Tobacco Coast: A Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era

By Arthur Pierce Middleton; George Carrington Mason | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
The Merchant Marine

DURING the century and a half after Rolfe successfully grew tobacco at Jamestown the production of the leaf rose to staggering proportions, reaching ultimately a hundred million pounds a year.1 The enormous quantity and great bulk of the Chesapeake staple required a considerable merchant marine to carry it abroad.

As early as 1633 some thirty or forty vessels traded to Virginia.2 Two years later the number was thirty-six.3 By 1667 between eighty and one hundred vessels traded to the Chesapeake colonies, probably two-thirds of them to Virginia and one-third to Maryland.4

By the end of the seventeenth century the annual tobacco fleet consisted of "near 150 vessels, whereof about fifty are of between four and five hundred tons, loaded with from seventy to eighty thousand hogsheads of tobacco."5 Judging from the Virginia convoy of 1704 the average burden of vessels in that trade was 170 tons.6 At this rate the total tonnage of the tobacco fleet must have exceeded 25,000 tons.

But the vessels in the Virginia convoy of 1704 were probably largely London-owned, and London ships generally exceeded outport vessels in burden. Morriss found the average London ship in the Maryland trade, 1689-1715, to be 170 tons and the average outport vessel 80 tons.7 Supposing that eighty of the hundred and fifty vessels were London-owned and seventy outport-owned, a proportion which from other sources seems a reasonable assumption, the total tonnage of the fleet would equal 19,200.

However, the report specifically states that fifty of the tobacco ships were between 400 and 500 tons. These fifty alone amounted

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