Tag Archives: Brazil

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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From Rum running to Gun running – the Customs Cutter Margaret

HMCS Margaret

HMCS Margaret

Question: What does smuggling booze into a dry Canada have in common with a revolution in Brazil? Answer: The Margaret.

The Margaret at launch - Marine Engineering of Canada 1913 p.31

The Margaret at launch – Marine Engineering of Canada 1913 p.31

The Canadian Customs Preventive Service was established in 1892 but it was not until 1914 that it received its first vessel built specifically for customs patrol purposes.  That vessel. the Margaret, was built by the English firm, Thornycroft at its Woolston Works near Southhampton. The 800 ton ship was 185 feet long by 32 feet in breadth, drew 15 feet and had a reinforced hull to resist ice. The 200 ton capacity of the bunkers gave a cruising range of 4,000 miles, or 2,000 miles at full speed. She carried a 30 foot motor launch, a 26 foot lifeboat, a 22 foot captain’s cutter and a 16 foot dinghy. As initially configured she was armed with two 6 pound guns Vickers guns of the latest design. Launched in January 1914 she was completed and delivered to Halifax in April 1914 and took up her customs patrols. Anticipating the outbreak of what would become the Great War by only a few days she was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy on 4 August and was commissioned in 1915 as HMCS Margaret. She, like the Hochelaga and Constance,  became part of the fleet of small vessels which served as escorts and patrol vessels along the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for the duration of the war. She was in Halifax Harbour a the time of the Halifax Explosion and suffered minor damage.

The Margaret was decommissioned and  returned to the Customs Preventive Service following the end of the war and once again took up her patrol duties in the Gulf of St Lawrence and Atlantic Coast in 1919. She was converted from coal to oil-fired boilers in 1925. During the 1920s she was a frequent visitor to the Marine Wharf in Charlottetown and was responsible for a number of liquor seizures in the region. The Margaret played a peripheral role in the 1926 Customs Scandal which brought down the Mackenzie-King Government and led to a constitutional crisis. In testimony related to bribery and corruption within the customs service it emerged that the Customs and Excise Minister Jacques Bureau had treated the Margaret as his private yacht, made renovations to increase her already comfortable accommodations, and removed her from her duties, exposing the coasts to increased smuggling activity. Newspaper reports noted an extensive cruise to the Saguenay with the Minister’s friends and an orchestra, the stocking of the ship with solids and liquids and the presence of women with questionable reputations. The cruise was only a sideshow to the wholesale corruption which permeated the Department and the captain and crew of the Margaret seem to have emerged with their jobs and reputations intact. It would not be the Margaret’s last brush with scandal.

In 1927, while in pursuit of a smuggler the Margaret struck a rock near the Magdalene Islands and was very nearly lost. The crew and captain had abandoned ship but returned to the sinking vessel, saving it by bailing water by hand, until taken in tow by a passing steamer. In the fall of the same year the customs cutter made at least nine seizures including one near P.E.I. in which the value of the seized cargo was nearly $200,000.

In 1932 the Preventive Service was transferred to the RCMP and late that year in an effort to reduce costs the Margaret was tied up in Halifax and was shortly afterwards sold at auction for $18,000. She soon found herself in the middle of a South American revolution.

Rio Branco on patrol

Rio Branco on patrol

In 1930 a coup d’état in Brazil had prevented a duly elected government from taking control after an election and Getulio Vargas became president of the country. A movement in the state of Sao Paulo aimed at restoring the constitution led to an uprising (the Constitutionalist Revolution) which began in July of 1932 and continued until October of that year.  Open conflict between Sao Paulo and the national government saw two unequal sides. Although the revolutionaries had taken over military bases and supplies, they had fewer soldiers, limited reserves of ammunition and very light air support. As with many such actions, anticipated support from other regions of the country failed to materialize.

Plans were hastily developed by the rebels to purchase planes, armaments and ammunition and their agents were soon in contact with suppliers, most of whom were in the United States. However under American neutrality laws American ships could not carry materials under these circumstances so evasion was the order of the day.

The timing of the sale of the Margaret could not have been better for the rebels.  A New York ship broker named Fred Zimmerman had a chance meeting with one of the Sao Paulo agents and within days was in Halifax inspecting the ship. The height of the depression was a a good time to be buying a ship as prices had plunged. Suggesting that $50,000 or $60,000 might secure the ship the money was immediately supplied from Sao Paulo.  Zimmerman’s bid was $18,000 and the only other bids received were for $5,000 and $2,000 – this for a vessel which had cost nearly $500,000 to build.  Zimmerman later testified that he had provided an unnamed Canadian official $1,000 to facilitate the sale. That left over $30,000 to be accounted for.  Zimmerman and the Paulista agent had agreed that it was to be split between a number of other players involved in the transactions. Cheques were cut and subsequently cashed but not by the parties to whom they were made out. The money had vanished! Charges of theft were investigated but later dropped as it was impossible to identify just who had made off with the funds. The matter was subsequently a very minor part of the investigation of the American Senate Committee on Munitions (Nye Committee) and the testimony regarding the purchasing of the Margaret reads like a bad dime novel.

In the meantime the Margaret, which had been purchased in Zimmerman’s name was transferred to a friendly German colleague and the ship, with her name changed to the Ruth, was temporarily registered in Germany which allowed her to skirt the American shipping ban. Taking on a cargo of armaments and munitions, and with a mixed crew under a German captain, she left the United States ostensibly bound for Dresden, Germany.  Shortly afterwards the Ruth was dropping off supplies along the Brazilian coast by fast motor boat and within days she appeared off Santos, the port for Sao Paulo.  However, Santos was under blockade by a cruiser and two destroyers. An attack from the small air fleet of the revolutionaries failed to distract the blockade ships and the Ruth was forced to head to Buenos Aires without unloading.

Rio Branco at Guanabara Bay

Rio Branco at Guanabara Bay

Shortly thereafter the revolution collapsed and the national troops occupied Sao Paulo. The Ruth was considered an asset of the defeated state and became the property of Brazil. The vessel had another name change and on 14 December 1932 was commissioned ay the Brazilian Navy as the Gunboat Rio Branco.

She was converted to a survey vessel at the beginning of 1934 and when Brazil joined the Allied side in WWII she was fitted with 47mm guns and became a corvette. At war’s end she once more resumed her role as a survey vessel and served as well as a fisheries protection vessel.

Margaret Brazil

Rio Branco

By 1957 or 1958 the Rio Branco, ex-Ruth, ex-Margaret was no longer an asset to the Brazilian navy and she disappears from the record, presumably broken up for scrap.