“Merchant navigators” — a polite phrase for “smugglers” — William Shaler and Richard Cleveland agreed on almost everything. Both were New Englanders, born in 1773. Both went to sea as teenagers. Shaler, whose ancestor Thomas Shaler came from Stratford-on-Avon, got work as business manager on a ship transporting goods from the French West Indies to France. Cleveland’s first job was Captain’s clerk, which kept him, he boasted, “free from the vulgarity of the forecastle.”
Cleveland was seasick the entire tour. When he docked at Derby he was so glad to leave the “wearisome rolling and bad odor of the vessel,” he vowed to travel no more. But even the merchant trading mean “uncommon exposure” to “sullen sailors,” and “robbers and pirates,” the promise of profits lured him back to the open sea.
Cleveland and Shaler met on a voyage from Capetown to Copenhagen. Shaler’s ship, carrying a large cargo of wines, had been raided by privateers — a polite expression for “pirates.” Back from Calcutta (and dealing, among other things, in opium), Cleveland wanted a partner to sail to the Pacific, where the sea otter trade had begun to flourish. Merchant navigators could trade trinkets for pelts from friars and Indians, smuggle them to China, and sell them for up to $80 each (the equivalent of $1000 today). But there was a catch: Spain prohibited foreign trade along the California coast.
The New Englanders agreed to purchase a brigantine and try their luck. Brigs were small ships — 100 to 200 tons, 65 to 100 feet long — with square-rigged fore and mainmasts. They got their name from the sea brigands of the Mediterranean, galleys compact enough for tight maneuvers along coastlines and shallow bays — and ideal for smuggling. Shaler and Cleveland thought so much alike that when they purchased the 175-ton Lelia Byrd in Hamburg, Germany, each wanted the other to be Captain. They drew lots. Shaler won. Cleveland became business manager. But “these designations were only for form’s sake; the duties of each station were to be reciprocally performed.”
Rare for an occupation rife with suspicion and lethal hatreds, the pair remained lifelong friends. About the only thing they couldn’t agree on was the name of their brig. Cleveland called it the Lelia Byrd; Shaler, the Delia Byrd.”
The ship almost sunk at the refitting dock. A storm swelled the river near Gluckstadt. Debris flooded the channel and a cable snapped, prompting a sailor’s nightmare: the Lelia Byrd dragged anchor. The brig slid downstream toward a pier. To save lives, Shaler wanted to cut away the masts. “No,” shouted Cleveland, “the second cable holds!”
Held fast by a 200-yard-long rope of hemp, the brig waited out the deluge, It lost the stern boat and an anchor. After a month of repairs to the battered hull, the Lelia Byrd left Hamburg on November 8, 1801, a cargo of tin plates and utensils in its hold. It had a crew of 15, including two cabin boys and the Count de Rouissillon, a deposed Polish nobleman along for the ride. Twelve other large craft sailed west that day.
A voyage down the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and up the Pacific Coast took so long, says Richard Batman, “[sea] grass had time to grow on the bottom.” After many dull weeks, each day a replica of the day before, the Lelia Byrd came upon water churned muddy brown by fierce storms. They’d reached the Cape.
The brig was perfect for close maneuvers but not large enough to negotiate the Straits of Magellan without danger. Blasted by shifting squalls and spears of rain, Shaler ordered the foretopsail furled. Not enough. The boat still bounded like a bubble.
Close-reef the mainsail!
Several crewmen climbed to the yard, the wooden spar that crosses the mast. One of them, a Norwegian named John Green, slipped off, fell, cracked his head on the main-chains – a small platform on the ship’s side – and plunged into roiling foam. “He was seen but a moment, his head very bloody, and then disappeared.”
“Lower the launch!” someone shouted.
They couldn’t. Any sudden windshift would swamp the small craft.
“Thus perished in an instant,” writes Cleveland, “an excellent young man, in the prime of life, beloved by his shipmates. This distressing event cast a gloom on the spirits of all on board, which was not entirely effaced during the remainder of the passage.”
For protection from worms, barnacles, and sea growth, ships were “bottomed” with copper (and if they came from the Boston area, Paul Revere did the work). But when they refitted the Lelia Byrd, Shaler and Cleveland only bottomed to the “light-water mark.” By the time they navigated Cape Horn and reached Valparaiso, on February 24, 1802, the brig leaked aft.
Steep, green slopes rise from crescent-shaped Valparaiso Bay, where they stopped for provisions. But Shaler and Cleveland didn’t note patchworks of houses on the hillsides, a sandy plain, and a 15-foot wall surrounding a fortress. An odd sight struck them: four American vessels anchored in the harbor.
The ships were being detained, said a Spanish officer, because they aided English privateers or were smugglers. Shaler and Cleveland would need permission from the acting governor — since the real governor, Captain-General Muñoz, was at Santiago — to anchor.
“If we were surprised to meet so many of our countrymen here,” writes Cleveland, “we were equally mortified, and in some degree alarmed for our own safety, to find them under seizure.”
It took three letters to the Captain-General, each vowing they weren’t smugglers, before the Lelia Byrd got permission to anchor. During their fourth week in Valparaiso, the young New Englanders watched Muñoz and 30 troops, “drums beating, royal colors flying,” march from the fort to the seashore. They climbed into a launch and rowed beside the American ship, Hazard. Through a megaphone, Muñoz ordered the Captain to surrender 200 muskets known to be on board. The Captain, named Rowan, refused. Muñoz raised his voice. Towan still refused. Muñoz vowed vengeance.
The moment he stepped off the launch, Muñoz ordered every American on shore imprisoned. An armed guard led Shaler, Cleveland, Count Rouissillon, and for others to the fortress, where the passed “a most uncomfortable night, without beds, annoyed by myriad fleas, and without food of any kind.” They had planned to sail that evening.
Realizing the arrests were unjustified, Muñoz freed the prisoners the next morning. But Shaler had a plan. He’d learned “subterraneously” that they could sell their cargo at Santiago for a “handsome” profit. But they needed permission to enter the bay. So Shaler would protest the ill treatment by continuing it: he’d stay in prison, demand a written apology from Muñoz — and a passport to Santiago. Shaler also sent a letter, in passable Spanish, to officials at the Chilean capital, complaining of gross injustices.
He spent the next ten days in confinement, writing letters and scratching fleabites. John Quincy Adams said Shaler was “arrogant and indiscreet” with “an undue sense of his own importance.” His angry letters to Santiago must have reflected these traits. Officials refused his request.
The passport denied, Shaler walked out of prison. On April 19, almost two months after arriving at Valparaiso, the Lelia Byrd prepared to depart. Just then, two privateers came alongside. A Lieutenant climbed on, followed by an armed force. “One of our sailors, an Irishman who had deserted,” writes Cleveland, “had given information that we had many kegs of dollars on board, stowed under the ballast.”
They found quicksilver, instead. Even though it wasn’t illegal, under the governor’s orders, the soldiers confiscated four kegs.
Shaler exploded. He demanded his goods returned – and safe passage to Santiago.
Muñoz shot back: Why hide the quicksilver? Whose was it?
Would Shaler swear to it — and swear that the Lelia Byrd would never deal in contraband?
Muñoz produced a volume of Shakespeare. Shaler placed his left hand on the leatherbound tome, raised his right, and swore to the almighty Bard that he and his ship would never smuggle on the Pacific shores.
Muñoz returned the kegs. On May 6, after a two-and-a-half month delay, the Lelia Byrd left Valparaiso, Cleveland complaining that “in no respect” does it deserve the name “valley of paradise.”
Nothing they saw did. The New Englanders regarded every Spanish official as “a large edition of pompous vanity” or a “poltroon”; they regarded “Creoles” as living in “degradation” and Indians as “miserable savages.” Everyone they met had “long languished under the shackles of ignorance and superstition.” Shaler and Cleveland regarded themselves as a “duumvirate” of missionaries bringing the “gospel of American enlightenment” to the Pacific. Wherever they stopped, they lectured on “rational liberty” in a language most of their audience didn’t understand.
They voyaged north. Because their “unfortunate controversy” at Valparaiso would spread from every port from Chile to Peru, they “judged it most prudent to proceed to some place distant from the scene of our late transactions.” So they sailed straight to Mexico. In the next two months they saw no vessel “of any description” along the way.
San Blas received them favorably, at first. In no time, however, they had created “hostile attitudes” in “the two great officers of the government.”
“They found buyers for their cargo. The Commissary sanctioned the exchange. But the “rancorous” governor wouldn’t grant a trading permit and ordered them to leave. The Count de Rouissillon would go to Mexico City for the permit. Twice he headed inland — and the second time, he disappeared. To await the permit in an “uncontrolled” bay, and to escape oppressive summer heat, the Lelia Byrd sailed to Tres Marias Island, 60 miles off the coast.
A sailor had betrayed them. With the Count gone, they distrusted the rest of the crew. They’d allow them to go ashore for exercise, but only half at a time. And the duumvirate would never go together. One always remained on board.
During a quiet afternoon, they broke the rule. After exploring the thick jungle growth, they returned to the beach and saw the unthinkable: the Lelia Byrd was headed out to sea!
“The mate was going off with the ship!” Their crew had been “disgruntled” throughout, but mutiny?
Cleveland: “With such an impression on a desert island, without a boat, without provisions, and destitute of a change of clothing, our situation may easily be imagined to be a forlorn one.”
Six hours later, the brig found a favorable breeze and returned to the bay. A chafed anchor cable — most likely the one that saved their lives at Gluckstadt — had snapped. False alarm. Though “such a protracted state of suspense and uncertainty had become extremely irksome and embarrassing.”
They stayed three months at Tres Marias, enough time to rig a mizzenmast and convert the brig into a three-masted ship. When they finally returned to San Blas, it had a new governor. He’d permit trading, but for an excessive fee. When they refused, he ordered their departure. They pleaded for and got 10 more days (and needed them because – Bard be damned! – they were dealing on the sly for 1600 sea otter skins fresh from California).
Their prize being “most valuable and our culpability most palpable,” once they had the pelts on board, Shaler and Cleveland dreaded a “visit” from government soldiers. To assure a fast exit, they kept the topsails unfurled.
On the 26th of January, 1803, 15 months after leaving Europe, the Lelia Byrd set sail for California. And didn’t get far. “The worms have made dreadful havoc” with the hull’s sheathing. It leaked so bad “both pumps were necessary to keep her free.” So they stopped at Tres Marias. They careened the ship — breaching it on its side — and applied a fresh coat of boot-topping. Because they lacked expertise, and now had a working crew of only 10, the operation took two weeks.
While at Tres Marias, they learned that seizure at San Blas “had been much greater than we had apprehended.” The chief mate, a young Englishman whose “reprehensible” behavior cost him his job, kept a journal. But the pages about their misadventures at Valparaiso were torn out. Had he sold them to San Blas authorities? Were his dealings “more than was consistent with our safety?”
They never learned (nor do they mention the Englishman again). Making the “prudent” choice, they sailed for San Diego on February 14, 1803. “We had information,” writes Cleveland, “of there being a parcel of sea otter skins, which might be obtained advantageously.”
Tacking into stiff northwest winds for a month, the Lelia Byrd arrived off Point Loma, March 16, 1803. The next day the ship navigated through acres of kelp and entered the narrow channel. It passed Fort Guijarros, the shore battery where, a few days later, William Shaler and Richard Cleveland — the “advance agents of American destiny,” as one biographer hails them — would fight the Battle of San Diego Bay.
- Adele Ogden: “Mummy brown, with a ‘frosted’ appearance… sea otter fur was sought for both practical and ornamental purposes. It became the royal fur of China.”
- Cleveland: “[The Count de Rouissillon’s] earthly course was cut short not long after we parted. To our great grief we learned that he died in Mexico some time in the year 1803.”
- Roy F. Nichols: In later life, Shaler became a diplomat. “One of his duties: face the difficult question of whether the American Consul should kiss the foot of the Drey of Tunis.”
- Richard J. Cleveland, A Narrative of Voyages and Commercial Enterprises (Cambridge 1843)
- William Shaler, “The Journal of a Voyage between China and the Northwest Coast of America, The American Register III (1808)
- Richard Batman, The Outer Coast (San Diego 1985)
- Adele Ogden, The California Sea Otter Trade 1784 -1848, (Berkeley, 1941)
- Roy F. Nichols, Advance Agents of American Destiny, (Pennsylvania, 1956)
- Hugh Golway, “The Cruise of the Lelia Byrd,” Journal of the West (August 1969)
- Magdalen Coughlin, C.S.J., “Boston Smugglers on the Coast (1797-1821): An Insight into the American Acquisition of California," California Historical Society Quarterly 46 (June 1967)
The Battle of San Diego Bay, Part 2 | Part 3