- 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
Captain Ebenezer West put into Cape Town to sell his cargo, but finding the market slow, he moved on to Isle of France. Conditions there were not much better, but he sold his cargo and then he received the offer of a freight to Canton from a French merchant. The Grand Turk of Salem was the third American vessel into China, having been preceded by the Empress of China and the Hope , both of New York. The return cargo was largely tea—3151/2 chests of Bohea, 2 chests of Hyson, 52 chests of Souchong and 32 chests of Bohea Congo—together with 130 chests of cassia, 10 chests of cassia buds, and 75 boxes of chinaware.
For American seamen the approach to Canton was a trip into fairyland. From shore to shore the Pearl River was alive with ferryboats and canal boats, sampans housing whole families, elegant barges, junks with gaudily painted eyes on their prows, flower boats with tinkling music and all manner of craft for business or pleasure. Leaving their vessels at Whampoa Reach, the Americans picked their way through this strange, uncounted fleet to the warehouses or “Hongs” where, by imperial edict, foreigners must live and trade. The heads of the Hongs were merchants of great wealth who sometimes won, as Houqua did, the respect and lifelong friendship of Yankee captains.
Yet despite oral tradition and despite the fascination that Canton held for the young New England seamen, the China trade never played an important part in Salem’s commerce. There were great profits to be made from the teas and silks and chinaware that Canton offered, but it was hard to find anything that the self-sufficient Chinese would take in return. One product in demand was ginseng, a medicinal root which resembles a man in form and, according to the doctrine of signatures in medieval medicine, is good for the whole body. But since ginseng grew mostly in the Middle Atlantic states, New York and Philadelphia got the lion’s share of this trade, as Boston did of the trade in sea otter skins from the Pacific Northwest coast.
After 1800 Salem’s Canton business picked up when Joseph Peabody’s captains discerned a vast Chinese appetite for the bêche-de-mer, a sea slug which the mandarins prized for soup. The bêche-de-mer lived on the islands of the South Pacific and there the Salem captains hunted them. In doing so many a Salem boy had his horizons widened by meeting up with exotic island girls, with cannibals and headhunters, and with pieces of native art which he carried home to his mother and aunts in Salem. The great Pacific collection of the Peabody Museum, America’s greatest ethnological treasure of the South Seas, is largely a by-product of this odd hunt for a marine worm to flavor Chinese soup.
The China trade has always been the most romantic one of Oriental commerce, but, as far as Salem was concerned, the trade with British India was more important. During the period from 1784 to 1800, when twelve voyages were made to Canton, 54 voyages were made to India. The ship Lighthorse , Ichabod Nichols master, owned by Elias Hasket Derby, was in Calcutta in 1788 where she loaded cotton to be taken to China. Captain John Gibaut took the Astrea to the Orient in 1791, stopping at Cape of Good Hope and Isle of France, then heading for the Coromandel Coast to trade. She put into Colombo and went on to Madras where she found a freight to Rangoon. At that port she was seized by the Sultan of Pegu to transport supplies to his army, then making war in Siam, and her master was held as a hostage. When the Astrea was released in 1793 she was in such had condition that Captain Gibaut was forced to sell her in Calcutta and return home on another vessel. In 1794 Elias Hasket Derby’s second Grand Turk arrived in Salem with 1,200,000 lbs. of sugar, 60,000 lbs. of pepper, and about $50,000 worth of general merchandise, largely textiles.
A group of life-size clay portrait figures of Hindu and Parsee merchants sits as if in conference in the Peabody Museum today. These portrait figures, dressed in clothes actually worn by the Indian merchants themselves, were sent to Salem merchants, just as we send photographs to distant friends and relatives today.
In the language of the Eighteenth Century the term “India” included not only the Asian subcontinent but all the Southern lands and islands beyond the Cape of Good Hope. In this vast watery empire, extending 5,000 miles from Table Mountain to Java Head, Salem ships opened scores of ports to American trade. The datu of Quallah Battoo was not the only native prince who believed, well into the Nineteenth Century, that Salem was a sovereign nation.