and the United States; powered by impressive steam engines, they were bigger, faster and more luxurious than anything that had ever sailed the seas. "The seagoing steamers were to become oceanic castles."[32]

Curaçao was well located for steamer service. The German HAPAG line began the first regular connection between Curaçao and Europe in 1871. In the second half of the nineteenth century, steam service quickly replaced sailing on major international routes. By 1879 eight international steamship companies were calling regularly at Curaçao; there were monthly calls from three German lines, four British, three from le Havre [?], two from the United States and three Venezuelans. None of these had connections to Dutch ports; accordingly, Curaçao's trade with the Netherlands declined and imports from the United States, Great Britain and Germany picked up substantially.

The rise of steam shipping totally transformed traditional trade patterns. Swift, regular steamer service meant that goods were less likely to spoil because they were ordered more frequently in smaller quantities. With much faster shipping, merchants could carry smaller stocks, diminishing both their risks and the amount of working capital they needed. As a result, more local business houses began to import their own goods directly from Europe and the United States, and smaller scale merchants could compete against the traditional well established merchant families. Some old business houses stopped operating their own ships and instead became agents for major international steam ship lines. "Curaçao was simply too small to maintain a large steam flotilla."[33] The same happened with the local marine underwriting insurance business; while local merchants "had enough capital to carry the risks of sailing ships,"[34] they could not possibly take on the much greater risks of steamers. Instead, they became agents for the large international shipping and marine insurance companies.

International lines did not give priority to Curaçao's trade needs, favoring cargoes from Venezuela or Colombia, although the island was well located on major world shipping routes. Steamers were more expensive to operate and required more efficiency than sailing ships; they also required adequate bunkering facilities and ports with deep, efficient harbors. Curaçao could offer all these facilities and soon became an obligatory stop for many vessels traveling between Europe and the lucrative Central America route. Many lines made Curaçao their first port of call after crossing the Atlantic. Once in port, the ship would often hire a temporary crew of workers to help load and unload goods at the other large regional harbors they would visit. On the way back these so called "coast sailors" were dropped off again. This was an important source of employment for Curaçaoan blacks in the late nineteenth century.

Willemstad's role as a regional transit trade center actually increased with the advent of steam. The early trans-Atlantic steamers could not negotiate the smaller South American and Caribbean ports; many international lines dropped off and collected pallets of goods for transport to and from these smaller ports. Local merchants happily sold from the stock of goods that waited on the wharves, especially to visiting Venezuelans. Curaçao's merchants did a profitable business serving the region's smaller ports - especially Maracaibo, Coro, and Puerto Cabello in Venezuela, and several small coastal Colombian towns. This trade was chiefly carried out by independent schooner captains who often sailed their own small boats. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries immigrant Curaçaoan merchants established many new commercial houses in many of these mainland South American ports. Curaçao's shippers already had excellent historical ties with most of these ports, sometimes dating as far back as the early eighteenth century. By the early 1900s, however, improved port facilities at many of these small towns allowed international steamers to make direct calls, and Curaçao declined as a transshipment port.

The rise of the steamships also changed individual travel patterns. With faster, improved connections, transit passengers from Venezuela did not remain as long on the island, and so this traditional passenger transit traffic declined (see Chapter 11). Overall trade efficiency improved as shipping connections became more frequent and more reliable, no longer dependent on fickle weather patterns. By 1885 regularly scheduled sailing service to Europe was halted; regular sail connections to the United States stopped in 1907.[35] A few major steamship lines maintained small sailing fleets in the region, feeding their steam service.

Several related international steamship companies dominated the island's nineteenth century shipping. The Royal West Indian Mail Service (KWIM) was formed in 1882 to provide regular steamship connections between Curaçao, New York and the Netherlands; several Curaçaoans were among its founders. The first KWIM ship arrived at Willemstad in 1884 after a twenty-seven day journey. Initially it had monthly packet service to the island; later this was increased to every two weeks. After KWIM added other Caribbean ports Curaçao increased in attractiveness. After the Panama Canal opened in 1914 KWIM also called at ports on the Pacific Coast of South America. KWIM merged with KNSM (see below) in 1912 and was totally absorbed by KNSM in 1929. Curaçao was the home port for the West Indian Shipping Company (WISM), a subsidiary of KWIM, which ran several lines between New York and the Caribbean between 1921 and 1929, when it, too was absorbed by the KNSM.

The KNSM became the principal carrier of freight and passenger between Curaçao and the Netherlands. After it merged with KWIM in 1912 it only maintained direct connections between Curaçao and the Netherlands. In the 1920s the company changed its structure, liquidating the old KWIM branch and ordering larger ships for the Amsterdam-Curaçao-Colón route and a smaller vessel to feed this from Maracaibo and Aruba to Curaçao. By 1929 seven major international shipping lines were calling at Curaçao regularly. By the 1930s KNSM was carrying half of all passenger traffic to and from the island. "Between 1929 and 1953 the KNSM was the largest shipping company sailing to Curaçao regularly.[36] By the 1930s, with its own shipyards, the company was the largest employer after Royal Dutch Shell."[37] After the mid 1950s, however, its presence on the island declined significantly as Curaçao was no longer used as a transshipment port. Steam also brought the advent of luxury cruises.

The first cruise ship called in 1901 (see Chapter 11). The Red D Line, a US company that transported both cargo and passengers, began regular service to Curaçao in the late nineteenth century; it was taken over by the Grace Company in 1938. Soon the Hamburg America Line, the Grace Line, the Alcoa Line and others were calling regularly.

In spite of the growth of steam shippinh, the graceful old schooners with their billowing white sails continued to be an attractive feature of St, Anna Bay, however, well into the early twentieth century. In 1911 and 1912, over 1000 sailing ships docked at Willemstad, as compared to only 400 steam ships. However, the latter accounted for a full 95% of total tonnage; clearly steam was the transport vehicle of choice for large scale traders. Sailing ships were essentially insignificant to the island's shipping volume, although they remained a charming harbor feature and continued to be vital to small scale regional trade. The harbor "still presented a lively view of innumerable little sailing craft plying to and fro, but their picturesqueness concealed the fact that there was much more being handled here than before."[39]

But sailing ships continued to serve several purposes better than steamers even after the oil refinery opened. For example, they were more economical for the transport of gravel and sand from Aruba and Bonaire for the refinery. The old schooners were also the most profitable way to bring the hundreds of workers from other Caribbean islands who came to work at Shell. While schooners and steamers were often competitors, they also complemented each other, serving slightly different markets and sectors. While the schooners were almost completely locally owned, the steamers were owned by large international shipping concerns. The local shipping elite, who were the traditional powerful owners of the schooners, adapted by becoming local agents of these new international shipping lines. While the steamers provided more business in the harbor - bunkering, loading and unloading, provisioning, etc. - the schooners offered more work on board for ship hands. Sailing did well in the periods 1915-18, 1924-29 and 1934-37; thereafter, it declined for good.[40]

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