The Old Merchant Marine, A Chronicle of American Ships and Sailors by Ralph D. Paine

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The story of American ships and sailors is an epic of blue water which seems singularly remote, almost unreal, to the later generations. A people with a native genius for seafaring won and held a brilliant supremacy through two centuries and then forsook this heritage of theirs. The period of achievement was no more extraordinary than was its swift declension. A maritime race whose topsails flecked every ocean, whose captains courageous from father to son had fought with pike and cannonade to defend the freedom of the seas, turned inland to seek a different destiny and took no more thought for the tall ships and rich cargoes which had earned so much renown for its flag.

Vanished fleets and brave memories–a chronicle of America which had written its closing chapters before the Civil War! There will be other Yankee merchantmen in times to come, but never days like those when skippers sailed on seas uncharted in quest of ports mysterious and unknown.

The Pilgrim Fathers, driven to the northward of their intended destination in Virginia, landed on the shore of Cape Cod not so much to clear the forest and till the soil as to establish a fishing settlement. Like the other Englishmen who long before 1620 had steered across to harvest the cod on the Grand Bank, they expected to wrest a livelihood mostly from salt water. The convincing argument in favor of Plymouth was that it offered a good harbor for boats and was “a place of profitable fishing.” Both pious and amphibious were these pioneers whom the wilderness and the red Indian confined to the water’s edge, where they were soon building ships to trade corn for beaver skins with the Kennebec colony.

Even more energetic in taking profit from the sea were the Puritans who came to Massachusetts Bay in 1629, bringing carpenters and shipbuilders with them to hew the pine and oak so close at hand into keelsons, frames, and planking. Two years later, Governor John Winthrop launched his thirty-ton sloop Blessing of the Bay, and sent her to open “friendly commercial relations” with the Dutch of Manhattan. Brisk though the traffic was in furs and wampum, these mariners of Boston and Salem were not content to voyage coastwise. Offshore fishing made skilled, adventurous seamen of them, and what they caught with hook and line, when dried and salted, was readily exchanged for other merchandise in Bermuda, Barbados, and Europe.

A vessel was a community venture, and the custom still survives in the ancient ports of the Maine coast where the shapely wooden schooners are fashioned. The blacksmith, the rigger, the calker, took their pay in shares. They became part owners, as did likewise the merchant who supplied stores and material; and when the ship was afloat, the master, the mates, and even the seamen, were allowed cargo space for commodities which they might buy and sell to their own advantage. Thus early they learned to trade as shrewdly as they navigated, and every voyage directly concerned a whole neighborhood.

This kind of enterprise was peculiar to New England because other resources were lacking. To the westward the French were more interested in exploring the rivers leading to the region of the Great Lakes and in finding fabulous rewards in furs. The Dutch on the Hudson were similarly engaged by means of the western trails to the country of the Iroquois, while the planters of Virginia had discovered an easy opulence in the tobacco crop, with slave labor to toil for them, and they were not compelled to turn to the hardships and the hazards of the sea. The New Englander, hampered by an unfriendly climate, hard put to it to grow sufficient food, with land immensely difficult to clear, was between the devil and the deep sea, and he sagaciously chose the latter. Elsewhere in the colonies the forest was an enemy to be destroyed with infinite pains. The New England pioneer regarded it with favor as the stuff with which to make stout ships and step the straight masts in them.

And so it befell that the seventeenth century had not run its course before New England was hardily afloat on every Atlantic trade route, causing Sir Josiah Child, British merchant and economist, to lament in 1668 that in his opinion nothing was “more prejudicial and in prospect more dangerous to any mother kingdom than the increase of shipping in her colonies, plantations, or provinces.”

This absorbing business of building wooden vessels was scattered in almost every bay and river of the indented coast from Nova Scotia to Buzzard’s Bay and the sheltered waters of Long Island Sound. It was not restricted, as now, to well-equipped yards with crews of trained artisans. Hard by the huddled hamlet of log houses was the row of keel-blocks sloping to the tide. In winter weather too rough for fishing, when the little farms lay idle, this Yankee Jack-of-all-trades plied his axe and adze to shape the timbers, and it was a routine task to peg together a sloop, a ketch, or a brig, mere cockleshells, in which to fare forth to London, or Cadiz, or the Windward Islands–some of them not much larger and far less seaworthy than the lifeboat which hangs at a liner’s davits. Pinching poverty forced him to dispense with the ornate, top-heavy cabins and forecastles of the foreign merchantmen, while invention, bred of necessity, molded finer lines and less clumsy models to weather the risks of a stormy coast and channels beset with shoals and ledges. The square-rig did well enough for deepwater voyages, but it was an awkward, lubberly contrivance for working along shore, and the colonial Yankee therefore evolved the schooner with her flat fore-and-aft sails which enabled her to beat to windward and which required fewer men in the handling.

Dimly but unmistakably these canny seafarers in their rude beginnings foreshadowed the creation of a merchant marine which should one day comprise the noblest, swiftest ships driven by the wind and the finest sailors that ever trod a deck. Even then these early vessels were conspicuously efficient, carrying smaller crews than the Dutch or English, paring expenses to a closer margin, daring to go wherever commerce beckoned in order to gain a dollar at peril of their skins.

By the end of the seventeenth century more than a thousand vessels were registered as built in the New England colonies, and Salem already displayed the peculiar talent for maritime adventure which was to make her the most illustrious port of the New World. The first of her line of shipping merchants was Philip English, who was sailing his own ketch Speedwell in 1676 and so rapidly advanced his fortunes that in a few years he was the richest man on the coast, with twenty-one vessels which traded coastwise with Virginia and offshore with Bilbao, Barbados, St. Christopher’s, and France. Very devout were his bills of lading, flavored in this manner: “Twenty hogsheads of salt, shipped by the Grace of God in the good sloop called the Mayflower . . . . and by God’s Grace bound to Virginia or Merriland.”

No less devout were the merchants who ordered their skippers to cross to the coast of Guinea and fill the hold with negroes to be sold in the West Indies before returning with sugar and molasses to Boston or Rhode Island. The slave-trade flourished from the very birth of commerce in Puritan New England and its golden gains and exotic voyages allured high-hearted lads from farm and counter. In 1640 the ship Desire, built at Marblehead, returned from the West Indies and “brought some cotton and tobacco and negroes, etc. from thence.” Earlier than this the Dutch of Manhattan had employed black labor, and it was provided that the Incorporated West India Company should “allot to each Patroon twelve black men and women out of the Prizes in which Negroes should be found.”

It was in the South, however, that this kind of labor was most needed and, as the trade increased, Virginia and the Carolinas became the most lucrative markets. Newport and Bristol drove a roaring traffic in “rum and niggers,” with a hundred sail to be found in the infamous Middle Passage. The master of one of these Rhode Island slavers, writing home from Guinea in 1736, portrayed the congestion of the trade in this wise: “For never was there so much Rum on the Coast at one time before. Not ye like of ye French ships was never seen before, for ye whole coast is full of them. For my part I can give no guess when I shall get away, for I purchast but 27 slaves since I have been here, for slaves is very scarce. We have had nineteen Sail of us at one time in ye Road, so that ships that used to carry pryme slaves off is now forced to take any that comes. Here is seven sail of us Rum men that are ready to devour one another, for our case is desprit.”

Two hundred years of wickedness unspeakable and human torture beyond all computation, justified by Christian men and sanctioned by governments, at length rending the nation asunder in civil war and bequeathing a problem still unsolved–all this followed in the wake of those first voyages in search of labor which could be bought and sold as merchandise. It belonged to the dark ages with piracy and witchcraft, better forgotten than recalled, save for its potent influence in schooling brave seamen and building faster ships for peace and war.

These colonial seamen, in truth, fought for survival amid dangers so manifold as to make their hardihood astounding. It was not merely a matter of small vessels with a few men and boys daring distant voyages and the mischances of foundering or stranding, but of facing an incessant plague of privateers, French and Spanish, Dutch and English, or a swarm of freebooters under no flag at all. Coasts were unlighted, charts few and unreliable, and the instruments of navigation almost as crude as in the days of Columbus. Even the savage Indian, not content with lurking in ambush, went afloat to wreak mischief, and the records of the First Church of Salem contain this quaint entry under date of July 25, 1677: “The Lord having given a Commission to the Indians to take no less than 13 of the Fishing Ketches of Salem and Captivate the men . . . it struck a great consternation into all the people here. The Pastor moved on the Lord’s Day, and the whole people readily consented, to keep the Lecture Day following as a Fast Day, which was accordingly done . . . . The Lord was pleased to send in some of the Ketches on the Fast Day which was looked on as a gracious smile of Providence. Also there had been 19 wounded men sent into Salem a little while before; also a Ketch sent out from Salem as a man-of-war to recover the rest of the Ketches. The Lord give them Good Success.”

To encounter a pirate craft was an episode almost commonplace and often more sordid than picturesque. Many of these sea rogues were thieves with small stomach for cutlasses and slaughter. They were of the sort that overtook Captain John Shattuck sailing home from Jamaica in 1718 when he reported his capture by one Captain Charles Vain, “a Pyrat” of 12 guns and 120 men who took him to Crooked Island, plundered him of various articles, stripped the brig, abused the crew, and finally let him go. In the same year the seamen of the Hopewell related that near Hispaniola they met with pirates who robbed and ill-treated them and carried off their mate because they had no navigator.

Ned Low, a gentleman rover of considerable notoriety, stooped to filch the stores and gear from a fleet of fourteen poor fishermen of Cape Sable. He had a sense of dramatic values, however, and frequently brandished his pistols on deck, besides which, as set down by one of his prisoners, “he had a young child in Boston for whom he entertained such tenderness that on every lucid interval from drinking and revelling, I have seen him sit down and weep plentifully.”

A more satisfying figure was Thomas Pounds, who was taken by the sloop Mary, sent after him from Boston in 1689. He was discovered in Vineyard Sound, and the two vessels fought a gallant action, the pirate flying a red flag and refusing to strike. Captain Samuel Pease of the Mary was mortally wounded, while Pounds, this proper pirate, strode his quarter-deck and waved his naked sword, crying, “Come on board, ye dogs, and I will strike YOU presently.” This invitation was promptly accepted by the stout seamen from Boston, who thereupon swarmed over the bulwark and drove all hands below, preserving Thomas Pounds to be hanged in public.

In 1703 John Quelch, a man of resource, hoisted what he called “Old Roger” over the Charles–a brigantine which had been equipped as a privateer to cruise against the French of Acadia. This curious flag of his was described as displaying a skeleton with an hour-glass in one hand and “a dart in the heart with three drops of blood proceeding from it in the other.” Quelch led a mutiny, tossed the skipper overboard, and sailed for Brazil, capturing several merchantmen on the way and looting them of rum, silks, sugar, gold dust, and munitions. Rashly he came sailing back to Marblehead, primed with a plausible yarn, but his men talked too much when drunk and all hands were jailed. Upon the gallows Quelch behaved exceedingly well, “pulling off his hat and bowing to the spectators,” while the somber Puritan merchants in the crowd were, many of them, quietly dealing in the merchandise fetched home by pirates who were lucky enough to steer clear of the law.

This was a shady industry in which New York took the more active part, sending out supplies to the horde of pirates who ravaged the waters of the Far East and made their haven at Madagascar, and disposing of the booty received in exchange. Governor Fletcher had dirtied his hands by protecting this commerce and, as a result, Lord Bellomont was named to succeed him. Said William III, “I send you, my Lord, to New York, because an honest and intrepid man is wanted to put these abuses down, and because I believe you to be such a man.”

Such were the circumstances in which Captain William Kidd, respectable master mariner in the merchant service, was employed by Lord Bellomont, royal Governor of New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, to command an armed ship and harry the pirates of the West Indies and Madagascar. Strangest of all the sea tales of colonial history is that of Captain Kidd and his cruise in the Adventure-Galley. His name is reddened with crimes never committed, his grisly phantom has stalked through the legends and literature of piracy, and the Kidd tradition still has magic to set treasure-seekers exploring almost every beach, cove, and headland from Halifax to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet if truth were told, he never cut a throat or made a victim walk the plank. He was tried and hanged for the trivial offense of breaking the head of a mutinous gunner of his own crew with a wooden bucket. It was even a matter of grave legal doubt whether he had committed one single piratical act. His trial in London was a farce. In the case of the captured ships he alleged that they were sailing under French passes, and he protested that his privateering commission justified him, and this contention was not disproven. The suspicion is not wanting that he was condemned as a scapegoat because certain noblemen of England had subscribed the capital to outfit his cruise, expecting to win rich dividends in gold captured from the pirates he was sent to attack. Against these men a political outcry was raised, and as a result Captain Kidd was sacrificed. He was a seaman who had earned honorable distinction in earlier years, and fate has played his memory a shabby trick.

It was otherwise with Blackbeard, most flamboyant of all colonial pirates, who filled the stage with swaggering success, chewing wine-glasses in his cabin, burning sulphur to make his ship seem more like hell, and industriously scourging the whole Atlantic coast. Charleston lived in terror of him until Lieutenant Maynard, in a small sloop, laid him alongside in a hammer-and-tongs engagement and cut off the head of Blackbeard to dangle from the bowsprit as a trophy.

Of this rudely adventurous era, it would be hard to find a seaman more typical than the redoubtable Sir William Phips who became the first royal Governor of the Massachusetts Colony in 1692. Born on a frontier farm of the Maine coast while many of the Pilgrim fathers were living, “his faithful mother,” wrote Cotton Mather, “had no less than twenty-six children, whereof twenty-one were sons; but equivalent to them all was William, one of the youngest, whom, his father dying, was left young with his mother, and with her he lived, keeping ye sheep in Ye Wilderness until he was eighteen years old.” Then he apprenticed himself to a neighboring shipwright who was building sloops and pinnaces and, having learned the trade, set out for Boston. As a ship-carpenter he plied his trade, spent his wages in the taverns of the waterside and there picked up wondrous yarns of the silver-laden galleons of Spain which had shivered their timbers on the reefs of the Bahama Passage or gone down in the hurricanes that beset those southerly seas. Meantime he had married a wealthy widow whose property enabled him to go treasure-hunting on the Spanish main. From his first voyage thither in a small vessel he escaped with his life and barely enough treasure to pay the cost of the expedition.

In no wise daunted he laid his plans to search for a richly ladened galleon which was said to have been wrecked half a century before off the coast of Hispaniola. Since his own funds were not sufficient for this exploit, he betook himself to England to enlist the aid of the Government. With bulldog persistence he besieged the court of James II for a whole year, this rough-and-ready New England shipmaster, until he was given a royal frigate for his purpose. He failed to fish up more silver from the sands but, nothing daunted, he persuaded other patrons to outfit him with a small merchantman, the James and Mary, in which he sailed for the coast of Hispaniola. This time he found his galleon and thirty-two tons of silver. “Besides that incredible treasure of plate, thus fetched up from seven or eight fathoms under water, there were vast riches of Gold, and Pearls, and Jewels . . . . All that a Spanish frigot was to be enriched withal.”

Up the Thames sailed the lucky little merchantman in the year of 1687, with three hundred thousand pounds sterling as her freightage of treasure. Captain Phips made honest division with his backers and, because men of his integrity were not over plentiful in England after the Restoration, King James knighted him. He sailed home to Boston, “a man of strong and sturdy frame,” as Hawthorne fancied him, “whose face had been roughened by northern tempests and blackened by the burning sun of the West Indies . . . . He wears an immense periwig flowing down over his shoulders . . . . His red, rough hands which have done many a good day’s work with the hammer and adze are half-covered by the delicate lace rues at the wrist.” But he carried with him the manners of the forecastle, a man hasty and unlettered but superbly brave and honest. Even after he had become Governor he thrashed the captain of the Nonesuch frigate of the royal navy, and used his fists on the Collector of the Port after cursing him with tremendous gusto. Such behavior in a Governor was too strenuous, and Sir William Phips was summoned to England, where he died while waiting his restoration to office and royal favor. Failing both, he dreamed of still another treasure voyage, “for it was his purpose, upon his dismission from his Government once more to have gone upon his old Fishing-Trade, upon a mighty shelf of rock and banks of sand that lie where he had informed himself.”


The wars of England with France and Spain spread turmoil upon the high seas during the greater part of the eighteenth century. Yet with an immense tenacity of purpose, these briny forefathers increased their trade and multiplied their ships in the face of every manner of adversity. The surprising fact is that most of them were not driven ashore to earn their bread. What Daniel Webster said of them at a later day was true from the beginning: “It is not, sir, by protection and bounties, but by unwearied exertion, by extreme economy, by that manly and resolute spirit which relies on itself to protect itself. These causes alone enable American ships still to keep the element and show the flag of their country in distant seas.”

What was likely to befall a shipmaster in the turbulent eighteenth century may be inferred from the misfortunes of Captain Michael Driver of Salem. In 1759 he was in command of the schooner Three Brothers, bound to the West Indies on his lawful business. Jogging along with a cargo of fish and lumber, he was taken by a privateer under British colors and sent into Antigua as a prize. Unable to regain either his schooner or his two thousand dollar cargo, he sadly took passage for home. Another owner gave him employment and he set sail in the schooner Betsy for Guadaloupe. During this voyage, poor man, he was captured and carried into port by a French privateer. On the suggestion that he might ransom his vessel on payment of four thousand livres, he departed for Boston in hope of finding the money, leaving behind three of his sailors as hostages.

Cash in hand for the ransom, the long-suffering Captain Michael Driver turned southward again, now in the schooner Mary, and he flew a flag of truce to indicate his errand. This meant nothing to the ruffian who commanded the English privateer Revenge. He violently seized the innocent Mary and sent her into New Providence. Here Captain Driver made lawful protest before the authorities, and was set at liberty with vessel and cargo–an act of justice quite unusual in the Admiralty Court of the Bahamas.

Unmolested, the harassed skipper managed to gain Cape Francois and rescue his three seamen and his schooner in exchange for the ransom money. As he was about to depart homeward bound, a French frigate snatched him and his crew out of their vessel and threw them ashore at Santiago, where for two months they existed as ragged beachcombers until by some judicial twist the schooner was returned to them. They worked her home and presented their long list of grievances to the colonial Government of Massachusetts, which duly forwarded them–and that was the end of it. Three years had been spent in this catalogue of misadventures, and Captain Driver, his owners, and his men were helpless against such intolerable aggression. They and their kind were a prey to every scurvy rascal who misused a privateering commission to fill his own pockets.

Stoutly resolved to sail and trade as they pleased, these undaunted Americans, nevertheless, increased their business on blue water until shortly before the Revolution the New England fleet alone numbered six hundred sail. Its captains felt at home in Surinam and the Canaries. They trimmed their yards in the reaches of the Mediterranean and the North Sea or bargained thriftily in the Levant. The whalers of Nantucket, in their apple-bowed barks, explored and hunted in distant seas, and the smoke of their try-pots darkened the waters of Baffin Bay, Guinea, and Brazil. It was they who inspired Edmund Burke’s familiar eulogy: “No sea but is vexed by their fisheries. No climate that is not a witness to their toils. Neither the perseverance of Holland nor the activity of France, nor the dexterous and firm sagacity of England ever carried this most perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent to which it has been pushed by this recent people–a people who are still, as it were, but in the gristle and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood.”

In 1762, seventy-eight whalers cleared from American ports, of which more than half were from Nantucket. Eight years later there were one hundred and twenty-five whalers out of Nantucket which took 14,331 barrels of oil valued at $358,200. In size these vessels averaged no more than ninety tons, a fishing smack of today, and yet they battered their way half around the watery globe and comfortably supported six thousand people who dwelt on a sandy island unfit for farming and having no other industries. Every Nantucket lad sailed for his “lay” or share of the catch and aspired to command eventually a whaler of his own.

Whaler, merchantman, and slaver were training a host of incomparable seamen destined to harry the commerce of England under the new-born Stars and Stripes, and now, in 1775, on the brink of actual war, Parliament flung a final provocation and aroused the furious enmity of the fishermen who thronged the Grand Bank. Lord North proposed to forbid the colonies to export fish to those foreign markets in which every seacoast village was vitally concerned, and he also contemplated driving the fishing fleets from their haunts off Newfoundland. This was to rob six thousand sturdy men of a livelihood afloat and to spread ruin among the busy ports, such as Marblehead and Gloucester, from which sailed hundreds of pinks, snows, and schooners. This measure became law notwithstanding the protests of twenty-one peers of the realm who declared: “We dissent because the attempt to coerce by famine the whole body of the inhabitants of great and populous provinces is without example in the history of this, or perhaps, of any civilized nation.”

The sailormen bothered their heads very little about taxation without representation but whetted their anger with grudges more robust. They had been beggared and bullied and shot at from the Bay of Biscay to Barbados, and no sooner was the Continental Congress ready to issue privateering commissions and letters of marque than for them it was up anchor and away to bag a Britisher. Scarcely had a shipmaster signaled his arrival with a deep freight of logwood, molasses, or sugar than he received orders to discharge with all speed and clear his decks for mounting heavier batteries and slinging the hammocks of a hundred eager privateersmen who had signed articles in the tavern rendezvous. The timbered warehouses were filled with long-toms and nine-pounders, muskets, blunderbusses, pistols, cutlases, boarding-pikes, hand grenades, tomahawks, grape, canister, and doubleheaded shot.

In the narrow, gabled streets of Salem, Boston, New York, and Baltimore, crowds trooped after the fifes and drums with a strapping recruiting officer to enroll “all gentlemen seamen and able-bodied landsmen who had a mind to distinguish themselves in the glorious cause of their country and make their fortunes.” Many a ship’s company was mustered between noon and sunset, including men who had served in armed merchantmen and who in times of nominal peace had fought the marauders of Europe or whipped the corsairs of Barbary in the Strait of Gibraltar. Never was a race of seamen so admirably fitted for the daring trade of privateering as the crews of these tall sloops, topsail schooners, and smart square-riggers, their sides checkered with gun-ports, and ready to drive to sea like hawks.

In some instances the assurance of these hardy men was both absurd and sublime. Ramshackle boats with twenty or thirty men aboard, mounting one or two old guns, sallied out in the expectation of gold and glory, only to be captured by the first British cruiser that chanced to sight them. A few even sailed with no cannon at all, confident of taking them out of the first prize overhauled by laying alongside–and so in some cases they actually did.

The privateersmen of the Revolution played a larger part in winning the war than has been commonly recognized. This fact, however, was clearly perceived by Englishmen of that era, as “The London Spectator” candidly admitted: “The books at Lloyds will recount it, and the rate of assurances at that time will prove what their diminutive strength was able to effect in the face of our navy, and that when nearly one hundred pennants were flying on our coast. Were we able to prevent their going in and out, or stop them from taking our trade and our storeships even in sight of our garrisons? Besides, were they not in the English and Irish Channels, picking up our homeward bound trade, sending their prizes into French and Spanish ports to the great terror of our merchants and shipowners?”

The naval forces of the Thirteen Colonies were pitifully feeble in comparison with the mighty fleets of the enemy whose flaming broadsides upheld the ancient doctrine that “the Monarchs of Great Britain have a peculiar and Sovereign authority upon the Ocean . . . from the Laws of God and of Nature, besides an uninterrupted Fruition of it for so many Ages past as that its Beginnings cannot be traced out.”*

* “The Seaman’s Vade-Mecum.” London, 1744.

In 1776 only thirty-one Continental cruisers of all classes were in commission, and this number was swiftly diminished by capture and blockade until in 1782 no more than seven ships flew the flag of the American Navy. On the other hand, at the close of 1777, one hundred and seventy-four private armed vessels had been commissioned, mounting two thousand guns and carrying nine thousand men. During this brief period of the war they took as prizes 733 British merchantmen and inflicted losses of more than two million pounds sterling. Over ten thousand seamen were made prisoners at a time when England sorely needed them for drafting into her navy. To lose them was a far more serious matter than for General Washington to capture as many Hessian mercenaries who could be replaced by purchase.

In some respects privateering as waged a century and more ago was a sordid, unlovely business, the ruling motive being rather a greed of gain than an ardent love of country. Shares in lucky ships were bought and sold in the gambling spirit of a stock exchange. Fortunes were won and lost regardless of the public service. It became almost impossible to recruit men for the navy because they preferred the chance of booty in a privateer. For instance, the State of Massachusetts bought a twenty-gun ship, the Protector, as a contribution to the naval strength, and one of her crew, Ebenezer Fox, wrote of the effort to enlist sufficient men: “The recruiting business went on slowly, however, but at length upwards of three hundred men were carried, dragged, and driven abroad; of all ages, kinds, and descriptions; in all the various stages of intoxication from that of sober tipsiness to beastly drunkenness; with the uproar and clamor that may be more easily imagined than described. Such a motley group has never been seen since Falstaff’s ragged regiment paraded the streets of Coventry.”

There was nothing of glory to boast of in fetching into port some little Nova Scotia coasting schooner with a cargo of deals and potatoes, whose master was also the owner and who lost the savings of a lifetime because he lacked the men and guns to defend his property against spoliation. The war was no concern of his, and he was the victim of a system now obsolete among civilized nations, a relic of a barbarous and piratical age whose spirit has been revived and gloried in recently only by the Government of the German Empire. The chief fault of the privateersman was that he sailed and fought for his own gain, but he was never guilty of sinking ships with passengers and crew aboard, and very often he played the gentleman in gallant style. Nothing could have seemed to him more abhorrent and incredible than a kind of warfare which should drown women and children because they had embarked under an enemy’s flag.

Extraordinary as were the successes of the Yankee privateers, it was a game of give-and-take, a weapon which cut both ways, and the temptation is to extol their audacious achievements while glossing over the heavy losses which their own merchant marine suffered. The weakness of privateering was that it was wholly offensive and could not, like a strong navy, protect its own commerce from depredation. While the Americans were capturing over seven hundred British vessels during the first two years of the war, as many as nine hundred American ships were taken or sunk by the enemy, a rate of destruction which fairly swept the Stars and Stripes from the tracks of ocean commerce. As prizes these vessels were sold at Liverpool and London for an average amount of two thousand pounds each and the loss to the American owners was, of course, ever so much larger.

The fact remains, nevertheless–and it is a brilliant page of history to recall–that in an inchoate nation without a navy, with blockading squadrons sealing most of its ports, with ragged armies on land which retreated oftener than they fought, private armed ships dealt the maritime prestige of Great Britain a far deadlier blow than the Dutch, French, and Spanish were able to inflict. In England, there resulted actual distress, even lack of food, because these intrepid seamen could not be driven away from her own coasts and continued to snatch their prizes from under the guns of British forts and fleets. The plight of the West India Colonies was even worse, as witness this letter from a merchant of Grenada: “We are happy if we can get anything for money by reason of the quantity of vessels taken by the Americans. A fleet of vessels came from Ireland a few days ago. From sixty vessels that departed from Ireland not above twenty-five arrived in this and neighboring islands, the others, it is thought, being all taken by American privateers. God knows, if this American war continues much longer, we shall all die of hunger.”

On both sides, by far the greater number of captures was made during the earlier period of the war which cleared the seas of the smaller, slower, and unarmed vessels. As the war progressed and the profits flowed in, swifter and larger ships were built for the special business of privateering until the game resembled actual naval warfare. Whereas, at first, craft of ten guns with forty or fifty men had been considered adequate for the service, three or four years later ships were afloat with a score of heavy cannon and a trained crew of a hundred and fifty or two hundred men, ready to engage a sloop of war or to stand up to the enemy’s largest privateers. In those days single ship actions, now almost forgotten in naval tactics, were fought with illustrious skill and courage, and commanders won victories worthy of comparison with deeds distinguished in the annals of the American Navy.


Salem was the foremost privateering port of the Revolution, and from this pleasant harbor, long since deserted by ships and sailormen, there filled away past Cape Ann one hundred and fifty-eight vessels of all sizes to scan the horizon for British topsails. They accounted for four hundred prizes, or half the whole number to the credit of American arms afloat. This preeminence was due partly to freedom from a close blockade and partly to a seafaring population which was born and bred to its trade and knew no other. Besides the crews of Salem merchantmen, privateering enlisted the idle fishermen of ports nearby and the mariners of Boston whose commerce had been snuffed out by the British occupation. Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston sent some splendid armed ships to sea but not with the impetuous rush nor in anything like the numbers enrolled by this gray old town whose fame was unique.

For the most part, the records of all these brave ships and the thousands of men who sailed and sweated and fought in them are dim and scanty, no more than routine entries in dusty log-books which read like this: “Filled away in pursuit of a second sail in the N. W. At 4.30 she hoisted English colors and commenced firing her stern guns. At 5.90 took in the steering sails, at the same time she fired a broadside. We opened a fire from our larboard battery and at 5.30 she struck her colors. Got out the boats and boarded her. She proved to be the British brig Acorn from Liverpool to Rio Janeiro, mounting fourteen cannon.”* But now and then one finds in these old sea-journals an entry more intimate and human, such as the complaint of the master of the privateer Scorpion, cruising in 1778 and never a prize in sight. “This Book I made to keep the Accounts of my Voyage but God knows beste what that will be, for I am at this time very Impashent but I hope soon there will be a Change to ease my Trubled Mind. On this Day I was Chaced by Two Ships of War which I tuck to be Enemies, but coming on thick Weather I have lost site of them and so conclude myself escaped which is a small good Fortune in the midste of my Discouragements.”** A burst of gusty laughter still echoes along the crowded deck of the letter-of-marque schooner Success, whose master, Captain Philip Thrash, inserted this diverting comment in his humdrum record of the day’s work: “At one half past 8 discovered a sail ahead. Tacked ship. At 9 tacked ship again and past just to Leeward of the Sail which appeared to be a damn’d Comical Boat, by G-d.”

* From the manuscript collections of the Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.

** From the manuscript collections of the Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.

There are a few figures of the time and place which stand out, full-length, in vivid colors against a background that satisfies the desire of romance and thrillingly conveys the spirit of the time and the place. Such a one was Captain Jonathan Haraden, Salem privateersman, who captured one thousand British cannon afloat and is worthy to be ranked as one of the ablest sea-fighters of his generation. He was a merchant mariner, a master at the outbreak of the Revolution, who had followed the sea since boyhood. But it was more to his taste to command the Salem ship General Pickering of 180 tons which was fitted out under a letter of marque in the spring of 1780. She carried fourteen six-pounders and forty-five men and boys, nothing very formidable, when Captain Haraden sailed for Bilbao with a cargo of sugar. During the voyage, before his crew had been hammered into shape, he beat off a British privateer of twenty guns and safely tacked into the Bay of Biscay.

There he sighted another hostile privateer, the Golden Eagle, larger than his own ship. Instead of shifting his course to avoid her, Haraden clapped on sail and steered alongside after nightfall, roaring through his trumpet: “What ship is this? An American frigate, sir. Strike, or I’ll sink you with a broadside.”

Dazed by this unexpected summons in the gloom, the master of the Golden Eagle promptly surrendered, and a prize crew was thrown aboard with orders to follow the Pickering into Bilbao. While just outside that Spanish harbor, a strange sail was descried and again Jonathan Haraden cleared for action. The vessel turned out to be the Achilles, one of the most powerful privateers out of London, with forty guns and a hundred and fifty men, or almost thrice the fighting strength of the little Pickering. She was, in fact, more like a sloop of war. Before Captain Haraden could haul within gunshot to protect his prize, it had been recaptured by the Achilles, which then maneuvered to engage the Pickering.

Darkness intervened, but Jonathan Haraden had no idea of escaping under cover of it. He was waiting for the morning breeze and a chance to fight it out to a finish. He was a handsome man with an air of serene composure and a touch of the theatrical such as Nelson displayed in his great moments. Having prepared his ship for battle, he slept soundly until dawn and then dressed with fastidious care to stroll on deck, where he beheld the Achilles bearing down on him with her crew at quarters.

His own men were clustered behind their open ports, matches lighted, tackles and breechings cast off, crowbars, handspikes, and sponge-staves in place, gunners stripped to the waist, powder-boys ready for the word like sprinters on the mark. Forty-five of them against a hundred and fifty, and Captain Haraden, debonair, unruffled, walking to and fro with a leisurely demeanor, remarking that although the Achilles appeared to be superior in force, “he had no doubt they would beat her if they were firm and steady and did not throw away their fire.”

It was, indeed, a memorable sea-picture, the sturdy Pickering riding deep with her burden of sugar and seeming smaller than she really was, the Achilles towering like a frigate, and all Bilbao turned out to watch the duel, shore and headlands crowded with spectators, the blue harbor-mouth gay with an immense flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure craft. The stake for which Haraden fought was to retake the Golden Eagle prize and to gain his port. His seamanship was flawless. Vastly outnumbered if it should come to boarding, he handled his vessel so as to avoid the Achilles while he poured the broadsides into her. After two hours the London privateer emerged from the smoke which had obscured the combat and put out to sea in flight, hulled through and through, while a farewell flight of crowbars, with which the guns of the Pickering had been crammed to the muzzle, ripped through her sails and rigging.

Haraden hoisted canvas and drove in chase, but the Achilles had the heels of him “with a mainsail as large as a ship of the line,” and reluctantly he wore ship and, with the Golden Eagle again in his possession, he sailed to an anchorage in Bilbao harbor. The Spanish populace welcomed him with tremendous enthusiasm. He was carried through the streets in a holiday procession and was the hero of banquets and public receptions.

Such a man was bound to be the idol of his sailors and one of them quite plausibly related that “so great was the confidence he inspired that if he but looked at a sail through his glass and told the helmsman to steer for her, the observation went round,’If she is an enemy, she is ours.'”

It was in this same General Pickering, no longer sugar-laden but in cruising trim, that Jonathan Haraden accomplished a feat which Paul Jones might have been proud to claim. There lifted above the sky-line three armed merchantmen sailing in company from Halifax to New York, a brig of fourteen guns, a ship of sixteen guns, a sloop of twelve guns. When they flew signals and formed in line, the ship alone appeared to outmatch the Pickering, but Haraden, in that lordly manner of his, assured his men that “he had no doubt whatever that if they would do their duty he would quickly capture the three vessels.” Here was performance very much out of the ordinary, naval strategy of an exceptionally high order, and yet it is dismissed by the only witness who took the trouble to mention it in these few, casual words: “This he did with great ease by going alongside of each of them, one after the other.”

One more story of this master sea-rover of the Revolution, sailor and gentleman, who served his country so much more brilliantly than many a landsman lauded in the written histories of the war. While in the Pickering he attacked a heavily armed royal mail packet bound to England from the West Indies, one of the largest merchant vessels of her day and equipped to defend herself against privateers. A tough antagonist and a hard nut to crack! They battered each other like two pugilists for four hours and even then the decision was still in the balance. Then Haraden sheered off to mend his damaged gear and splintered hull before closing in again.

He then discovered that all his powder had been shot away excepting one last charge. Instead of calling it a drawn battle, he rammed home this last shot in the locker, and ran down to windward of the packet, so close that he could shout across to the other quarter-deck: “I will give you five minutes to haul down your colors. If they are not down at the end of that time, I will fire into you and sink you, so help me God.”

It was the bluff magnificent–courage cold-blooded and calculating. The adversary was still unbeaten. Haraden stood with watch in hand and sonorously counted off the minutes. It was the stronger will and not the heavier metal that won the day. To be shattered by fresh broadsides at pistol-range was too much for the nerves of the gallant English skipper whose decks were already like a slaughterhouse. One by one, Haraden shouted the minutes and his gunners blew their matches. At “four” the red ensign came fluttering down and the mail packet was a prize of war.

Another merchant seaman of this muster-roll of patriots was Silas Talbot, who took to salt water as a cabin boy at the age of twelve and was a prosperous shipmaster at twenty-one with savings invested in a house of his own in Providence. Enlisting under Washington, he was made a captain of infantry and was soon promoted, but he was restless ashore and glad to obtain an odd assignment. As Colonel Talbot he selected sixty infantry volunteers, most of them seamen by trade, and led them aboard the small sloop Argo in May, 1779, to punish the New York Tories who were equipping privateers against their own countrymen and working great mischief in Long Island Sound. So serious was the situation that General Gates found it almost impossible to obtain food supplies for the northern department of the Continental army.

Silas Talbot and his nautical infantrymen promptly fell in with the New York privateer Lively, a fair match for him, and as promptly sent her into port. He then ran offshore and picked up and carried into Boston two English privateers headed for New York with large cargoes of merchandise from the West Indies. But he was particularly anxious to square accounts with a renegade Captain Hazard who made Newport his base and had captured many American vessels with the stout brig King George, using her for “the base purpose of plundering his old neighbors and friends.”

On his second cruise in the Argo, young Silas Talbot encountered the perfidious King George to the southward of Long Island and riddled her with one broadside after another, first hailing Captain Hazard by name and cursing him in double-shotted phrases for the traitorous swab that he was. Then the seagoing infantry scrambled over the bulwarks and tumbled the Tories down their own hatches without losing a man. A prize crew with the humiliated King George made for New London, where there was much cheering in the port, and “even the women, both young and old, expressed the greatest joy.”

With no very heavy fighting, Talbot had captured five vessels and was keen to show what his crew could do against mettlesome foemen. He found them at last well out to sea in a large ship which seemed eager to engage him. Only a few hundred feet apart through a long afternoon, they briskly and cheerily belabored each other with grape and solid shot. Talbot’s speaking-trumpet was shot out of his hand, the tails of his coat were shorn off, and all the officers and men stationed with him on the quarter-deck were killed or wounded.

His crew reported that the Argo was in a sinking condition, with the water flooding the gun-deck, but he told them to lower a man or two in the bight of a line and they pluckily plugged the holes from overside. There was a lusty huzza when the Englishman’s mainmast crashed to the deck and this finished the affair. Silas Talbot found that he had trounced the privateer Dragon, of twice his own tonnage and with the advantage in both guns and men.

While his crew was patching the Argo and pumping the water from her hold, the lookout yelled that another sail was making for them. Without hesitation Talbot somehow got this absurdly impudent one-masted craft of his under way and told those of his sixty men who survived to prepare for a second tussle. Fortunately another Yankee privateer joined the chase and together they subdued the armed brig Hannah. When the Argo safely convoyed the two prizes into New Bedford, “all who beheld her were astonished that a vessel of her diminutive size could suffer so much and yet get safely to port.”

Men fought and slew each other in those rude and distant days with a certain courtesy, with a fine, punctilious regard for the etiquette of the bloody game. There was the Scotch skipper of the Betsy, a privateer, whom Silas Talbot hailed as follows, before they opened fire:

“You must now haul down those British colors, my friend.”

“Notwithstanding I find you an enemy, as I suspected,” was the dignified reply, “yet, sir, I shall let them hang a little bit longer,–with your permission,–so fire away, Flanagan.”

During another of her cruises the Argo pursued an artfully disguised ship of the line which could have blown her to kingdom come with a broadside of thirty guns. The little Argo was actually becalmed within short range, but her company got out the sweeps and rowed her some distance before darkness and a favoring slant of wind carried them clear. In the summer of 1780, Captain Silas Talbot, again a mariner by title, was given the private cruiser General Washington with one hundred and twenty men, but he was less fortunate with her than when afloat in the tiny Argo with his sixty Continentals. Off Sandy Hook he ran into the British fleet under Admiral Arbuthnot and, being outsailed in a gale of wind, he was forced to lower his flag to the great seventy-four Culloden. After a year in English prisons he was released and made his way home, serving no more in the war but having the honor to command the immortal frigate Constitution in 1799 as a captain in the American Navy.

In several notable instances the privateersmen tried conclusions with ships that flew the royal ensign, and got the better of them. The hero of an uncommonly brilliant action of this sort was Captain George Geddes of Philadelphia, who was entrusted with the Congress, a noble privateer of twenty-four guns and two hundred men. Several of the smaller British cruisers had been sending parties ashore to plunder estates along the southern shores, and one of them, the sloop of war Savage, had even raided Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. Later she shifted to the coast of Georgia in quest of loot and was unlucky enough to fall athwart Captain Geddes in the Congress.

The privateer was the more formidable ship and faster on the wind, forcing Captain Sterling of the Savage to accept the challenge. Disabled aloft very early in the fight, Captain Geddes was unable to choose his position, for which reason they literally battled hand-to-hand, hulls grinding against each other, the gunners scorched by the flashes of the cannon in the ports of the opposing ship, with scarcely room to ply the rammers, and the sailors throwing missiles from the decks, hand grenades, cold shot, scraps of iron, belaying-pins.

As the vessels lay interlocked, the Savage was partly dismasted and Captain Geddes, leaping upon the forecastle head, told the boarders to follow him. Before they could swing their cutlases and dash over the hammock-nettings, the British boatswain waved his cap and yelled that the Savage had surrendered. Captain Sterling was dead, eight others were killed, and twenty-four wounded. The American loss was about the same. Captain Geddes, however, was unable to save his prize because a British frigate swooped down and took them both into Charleston.

When peace came in 1783, it was independence dearly bought by land and sea, and no small part of the price was the loss of a thousand merchant ships which would see their home ports no more. Other misfortunes added to the toll of destruction. The great fishing fleets which had been the chief occupation of coastwise New England were almost obliterated and their crews were scattered. Many of the men had changed their allegiance and were sailing out of Halifax, and others were impressed into British men-of-war or returned broken in health from long confinement in British prisons. The ocean was empty of the stanch schooners which had raced home with lee rails awash to cheer waiting wives and sweethearts.

The fate of Nantucket and its whalers was even more tragic. This colony on its lonely island amid the shoals was helpless against raids by sea, and its ships and storehouses were destroyed without mercy. Many vessels in distant waters were captured before they were even aware that a state of war existed. Of a fleet numbering a hundred and fifty sail, one hundred and thirty-four were taken by the enemy and Nantucket whaling suffered almost total extinction. These seamen, thus robbed of their livelihood, fought nobly for their country’s cause. Theirs was not the breed to sulk or whine in port. Twelve hundred of them were killed or made prisoners during the Revolution. They were to be found in the Army and Navy and behind the guns of privateers. There were twenty-five Nantucket whalemen in the crew of the Ranger when Paul Jones steered her across the Atlantic on that famous cruise which inspired the old forecastle song that begins

‘Tis of the gallant Yankee ship
That flew the Stripes and Stars,
And the whistling wind from the west nor’west Blew through her pitch pine spars.
With her starboard tacks aboard, my boys, She hung upon the gale.
On an autumn night we raised the light Off the Old Head of Kinsale.

Pitiful as was the situation of Nantucket, with its only industry wiped out and two hundred widows among the eight hundred families left on the island, the aftermath of war seemed almost as ruinous along the whole Atlantic coast. More ships could be built and there were thousands of adventurous sailors to man them, but where were the markets for the product of the farms and mills and plantations? The ports of Europe had been so long closed to American shipping that little demand was left for American goods. To the Government of England the people of the Republic were no longer fellow-countrymen but foreigners. As such they were subject to the Navigation Acts, and no cargoes could be sent to that kingdom unless in British vessels. The flourishing trade with the West Indies was made impossible for the same reason, a special Order in Council aiming at one fell stroke to “put an end to the building and increase of American vessels” and to finish the careers of three hundred West Indiamen already afloat. In the islands themselves the results were appalling. Fifteen thousand slaves died of starvation because the American traders were compelled to cease bringing them dried fish and corn during seasons in which their own crops were destroyed by hurricanes.

In 1776, one-third of the seagoing merchant marine of Great Britain had been bought or built to order in America because lumber was cheaper and wages were lower. This lucrative business was killed by a law which denied Englishmen the privilege of purchasing ships built in American yards. So narrow and bitter was this commercial enmity, so ardent this desire to banish the Stars and Stripes from blue water, that Lord Sheffield in 1784 advised Parliament that the pirates of Algiers and Tripoli really benefited English commerce by preying on the shipping of weaker nations. “It is not probable that the American States will have a very free trade in the Mediterranean,” said he. “It will not be to the interest of any of the great maritime Powers to protect them from the Barbary States. If they know their interests, they will not encourage the Americans to be carriers. That the Barbary States are advantageous to maritime Powers is certain.”

Denied the normal ebb and flow of trade and commerce and with the imports from England far exceeding the value of the merchandise exported thence, the United States, already impoverished, was drained of its money, and a currency of dollars, guineas, joes, and moidores grew scarcer day by day. There was no help in a government which consisted of States united only in name. Congress comprised a handful of respectable gentlemen who had little power and less responsibility, quarreling among themselves for lack of better employment. Retaliation against England by means of legislation was utterly impossible. Each State looked after its commerce in its own peculiar fashion and the devil might take the hindmost. Their rivalries and jealousies were like those of petty kingdoms. If one State should close her ports is to English ships, the others would welcome them in order to divert the trade, with no feeling of national pride or federal cooperation.

The Articles of Confederation had empowered Congress to make treaties of commerce, but only such as did not restrain the legislative power of any State from laying imposts and regulating exports and imports. If a foreign power imposed heavy duties upon American shipping, it was for the individual States and not for Congress to say whether the vessels of the offending nation should be allowed free entrance to the ports of the United States: It was folly to suppose, ran the common opinion, that if South Carolina should bar her ports to Spain because rice and indigo were excluded from the Spanish colonies, New Hampshire, which furnished masts and lumber for the Spanish Navy, ought to do the same. The idea of turning the whole matter over to Congress was considered preposterous by many intelligent Americans.

In these thirteen States were nearly three and a quarter million people hemmed in a long and narrow strip between the sea and an unexplored wilderness in which the Indians were an ever present peril. The Southern States, including Maryland, prosperous agricultural regions, contained almost one-half the English- speaking population of America. As colonies, they had found the Old World eager for their rice, tobacco, indigo, and tar, and slavery was the means of labor so firmly established that one-fifth of the inhabitants were black. By contrast, the Northern States were still concerned with commerce as the very lifeblood of their existence. New England had not dreamed of the millions of spindles which should hum on the banks of her rivers and lure her young men and women from the farms to the clamorous factory towns. The city of New York had not yet outgrown its traffic in furs and its magnificent commercial destiny was still unrevealed. It was a considerable seaport but not yet a gateway. From Sandy Hook, however, to the stormy headlands of Maine, it was a matter of life and death that ships should freely come and go with cargoes to exchange. All other resources were trifling in comparison.


In such compelling circumstances as these, necessity became the mother of achievement. There is nothing finer in American history than the dogged fortitude and high-hearted endeavor with which the merchant seamen returned to their work after the Revolution and sought and found new markets for their wares. It was then that Salem played that conspicuous part which was, for a generation, to overshadow the activities of all other American seaports. Six thousand privateersmen had signed articles in her taverns, as many as the total population of the town, and they filled it with a spirit of enterprise and daring. Not for them the stupid monotony of voyages coastwise if more hazardous ventures beckoned and there were havens and islands unvexed by trade where bold men might win profit and perhaps fight for life and cargo.

Now there dwelt in Salem one of the great men of his time, Elias Hasket Derby, the first American millionaire, and very much more than this. He was a shipping merchant with a vision and with the hard-headed sagacity to make his dreams come true. His was a notable seafaring family, to begin with. His father, Captain Richard Derby, born in 1712, had dispatched his small vessels to the West Indies and Virginia and with the returns from these voyages he had loaded assorted cargoes for Spain and Madeira and had the proceeds remitted in bills of exchange to London or in wine, salt, fruit, oil, lead, and handkerchiefs to America. Richard Derby’s vessels had eluded or banged away at the privateers during the French War from 1756 to 1763, mounting from eight to twelve guns, “with four cannon below decks for close quarters.” Of such a temper was this old sea-dog who led the militia and defiantly halted General Gage’s regulars at the North River bridge in Salem, two full months before the skirmish at Lexington. Eight of the nineteen cannon which it was proposed to seize from the patriots had been taken from the ships of Captain Richard Derby and stored in his warehouse for the use of the Provincial Congress.

It was Richard’s son, Captain John Derby, who carried to England in the swift schooner Quero the first news of the affair at Lexington, ahead of the King’s messenger. A sensational arrival, if ever there was one! This Salem shipmaster, cracking on sail like a proper son of his sire, making the passage in twenty-nine days and handsomely beating the lubberly Royal Express Packet Sukey which left Boston four days sooner, and startling the British nation with the tidings which meant the loss of an American empire! A singular coincidence was that this same Captain John Derby should have been the first mariner to inform the United States that peace had come, when he arrived from France in 1783 with the message that a treaty had been signed.

Elias Hasket Derby was another son of Richard. When his manifold energies were crippled by the war, he diverted his ability and abundant resources into privateering. He was interested in at least eighty of the privateers out of Salem, invariably subscribing for such shares as might not be taken up by his fellow-townsmen. He soon perceived that many of these craft were wretchedly unfit for the purpose and were easily captured or wrecked. It was characteristic of his genius that he should establish shipyards of his own, turn his attention to naval architecture, and begin to build a class of vessels vastly superior in size, model, and speed to any previously launched in the colonies. They were designed to meet the small cruiser of the British Navy on even terms and were remarkably successful, both in enriching their owner and in defying the enemy.

At the end of the war Elias Hasket Derby discovered that these fine ships were too large and costly to ply up and down the coast. Instead of bewailing his hard lot, he resolved to send them to the other side of the globe. At a time when the British and the Dutch East India companies insolently claimed a monopoly of the trade of the Orient, when American merchant seamen had never ventured beyond the two Atlantics, this was a conception which made of commerce a surpassing romance and heralded the golden era of the nation’s life upon the sea.

His Grand Turk of three hundred tons was promptly fitted out for a pioneering voyage as far as the Cape of Good Hope. Salem knew her as “the great ship” and yet her hull was not quite one hundred feet long. Safely Captain Jonathan Ingersoll took her out over the long road, his navigating equipment consisting of a few erroneous maps and charts, a sextant, and Guthrie’s Geographical Grammar. In Table Bay he sold his cargo of provisions and then visited the coast of Guinea to dispose of his rum for ivory and gold dust but brought not a single slave back, Mr. Derby having declared that “he would rather sink the whole capital employed than directly or indirectly be concerned in so infamous a trade”–an unusual point of view for a shipping merchant of New England in 1784!

Derby ships were first to go to Mauritius, then called the Isle of France, first at Calcutta, and among the earliest to swing at anchor off Canton. When Elias Hasket Derby decided to invade this rich East India commerce, he sent his eldest son, Elias Hasket, Jr., to England and the Continent after a course at Harvard. The young man became a linguist and made a thorough study of English and French methods of trade. Having laid this foundation for the venture, the son was now sent to India, where he lived for three years in the interests of his house, building up a trade almost fabulously profitable.

How fortunes were won in those stirring days may be discerned from the record of young Derby’s ventures while in the Orient. In 1788 the proceeds of one cargo enabled him to buy a ship and a brigantine in the Isle of France. These two vessels he sent to Bombay to load with cotton. Two other ships of his fleet, the Astrea and Light Horse, were filled at Calcutta and Rangoon and ordered to Salem. It was found, when the profits of these transactions were reckoned, that the little squadron had earned $100,000 above all outlay.

To carry on such a business as this enlisted many men and industries. While the larger ships were making their distant voyages, the brigs and schooners were gathering cargoes for them, crossing to Gothenburg and St. Petersburg for iron, duck, and hemp, to France, Spain, and Madeira for wine and lead, to the French West Indies for molasses to be turned into rum, to New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond for flour, provisions, and tobacco. These shipments were assembled in the warehouses on Derby Wharf and paid for the teas, coffees, pepper, muslin, silks, and ivory which the ships from the Far East were fetching home. In fourteen years the Derby ships made one hundred and twenty-five voyages to Europe and far eastern ports and out of the thirty-five vessels engaged only one was lost at sea.

It was in 1785 when the Grand Turk, on a second voyage, brought back a cargo of silks, teas, and nankeens from Batavia and China, that “The Independent Chronicle” of London, unconsciously humorous, was moved to affirm that “the Americans have given up all thought of a China trade which can never be carried on to advantage without some settlement in the East Indies.”

As soon as these new sea-trails had been furrowed by the keels of Elias Hasket Derby, other Salem merchants were quick to follow in a rivalry which left no sea unexplored for virgin markets and which ransacked every nook and corner of barbarism which had a shore. Vessels slipped their cables and sailed away by night for some secret destination with whose savage potentate trade relations had been established. It might be Captain Jonathan Carnes who, while at the port of Bencoolen in 1793, heard that pepper grew wild on the northern coast of Sumatra. He whispered the word to the Salem owner, who sent him back in the schooner Rajah with only four guns and ten men. Eighteen months later, Jonathan Carnes returned to Salem with a cargo of pepper in bulk, the first direct importation, and cleared seven hundred per cent on the voyage. When he made ready to go again, keeping his business strictly to himself, other owners tracked him clear to Bencoolen, but there he vanished in the Rajah, and his secret with him, until he reappeared with another precious cargo of pepper. When, at length, he shared this trade with other vessels, it meant that Salem controlled the pepper market of Sumatra and for many years supplied a large part of the world’s demand.

And so it happened that in the spicy warehouses that overlooked Salem Harbor there came to be stored hemp from Luzon, gum copal from Zanzibar, palm oil from Africa, coffee from Arabia, tallow from Madagascar, whale oil from the Antarctic, hides and wool from the Rio de la Plata, nutmeg and cloves from Malaysia. Such merchandise had been bought or bartered for by shipmasters who were much more than mere navigators. They had to be shrewd merchants on their own accounts, for the success or failure of a voyage was mostly in their hands. Carefully trained and highly intelligent men, they attained command in the early twenties and were able to retire, after a few years more afloat, to own ships and exchange the quarterdeck for the counting-room, and the cabin for the solid mansion and lawn on Derby Street. Every opportunity, indeed, was offered them to advance their own fortunes. They sailed not for wages but for handsome commissions and privileges–in the Derby ships, five per cent of a cargo outward bound, two and a half per cent of the freightage home, five per cent profit on goods bought and sold between foreign ports, and five per cent of the cargo space for their own use.

Such was the system which persuaded the pick and flower of young American manhood to choose the sea as the most advantageous career possible. There was the Crowninshield family, for example, with five brothers all in command of ships before they were old enough to vote and at one time all five away from Salem, each in his own vessel and three of them in the East India trade. “When little boys,” to quote from the memoirs of Benjamin Crowninshield, “they were all sent to a common school and about their eleventh year began their first particular study which should develop them as sailors and ship captains. These boys studied their navigation as little chaps of twelve years old and were required to thoroughly master the subject before being sent to sea . . . . As soon as the art of navigation was mastered, the youngsters were sent to sea, sometimes as common sailors but commonly as ship’s clerks, in which position they were able to learn everything about the management of a ship without actually being a common sailor.”

This was the practice in families of solid station and social rank, for to be a shipmaster was to follow the profession of a gentleman. Yet the bright lad who entered by way of the forecastle also played for high stakes. Soon promoted to the berth of mate, he was granted cargo space for his own adventures in merchandise and a share of the profits. In these days the youth of twenty-one is likely to be a college undergraduate, rated too callow and unfit to be intrusted with the smallest business responsibilities and tolerantly regarded as unable to take care of himself. It provokes both a smile and a glow of pride, therefore, to recall those seasoned striplings and what they did.

No unusual instance was that of Nathaniel Silsbee, later United States Senator from Massachusetts, who took command of the new ship Benjamin in the year 1792, laden with a costly cargo from Salem for the Cape of Good Hope and India, “with such instructions,” says he, “as left the management of the voyage very much to my own discretion. Neither myself nor the chief mate, Mr. Charles Derby, had attained the age of twenty-one years when we left home. I was not then twenty.” This reminded him to speak of his own family. Of the three Silsbee brothers, “each of us obtained the command of vessels and the consignment of their cargoes before attaining the age of twenty years, viz., myself at the age of eighteen and a half, my brother William at nineteen and a half, and my brother Zachariah before he was twenty years old. Each and all of us left off going to sea before reaching the age of twenty-nine years.”

How resourcefully these children of the sea could handle affairs was shown in this voyage of the Benjamin. While in the Indian Ocean young Silsbee fell in with a frigate which gave him news of the beginning of war between England and France. He shifted his course for Mauritius and there sold the cargo for a dazzling price in paper dollars, which he turned into Spanish silver. An embargo detained him for six months, during which this currency increased to three times the value of the paper money. He gave up the voyage to Calcutta, sold the Spanish dollars and loaded with coffee and spices for Salem. At the Cape of Good Hope, however, he discovered that he could earn a pretty penny by sending his cargo home in other ships and loading the Benjamin again for Mauritius. When, at length, he arrived in Salem harbor, after nineteen months away, his enterprises had reaped a hundred per cent for Elias Hasket Derby and his own share was the snug little fortune of four thousand dollars. Part of this he, of course, invested at sea, and at twenty-two he was part owner of the Betsy, East Indiaman, and on the road to independence.

As second mate in the Benjamin had sailed Richard Cleveland, another matured mariner of nineteen, who crowded into one life an Odyssey of adventure noteworthy even in that era and who had the knack of writing about it with rare skill and spirit. In 1797, when twenty-three years old, he was master of the bark Enterprise bound from Salem to Mocha for coffee. The voyage was abandoned at Havre and he sent the mate home with the ship, deciding to remain abroad and gamble for himself with the chances of the sea. In France he bought on credit a “cutter-sloop” of forty-three tons, no larger than the yachts whose owners think it venturesome to take them off soundings in summer cruises. In this little box of a craft he planned to carry a cargo of merchandise to the Cape of Good Hope and thence to Mauritius.

His crew included two men, a black cook, and a brace of boys who were hastily shipped at Havre. “Fortunately they were all so much in debt as not to want any time to spend their advance, but were ready at the instant, and with this motley crew, (who, for aught I knew, were robbers or pirates) I put to sea.” The only sailor of the lot was a Nantucket lad who was made mate and had to be taught the rudiments of navigation while at sea. Of the others he had this to say, in his lighthearted manner:

“The first of my fore-mast hands is a great, surly, crabbed, raw-boned, ignorant Prussian who is so timid aloft that the mate has frequently been obliged to do his duty there. I believe him to be more of a soldier than a sailor, though he has often assured me that he has been a boatswain’s mate of a Dutch Indiaman, which I do not believe as he hardly knows how to put two ends of a rope together …. My cook . . . a good-natured negro and a tolerable cook, so unused to a vessel that in the smoothest weather he cannot walk fore and aft without holding onto something with both hands. This fear proceeds from the fact that he is so tall and slim that if he should get a cant it might be fatal to him. I did not think America could furnish such a specimen of the negro race . . . nor did I ever see such a simpleton. It is impossible to teach him anything and . . . he can hardly tell the main-halliards from the mainstay.

“Next is an English boy of seventeen years old, who from having lately had the small-pox is feeble and almost blind, a miserable object, but pity for his misfortunes induces me to make his duty as easy as possible. Finally I have a little ugly French boy, the very image of a baboon, who from having served for some time on different privateers has all the tricks of a veteran man-of-war’s man, though only thirteen years old, and by having been in an English prison, has learned enough of the language to be a proficient in swearing.”

With these human scrapings for a ship’s company, the cutter Caroline was three months on her solitary way as far as the Cape of Good Hope, where the inhabitants “could not disguise their astonishment at the size of the vessel, the boyish appearance of the master and mate, and the queer and unique characters of the two men and boy who composed the crew.” The English officials thought it strange indeed, suspecting some scheme of French spies or smuggled dispatches, but Richard Cleveland’s petition to the Governor, Lord McCartney, ingenuously patterned after certain letters addressed to noblemen as found in an old magazine aboard his vessel, won the day for him and he was permitted to sell the cutter and her cargo, having changed his mind about proceeding farther.

Taking passage to Batavia, he looked about for another venture but found nothing to his liking and wandered on to Canton, where he was attracted by the prospect of a voyage to the northwest coast of America to buy furs from the Indians. In a cutter no larger than the Caroline he risked all his cash and credit, stocking her with $20,000 worth of assorted merchandise for barter, and put out across the Pacific, “having on board twenty-one persons, consisting, except two Americans, of English, Irish, Swedes and French, but principally the first, who were runaways from the men-of-war and Indiamen, and two from a Botany Bay ship who had made their escape, for we were obliged to take such as we could get, served to complete a list of as accomplished villains as ever disgraced any country.”

After a month of weary, drenching hardship off the China coast, this crew of cutthroats mutinied. With a loyal handful, including the black cook, Cleveland locked up the provisions, mounted two four-pounders on the quarterdeck, rammed them full of grape-shot, and fetched up the flint-lock muskets and pistols from the cabin. The mutineers were then informed that if they poked their heads above the hatches he would blow them overboard. Losing enthusiasm and weakened by hunger, they asked to be set ashore; so the skipper marooned the lot. For two days the cutter lay offshore while a truce was argued, the upshot being that four of the rascals gave in and the others were left behind.

Fifty days more of it and, washed by icy seas, racked and storm-beaten, the vessel made Norfolk Sound. So small was the crew, so imminent the danger that the Indians might take her by boarding, that screens of hides were rigged along the bulwarks to hide the deck from view. Stranded and getting clear, warding off attacks, Captain Richard Cleveland stayed two months on the wilderness coast of Oregon, trading one musket for eight prime sea-otter skins until there was no more room below. Sixty thousand dollars was the value of the venture when he sailed for China by way of the Sandwich Islands, forty thousand of profit, and he was twenty-five years old with the zest for roving undiminished.

He next appeared in Calcutta, buying a twenty-five-ton pilot boat under the Danish flag for a fling at Mauritius and a speculation in prizes brought in by French privateers. Finding none in port, he loaded seven thousand bags of coffee in a ship for Copenhagen and conveyed as a passenger a kindred spirit, young Nathaniel Shaler, whom he took into partnership. At Hamburg these two bought a fast brig, the Lelia Byrd, to try their fortune on the west coast of South America, and recruited a third partner, a boyish Polish nobleman, Count de Rousillon, who had been an aide to Kosciusko. Three seafaring musketeers, true gentlemen rovers, all under thirty, sailing out to beard the viceroys of Spain!

From Valparaiso, where other American ships were detained and robbed, they adroitly escaped and steered north to Mexico and California. At San Diego they fought their way out of the harbor, silencing the Spanish fort with their six guns. Then to Canton with furs, and Richard Cleveland went home at thirty years of age after seven years’ absence and voyaging twice around the world, having wrested success from almost every imaginable danger and obstacle, with $70,000 to make him a rich man in his own town. He was neither more nor less than an American sailor of the kind that made the old merchant marine magnificent.

It was true romance, also, when the first American shipmasters set foot in mysterious Japan, a half century before Perry’s squadron shattered the immemorial isolation of the land of the Shoguns and the Samurai. Only the Dutch had been permitted to hold any foreign intercourse whatever with this hermit nation and for two centuries they had maintained their singular commercial monopoly at a price measured in terms of the deepest degradation of dignity and respect. The few Dutch merchants suffered to reside in Japan were restricted to a small island in Nagasaki harbor, leaving it only once in four years when the Resident, or chief agent, journeyed to Yeddo to offer gifts and most humble obeisance to the Shogun, “creeping forward on his hands and feet, and falling on his knees, bowed his head to the ground, and retired again in absolute silence, crawling exactly like a crab,” said one of these pilgrims who added: “We may not keep Sundays or fast days, or allow our spiritual hymns or prayers to be heard; never mention the name of Christ. Besides these things, we have to submit to other insulting imputations which are always painful to a noble heart. The reason which impels the Dutch to bear all these sufferings so patiently is simply the love of gain.”

In return for these humiliations the Dutch East India Company was permitted to send one or two ships a year from Batavia to Japan and to export copper, silk, gold, camphor, porcelain, bronze, and rare woods. The American ship Franklin arrived at Batavia in 1799 and Captain James Devereux of Salem learned that a charter was offered for one of these annual voyages. After a deal of Yankee dickering with the hard-headed Dutchmen, a bargain was struck and the Franklin sailed for Nagasaki with cloves, chintz, sugar, tin, black pepper, sapan wood, and elephants’ teeth. The instructions were elaborate and punctilious, salutes to be fired right and left, nine guns for the Emperor’s guard while passing in, thirteen guns at the anchorage; all books on board to be sealed up in a cask, Bibles in particular, and turned over to the Japanese officials, all firearms sent ashore, ship dressed with colors whenever the “Commissaries of the Chief” graciously came aboard, and a carpet on deck for them to sit upon.

Two years later, the Margaret of Salem made the same sort of a voyage, and in both instances the supercargoes, one of whom happened to be a younger brother of Captain Richard Cleveland, wrote journals of the extraordinary episode. For these mariners alone was the curtain lifted which concealed the feudal Japan from the eyes of the civilized world. Alert and curious, these Yankee traders explored the narrow streets of Nagasaki, visited temples, were handsomely entertained by officers and merchants, and exchanged their wares in the marketplace. They were as much at home, no doubt, as when buying piculs of pepper from a rajah of Qualah Battoo, or dining with an elderly mandarin of Cochin China. It was not too much to say that “the profuse stores of knowledge brought by every ship’s crew, together with unheard of curiosities from every savage shore, gave the community of Salem a rare alertness of intellect.”

It was a Salem bark, the Lydia, that first displayed the American flag to the natives of Guam in 1801. She was chartered by the Spanish government of Manila to carry to the Marianne Islands, as those dots on the chart of the Pacific were then called, the new Governor, his family, his suite, and his luggage. First Mate William Haswell kept a diary in a most conscientious fashion, and here and there one gleans an item with a humor of its own. “Now having to pass through dangerous straits,” he observes, “we went to work to make boarding nettings and to get our arms in the best order, but had we been attacked we should have been taken with ease. Between Panay and Negros all the passengers were in the greatest confusion for fear of being taken and put to death in the dark and not have time to say their prayers.”

The decks were in confusion most of the time, what with the Governor, his lady, three children, two servant girls and twelve men servants, a friar and his servant, a judge and two servants, not to mention some small hogs, two sheep, an ox, and a goat to feed the passengers who were too dainty for sea provender. The friar was an interesting character. A great pity that the worthy mate of the Lydia should not have been more explicit! It intrigues the reader of his manuscript diary to be told that “the Friar was praying night and day but it would not bring a fair wind. His behavior was so bad that we were forced to send him to Coventry, or in other words, no one would speak to him.”

The Spanish governors of Guam had in operation an economic system which compelled the admiration of this thrifty Yankee mate. The natives wore very few clothes, he concluded, because the Governor was the only shopkeeper and he insisted on a profit of at least eight hundred per cent. There was a native militia regiment of a thousand men who were paid ten dollars a year. With this cash they bought Bengal goods, cottons, Chinese pans, pots, knives, and hoes at the Governor’s store, so that “all this money never left the Governor’s hands. It was fetched to him by the galleons in passing, and when he was relieved he carried it with him to Manila, often to the amount of eighty or ninety thousand dollars.” A glimpse of high finance without a flaw!

There is pathos, simple and moving, in the stories of shipwreck and stranding on hostile or desert coasts. These disasters were far more frequent then than now, because navigation was partly guesswork and ships were very small. Among these tragedies was that of the Commerce, bound from Boston to Bombay in 1793. The captain lost his bearings and thought he was off Malabar when the ship piled up on the beach in the night. The nearest port was Muscat and the crew took to the boats in the hope of reaching it. Stormy weather drove them ashore where armed Arabs on camels stripped them of clothes and stores and left them to die among the sand dunes.

On foot they trudged day after day in the direction of Muscat, and how they suffered and what they endured was told by one of the survivors, young Daniel Saunders. Soon they began to drop out and die in their tracks in the manner of “Benjamin Williams, William Leghorn, and Thomas Barnard whose bodies were exposed naked to the scorching sun and finding their strength and spirits quite exhausted they lay down expecting nothing but death for relief.” The next to be left behind was Mr. Robert Williams, merchant and part owner, “and we therefore with reluctance abandoned him to the mercy of God, suffering ourselves all the horrors that fill the mind at the approach of death.” Near the beach and a forlorn little oasis, they stumbled across Charles Lapham, who had become separated from them. He had been without water for five days “and after many efforts he got upon his feet and endeavored to walk. Seeing him in so wretched a condition I could not but sympathize enough with him in his torments to go back with him” toward water two miles away, “which both my other companions refused to do. Accordingly they walked forward while I went back a considerable distance with Lapham until, his strength failing him, he suddenly fell on the ground, nor was he able to rise again or even speak to me. Finding it vain to stay with him, I covered him with sprays and leaves which I tore from an adjacent tree, it being the last friendly office I could do him.”

Eight living skeletons left of eighteen strong seamen tottered into Muscat and were cared for by the English consul. Daniel Saunders worked his passage to England, was picked up by a press-gang, escaped, and so returned to Salem. It was the fate of Juba Hill, the black cook from Boston, to be detained among the Arabs as a slave. It is worth noting that a black sea-cook figured in many of these tales of daring and disaster, and among them was the heroic and amazing figure of one Peter Jackson who belonged in the brig Ceres. While running down the river from Calcutta she was thrown on her beam ends and Peter, perhaps dumping garbage over the rail, took a header. Among the things tossed to him as he floated away was a sail-boom on which he was swiftly carried out of sight by the turbid current. All on board concluded that Peter Jackson had been eaten by sharks or crocodiles and it was so reported when they arrived home. An administrator was appointed for his goods and chattels and he was officially deceased in the eyes of the law. A year or so later this unconquerable sea-cook appeared in the streets of Salem, grinning a welcome to former shipmates who fled from him in terror as a ghostly visitation. He had floated twelve hours on his sail-boom, it seemed, fighting off the sharks with his feet; and finally drifting ashore. “He had hard work to do away with the impressions of being dead,” runs the old account, “but succeeded and was allowed the rights and privileges of the living.”

The community of interests in these voyages of long ago included not only the ship’s company but also the townspeople, even the boys and girls, who entrusted their little private speculations or “adventures” to the captain. It was a custom which flourished well into the nineteenth century. These memoranda are sprinkled through the account books of the East Indiamen out of Salem and Boston. It might be Miss Harriet Elkins who requested the master of the Messenger “please to purchase at Calcutta two net beads with draperies; if at Batavia or any spice market, nutmegs or mace; or if at Canton, two Canton shawls of the enclosed colors at $5 per shawl. Enclosed is $10.”

Again, it might be Mr. John R. Tucker who ventured in the same ship one hundred Spanish dollars to be invested in coffee and sugar, or Captain Nathaniel West who risked in the Astrea fifteen boxes of spermaceti candles and a pipe of Teneriffe wine. It is interesting to discover what was done with Mr. Tucker’s hundred Spanish dollars, as invested for him by the skipper of the Messenger at Batavia and duly accounted for. Ten bags of coffee were bought for $83.30, the extra expenses of duty, boat-hire, and sacking bringing the total outlay to $90.19. The coffee was sold at Antwerp on the way home for $183.75, and Mr. Tucker’s handsome profit on the adventure was therefore $93.56, or more than one hundred per cent.

It was all a grand adventure, in fact, and the word was aptly chosen to fit this ocean trade. The merchant freighted his ship and sent her out to vanish from his ken for months and months of waiting, with the greater part of his savings, perhaps, in goods and specie beneath her hatches. No cable messages kept him in touch with her nor were there frequent letters from the master. Not until her signal was displayed by the fluttering flags of the headland station at the harbor mouth could he know whether he had gained or lost a fortune. The spirit of such merchants was admirably typified in the last venture of Elias Hasket Derby in 1798, when unofficial war existed between the United States and France.

American ships were everywhere seeking refuge from the privateers under the tricolor, which fairly ran amuck in the routes of trade. For this reason it meant a rich reward to land a cargo abroad. The ship Mount Vernon, commanded by Captain Elias Hasket Derby, Jr., was laden with sugar and coffee for Mediterranean ports, and was prepared for trouble, with twenty guns mounted and fifty men to handle them. A smart ship and a powerful one, she raced across to Cape Saint Vincent in sixteen days, which was clipper speed. She ran into a French fleet of sixty sail, exchanged broadsides with the nearest, and showed her stern to the others.

“We arrived at 12 o’clock [wrote Captain Derby from Gibraltar] popping at Frenchmen all the forenoon. At 10 A.M. off Algeciras Point we were seriously attacked by a large latineer who had on board more than one hundred men. He came so near our broadside as to allow our six-pound grape to do execution handsomely. We then bore away and gave him our stern guns in a cool and deliberate manner, doing apparently great execution. Our bars having cut his sails considerably, he was thrown into confusion, struck both his ensign and his pennant. I was then puzzled to know what to do with so many men; our ship was running large with all her steering sails out, so that we could not immediately bring her to the wind, and we were directly off Algeciras Point from whence I had reason to fear she might receive assistance, and my port Gibraltar in full view. These were circumstances that induced me to give up the gratification of bringing him in. It was, however, a satisfaction to flog the rascal in full view of the English fleet who were to leeward.”


Soon after the Revolution the spirit of commercial exploration began to stir in other ports than Salem. Out from New York sailed the ship Empress of China in 1784 for the first direct voyage to Canton, to make the acquaintance of a vast nation absolutely unknown to the people of the United States, nor had one in a million of the industrious and highly civilized Chinese ever so much as heard the name of the little community of barbarians who dwelt on the western shore of the North Atlantic. The oriental dignitaries in their silken robes graciously welcomed the foreign ship with the strange flag and showed a lively interest in the map spread upon the cabin table, offering every facility to promote this new market for their silks and teas. After an absence of fifteen months the Empress of China returned to her home port and her pilgrimage aroused so much attention that the report of the supercargo, Samuel Shaw, was read in Congress.

Surpassing this achievement was that of Captain Stewart Dean, who very shortly afterward had his fling at the China trade in an eighty-ton sloop built at Albany. He was a stout-hearted old privateersman of the Revolution whom nothing could dismay, and in this tiny Experiment of his he won merited fame as one of the American pioneers of blue water. Fifteen men and boys sailed with him, drilled and disciplined as if the sloop were a frigate, and when the Experiment hauled into the stream, of Battery Park, New York, “martial music and the boatswain’s whistle were heard on board with all the pomp and circumstance of war.” Typhoons and Malay proas, Chinese pirates and unknown shoals, had no terrors for Stewart Dean. He saw Canton for himself, found a cargo, and drove home again in a four months’ passage, which was better than many a clipper could do at a much later day. Smallest and bravest of the first Yankee East Indiamen, this taut sloop, with the boatswain’s pipe trilling cheerily and all hands ready with cutlases and pikes to repel boarders, was by no means the least important vessel that ever passed in by Sandy Hook.

In the beginnings of this picturesque relation with the Far East, Boston lagged behind Salem, but her merchants, too, awoke to the opportunity and so successfully that for generations there were no more conspicuous names and shipping-houses in the China trade than those of Russell, Perkins, and Forbes. The first attempt was very ambitious and rather luckless. The largest merchantman ever built at that time in the United States was launched at Quincy in 1789 to rival the towering ships of the British East India Company. This Massachusetts created a sensation. Her departure was a national event. She embodied the dreams of Captain Randall and of the Samuel Shaw who had gone as supercargo in the Empress of China. They formed a partnership and were able to find the necessary capital.

This six-hundred-ton ship loomed huge in the ayes of the crowds which visited her. She was in fact no larger than such four-masted coasting schooners as claw around Hatteras with deck-loads of Georgia pine or fill with coal for down East, and manage it comfortably with seven or eight men for a crew. The Massachusetts, however, sailed in 411 the old-fashioned state and dignity of a master, four mates, a purser, surgeon, carpenter, gunner, four quartermasters, three midshipmen, a cooper, two cooks, a steward, and fifty seamen. The second officer was Amasa Delano, a man even more remarkable than the ship, who wandered far and wide and wrote a fascinating book about his voyages, a classic of its kind, the memoirs of an American merchant mariner of a breed long since extinct.

While the Massachusetts was fitting out at Boston, one small annoyance ruffled the auspicious undertaking. Three different crews were signed before a full complement could be persuaded to tarry in the forecastle. The trouble was caused by a fortune-teller of Lynn, Moll Pitcher by name, who predicted disaster for the ship. Now every honest sailor knows that certain superstitions are gospel fact, such as the bad luck brought by a cross-eyed Finn, a black cat, or going to sea on Friday, and these eighteenth century shellbacks must not be too severely chided for deserting while they had the chance. As it turned out, the voyage did have a sorry ending and death overtook an astonishingly large number of the ship’s people.

Though she had been designed and built by master craftsmen of New England who knew their trade surpassingly well, it was discovered when the ship arrived at Canton that her timbers were already rotting. They were of white oak which had been put into her green instead of properly seasoned. This blunder wrecked the hopes of her owners. To cap it, the cargo of masts and spars had also been stowed while wet and covered with mud and ice, and the hatches had been battened. As a result the air became so foul with decay that several hundred barrels of beef were spoiled. To repair the ship was beyond the means of Captain Randall and Samuel Shaw, and reluctantly they sold her to the Danish East India Company at a heavy loss. Nothing could have been more unexpected than to find that, for once, the experienced shipbuilders had been guilty of a miscalculation.

The crew scattered, and perhaps the prediction of the fortune-teller of Lynn followed their roving courses, for when Captain Amasa Delano tried to trace them a few years later, he jotted down such obituaries as these on the list of names:

“John Harris. A slave in Algiers at last accounts. Roger Dyer. Died and thrown overboard off Cape Horn. William Williams. Lost overboard off Japan. James Crowley. Murdered by the Chinese near Macao. John Johnson. Died on board an English Indiaman. Seth Stowell. Was drowned at Whampoa in 1790. Jeremiah Chace. Died with the small-pox at Whampoa in 1791. Humphrey Chadburn. Shot and died at Whampoa in 1791. Samuel Tripe. Drowned off Java Head in 1790. James Stackpole. Murdered by the Chinese. Nicholas Nicholson. Died with the leprosy at Macao. William Murphy. Killed by Chinese pirates. Larry Conner. Killed at sea.”

There were more of these gruesome items–so many of them that it appears as though no more than a handful of this stalwart crew survived the Massachusetts by a dozen years. Incredible as it sounds, Captain Delano’s roster accounted for fifty of them as dead while he was still in the prime of life, and most of them had been snuffed out by violence. As for his own career, it was overcast by no such unlucky star, and he passed unscathed through all the hazards and vicissitudes that could be encountered in that rugged and heroic era of endeavor. Set adrift in Canton when the Massachusetts was sold, he promptly turned his hand to repairing a large Danish ship which had been wrecked by storm, and he virtually rebuilt her to the great satisfaction of the owners.

Thence, with money in his pocket, young Delano went to Macao, where he fell in with Commodore John McClure of the English Navy, who was in command of an expedition setting out to explore a part of the South Seas, including the Pelew Islands, New Guinea, New Holland, and the Spice Islands. The Englishman liked this resourceful Yankee seaman and did him the honor to say, recalls Delano, “that he considered I should be a very useful man to him as a seaman, an officer, or a shipbuilder; and if it was agreeable to me to go on board the Panther with him, I should receive the some pay and emoluments with his lieutenants and astronomers.” A signal honor it was at a time when no love was lost between British and American seafarers who had so recently fought each other afloat.

And so Amasa Delano embarked as a lieutenant of the Bombay Marine, to explore tropic harbors and goons until then unmapped and to parley with dusky kings. Commodore McClure, diplomatic and humane, had almost no trouble with the untutored islanders, except on the coast of New Guinea, where the Panther was attacked by a swarm of canoes and the surgeon was killed. It was a spirited little affair, four-foot arrows pelting like hail across the deck, a cannon hurling grapeshot from the taffrail, Amasa Delano hit in the chest and pulling out the arrow to jump to his duty again.

Only a few years earlier the mutineers of the Bounty had established themselves on Pitcairn Island, and Delano was able to compile the first complete narrative of this extraordinary colony, which governed itself in the light of the primitive Christian virtues. There was profound wisdom in the comment of Amasa Delano: “While the present natural, simple, and affectionate character prevails among these descendants of the mutineers, they will be delightful to our minds, they will be amiable and acceptable in the sight of God, and they will be useful and happy among themselves. Let it be our fervent prayer that neither canting and hypocritical emissaries from schools of artificial theology on the one hand, nor sensual and licentious crews and adventurers on the other, may ever enter the charming village of Pitcairn to give disease to the minds or the bodies of the unsuspecting inhabitants.”

Two years of this intensely romantic existence, and Delano started homeward. But there was a chance of profit at Mauritius, and there he bought a tremendous East Indiaman of fourteen hundred tons as a joint venture with a Captain Stewart and put a crew of a hundred and fifty men on board. She had been brought in by a French privateer and Delano was moved to remark, with an indignation which was much in advance of his times: “Privateering is entirely at variance with the first principle of honorable warfare . . . . This system of licensed robbery enables a wicked and mercenary man to insult and injure even neutral friends on the ocean; and when he meets an honest sailor who may have all his earnings on board his ship but who carries an enemy’s flag, he plunders him of every cent and leaves him the poor consolation that it is done according to law . . . . When the Malay subjects of Abba Thule cut down the cocoanut trees of an enemy, in the spirit of private revenge, he asked them why they acted in opposition to the principles on which they knew he always made and conducted a war. They answered, and let the reason make us humble, ‘The English do so.'”

In his grand East Indiaman young Captain Delano traded on the coast of India but soon came to grief. The enterprise had been too large for him to swing with what cash and credit he could muster, and the ship was sold from under him to pay her debts. Again on the beach, with one solitary gold moidore in his purse, he found a friendly American skipper who offered him a passage to Philadelphia, which he accepted with the pious reflection that, although his mind was wounded and mortified by the financial disaster, his motives had been perfectly pure and honest. He never saw his native land with so little pleasure as on this return to it, he assures us, and the shore on which he would have leaped with delight was covered with gloom and sadness.

Now what makes it so well worth while to sketch in brief outline the careers of one and another of these bygone shipmasters is that they accurately reflected the genius and the temper of their generation. There was, in truth, no such word as failure in their lexicon. It is this quality that appeals to us beyond all else. Thrown on their beam ends, they were presently planning something else, eager to shake dice with destiny and with courage unbroken. It was so with Amasa Delano, who promptly went to work “with what spirits I could revive within me. After a time they returned to their former elasticity.”

He obtained a position as master builder in a shipyard, saved some money, borrowed more, and with one of his brothers was soon blithely building a vessel of two hundred tons for a voyage into the Pacific and to the northwest coast after seals. They sailed along Patagonia and found much to interest them, dodged in and out of the ports of Chili and Peru, and incidentally recaptured a Spanish ship which was in the hands of the slaves who formed her cargo.

This was all in the day’s work and happened at the island of Santa Maria, not far from Juan Fernandez, where Captain Delano’s Perseverance found the high-pooped Tryal in a desperate state. Spanish sailors who had survived the massacre were leaping overboard or scrambling up to the mastheads while the African savages capered on deck and flourished their weapons. Captain Delano liked neither the Spaniard nor the slavetrade, but it was his duty to help fellow seamen in distress; so he cleared for action and ordered two boats away to attend to the matter. The chief mate, Rufus Low, was in charge, and a gallant sailor he showed himself. They had to climb the high sides of the Tryal and carry, in hand-to-hand conflict, the barricades of water-casks and bales of matting which the slaves had built across the deck. There was no hanging back, and even a mite of a midshipman from Boston pranced into it with his dirk. The negroes were well armed and fought ferociously. The mate was seriously wounded, four seamen were stabbed, the Spanish first mate had two musket balls in him, and a passenger was killed in the fray.

Having driven the slaves below and battened them down, the American party returned next morning to put the irons on them. A horrid sight confronted them. Thirsting for vengeance, the Spanish sailors had spread-eagled several of the negroes to ringbolts in the deck and were shaving the living flesh from them with razor-edged boarding lances. Captain Delano thereupon disarmed these brutes and locked them up in their turn, taking possession of the ship until he could restore order. The sequel was that he received the august thanks of the Viceroy of Chili and a gold medal from His Catholic Majesty. As was the custom, the guilty slaves, poor wretches, were condemned to be dragged to the gibbet at the tails of mules, to be hanged, their bodies burned, and their heads stuck upon poles in the plaza.

It was while in this Chilean port of Talcahuano that Amasa Delano heard the tale of the British whaler which had sailed just before his arrival. He tells it so well that I am tempted to quote it as a generous tribute to a sailor of a rival race. After all, they were sprung from a common stock and blood was thicker than water. Besides, it is the sort of yarn that ought to be dragged to the light of day from its musty burial between the covers of Delano’s rare and ancient “Voyages and Travels.”

The whaler Betsy, it seems, went in and anchored under the guns of the forts to seek provisions and make repairs. The captain went ashore to interview the officials, leaving word that no Spaniards should be allowed to come aboard because of the bad feeling against the English. Three or four large boats filled with troops presently veered alongside and were ordered to keep clear. This command was resented, and the troops opened fire, followed by the forts. Now for the deed of a man with his two feet under him.

“The chief officer of the Betsy whose name was Hudson, a man of extraordinary bravery, cut his cable and his ship swung the wrong way, with her head in shore, passing close to several Spanish ships which, with every vessel in the harbor that could bring a gun to bear, together with three hundred soldiers in boats and on ship’s decks and the two batteries, all kept up a constant fire on him. The wind was light, nearly a calm. The shot flew so thick that it was difficult for him to make sail, some part of the rigging being cut away every minute.

“He kept his men at the guns, and when the ship swung her broadside so as to bear upon any of the Spanish ships, he kept up a fire at them. In this situation the brave fellow continued to lie for three-quarters of an hour before he got his topsails sheeted home. The action continued in this manner for near an hour and a half. He succeeded in getting the ship to sea, however, in defiance of all the force that could be brought against him. The ship was very much cut to pieces in sails, rigging, and hull; and a considerable number of men were killed and wounded on board.

“Hudson kept flying from one part of the deck to the other during the whole time of action, encouraging and threatening the men as occasion required. He kept a musket in his hand most part of the time, firing when he could find the leisure. Some of the men came aft and begged him to give up the ship, telling him they should all be killed–that the carpenter had all one side of him shot away–that one man was cut in halves with a double-headed shot as he was going aloft to loose the foretopsail and the body had fallen on deck in two separate parts–that such a man was killed at his duty on the forecastle, and one more had been killed in the maintop–that Sam, Jim, Jack, and Tom were wounded and that they would do nothing more towards getting the ship out of the harbor.

“His reply to them was, ‘then you shall be sure to die, for if they do not kill you I will, so sure as you persist in any such cowardly resolution,’ saying at the same time, ‘OUT SHE GOES, OR DOWN SHE GOES.'”

By this resolute and determined conduct he kept the men to their duty and succeeded in accomplishing one of the most daring enterprises perhaps ever attempted.