- Historic Sites
“To The Farthest Port Of The Rich East”
Salem found its fortune in the East Indies trade
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
In July, 1805, Captain George Crowninshield and his sons waited impatiently for their ship America , under comand of a cousin, Benjamin Crowninshield, to arrive from Sumatra. Their impatience was not joyful since the market at that moment was glutted with pepper and the America ’s cargo would only depress the price even more. They had no one to blame except themselves for the expected cargo since they had given strict orders to Captain Ben to proceed to Sumatra for pepper and to go to no other port to trade, as the captain was so fond of doing. When the word arrived that the vessel was coming into Salem harbor, old George Crowninshield with his sons went out to meet it, hoping that Captain Ben had disobeyed his orders this time. While being rowed out to the slowly moving ship, they sat tensely and sniffed in hopes they could smell the cargo. Suddenly the men caught the odor of coffee in the air! Young Ben Crowninshield sang out through his speaking trumpet, “What’s your cargo?” Captain Ben, with a solemn face, answered from the quarter deck, “Pepper!” “You lie! I smell coffee,” shouted the merchant while Captain Ben stood at the rail grinning.
Pepper had been such a bonanza just a few years before that the house of Crowninshield had been led, in this instance, to depart from the time-tested Salem policy of giving a shipmaster full freedom of action. Captain Ben’s experience only proved the wisdom of the usual policy. On the outward voyage he had put into Isle of France (Mauritius), a favorite refreshment place for ships bound to and from the Orient, and here, on this island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, he discovered that most of the vessels bound for the States had pepper in great quantity but not one of them reported any coffee. Having his owner’s interests in mind, he decided to disregard his orders and, instead of proceeding to Sumatra, set sail for the steaming little coffee port of Mocha on the Red Sea. Such independence, coupled with a fine business sense, was the basis of Salem’s East India trade.
The little port of Salem, in these thirty years between the Revolution and “Mr. Madison’s War” of 1812, was a powerhouse of world commerce. Seldom a day passed when a vessel did not clear for foreign ports or when some sharp-eyed boy did not come running to “King” Derby to collect a Spanish silver dollar for the news that a returning Salem ship stood off Baker’s Island.
It was a full century since the last witch had been hanged on Gallows Hill, a century and a half since Governor Winthrop had advised his hard-pressed farmers to seek their fortunes on blue water. The men of Salem had learned their seamanship in the rigorous school of Grand Banks fishing and long before the Revolution they had developed a thriving trade with the West Indies. Their trim little schooners carried the produce of New England—chiefly codfish and lumber—to the Indies and brought back cargoes of sugar, salt or molasses. Often they ventured to the wine islands or to the Mediterranean ports and rarely to the coast of Africa. But neither before nor after the Revolution was there any important trade in slaves, for it took a pretty hardened skipper, even if he cared nothing for the law of Massachusetts, to walk into the old East Church with slave-trading money in his pocket and face the accusing Congregational eye ot the Reverend Dr. Bentley.
The Revolution offered New England the greatest challenge of its maritime history. Salem’s response was a fleet of 158 privateers, some of them converted traders and some newly built, which issued from the port to prey on England’s commerce and carry naval warfare to the very shores of the British Isles. In 1781, the surrender of Cornwallis left Salem with a double problem. The privateers were built too large for the coastwise or the West Indian trade; and the British West Indian ports which had been open to Salem masters as colonials were closed to them as citizens of the new Republic. Casting about for new opportunities, the merchants fixed their gaze on the Orient, until then the exclusive trading province of the European East India companies.
Elias Hasket Derby, whose business acumen and imagination did much to build Salem’s prosperity, sent one of his larger vessels, the Grand Turk , to the Cape of Good Hope in 1784, with a cargo of rum, cheese, salt meat, sugar and butter. The cargo was to be exchanged at the Cape for tea and other China goods. But there was one flaw in the plan: the British East India Company vessels were not allowed to break bulk at that place. By luck Captain Jonathan Ingersoll was able to buy tea, silks and nankeens from the East India Company ship Calcutta , which had been forced to put into the Cape.
The success of this voyage prompted Derby to make another attempt to trade in the same region. In December, 1785, the Grand Turk was sent to Isle of France with the following cargo: pitch, tar, flour, rice, tobacco, butter, claret wine, bar iron, sugar, oil, chocolate, brandy, beef, rum, bacon, ham, candles, soap, anise seed, fish, beer, porter, and pork. Included in this typical cargo of a maritime Yankee peddler were not only the native products of New England but goods gathered from all around the shores of the North Atlantic.