The Clyde was the first river whose waters were lashed into foam by a steam-boat. It was in 1812 when the steamer called the Comet ran between Glasgow and Greenock, at the speed of six miles an hour. Since that time more than a million of steamers or packet-boats have plied this Scotch river, and the inhabitants of Glasgow must be as familiar as any people with the wonders of steam navigation.
However, on the 3rd of December, 1862, an immense crowd, composed of shipowners, merchants, manufacturers, workmen, sailors, women, and children, thronged the muddy streets of Glasgow, all going in the direction of Kelvin Dock, the large shipbuilding premises belonging to Messrs. Tod & MacGregor. This last name especially proves that the descendants of the famous Highlanders have become manufacturers, and that they have made workmen of all the vassals of the old clan chieftains.
Kelvin Dock is situated a few minutes' walk from the town, on the right bank of the Clyde. Soon the immense timber-yards were thronged with spectators; not a part of the quay, not a wall of the wharf, not a factory roof showed an unoccupied place; the river itself was covered with craft of all descriptions, and the heights of Govan, on the left bank, swarmed with spectators.
There was, however, nothing extraordinary in the event about to take place; it was nothing but the launching of a ship, and this was an everyday affair with the people of Glasgow. Had the Dolphin, then—for that was the name of the ship built by Messrs. Tod & MacGregor—some special peculiarity? To tell the truth, it had none.
It was a large ship, about 1,500 tons, in which everything combined to obtain superior speed. Her engines, of 500 horse-power, were from the workshops of Lancefield Forge; they worked two screws, one on either side the stern-post, completely independent of each other. As for the depth of water the Dolphin would draw, it must be very inconsiderable; connoisseurs were not deceived, and they concluded rightly that this ship was destined for shallow straits. But all these particulars could not in any way justify the eagerness of the people: taken altogether, the Dolphin was nothing more or less than an ordinary ship. Would her launching present some mechanical difficulty to be overcome? Not any more than usual. The Clyde had received many a ship of heavier tonnage, and the launching of the Dolphin would take place in the usual manner.
In fact, when the water was calm, the moment the ebb-tide set in, the workmen began to operate. Their mallets kept perfect time falling on the wedges meant to raise the ship's keel: soon a shudder ran through the whole of her massive structure; although she had only been slightly raised, one could see that she shook, and then gradually began to glide down the well greased wedges, and in a few moments she plunged into the Clyde. Her stern struck the muddy bed of the river, then she raised herself on the top of a gigantic wave, and, carried forward by her start, would have been dashed against the quay of the Govan timber-yards, if her anchors had not restrained her.
The launch had been perfectly successful, the Dolphin swayed quietly on the waters of the Clyde, all the spectators clapped their hands when she took possession of her natural element, and loud hurrahs arose from either bank.
But wherefore these cries and this applause? Undoubtedly the most eager of the spectators would have been at a loss to explain the reason of his enthusiasm. What was the cause, then, of the lively interest excited by this ship? Simply the mystery which shrouded her destination; it was not known to what kind of commerce she was to be appropriated, and in questioning different groups the diversity of opinion on this important subject was indeed astonishing.
However, the best informed, at least those who pretended to be so, agreed in saying that the steamer was going to take part in the terrible war which was then ravaging the United States of America, but more than this they did not know, and whether the Dolphin was a privateer, a transport ship, or an addition to the Federal marine was what no one could tell.
"Hurrah!" cried one, affirming that the Dolphin had been built for the Southern States.
"Hip! hip! hip!" cried another, swearing that never had a faster boat crossed to the American coasts.
Thus its destination was unknown, and in order to obtain any reliable information one must be an intimate friend, or, at any rate, an acquaintance of Vincent Playfair & Co., of Glasgow.
A rich, powerful, intelligent house of business was that of Vincent Playfair & Co., in a social sense, an old and honourable family, descended from those tobacco lords who built the finest quarters of the town. These clever merchants, by an act of the Union, had founded the first Glasgow warehouse for dealing in tobacco from Virginia and Maryland. Immense fortunes were realised; mills and foundries sprang up in all parts, and in a few years the prosperity of the city attained its height.
The house of Playfair remained faithful to the enterprising spirit of its ancestors, it entered into the most daring schemes, and maintained the honour of English commerce. The principal, Vincent Playfair, a man of fifty, with a temperament essentially practical and decided, although somewhat daring, was a genuine shipowner. Nothing affected him beyond commercial questions, not even the political side of the transactions, otherwise he was a perfectly loyal and honest man.
However, he could not lay claim to the idea of building and fitting up the Dolphin; she belonged to his nephew, James Playfair, a fine young man of thirty, the boldest skipper of the British merchant marine.
It was one day at the Tontine coffee-room under the arcades of the town hall, that James Playfair, after having impatiently scanned the American journal, disclosed to his uncle an adventurous scheme.
"Uncle Vincent," said he, coming to the point at once, "there are two millions of pounds to be gained in less than a month."
"And what to risk?" asked Uncle Vincent.
"A ship and a cargo."
"Nothing, except the crew and the captain, and that does not reckon for much."
"Let us see," said Uncle Vincent.
"It is all seen," replied James Playfair. "You have read the Tribune, the New York Herald, The Times, the Richmond Inquirer, the American Review?"
"Scores of times, nephew."
"You believe, like me, that the war of the United States will last a long time still?"
"A very long time."
"You know how much this struggle will affect the interests of England, and especially those of Glasgow?"
"And more especially still the house of Playfair & Co.," replied Uncle Vincent.
"Theirs especially," added the young Captain.
"I worry myself about it every day, James, and I cannot think without terror of the commercial disasters which this war may produce; not but that the house of Playfair is firmly established, nephew; at the same time it has correspondents which may fail. Ah! those Americans, slave-holders or Abolitionists, I have no faith in them!"
If Vincent Playfair was wrong in thus speaking with respect to the great principles of humanity, always and everywhere superior to personal interests, he was, nevertheless, right from a commercial point of view. The most important material was failing at Glasgow, the cotton famine became every day more threatening, thousands of workmen were reduced to living upon public charity. Glasgow possessed 25,000 looms, by which 625,000 yards of cotton were spun daily; that is to say, fifty millions of pounds yearly. From these numbers it may be guessed what disturbances were caused in the commercial part of the town when the raw material failed altogether. Failures were hourly taking place, the manufactories were closed, and the workmen were dying of starvation.
It was the sight of this great misery which had put the idea of his bold enterprise into James Playfair's head.
"I will go for cotton, and will get it, cost what it may."
But, as he also was a merchant as well as his uncle Vincent, he resolved to carry out his plan by way of exchange, and to make his proposition under the guise of a commercial enterprise.
"Uncle Vincent," said he, "this is my idea."
"It is simply this: we will have a ship built of superior sailing qualities and great bulk."
"That is quite possible."
"We will load her with ammunition of war, provisions, and clothes."
"I will take the command of this steamer, I will defy all the ships of the Federal marine for speed, and I will run the blockade of one of the southern ports."
"You must make a good bargain for your cargo with the Confederates, who will be in need of it," said his uncle.
"And I shall return laden with cotton."
"Which they will give you for nothing."
"As you say, Uncle. Will it answer?"
"It will; but shall you be able to get there?"
"I shall, if I have a good ship."
"One can be made on purpose. But the crew?"
"Oh, I will find them. I do not want many men; enough to work with, that is all. It is not a question of fighting with the Federals, but distancing them."
"They shall be distanced," said Uncle Vincent, in a peremptory tone; "but now, tell me, James, to what port of the American coast do you think of going?"
"Up to now, Uncle, ships have run the blockade of New Orleans, Wilmington, and Savannah, but I think of going straight to Charleston; no English boat has yet been able to penetrate into the harbour, except the Bermuda. I will do like her, and, if my ship draws but very little water, I shall be able to go where the Federalists will not be able to follow."
"The fact is," said Uncle Vincent, "Charleston is overwhelmed with cotton; they are even burning it to get rid of it."
"Yes," replied James; "besides, the town is almost invested; Beauregard is running short of provisions, and he will pay me a golden price for my cargo!"
"Well, nephew, and when will you start?"
"In six months; I must have the long winter nights to aid me."
"It shall be as you wish, nephew."
"It is settled, then, Uncle?"
"Shall it be kept quiet?"
"Yes; better so."
And this is how it was that five months later the steamer Dolphin was launched from the Kelvin Dock timber-yards, and no one knew her real destination.