There was nothing like a shipment of white pine Maine timbers from the New England colonies to cheer up a British Royal Navy undersecretary in 1666.
England’s prosperity depended on the navy to control the seas and trade routes. From March 1665 through July 1667, England was at war for a second time with the Dutch Republic, trying to end its domination of world trade. But the Royal Navy faced a chronic problem: there were few trees big enough in Britain for spars and masts to outfit its warships.
The immense stands of tall white pines in northern New England offered a solution. They grew to a height of over 200 feet and were sometimes 10 feet in diameter. Some were a thousand years old. The British Admiralty was quick to grasp the potential of New England’s great white pines for ship construction.
Eventually laws were passed to reserve for the Crown. The king’s surveyors traveled the woods, scoring the king’s trees with three slashes shaped like an arrow – the King’s Broad Arrow. The laws were honored more in the breach than in the observance.
During most of the 17th and 18th centuries, Falmouth, Maine (now Portland), and Portsmouth, N.H., were the center of the mast trade.
Samuel Pepys was an undersecretary of the British Admiralty in 1666. He kept a detailed diary from 1660-69.
On Dec. 3, 1666, Pepys had a bad day at work, ‘with everybody prophesying destruction to the nation.’ One event comforted him: “There is also the very good news come of four New England ships come home safe to Falmouth with masts for the King; which is a blessing mighty unexpected, and without which, if for nothing else, we must have failed next year. But God be praised for this good fortune, and send us a continuance of his favor in other things.”
It would not be enough, however, as Britain was unable to put its entire navy into fighting shape and England was beaten soundly in the war that ended in 1667.
This story was updated from the 2014 version.
Artilce on the Maine mast trade here
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