Peking was launched in 1911 at Hamburg, Germany by the Blohm & Voss shipyard. She was owned by the F. Laeisz Company of that port, who used her to carry fuel and manufactured goods to the Pacific Coast of South America via the often treacherous Cape Horn, from where she returned to European ports laden with sodium nitrate mined in northern Chile. Sodium nitrate, also known as
Chile saltpeter, was used to fertilize the depleted fields of Europe and as a raw material in the manufacture of gunpowder.
The Laeisz company specialized in the South American nitrate trade, and Peking was one of a series of ships acquired for use on this route. They were all given names starting with the letter
P, and they acquired a reputation for speed and reliability, which led to their being referred to as the Flying P-Line.
With her four-masted barque rig, steel hull and masts, and midship bridge deck, Peking represents the windjammer style of ship-construction, which typifies the final generation of sailing ships built for global trade. Ships made from iron and steel were cheaper than their wooden hulled counterparts because iron’s strength enables larger ship sizes and considerable economies of scale while taking up less space, and iron hulls require less maintenance work than do wooden hulls.
Though a product of the 20th century, she still sailed in the traditional way, with few labor-saving devices or safety features. Her crew followed the standard sailing vessel routine of four hours on duty and four hours off duty, alternating around the clock, seven days a week.
At the outbreak of World War I the majority of the Flying P-Line was stranded in Chile, including Peking. The Treaty of Versailles stipulated that nearly all German merchant ships were to be turned over to the Allied Forces as reparations, and the Peking was awarded to Italy. The ships sailed home loaded with sodium nitrate, which was in short-supply in Europe at the moment. Revenue generated by those imports enabled F. Laeisz to repurchase the majority of their ships; the Peking was reacquired in 1923.
Peking was retired in 1933, when steamers using the Panama Canal took over what was left of the nitrate trade. She served as a nautical school for boys, moored in a British river, until she was acquired by the South Street Seaport Museum in 1974.