“To The Farthest Port Of The Rich East”


Of all the branches of the East India trade the Sumatra pepper trade was the most exciting. The Dutch had maintained nominal control over the island for several centuries but had never extended actual control beyond a little trading post of the Dutch East India Company. The British East India Company also had a trading post, called Fort Marlborough, on the island, and it was to these two settlements that the Malays brought their pepper to sell. Neither of the East India Companies had sought to develop the pepper trade but had been content to accept what they could get at the trading posts and charge a high price for it in Europe.

The discovery by Americans that pepper could be purchased easily on the Sumatra coast was made by two Salem men, Captain Jonathan Carnes [brother of John Carnes, whose portrait appears on the cover of this issue] and William Vans, who sailed from Salem as master and supercargo respectively of the brig Cadet . After a voyage of two years the pair arrived in New York with a cargo of pepper and other spices. Jonathan Carnes, realizing he had an opportunity to open a new field, approached his uncle, Jonathan Peele, who supplied him with the schooner Rajah and a cargo of brandy, gin, scrap iron, tobacco and fish. The schooner sailed in November, 1795, disappeared from sight for nearly two years and then came into New York with a full cargo of pepper. Salem buzzed with the news and there was speculation in all the counting houses as to where Carnes had found his cargo, but neither Peele nor Carnes would tell. Tradition says that a profit of 700% was realized on the investment.

With the return of the Rajah , Salem entered upon a trade which built the fortunes of many merchants and made Salem for a time the capital of the world’s pepper market. This should have been an idyllic trade. Sumatra is a tropical island with a strip of lowland along the coast and green towering peaks beyond; the sea breaks over the coral reefs and only ripples reach the palm-fringed shore; just beyond the strip of white sand lie the villages, groups of nipa huts peopled with Malays dressed in gay-colored sarongs. In the trading days a vessel arrived, the captain came ashore and dickered with the local datu for pepper. When a price was agreed upon the ship’s crew brought a beam balance and weights on shore to weigh the pepper, which was carried out to the ship in praus (native boats). In this green paradise the serpent was the Malay himself, who reasoned, logically, why bring pepper to sell when we can capture the vessel, kill the crew, take the cargo and money. The master who relaxed his vigilance lost his vessel and often his life. Many times sailors and mates new to the coast dismissed the pirate tales as mere imagination, only to discover the laughing innocent Malay transformed in an instant into a murderous pirate.

Off the pepper coast in 1806 Captain William Story was sitting in the cabin of the Gardners’ ship Marquis de Somereulas when he heard his first mate, Mr. Bromfield, cry out that he was “creesed.” There followed a brief scuffle between the four seamen left on deck and a band of native pirates armed with the wicked Malay short sword called a kris or, in Salem spelling, creese. Rallying his men, the captain started up the companionway, only to be beaten back by the Malays, who now controlled the deck. Before making a second attempt, Captain Story stationed a man by the powder magazine with instructions to apply a match and blow up the ship if the Malays won the fight. Thereupon the captain and crew rushed the deck, only to find the natives unaccountably making for shore in the praus that brought them.

The net profit on this voyage of the Marquis de Somereulas was $99,751.50. Such profits help to explain why, despite all the perils, men still went to Sumatra.

Foreign trade before the advent of modern communication, fast steamships and submarine cables, depended largely on the good judgment of the master, since both the navigation of the vessel and the disposal of the cargo were entrusted to him. At the start of each voyage the owner handed the captain a letter of instructions that gave him not only directions as to the voyage but also an amazing liberty in the conduct of his business. The following letter to Captain William D. Waters of Salem is quite typical:


June 18th 1824

Capt Wm Waters