BALTIMORE CLIPPER SCHOONER "VIGILANT"
The incredible story of a 130 year old Baltimore Clipper Schooner
by Tage W. Blytmann
For many years I have been fascinated by the Baltimore clipper schooners; their graceful slim black hulls, the sharply raked masts, the long bowsprits, and their nearly flush decks. I can truly say that these schooners represent to me the most beautiful and functional (for its time) sailing vessel of all time. I had a unique opportunity to study the history of one particular such vessel some years ago when I worked as translator and historian for the Department of Museums and Libraries in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. During my research, which is still ongoing, I have noticed that hardly any authentic histories of this type of vessel survive today. I have therefore dedicated this web page to a brief history of one of my most favorite of all sailing vessels - the schooner VIGILANT.
CLICK ON PICTURE FOR A LARGER IMAGE OF THE "VIGILANT"
Having been built in the 1790's, VIGILANT survived for more than 130 years when she met her final fate during a hurricane in September 1928 in Christiansted Harbor, St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This is her story. I have illustrated the text with several historic photographs, drawings and other illustrations that I though would do this grand old lady justice.
I suspect that anyone having stayed with me this far would be interested enough in the subject to be familiar with at least the basic history of the Baltimore clipper schooner. For a general history I highly recommend any of the following books, all commonly available either as new, reprint or used: "The Baltimore Clipper" by Howard I. Chapelle; "The Search for Speed Under Sail" also by Mr. Chapelle, and the "Pride of Baltimore - The Story of the Baltimore Clippers" by Thomas C. Gillmer. Mr.Gillmer designed the Pride of Baltimore II, as well as its unfortunate predecessor Pride of Baltimore. His excellent book mentions the VIGILANT several times. My subsequent correspondence with Mr. Gillmer unfortunately postdates the publication, hence some important information and details about the VIGILANT were not incorporated in his book.
The brief history presented here has been extracted from my extensive
files which have been collected in the Virgin Islands and at the Rigsarkivet in
Copenhagen, Denmark over a considerable number of years. If you have any comments or
remarks about the article or about Baltimore schooners in general, I would be more than
pleased to hear from you. (CONTACT US)
The mail and passenger traffic between St. Croix and St. Thomas in the Danish West
Indies was, throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, largely carried by a most
remarkable schooner, the VIGILANT. During her more than 130 years of service in the Virgin
Islands, this schooner witnessed, as well as participated in, more Caribbean history than
any other local vessel. Her long pleasing lines, slim black hull, and tall sharply raked
masts were a welcome sight to everyone in the Danish West Indies for more than four
The early history of the schooner is somewhat obscure due to conflicting historical evidence. One version has it that she was commissioned as a privateer by the British and carried the name PITT on her stern when she was captured by the Danish forty gun frigate FREJA on December 18, 1796 near St. John (St. Jan) in the Virgin Islands. The privateer was brought to St. Thomas as a prize and sold through the court to a private party in 1797. She was renamed DEN AARVAAGNE (meaning "the vigilant" in Danish) the following year.
Another version has it that the schooner was originally called the EARL SAINT VINCENT. That vessel was purchased by the Danish colonial government for 15,000 Danish Rigsdaler by Commander P.C.Wessel Brown of the royal Danish Frigate FREJA on April 21st, 1799 for use as an armed tender. She was then equipped with twelve 3 pound guns, renamed DEN AARVAAGNE (which means the VIGILANT in Danish) and stationed at St. Thomas under the command of Lt. Bernhard Middelboe. During the ensuing few years she engaged in skirmishes with several British privateers near St. Thomas, including the EXPERIMENT and the DREADNOUGHT, the latter engagement on September 1, 1800, resulting in the death of her commander.
Many references have been made in popular literature that the VIGILANT was a former slave trader and pirate called the NONSUCH. There is, however, no documentary evidence to support that she ever was a slave trader or a pirate. It is true that chains and chain fittings were found on board the vessel, but these were used on rare occasions when prisoners or, in former times, slaves were transferred between the islands.
The possibility that the name NONSUCH formerly graced the stern of the vessel has some basis in fact according to records in the Danish National Archives. These records reveal that a schooner NONSUCH was sold and resold several times in 1824 in the Danish West Indies before that vessel finally was renamed VIGILANT. Furthermore, circumstantial evidence indicates that she may indeed have been the former well known American naval schooner NONSUCH, which was dropped from the official US naval register in 1824.
Suffice to say that from 1824/25 the history of this beautiful and fast schooner is well documented. The St. Thomas Tidende newspaper devoted several articles in early 1825 to lamentations over a Colombian pirate or privateer vessel ADOLFO preying on local craft in Danish West Indian waters. The government decided to do something about it and, on July 10th, 1825, dispatched the frigate NAJADEN to seek out this nuisance among the islands to the west of St. Thomas where the privateer last had been observed. The ADOLFO was sighted that same evening but escaped between some of the smaller islands to the west of St. Thomas.
The much larger frigate was unable to pursue its adversary among the small islands, so
it was decided to charter the schooner VIGILANT and take advantage of her relative shallow
draft and superior sailing qualities. Lt. Carl L.C. Irminger was appointed commanding
officer in charge of about 30 fully armed soldiers. The ADOLFO was soon sighted near a
small bay on Culebra Island (now part of Puerto Rico). Lt. Irminger made his vessel ready
for battle. All soldiers were hidden out of sight on deck, muskets ready. VIGILANT,
believed to be an unarmed Danish merchant vesssel, was commanded to come alongside the
larger and much better armed ADOLFO. Once alongside, Lt. Irminger brazenly demanded
ADOLFO's surrender. Having noticed the pirate was preparing to fire her large guns, Lt.
Irminger resolutely commanded his men to fire, and thereby achieved complete surprise. The
first volley killed ADOLFO's captain La Forcado and the mate; another mate was seriously
wounded and later had to have a leg amputated. Several crewmembers were wounded and the
privateer soon surrendered. Vigilant suffered only one casualty, and that was by drowning.
The pirate vessel was brought into Christansted where, incidentially, she was wrecked a short time later during a hurricane. Numerous prisoners were found in the holds on board ADOLFO and all were immediately freed. Twentyfour crew members were imprisoned and later tried for piracy. Since the ADOLFO did have an official letter of marque from Colombia most of the prisoners were later released, however, two of them were executed in early October for piracy. Two large magnificent bronze cannons captured on this occasion can be seen today at the Marine Museum and Tøjhuset Museum in Copenhagen.
This was not the only time VIGILANT was called upon to do naval duty. On the 14th of February, 1842, the frigate ALART was wrecked near Puerto Rico. The officers and crew were saved but the vessel was a total loss. Since a suitable replacement was not immediately available, the VIGILANT was chartered once again, this time to do guard duty and assist in the protection of local craft. She was manned by two officers and 25 men from the ALART.
By the mid 1840's St. Thomas had become the major mail transfer port in the West
Indies. Royal Mail Steam Packet Company steamers maintained regular service between
Southampton and St. Thomas, and local mail steamers then departed from St. Thomas to
points in the West Indies and Central America upon the arrival of the Trans-Atlantic steam
packets. St. Thomas's importance was further enhanced by its inclusion as a regular port
of call by the Hamburg-America Packet Line and the French Compagnie Generale
During the latter part of the 19th century numerous requests were made to the Danish West Indies government to replace the now aging VIGILANT with a modern steam packet. It was even suggested that, as an alternative, VIGILANT be equipped with a small auxiliary steam engine. As the century drew to a close, however, conditions in the islands deteriorated considerably. The Royal Mail Line had moved its main West Indian operating base from St. Thomas to Barbados; sugar prices continued to fall and many planters were in debt. The invention of the telegraph made calls at St. Thomas unnecessary for the numerous vessels which in prior years had called there for voyage instructions from their owners.
VIGILANT continued in service between St. Croix and St. Thomas during the first decade of the 20th century. At this time, the Danish East Asiatic Company sent the motor schooner VIKING out to replace VIGILANT. After only a few years service the VIKING was nearly wrecked in 1912, between St. John and St. Thomas, and had to be sent back to Denmark for extensive repairs. VIGILANT once again was back plying her old mail and passenger trade which she did with dignity until the islands were sold to the United States in 1917.
Not all that sailed on board her were equally enthusiastic about the venerable old schooner. In 1894 a Danish passenger sarcastically remarked: "... The so called government packet VIGILANT, I am told, was formerly a pirate schooner, but it is understandable that the pirates had second thoughts and left her to us ordinary people. The vessel is so rotten that you have to walk very carefully on deck to avoid falling through. The trip costs 8 kroner (about $1.20) and includes a small evening meal which you are well advised to leave alone, as well as a sleeping berth in one of the socalled "doghouses" that are placed on each side of the deck. If, during the passage, you are unlucky and encounter rain, then there is good reason to envy the pirates who - presumably - now sail on the ocean in a much better vessel ...". In 1918 another passenger noted: "... Today she serves in the humble capacity of a cargo carrier in the inter-island trade. The owner of the VIGILANT, if closely questioned, will admit that parts of the vessel have occasionally been renewed. If hard pressed he will frankly confess that the only original part of the vessel remaining is a small eight foot piece of oak keel".
No longer used in the passenger and mail trade after the United States purchased the former Danish islands, VIGILANT was now employed as a local trading schooner and occasionally chartered out to adventurous tourists. This was the case when the author, A. Hyatt Verrill chartered VIGILANT for an extended trip "down islands" in early 1920's. His book "In the Wake of the Buccaneers" is a colorful account of the many interesting places visited during this voyage.
It is a tribute to her various captains and crews to note that only very rarely did VIGILANT sustain any serious damage due to navigation although an occasional benign bout with a shoal or reef was inevitable. For example, a postcard transported by VIGILANT in September, 1895 has the following notation: "Vigilant on reef 2/9 '95 - 6 o'clock pm". During the yearly hurricane season no vessel is safe in the West Indies. While lying at anchor at Christiansted during the night of September 13, 1876, VIGILANT sank during a severe hurricane. A month later she was raised and underwent extensive repairs by Captain Pentheny. Again in October, 1916, the schooner went to the bottom during a hurricane. Again she was raised and repaired. Finally, on September 12, 1928, she again sank during a severe hurricane in Christiansted harbor. This time VIGILANT was beyond repair - a total wreck.
Having been a faithful public servant for so many years, VIGILANT had been the bearer of good as well as bad news. She had provided an essential link between the Danish islands, and had on numerous occasions brought governors, Danish officials and foreign visitors safely to their destinations. This amazing schooner had a useful working life of about 130 years, outdating all other vessels by many decades despite enemy fire, the tropical teredo worm, treacherous coral reefs, and the yearly hurricane season!
TWO EXTRAORDINARY FINE MODELS OF THE VIGILANT
ILLUSTRATIONS: (from top to bottom)
NOTE: We would like to hear from you if you have done any original
research on any Baltimore clipper schooner or if you have any non-published information on
the subject. Please fax the Maritime Historical Research Society at (1)
(360) 697-6253, or CONTACT
TAGE & CHARLOTTE BLYTMANN, CONTACT US Telefax: (1) (360) 697-6253. copyright ©, 1998 - 2003