From Bergen to Charlottetown to Rio – Britannia Didn’t Rule the Waves

Last year on this site I told the story of the Margaret, a Canadian patrol ship that was a frequent visitor to Charlottetown, and how she ended up as part of the Brazilian Navy.  I thought the story was unique but never guessed at the time that the Margaret’s history had parallels with that of another ship, also a frequent visitor to Charlottetown, from a period forty years earlier.

This time the ship was a passenger liner on the Charlottetown to Boston route which became a Brazilian Admiral’s flagship. This is the story of the Britannia.

andrada-1

The Cruiser Andrada, ex-Britannia, ex-America. Although shown as a naval vessel with armaments she retained the yacht-like appearance of her cruising days.

The name of the vessel suggests a British origin but in fact the ship was built in Bergen, Norway for a local ship owner, Peter Gabriel Halvorsen who had a several shipping ventures including a steamer service across the North Sea between Bergen and Newcastle. His vessels mostly carried coal eastward and iron ore to England but with an eye to a developing tourist market all of his ships had passenger accommodation. His new ship – clearly targeting the cruising trade was, launched in 1890. The vessel had a graceful appearance with a clipper bow, white hull and twin funnels and looked much like many of the private yachts being built during the era. It was the largest steamer registered in Norway at the time. The Britannia was rated at 1,555 gross tons and was 254 feet long with a breadth of 34 feet.  Aboard were accommodation for 185 passengers in three classes with appropriate lounges and dining facilities. She had an engine supplied by a Scottish builder who promised a service speed of between 16 and 17 knots.

Unfortunately for Halvorsen she did not live up to her expectations. Even at a reduced speed she suffered from excessive vibration and had an enormous appetite for coal.  In addition she proved to be an uncomfortably lively boat and passengers tended to avoid the Britannia in booking voyages.  After trying her on a number of different routes, and facing bankruptcy, Halvorsen put her on the market and in 1892 she found herself on the other side of the Atlantic.

Early that year the Boston and Colonial Steamship Company added to the Britannia to their fleet joining the aged wooden steamers Carroll and Worcester. The company was facing competition from the Canada-Atlantic line with the steamer Halifax on the run between Boston and Halifax.

An account of the new ship appeared as part of an article on an excursion from Boston to Halifax which appeared in Cook’s Excursionist and Home and Foreign Tourist Advertiser in November 1892.

…she seemed to sit on the water like a duck; and my friend expressed the opinion that he though she would be a good sea boat, which subsequently (fortunately for us) proved to be the case. When we got out to sea we found a heavy swell on, and the various vessels in sight were rolling and pitching in a most uncomfortable looking manner.  We did some of it, but certainly much less than any of our neighbours and were not disturbed by any visions of mal de mer. …The staterooms were so lofty, so comfortable, so much in advance of anything we had seen before that we were perfectly amazed. There was a lovely music room, and as we studied the various pictures with which the panels were illuminated, and which, we were told, were descriptive of incidents in the history of the ancient Vikings, we regretted very much being unable to understand the significance of them, but as works of art they are remarkably fine any must have cost a very great deal of money.  

… The main saloon is a most cozy space and extends right across the ship; the tables are nicely arranged, and the carving of the furniture is most artistic. The room is panelled with beautiful marble, which in turn is elaborately illuminated in gold. A magnificent dome fitted with expensive stained glass, extends the whole length of the saloon, and diffuses a delicate soft light. And such a cozy smoking room, where we sat and enjoyed the fragrant weed, and felt that we were as happy and comfortable as though we had been owners of an “Alva” or “Atlanta.” We were so impressed with the elegance and luxury of the steamer that we asked one of the officers how much she cost and were not surprised that no less sum than $325,000 had been expended on this beautiful floating palace…

The Britannia was listed for sailings from Charlottetown to Boston during the summer and fall of 1892 but advertising in 1893 noted “sailings of S.S. Britannia will be given later.” The operating costs for the luxurious ship proved to be too much for the struggling company and she was laid up in Boston for almost a year.

Within a year the Britannia was sailing in warmer waters and in a much different role.  In 1889 a coup had brought an end to the monarchy in Brazil, a change which was not popular with many officers in the navy. Subsequent breaches of the nation’s new constitution caused further resentment and in 1891 and 1892 there were two revolts against the government. The second of these saw the Brazilian Navy in revolt laying siege to the capital Rio de Janeiro in opposition to the government. As the rebels controlled most of the country’s naval vessels the government had to “improvise” a new fleet of risk defeat. The government basically bought itself a new naval force on the open markets around the world. The armada consisted of small and sometimes unusual ships including torpedo gunboats, various medium and small torpedo boats, small armed yachts, and a transport converted to carry a Zalinsky “dynamite gun” (a pneumatic gun launching a dynamite charge of massive explosive force and marginal accuracy).  As in the case of the Margaret forty years later country relied on an American agent, this time one Charles Flint, to acquire suitable vessels.

andrada-2

Cruiser Andrada ca. 1900, probably in Rio harbour.

One of these was the Britannia, which in just eighteen days in late 1893 was converted in a New York shipyard from a comfortable passenger and freight carrier to an armed cruiser, albeit one without any protective defensive armour. Decks were reinforced to take the weight of weapons including 10 rapid-firing guns, the largest of which were 4.7 inch Armstrong guns on the foredeck; two torpedo launching tubes on the bow, two more on the waist of the ship and another on the hurricane deck.

On leaving New York in company with other vessels of the new fleet the ship was re-named the America but following fitting out in Brazil she was re-re-named the Andrada to honour Santos Jose de Andrada e Silva a patriarch of the Brazilian independence struggle.  The Andrada was the flagship of the fleet but actually appears to have taken little part in the successful crushing of the revolt.  She served in a number of capacities in the Brazilian navy until 1914 when she was transferred to the customs service.  She was later sold to a private company (Martinelli Lloyd) and the name America restored to her. She operated as a fast freighter during the First World War and was still on Lloyd’s register of shipping in the 1930s. One report states she ended up in the 1960s as a floating dock at a small port near Rio de Janeiro, a far cry from the fjords.

Sources

The Norwegian part of the Britannia’s story is most easily found in an on-line history of the Norwegian coastal streamers by Mike Bent. Her short-lived period on the Charlottetown-Boston run is mostly from local newspapers.  The fascinating role of Charles Flint and “Flint’s Fleet” in the revolt is part of a  book by Steven Topik titled Trade and Gunboats: The United States and Brazil in the Age of Empire

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