Home Crime and Scandal The Mysterious 1852 Voyage of the Arabian, the Fastest Clipper Ship in Maine

The Mysterious 1852 Voyage of the Arabian, the Fastest Clipper Ship in Maine


In 1852 James Hinds, a ship builder in Calais, Maine, launched the fastest clipper ship ever built in the state.

He’d built the ship on spec for a New York investor who had passed through Calais and been impressed by Hinds’ skills. On launch, the ship measured 125 feet long and 29 feet across. Hinds designed it to be 12 feet tall, but expanded it to 16 feet at the owner’s request so it could carry more cargo.

That would become a point of pride for the shipbuilder, who insisted he never knew what the ship’s intended cargo would be.

The ship caused quite a stir in Calais. Thomas V. Briggs, a young man from a local shipbuilding family, watched the Arabian’s launch with awe .

The Arabian never returned to Calais, and Briggs would wonder for years what happened to her.  It would take more than 50 years for him to find out and tell the world.

Fastest Clipper Ship

The clipper ship made New York in four days, and the pilot who took it up the Hudson River declared he had never seen a ship so fast. It was the heyday of the clipper ship, and as the Arabian speedily sailed into New York Harbor she attracted a lot of attention.

Clipper barque Spirit of the Age

Visitors came and examined the Arabian’s log book, and the owner declared  he’d sell the vessel for the astronomical price of $20,000.

A Spanish investor then began a game of cat and mouse with the Arabian’s owners. He wanted the clipper ship, he insisted, but not at that price. But when the boat’s owners left New York for Boston, the would-be buyer panicked and sent word he would meet the price.

From New York, the Arabian got a new crew and captain, and  then she sailed for Cardenas in Cuba. One of the original crewman stayed with the ship, however. When Thomas Briggs found him, he divulged what had become of the Arabian.

To Cuba and Beyond

In Cardenas, the ship was fitted with an additional deck, and now had two levels below deck to haul cargo. Each level had only about two feet of headroom. Such decks were designed for one kind of cargo: slaves.

Renamed the Caribee, the ship made quick work of the crossing to Africa, but almost didn’t carry out its mission. In the slave markets in Gobon, Ambriz and Guinea the captain found few slaves to be had.

Slave market in Zanzibar, 1860, by Edwin Stocqueler

Frustrated but undeterred, the captain pointed the empty Caribee back across the Atlantic toward Brazil, where he knew of a small island town off the coast of Para. There he anchored and went ashore.

The captain told the villagers he had a proposition. His ship was loaded with raw materials. If they would put themselves to work building cabinets, harvesting coffee, fruit and lumber, he would buy all they could produce and sell it abroad. He would become their exclusive trading gateway to the world.

After several days, the captain put his real plans into action. He invited the townspeople aboard the Caribee, drugged them with punch and chained them below decks. In all, he captured 800 to 1,200 people of the village and took them aboard the Caribee for Cuba.

The Clipper Ship vs. The British Navy

By 1852 the British Navy actively patrolled the waters of the Atlantic trying to stop the slave trade. But the captain of the Caribee gambled that even the speedy British Navy was no match for his ship.

HMS Black Joke, a British slave patrol ship, fires on the Spanish slave ship El Almirante. Painting by Nicholas Matthews Condy.

After seven days sailing, just two days out from Cardenas, a British ship spotted the slave ship. At first the Caribee tried to avoid the British vessel, but the British gave chase. On the second day of the chase, as the British ship drew near, the Caribee’s crew fired her cannon at the British ship, damaging her sails and a mast.

Then, with the British vessel paused to make repairs, the Caribee made a desperate run for Cardenas. Arriving at 10 o’clock at night, the captain and the ship’s owner moved quickly to unload the slaves and bring them ashore.

A painting c.1830 by Johann Moritz Rugendas showing a scene below deck of a slave ship.

The Story of the Arabian

Fifty-six years later, Thomas Briggs published the story in Harper’s Magazine:

As fast as they were landed they were hurried off in gangs to various plantations in the interior. Those who were weak and feeble were placed in mule and donkey carts and followed. In a little more than three hours they were all out, and soon the last gang was sent off; and now the guns, ivory, arms, charts, men’s chests, and whatever could be got out easily and at once were put on board the lighters, a few sails cut from their lashings, cable shipped, the bark taken in tow by several boats, borne out to the bar, and set on fire in several places.

Very soon she was a solid mass of flame from jibboom to taffrail, from truck to keelson, and a dense black cloud of smoke rolled over the town. Soon after daybreak the brig appeared in the offing. Her commander at once took in the situation, and presently his departure. All that remained of the famous slaver Caribbee was a smoking, blackened hulk.

And so after that single voyage came the ignominious end of the grand Arabian, the fastest clipper ship ever built in Maine, or so they said.

The last owners of the vessel, Briggs estimated, made $1 million from the sale of the slaves.

This story  about the clipper ship Arabian was updated in 2022.


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