As a 19th century merchant newcomer, the player needs to buy a ship, find a crew, load a few goods on the ship, and sail into the horizon, until the player reaches a port with a demand for said goods. The next step is to expand by buying more ships, creating regular trade routes, and becoming the head of a regular trading company.
1869 focuses on management and economy, rather than action. Actual sailing is done by plotting a route and then watching the days go by, interrupted only by the occasional random event. Basically the main activities are planning routes, watching out for special assignments (that pay well if completed on time) and generally trying to steer clear of the shores of bankruptcy.