In January 1817, the brig Gleaner had the misfortune to leave Saybrook, West Indies-bound with a cargo of horses and other livestock, just as a winter gale hit.
By the evening of the second day, the brig was wallowing under waves and the horses tethered on deck could no longer stand. The crew jettisoned bales of hay to try to right the ship, but during the night the wind reached hurricane force.
Horses slid toward the railings and began to slowly drown. Their shifted weight further unbalanced the struggling ship. On the pitching deck, the crew could not hoist the dead horses overboard. Desperate, they began to dismember their carcasses as the storm raged. The ghastly butchery worked. Twenty horses survived the storm, and the Gleaner safely reached Barbados on Feb. 2.
Its voyage was recounted by Yale historian Gaddis Smith in an essay on Connecticut's West Indies trade. By 1817, the trade had been underway for more than a century.
The ships, mostly brigs and sloops, were "appallingly small," according to Smith. A typical length might be 70 feet. With livestock, one of Connecticut's main exports, transported under awnings above deck, the small vessels were notoriously unsteady. Some were called "horse jockeys."
The unglamorous wooden ships rotted long ago. The history of the trade they carried on must be deduced from cargo manifests, crew lists, captains' logs and diaries. "No one really has written the definitive book on the Connecticut West Indies trade," says Bill Peterson, Mystic Seaport's senior curator.
But this little-documented trade produced much of Connecticut's early wealth. It began small. In 1731, Gov. Joseph Talcott reported that in the entire colony, there were 44 trading vessels that had a total capacity of 456 tons. By the eve of the Revolutionary War, the number of vessels had quadrupled and their total tonnage multiplied 20-fold. Eventually the fleet surpassed 300 vessels.
In 1784, almost 100 vessels were launched from shipyards in New London, New Haven, Norwich, Middletown and Hartford. Often they had short lives. Sinkings were common, and more were saved only when the crews cut away fallen masts or tossed cargos overboard.
Connecticut was best known as an exporter of livestock, meat and dairy products, according to a 1964 doctoral dissertation, "The Economic Revolution in Late Eighteenth Century Connecticut," by Gaspare John Saladino. "Connecticut exported twice as much cattle, horses and mules as all other states combined in 1792, and one-half of all U.S. poultry shipments. It was a leader in cheese and pork exports that year as well," Saladino wrote. Other major Connecticut exports to the Caribbean were grain, flour, meal, onions, cheese, butter, fish, tobacco and lumber.
"The agricultural economy sustained the mercantile trade," says Paul O'Pecko, library director at Mystic Seaport. "The two cannot be separated."
"Those little vessels were not as romantic as whalers, clippers or packets," Smith wrote, "but numerically and economically they were just as important a part of maritime history as their more prestigious sisters. The short voyages to the West Indies lacked the drama of rounding the Horn or raising Java Head, but there was risk and adventure aplenty."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun