- 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
Sir! You being Master & part owner of the Brig Otter now… ready for sea we advise you to proceed to the port of Manilla in the Island of Luconia & there invest your funds in such produce as you think will pay the most profit in this Market such as Sugar, Hides, & Indigo, Turtle-shell, dye wood & Manilla grass, bearing in mind however that the latter as well as Indigo & Turtle shell may not be so high next year as it is this. You will therefore be governed by the best information you can obtain & your own prudent judgment. If you find in Manilla that you can obtain a cargo that would answer better for Europe this you are at liberty to do or if you can obtain a height from there to Europe or any other part of the world if you think it for our advantage, you are at liberty to employ your vessel as long as you think you can make it profitable. Should you not succeed at Manilla in procuring a cargo for this country or Europe you may then proceed to any Island or Port in India where you think best for the benefit of the voyage. You will receive for your services 3 p.c. of the Nett proceeds of the cargo at her port of discharge in Europe or the United States. If you should return to the United States you will hoist a white flag for your signal & proceed to Boston.
Should any accident befal you during this voyage to deprive us of your services, your first Officer will take charge of the property so as to obtain a cargo & return to the United States.
Since the Otter was a new vessel a common instruction was omitted in the letter, viz., the permission to sell the ship itself. Such is found in the letter of William Gray to Captain Clifford Crowninshield of the ship Ceres in 1789:
“…sell the cargo now on board for the most it will fetch, and if you can, sell the Ceres…”
If the master found a good market for his cargo and also found an abundant return cargo, he frequently bought or chartered another vessel and freighted the two of them.
A ship’s captain was not a mere employee, even though he received a monthly wage, but had certain privileges. He received from 1% to 8% of the net profits of the voyage, a great inducement to careful trading, and in addition was allowed to carry up to five tons of goods to trade on his own account. On the early Salem voyages, each seaman was allowed a certain number of cubic feet of hold space for his own private trading stock, which might be a few kegs of tobacco or some large New England cheeses. From such an allotment fortunes were built.
Seldom, indeed, has Opportunity knocked so insistently on a boy’s door as it did in Essex County during the early years of the East India trade. Though Salem in 1785 was the sixth largest city in the country (after New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and Charleston), it still had only 6,665 people and in the main seafaring age group of sixteen to thirty it numbered but 694 males. From all the surrounding countryside farm lads, catching the smell of adventure and fortune, made their way to the Salem wharves, each laden with a bagful of belongings, a few books or comforts from his anxious mother and such stern advice as this from a Boston uncle: “If you meet the Devil, cut him in two and go between the pieces.”
Except for the merchants’ sons, who went to Harvard, their schooling was sound but short. Nathaniel Bowditch, the great mathematician and navigator, had no formal schooling after he was ten and went to sea when he was fourteen. But these youths were men of the world when most of their compatriots were stuck behind a plow. Many a Salem boy had seen Calcutta and the Coromandel Coast before he ever set foot in Boston.
The captains themselves, in many cases, were hardly more than boys. When Nathaniel Silsbee took Mr. Derby’s Benjamin out of Salem in 1792, on a voyage that lasted eighteen months and brought its owner a profit of 100%, he was nineteen years old; his first mate was twenty and his clerk was nineteen. But Nathaniel Silsbee was a seasoned skipper, having been at sea since he was fourteen and captained a sloop in the West Indies trade. His two brothers both commanded ships before they were twenty and all three of them, having made small fortunes, left the quarterdeck to set up as merchants before they were thirty.
Very few Salem merchants inherited wealth; most of them worked up from common seamen. Elias Hasket Derby, son of the merchant Richard Derby, was the great exception. Young Mr. Derby had never gone to sea, yet he knew the whole world almost as well as he knew the long wharf where he unloaded his ships or the fine mansion which he built across the street from it. Before the Revolution he was the leading merchant of the West Indies trade and when war broke out he took the lead in building and outfitting privateers. Few merchants knew as much about the design and building of a ship and none had his mastery of a worldwide business empire. His neighbors knew that Mr. Derby was a man of great fortune but few suspected its size until he died. He was America’s first millionaire.