James Clarke was born in Saint. John, New Brunswick, in 1823 and ran away to sea at the age of 14 after his father had beaten him for taking a horse belonging to an officer of the local garrison. On his return he was reconciled with his father and went to sea again, this time with the parental blessing. He learnt his seafaring as a ship's boy, since apprenticeships were not the fashion in Canadian ships, and he must have proved himself a smart young seaman for, by the age of 19, he was second mate of the 514-ton barque Liverpool, engaged in the Liverpool-New Orleans trade. A year later he was chief mate of the same ship.
His final service as chief officer was in the Saint John-built ship Yeoman* owned in Liverpool, in which he served for two years after which he received a glowing reference from his captain: . . . a sober, honest and smart young man; a good seaman, a good scholar and a smart officer, and most attentive to his duties at all times. I consider him capable of taking charge as master of any ship in the Port of Liverpool.
In 1851 he got his first command at the age of 28 - a small snow belonging to J. S. de Wolf & Co. of Liverpool, called the Allegro**. This was swiftly followed by command of the new ship Bloomer§ the following year, which was also owned by de Wolf & Co. and engaged in the Australian emigrant trade.
Like many other shipmasters, he first held command without a certificate, and did not pass his master's examination until 1853. Later, in common with several other Black Ball Line captains such as Forbes and Arnold, he also gained a commission as Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. From 1853 to March 1855 he was in charge of another ship owned by de Wolf called the Sea,¤ again sailing in the Australian trade. By then his experience was so great that he was offered the command of the Marco Polo, and he sailed her successfully until December 1858, when her owners testified to his qualities . . . his good conduct, steadiness and excellent discipline, that he at all times maintained on board the said ship, as well as his quiet and gentlemanly manner, which has gained for him the respect of his passengers and men of business with whom he has been brought in contact.
With such a good reference it was not surprising that he was next given command of the Lightning, of which he was master for three years. What made him leave the Black Ball Line in 1861 is not clear, but at the outset of his last voyage in the Lightning he recorded in his diary that he was ill and lost his sight for some days. The same diary also recorded all the trials and tribulations of the master of one of the biggest wooden sailing ships ever built. After he left the Black Ball Line, he retained his Australian connections and married there, subsequently returning to his first employers, J. S. de Wolf and Co., and he served them until 1876 when he decided to go into steam with Lamport & Holt's steam shipping line to the River Plate. He eventually retired in 1892 as a result of an accident in which he was hit by a shifting deck-load of timber. He had spent fifty-five years at sea and, after only two years' retirement, he died in the Isle of Man in 1894.
*Yeaman: Built 1845, 902 tons, owned
by H. Leader of Liverpool.