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The Mysterious 1852 Voyage of the Arabian, the Fastest Clipper Ship in Maine

In 1852 James Hinds, a ship builder in Calais, Maine, launched the fastest clipper ship ever produced in the state.

He’d built the ship on spec for a New York investor who had passed through Calais and been impressed by Hinds’ skills. On launch, the ship was 125 feet long and 29 feet across. It had been designed to be 12 feet tall, but the shipbuilder had expanded it to 16 feet at the owner’s request so that it could carry more cargo.

That would become a point of pride for the shipbuilder, who insisted he never knew what the ship’s intended cargo would be.

The ship caused quite a stir in Calais. Thomas V. Briggs, a young man from a local shipbuilding family, watched with awe as the Arabian was launched.

The Arabian never returned to Calais, and Briggs would wonder for years what happened to her.  It would take more than 50 years for him to find out and tell the world.

Fastest Clipper Ship

clipper ship final

Howard Pyle illustration

The clipper ship made New York in four days, and the pilot who took it up the Hudson River declared he had never seen a ship so fast. This was during the heyday of the clipper ship, and as it sailed into New York, the speed of the Arabian attracted a lot of attention.

Visitors came and examined the Arabian’s log book, and the owner declared that the vessel was for sale at the astronomical price of $20,000. A Spanish investor began a game of cat and mouse with the owners of the Arabian. He wanted the boat, he insisted, but not at that price. But when the boat’s owners departed New York for Boston, the would-be buyer panicked and sent word he would meet the price.

From New York, the Arabian was given a new crew and captain and she departed for Cardenas in Cuba. One of the original crewman stayed with the ship, however. When Thomas Briggs found him, he divulged what had become of the Arabian.

To Cuba and Beyond

In Cardenas, the ship was fitted with an additional deck, and now had two levels below deck to haul cargo and each level had only about two feet of headroom. Such decks were designed for only one type of cargo: slaves.

Renamed the Caribee, the ship made quick work of the crossing to Africa, but it was nearly prevented from carrying out its mission. In the slave markets in Gobon, Ambriz and Guinea the captain found few slaves to be had.

Frustrated but undeterred, the captain pointed the empty Caribee back across the Atlantic toward Brazil, where he knew of a small island town off the coast of Para. There he anchored and went ashore.

The captain told the villagers he had a proposition. His ship was loaded with raw materials. If they would put themselves to work building cabinets, harvesting coffee, fruit and lumber, he would buy all they could produce and sell it abroad. He would become their exclusive trading gateway to the world.

After several days, the captain put his real plans into action. He invited the townspeople aboard the Caribee, drugged them with punch and chained them below decks. In all, 800 to 1,200 people of the village were captured and taken aboard the Caribee for Cuba.

The Clipper Ship vs. The British Navy

By 1852 the British Navy was actively patrolling the waters of the Atlantic trying to stop the slave trade. But the captain of the Caribee gambled that even the speedy British Navy was no match for his ship.

After seven days sailing, just two days out from Cardenas, a British ship spotted the slave ship. At first the Caribee tried to avoid the British vessel, but the British gave chase. On the second day of the chase, as the British ship drew near, the Caribee’s crew fired her cannon at the British ship, damaging her sails and a mast.

Then, with the British vessel paused to make repairs, the Caribee made a desperate run for Cardenas. Arriving at 10 o’clock at night, the captain and the ship’s owner moved quickly to unload the slaves and bring them ashore.

Fifty-six years later, Thomas Briggs published the story in Harper’s Magazine:

As fast as they were landed they were hurried off in gangs to various plantations in the interior. Those who were weak and feeble were placed in mule and donkey carts and followed. In a little more than three hours they were all out, and soon the last gang was sent off; and now the guns, ivory, arms, charts, men's chests, and whatever could be got out easily and at once were put on board the lighters, a few sails cut from their lashings, cable shipped, the bark taken in tow by several boats, borne out to the bar, and set on fire in several places.

Very soon she was a solid mass of flame from jibboom to taffrail, from truck to keelson, and a dense black cloud of smoke rolled over the town. Soon after daybreak the brig appeared in the offing. Her commander at once took in the situation, and presently his departure. All that remained of the famous slaver Caribbee was a smoking, blackened hulk.

And so after that single voyage came the ignominious end of the grand Arabian, the fastest clipper ship ever built in Maine, or so they said.

The last owners of the vessel, Briggs estimated, made $1 million from the sale of the slaves.

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