The East India Marine society, organized in Salem in 1799, was made up of shipmasters and super-cargoes (owner’s representatives) who “shall have actually navigated the Seas near the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn.” The Society, which had 403 members before the last India captain died, had three purposes. One was to help the needy families of mariners engaged in a hazardous enterprise. Another was to gather a library of information tending to improve navigation. The third was to form a museum of objects found on distant shores.
To each member bound to sea the Society gave a blank journal, to be filled with the log of the voyage, descriptions of channels, ports, reefs and headlands and, in some cases, with sketches or even water colors of coastlines and foreign craft. Salem mariners made the first navigational charts of the waters in and around the Malay archipelago. Their sea journals now stand, row on row, in the Peabody Museum of Salem, a unique record of an era in maritime history.
The Museum itself had its start when Captain Jonathan Carnes, returning from his second pepper voyage, brought it an elephant’s tooth, a Batta pipe and a rhinoceros-horn goblet. Over the years it accumulated one of the world’s great collections of Oriental objects.
The Society’s proudest day came in 1824 when President John Quincy Adams dedicated its present building. After eighteen toasts were drunk Mr. Adams retired—but the hardy mariners styed on to drink 25 more. Some forty years later, when the decline of Salem’s foreign trade threatened the Society with extinction, its collection was saved by a gift from the great Salem-born London merchant, George Peabody, whose name the Museum now bears.