Portrait Of A Yankee Skipper

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New York had not heard of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia until “the elegant corvette-built ship Thomas, Hillard, 48 days from London in ballast to N and D Talcott” came up the bay on the sixth of January, 1813, and even then some New Yorkers, including the editor of the Post, refused to believe it. Only after reflection did the Post announce to its readers that the “auspicious and glorious” report of the defeat of Murat and the flight of Bonaparte was “entitled to full faith and credit.” “The boasted conqueror of the north has been compelled already to quit Moscow in disgrace.…”

The principal significance of the voyage of the Thomas to men of our time, however, is the light it throws on the character of the sea captain’s profession as it was practiced at the beginning of the last century. Seamanship was undoubtedly the first requirement but only the first. Judgment, commercial and political as well as nautical, was demanded, and coolness (the Thomas was boarded on Georges Bank by a British squadron in pursuit of Commodore Rogers) was as necessary as courage. In addition a knowledge of commercial law and international banking was clearly desirable, as well as an ability to deal with bureaucrats and functionaries of many habits and traditions. A letter from Joseph Otis, owner of the brig Sussex, which Captain Hillard commanded at the age of 25, gives a succinct idea of what was expected of the master of a vessel in 1805. He was no mere carrier of cargoes bought and sold by others but a merchant—a sort of glorified Yankee peddler—as well:

New York 12 Oct. 1805—

Capt. Moses Hillard

Sir,

The Brig Sussex under your Command, being now Loaded & ready for Sea, you will proceed with all possible Dispatch for La Guira and there dispose of your Cargo on the best Terms the market will admit and invest the proceeds in such Articles as you may Judge most for Our Interest & return direct for this Place— In Case you are not permitted an Entry at La Guira, You will if You think it advisable try one Other Port on the main, and also St. Thomas if it becomes necessary.

Your Cargo is valuable and the Articles comprising the same are of the first Qualities and will warrant recommending with Safety. We therefore trust you will obtain the highest Prices, be very Careful in Purchasing Your return Cargo, & see that every thing is free of damage, and of Good Qualities—be extremely Cautious in all your Dealings, do nothing that Shall in the Least endanger the Property under your Care. You will write every opportunity & communicate every Particular relative to your Situation, Prospects & Destination.

Your Vessel & Cargo being Insured, you will in Case of any Accident procure the requisite Papers to enable to recover of the Underwriters. We are allowed by the Charterparty, thirty Lay Days in the West-Indies from the Time of Entry at the Custom House, beyond that Time we must pay a heavy Demurage. It therefore becomes necessary that every Exertion be used to facilitate Your Business. At foot you have the present prices of a few Articles for your Government. Wishing you a Safe & pleasant Voyage—

Your Obt Servant Joseph Otis

Coffee 27 to 30 Cents

Cocoa 35 to 38 Dols for 112

Hides 11 to 12 cents

Indigo 1¾ to 2¼ Dols

A few years later, when the Captain was a bit older and when his reputation was firmly established, his owner’s instructions would have been less peremptory, but the responsibilities they defined would have been the same or greater. The master of a Yankee ship 150 years ago was, in addition to everything else, the executive head of a wholesale house which happened to be afloat.

One other preconception would also correct itself, I think, in the mind of any careful reader of Captain Hillard’s papers. Ever since Mencken began his babbitization of American history it has been standard doctrine that the New England Protestants of the great New England period were repressed and blue-nosed characters whose influence on the country has been harmful if not actually disastrous. Captain Hillard, as his letters demonstrate, was a church-going man with at least enough religious fervor to have produced one clergyman among his sons, but there was nothing even remotely puritanical about life on his ships.

A conscientious passenger, an Englishman named Matthew Carter, writes him at Le Havre to apologize because Mr. Carter had left the ship in such haste he had been “unable to arrange for the payment of the little amounts toward the dinner at Justins and the losses at Cards which were to be appropriated to the Cost of the dinner.” And numerous exchanges with French friends in Paris make it quite clear that the Captain knew that city as well as he knew Le Havre. Indeed, to perform his duties as buyer and seller as well as sailor, he would have had to walk its streets and sit over long meals in its restaurants much as other Americans have walked and sat in later generations.

I suspect it was something more than the thought of crossing the sea which induced Sally Pride Hillard to sail with her husband on the last voyage of the Oneida. I suspect he had told her tales of a Paris which those imaginary Puritans were not supposed to know.