- Historic Sites
Nathaniel Bowditch The Practical Navigator
Salem’s irascible little “arithmetic sailor” made seamanship a science and left all mariners in his debt
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
During the approximately two years that elapsed between his return on the last voyage of the Astrea and the time of the appearance of the New American Practical Navigator in 1802, we know little of his financial status. He had, of course, returned from Manila with some money. Once back in Salem, he invested in a trading schooner and is thought to have profited. He also invested in a sealing expedition and is said to have lost heavily. Since he had remarried and had a family to support, it is probably safe to conclude that now, in addition to his other problems, he was again faced with the perennial need for money. A way out of all these difficulties, and one which was to change his life completely, offered itself in the fall of 1802, shortly after the book was out.
At this time Salem was rapidly becoming the pepper capital of the world. Salem pepper ships bought directly from the natives on East Indian islands, many of them completely unknown, then transshipped tens of thousands of pounds of the precious commodity to markets in Europe and America. The trade was extremely dangerous. More than a few Salem vessels ended their days on some lonely beach or reef, captured by pirates, their crews murdered, eaten, or sold into slavery by the fierce natives. The profits were so fantastic, however, that many were willing to take the risks.
For this trade, a syndicate of Salem merchants purchased a three-masted square-rigger called the Putnam —small, but nearly new, fast, and in excellent condition—and selected Nathaniel Bowditch to take her out as master, with a share of the profits. It is not known if Bowditch actually bought into the company, or if his “share” was merely that usually given the captain. In any case, it is interesting to speculate about why he was chosen to command the vessel. Certainly the relatively inexperienced and slight statured mathematician was not the man one might normally expect to find in such a position. The Putnam was bound for one of the most dangerous areas in the world. (Only three years later, she was, in fact, lost to the natives and seven of her company were massacred.) She was armed heavily; she was expected to defend herself. If she were to return home safely she would need the most capable and resolute men possible. Perhaps the syndicate desperately needed a fast voyage to catch a certain market, or to meet certain obligations. At any rate, Bowditch commanded the Putnam when she cleared Salem for Sumatra in November of 1802.
The ship was lucky. Trading was good, the fast proas of the native head-hunters were eluded, and very quickly she was on her way home with a rich cargo of wild pepper.
The Putnam approached the New England coast late in December of 1803, during the height of a terrible storm. For days the whole eastern seaboard had been snowbound by the worst blizzard anyone could remember. A prudent master who found his ship in these waters at such a time kept well offshore, hoping he wouldn’t be dismasted or that the seams of his vessel wouldn’t open under the pounding of the seas.
There are many tales, most of them no doubt apocryphal, about exactly what happened next. The facts themselves are sufficiently fascinating without embellishment.
Late on Christmas Day, a rumor spread through the murk and gloom that enveloped Salem. It was said that Nathaniel Bowditch had been seen in town! Some claimed it was his ghost. Others said that it was truly Bowditch in the flesh; that he had driven the Putnam ashore and had somehow managed to make his way to the village. In any event the news was not good. Ghost or no ghost, if Bowditch was in Salem it could mean only that the ship was lost. The port had of course been tightly closed by the winter blizzard.
The syndicate that owned the Putnam must have experienced some horrifying moments before Bowditch finally showed up in dripping oilskins, thin as a rail, and convinced them that he was neither a ghost nor a miserable castaway. The ship? She was tied up safely at Derby wharf!
Bowditch had done the impossible. He had brought the Putnam safely to her berth in the midst of the storm. He admitted that two days before, he had had the good fortune to speak another vessel which had helped him establish his position. And on December 24, when the snow had turned to “thick rainy weather, latter part moderate to foggy,” he had managed during a lull in the storm to take two good shots of the sun. This definite establishment of the ship’s position, plus an excellent compass and a fleeting glimpse of the “Eastern Point of Cape Ann” through the fog as they worked their way up the channel, had been sufficient. Otherwise, all he had done was to apply some “simple arithmetic”!
This was a feat that could not be ignored. Bowditch and his arithmetic had done what no shipmaster in Salem—or ‘anywhere in the world—could have done, bluster as he might. Bowditch was an overnight hero.