By Ken Williams, Nautical Historian, U.K.
The rise and fortunes of the Booth Steamship Company mirrored the development of the rubber trade in the Amazon basin. In its heyday, at the beginning of the 20th century, the company not only played a prominent role in the carriage of the region’s overseas trade, but also owned many of the wharfs, warehouses and shipping agencies along the Amazon.
Until the middle of the 19th Century, the vast Amazon basin remained virtually untouched by the outside world, apart from a few isolated missionary and trading settlements along the banks of some of its rivers. Then in 1866 – after years of deliberation in the Imperial Parliament of Brazil – Emperor Pedro II decreed free navigation for all foreign merchant ships on the waters of the Amazon and some of its tributaries, and this heralded an influx of settlers to the region. Two years later, in 1868, Peru followed Brazil’s example by declaring her rivers open to ships of all nations.
In Britain, two brothers, Alfred and Charles Booth, formed a steamship line from Liverpool to the north Brazilian ports, at that time served solely by sailing ships. Their first ship sailed from Liverpool in 1866 to the north coast of Brazil and Para (now Belem) in the Amazon estuary, pioneering the first passenger-cargo steamer service between Europe and the Amazon.
During the 1870s some seagoing vessels proceeded nearly 1,000 miles up the Amazon to Manaus and by the end of the decade sailings rapidly increased to keep pace with the first stages of the rubber boom. Rubber had become a major industrial raw material following the invention of the first detachable pneumatic tyre in 1888, and the subsequent development of bicycles and motor vehicles. Demand for this commodity led to an increase in rubber-gathering such that river towns like Iquitos experienced spectacular economic growth. As a consequence, a direct service was inaugurated in 1897 between Liverpool and Iquitos, a round trip of 12,800 miles, with each leg of the voyage lasting two months. This proved a profitable venture for the company – one ship that cost £15,000 to build, made £10,000 profit on her first three voyages. Later a similar service was established from New York to Iquitos, calling at Belem and Manaus.
To accommodate the difference of some 40 feet between the highest and lowest river levels at Iquitos, a floating landing-stage was opened in 1904 for the use of the company’s ships. From there cargo was winched up the river-bank and into customs warehouses at the corner of Loreto Street, opposite Plaza Castilla. Although cargo handling was much improved, the muelle or wharf never in itself proved a profitable investment.
The boom years were not to last. Amazon rubber production peaked just before the outbreak of the First World War and, at that time, the Booth fleet numbered 26 ocean-going ships, in addition to a variety of tugs and barges. During the war years the steady rise in low-cost cultivated rubber from the new plantations in south-east Asia sharply curtailed the financial returns of collecting wild rubber from the Amazonian jungle. The Amazon rubber trade did not recover with the ending of the war and, as a result, the seven Booth Line ships torpedoed and sunk by German U-boats were not replaced. Unfortunately, the rubber price depression of the inter-war years proved bleaker than anything that went before. This, in turn, only exacerbated the general contraction in the Amazon and north Brazil trades, thus making further reductions in the Booth fleet inevitable, and by the end of the Second World War the company was down to just four ships. Although the five vessels destroyed by enemy action between 1939 and 1945 were compensated for by the British government, the Booth family were reluctant to face the daunting task of rebuilding the fleet. They sold their shipping interests in 1946 to Lord Vestey, who already had a large stake in the South American trade, but the Booth Line still functioned as a separate entity.
Despite the decline in their cargo trade with the region, the passenger market proved more resilient. Before the Second World War, the Booth Line effectively promoted their small fleet of first-class passenger ships under the slogan ‘A 1,000 miles up the Amazon’ cruises, which were really part of their normal mixed general cargo voyages. The journey started in Liverpool with calls at Oporto, Lisbon, Madeira and Belem before heading up the Amazon to Manaus. Normally, the ships were also provided with third-class accommodation, consisting of two and four-berth cabins, which were mostly occupied by emigrants from Portugal to Brazil.
Competition from the airlines in the early 1960s made inroads into the profitability of passenger shipping. The decline in passenger numbers ultimately forced Booth’s to be one of the first major British companies to withdraw from the passenger trade altogether. In 1977, the Booth Line terminated the New York-Amazon run as competition from South American companies increased and the amount of cargo on offer diminished, thus bringing a service spanning almost a century to a final close.
I remember, over forty years ago, signing on the Booth Line ship Clement as a young 4th Engineer on a cold December day in 1972 at Brooklyn, New York. The officers were mainly British, while the crew were recruited from the West Indies, particularly Barbados. Since the ship did not normally return to the UK, some of the officers had remained on board for over three years, without leave, in order to qualify for complete exemption from the UK’s high tax regime. After a week loading general cargo for Brazil, we sailed from New York and arrived at Miami on Christmas Eve to pick up a full cargo of frozen chickens for the small Caribbean islands. Each morning the ship would arrive at one of the many ports from Antigua to Trinidad offloading boxes of frozen chickens, before sailing on to Brazil.
One afternoon, off the north coast of Brazil, smoke was seen billowing from the cargo stowed on the aft deck. Fortunately, the fire was quickly put out by the crew. It was later believed that the probable cause of the fire was an un-extinguished cigarette from the 3rd Engineer’s cabin. He had a habit of flicking his discarded cigarette ends out of the porthole where the wind could have carried them back on to the ship.
At Belem, a few passengers embarked for various ports of call upriver. The ship had additional cabins on the officer's deck to accommodate a few passengers with shared sanitary arrangements. Passengers dined at the Captain’s table in the wood-panelled officer's saloon fitted with louvred doors. A full English breakfast was served each morning with a four-course set menu offered for lunch and dinner. The Captain had served many years with the Royal Navy and was a stickler for dress code in the saloon, which we were not used to. A few times we were reminded of a minor uniform irregularity via the Chief Engineer. The accommodation didn’t have air conditioning, so to make living conditions more bearable at night a small cabin fan boosted the air circulation over the bunk. However, a few mosquitoes always managed to get into the living areas through defective metal screens or by other means to interrupt a good night’s rest. Another irritant was the number of cockroaches in the cabins. Almost without exception, all the ships I sailed on in tropical waters suffered from some degree of cockroach infestation and the usual remedy to control their numbers was hiring a specialist company to chemical spray inside the crevices and voids found around the accommodation. That said, compared with the overcrowded local passenger craft available on the river, life for a passenger on board this classic passenger-cargo ship could be considered rather luxurious.
Navigation up the Amazon had its hazards, such as floating logs, which required the watch-keeping engineer to be stationed near the engine-room telegraph at all times, in case the main engine had to be stopped immediately in order to prevent the ship being disabled by a log drifting in the path of the rotating propeller. Needless to say, a spare propeller was always part of the ship’s inventory.
In the narrows, just above Belem, people in wooden canoes would frantically paddle out to our passing ship, shouting and waving, in the hope that something useful would be thrown over the side. We prepared bags of old clothes to be dropped to them, which were eagerly retrieved from the river. Even our empty beer cans were fished out of the water and taken back to their villages.
At the small river port of Santana some 350 miles above Belem, four of us were arrested in a bar by the Military Police (standing in for the corrupt local police) over a disputed pool table bill. Despite settling the inflated bill, we were still beaten across our backs with long batons and forced into the back of an open army lorry, before being driven to a remote prison. There, we were stripped of money and all valuables and led to a bare, stone-floored cell housing other prisoners. We managed to avoid spending the night there by Brian, the 2nd Engineer, exaggerating his injuries. His loud cries and groans resounded throughout the prison block, and this must have persuaded the guards to call a taxi to take us back to the ship. On the way out, we gently carried him horizontally past the main desk where we eventually got our belongings back from the duty guard with the help of a few more extra groans from Brian.
In Manaus, a frequent visitor to the ship was Gordon, a former 3rd Engineer with the company, who had married into a well-connected local family and was running a successful ship repair business. He was glad to receive the various goods bought for him in New York that were unobtainable in Manaus, and later invited us to an all-night drinking party at his spacious house. I can recall him saying to me that his ultimate goal was to escape the oppressive humidity of the Amazon and to start a new business with his wife in the more agreeable climate of south Brazil.
Most Booth ships went as far as Manaus and occasionally calls were made at Leticia (Colombia) and Iquitos, but only when sufficient cargo became available. In some of the small logging ports, proper mooring facilities were non-existent and the ships were, in effect, tied up to trees.
The return cargo to New York was normally bales of raw rubber, river prawns, Brazil nuts, rosewood oil and sawn timber (especially mahogany). It was said that the freight rates obtained on the frozen freshwater prawns made the profit for the entire trip.
After over three years trading between New York and the Amazon, the ship was ordered back to her home port of Liverpool where I was “paid off” in March 1973.
The demise of the Booth Steamship Co.’s scheduled sailings between the UK and North Brazil and the Amazon came in 1992 when the last two ships were withdrawn from service, ending a 126-year-old link with the Amazon.
A H John, A Liverpool Merchant House (1959), ch. 4, 6, 9 & 11
The London Gazette, Sept. 1867, p. 5007
The Economist, Feb. 1869, p. 154
SS Dominic alongside Iquitos Muelle, 1928 (A. H. John; G. Allen & Unwin Ltd.)
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