The Pacific Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) was established in 1840 to run steamer services on the west coast of South America.
William Wheelwright, an American master mariner and shipbroker with experience of operating steamers in South America, inspired its foundation. He was appointed Chief Superintendent in 1840 and took overall control after a dispute with the original directors in 1843.
PSNC successfully overcame all of the problems of operating on a distant 4,000 mile coastline with many navigational hazards and few facilities. In 1852 the company gained a contract for British Government mail to posts in western South America and a direct Liverpool to Valparaiso service was started in 1868 and London to Sydney in 1877.
PSNC was quick to take up technical innovations such as iron hulls (1845) and compound engines (1856). By 1873 the company had 57 vessels, making it the largest merchant-steamer fleet in the world.
In the early 20th century PSNC began the modernisation of its fleet, which began to include larger luxury passenger liners such as the Orcoma in 1908. In 1910 PSNC was acquired by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, but it continued to operate separately.
During the First World War, PSNC’s fleet served as transporters, hospital ships and armed merchant cruisers. After the War, the company started a New York to South America service and built five new motor cargo ships.
The company went into steady decline in the 1930s, although new routes to Caribbean ports saw a revival in the 1950s and early 1960s.
In 1965 PSNC and Royal Mail were acquired by Furness Withy. In 1980 Furness Withy, including PSNC, was taken over by Hong Kong shipowner C. Y. Tung and re-sold to the German Oetker shipping group.