Marco Polo: “The Fastest Ship in the World”

Painting of Marco Polo by John Lars Johnson, 1930. New Brunswick Museum – Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick, www.nbm-mnb.ca. 20898
For the week of December 23, 2019.

On December 26, 1852, the ship Marco Polo returned to England after completing a record-breaking round-trip voyage to Australia.

James Smith built the Marco Polo between 1850 and 1851 at his shipyard in St. John, New Brunswick. At the time, the export of timber and wooden vessels was one of the leading industries in the colony. Approximately 6,000 sailing vessels were constructed in New Brunswick during the 19th century, when the Maritimes was a major international centre for shipbuilding.

The Marco Polo was built with a high cargo capacity as a timber carrier, but the strength of its canvas, masts, and rigging meant the ship could deploy full sails in strong wings. Soon after the ship was launched in the Marsh Creek on April 17, 1851, its keel became mired in the mud and was slightly distorted. However, the damage had no detrimental effects on the Marco Polo’s performance. Some even claimed it made the ship faster.

The ship successfully completed its maiden voyage across the Atlantic to Liverpool, England, in 15 days, at a time when the crossing usually took 35 days. In 1852, James Baines, owner of the Black Ball Line, purchased the Marco Polo and added it to his fleet of packet ships transporting emigrants to Australia during the gold rushes. Baines appointed James “Bully” Forbes as captain.

The Marco Polo left Liverpool on July 4, 1852. Captain Forbes opted to follow a great circle route to Melbourne, which took the ship south to the 40th and 50th parallels, without stopping to resupply. Without much heating, the passengers and crew had to endure cold temperatures for weeks at a time. The cramped and unsanitary conditions in steerage berths also allowed for disease to spread. However, the great circle route represented the shortest distance between the two points and took the ship through areas with favourable winds.

The Marco Polo completed the first leg to Melbourne in only 68 days—a journey that usually took 110 days. After 24 days in port, it returned to Liverpool by sailing east, across the Pacific. The ship arrived on December 26, having circumnavigated the globe in just 5 months and 21 days at a time when no vessel had ever sailed around the world in less than six months. The Black Ball Line celebrated the Marco Polo with a banner that read, “The Fastest Ship in the World.”

The Marco Polo continued to transport emigrants between England and Australia until 1867, when the ship became a cargo carrier. Its final voyage was on July 19, 1883. Sources suggest that a gale flooded the ship and the captain decided to run it aground on Cavendish Beach, Prince Edward Island, to save the crew. The event drew a gathering of spectators, including a young Lucy Maud Montgomery, later the author of Anne of Green Gables.

The Career of the Marco Polo is a designated national historic event.

Find out more about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and the National Program of Historical Commemoration here.