There is a certain sense of what-might-have-been when a trio of ships are built encompassing the hopes of a shipowner: ships with which to consolidate a position they have established in a trade route only to have the ships never delivered. This was the fate of Farrell Line’s African Comet and her two sister ships. The trio’s history was changed by the United States becoming participants in the Second World War as a result of “that day of infamy” as President Roosevelt described the attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii in December 1940.
Farrell Line was unusual in American shipping for having been family owned and operated much in the then contemporary mould of some British shipping companies with whom, at its formative phase between the two World Wars, there were a number of coincidental links.
James A Farrell Senior, (1863-1943) was, in an era of American nationwide introspection and isolationism, a man who grew into great influence and looked outwards. As with the start of many American success stories he was the son of an emigrant born in New England. When his ship’s captain father disappeared on a voyage to Jamaica, just 15 years old James Augustine Farrell had to go out to work to support the family that had been left behind.
Described as “tall, lanky and blue eyed” he had the build and the determination to survive 12 hours a day of physical hard labour in the local wire mill in New Haven. At 19 he moved to Pittsburgh and, by the age of 23 so expert was he in his trade that he was foreman in charge of 300 employees. A downturn in the steel trade gave him the chance to “sell” and so successful was he – particularly developing sales outside the United States – that after a stream of promotions, and company mergers by 1902, aged 39, he was head of the dominant United States Steel Corporation’s export subsidiary.
The builders of the Trans Siberian Railway were among James A Farrell’s customers for railway lines. Having come from a seafaring background shipping was more than a passing hobby. This stood James Senior, and US Steel in one advantageous position after another, particularly during the challenging trading conditions of the First World War. He played a pivotal role in the formation of the changing circumstances that a number of British and American shipping companies found themselves in, many of whom depended on carrying US Steel’s consignments to world wide markets. The companies included WR Grace, Alcoa, United Fruit, Isthmian, Tom (Lord) Royden, several shipping lines, and by a quirk of fate to come, the originally British company Robin Line.
James Senior had two sons, James A Farrell Junior (1903-1966) and John J Farrell (died 1978). There was a degree of inevitability that, as they graduated from Yale, they would emerge to run the collection of shipping businesses in which their father had an investment or, from 1928, a full scale cargo liner service from the East Coast USA to Southern and East Africa. Prospering on mineral industries the Union of South Africa was, in the 1930’s, in addition to its staple exports of diamonds, gold and fruit, beginning to industrialise, seeking inward investment to complement its primary farming scene.
Eriksen, the local dealer for Ford, persuaded them to start assembling a range of their vehicles in 1935. There was also all those trend-setting consumer goods that were so commonplace in the USA that found a ready market in a prospering South Africa and neighbouring British possessions. Farrell’s American South Africa Line prospered to the extent that to stay competitive they needed new ships.
It was a timely moment to do so for, in 1936 the Roosevelt administration had enacted an Act which eliminated three previous ones and centralised into one, the Maritime Commission. One of this body’s primary tasks was to make that staple diet of the American Mercantile Marine, the subsidies, “honest”, for without them the Stars and Stripes would become a rare sight in the ports of the world. The level of subsidy that an American line could bid for was based on the differential between crew costs of a foreign line, operating on the same route and that which a US owner would have to pay their American crews. The cost of fuel and cargo handling were not included in the subsidy on the basis that Union Castle Line, as Farrell’s rival on the route to the Cape, had to pay the same costs. To avoid profiteering American lines had to, on an open book basis, agree what they expected their subsidy needed to be and if the profit exceeded an agreed figure, pay back the surplus to the Maritime Commission.
Between 1938 and 1958 (excluding the Second World War) Farrell received US$27.2 million and paid back US$1.4 million. This regime did not eliminate the effect of competition from other US shipping companies, one of which was Robin Line which by 1935 had become Native American and was driving down general cargo rates between the USA and South Africa to a level that was officially described as a “suicidal” US$4 a freight ton. The result of this was Farrell cutting back the annual number of sailings from 26, in 1937, to 20 in 1938 and 13 in 1939. A further complication was that Robin Line stayed outside the trade’s conference lines.
Set against these circumstances and a darkening scene in Europe it was a brave move by the Farrells to have built three ships for operating on their South African trade route. The main reason was one of timing, for the Roosevelt administration, with great foresight, decided that it was a strategic imperative to underpin the skill base of US shipbuilding yards. The Marine Commission came up with a scheme whereby the cost of newbuildings would be subsidised up to 50% of the comparative cost of building in a foreign yard. Just how the cost of building in a yard outside the USA would be ascertained is something of an open ended question. Such was the level of activity in European yards replete with orders linked with frantic re-armament that anything like a realistic quotation for comparison was dubious at the best and probably unlikely.
The Farrells did not go for Lowry’s revolutionary layout but, in what became the African Comet and her sister ships, got what the US shipping press of that time recorded as saying were the most beautiful passenger carrying cargo liners ever built. What the Farrells did get by accepting a C3 hull and machinery was the cost effectiveness of standardisation – an all-American concept years ahead of its time before it was accepted by European shipowners. With the contract placed with Ingalls at Pascagloula, Mississippi for the three ships at a total cost of US$ 4,000,000, the lead ship was to have a deadweight of 9,350 tons, accommodation for 110 passengers in a single class and be powered by a single set of turbines producing 8,500 shp giving a speed of 16.5 knots.
The two Babcock and Wilcox oil fired boilers produced steam at 400lbs per sq inch resulting in a performance that could give a 16 day transit between New York and Cape Town. The most prominent difference of all was that it is believed that these were the first passenger cargo ships ever built with all welded hulls. It would be another thirteen years before a British shipbuilder did likewise in the form of the Orsova (29,091/1954).