CSS Shenandoah: Tea Clipper Turned Confederate Raider

This week we are deviating a bit away from a pure tea related blog and taking inspiration from a book by Clive Cussler and Grant Blackwood.  Their book Lost Empire, a story about treasure hunters Remi and Sam Fargo who find a ships bell off the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania leading them on a search for information about the Confederate Sailing Ship (CSS) Shenandoah, a ship which began life as a tea clipper ship before becoming a commercial raider in the US Civil War.  Curiosity got the best of me and I wanted to find out if the Shenandoah actually existed and what its role in history actually was.  As it turns out the Shenandoah did actually exist and has a fascinating story all its own.

The CSS Shenandoah began life as the steam cruiser Sea King, intended for the Chinese tea trade.

“From the North British Daily Mail, August 18th, 1863:  ‘She is named the Sea King, and is, we understand, the first screw steamship built on the principle of iron frames and wooden planking, and also the first steamer that has been specially constructed for the China trade, having been built with the view of competing with the fastest ships in the trade direct from China to London, in bringing home the first teas of the season.’” (Grace’s Guide, 2012)

Confederate Sailing Ship Shenandoah

Confederate Sailing Ship Shenandoah

Constructed in Glasgow, Scotland in 1863 by Alexander Stephen & Sons, who also built the paddle steamers Fergus and Dare as blockade runners for the Civil War  (Grace’s Guide, 2012), the Sea King was built with an iron frame and wooden deck.  This alone was somewhat novel for the time as iron based ships were a very new concept and there were still many who thought iron ships could never float.  In fact the British government didn’t even allow transport of mail in iron vessels until 1960 (Grace’s Guide, 2012).

During its construction the ship attracted the attention of Confederate agents in Europe looking for candidates for commercial raiding ships.  In particular, she was a three mast sailing ship with an auxiliary coal-fired steam engine and a screw that could be raised while sailing to reduce drag. (Markowitz, 2013)  The ability to run either as a sailing vessel or under steam power allowed the ship to be very fast and make headway in a variety of conditions.

After an initial voyage to deliver British troops to New Zealand, the Confederate Navy secretly purchased her.  She was met at sea by confederate officers and equipment necessary to refit her for military purposes including the installation of large guns.  The CSS Shenandoah set sail October 1864 for what would be only a 13 month voyage.

James Iredell Waddell, Captain of the CSS Shenandoah

James Iredell Waddell, Captain of the CSS Shenandoah

Commanded by James Waddell, the CSS Shenandoah regularly needed to recruit sailors as a large crew was necessary to meet needs for sailing, firing guns, and boarding other ships.  Many sailors were recruited from captured ships and when she arrived in Melbourne, Australia in January 1865 for repairs she was able to take on quite a number of new replacement crew members.

The Shenandoah focused on unarmed merchant ships from the Union.  Among others, she destroyed over 20 whaling vessels and may have inadvertently helped end of the US whaling industry, having wiped out nearly 50% of the fleet during her short service.  Despite the civil war ending in May 1865, the CSS Shenandoah didn’t receive official word until after capturing and destroying about two dozen ships.  She finally learned that the Civil war had ended in late June 1865 off San Francisco.  Rather than returning to the United States, she sailed to England and was turned over to the British in Liverpool in November 1865.

After that the Shenandoah was sold on behalf of the United States to Zanzibar and was renamed to the El Majidi.  At this point the details are a bit fuzzy, with various sources suggesting she then served as a passenger liner, a slave ship, or a cruiser in the Zanzibar navy.

Sultan Sayyid Majid bin Sa’id, the new owner of the Shenandoah, now the El Majidi, was the Sultan of Zanzibar which had had only been recognized as an independent realm in 1861.  This was a time when the British Government was pressuring Zanzibar to end slavery.

A couple of additional notes to round out the story of the CSS Shenandoah:

  • She was the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe.
  • Her battle flag still sits in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA.
Map of Tanzania

Map of Tanzania

As for Zanzibar and tea; while Zanzibar itself is known for cloves, the island is now part of Tanzania.  The country of Tanzania is a grower of tea, like Kenya to the north.  The tea industry in Tanzania is supported in part by the Tea Board of Tanzania, the Tea Research Institute of Tanzania and the Tanzania Smallholders Tea Development Agency.

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Works Cited

Born 2 Suffer. (2008, January 23). The Al Bu-Said Dynasty. Retrieved from KBI-SGD (Born 2 Suffer): http://borntosuffer1.blogspot.com/2008/01/al-bu-said-dynasty_23.html

Grace’s Guide. (2012, November 6). A Shipbuilding History. 1750-1932 (Alexander Stephen and Sons): Chapter 2. Retrieved from Grace’s Guide: British Industrial History: http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/A_Shipbuilding_History._1750-1932_(Alexander_Stephen_and_Sons):_Chapter_2

Markowitz, M. (2013, January 9). CSS Shenandoah and the Last Shot of the Civil War. Retrieved from Defense Media Network: http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/how-the-rebels-saved-the-whales/

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