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“To The Farthest Port Of The Rich East”

May 2024
14min read

Salem found its fortune in the East Indies trade

In July, 1805, Captain George Crowninshield and his sons waited impatiently for their ship America , under comand of a cousin, Benjamin Crowninshield, to arrive from Sumatra. Their impatience was not joyful since the market at that moment was glutted with pepper and the America ’s cargo would only depress the price even more. They had no one to blame except themselves for the expected cargo since they had given strict orders to Captain Ben to proceed to Sumatra for pepper and to go to no other port to trade, as the captain was so fond of doing. When the word arrived that the vessel was coming into Salem harbor, old George Crowninshield with his sons went out to meet it, hoping that Captain Ben had disobeyed his orders this time. While being rowed out to the slowly moving ship, they sat tensely and sniffed in hopes they could smell the cargo. Suddenly the men caught the odor of coffee in the air! Young Ben Crowninshield sang out through his speaking trumpet, “What’s your cargo?” Captain Ben, with a solemn face, answered from the quarter deck, “Pepper!” “You lie! I smell coffee,” shouted the merchant while Captain Ben stood at the rail grinning.

Pepper had been such a bonanza just a few years before that the house of Crowninshield had been led, in this instance, to depart from the time-tested Salem policy of giving a shipmaster full freedom of action. Captain Ben’s experience only proved the wisdom of the usual policy. On the outward voyage he had put into Isle of France (Mauritius), a favorite refreshment place for ships bound to and from the Orient, and here, on this island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, he discovered that most of the vessels bound for the States had pepper in great quantity but not one of them reported any coffee. Having his owner’s interests in mind, he decided to disregard his orders and, instead of proceeding to Sumatra, set sail for the steaming little coffee port of Mocha on the Red Sea. Such independence, coupled with a fine business sense, was the basis of Salem’s East India trade.


The little port of Salem, in these thirty years between the Revolution and “Mr. Madison’s War” of 1812, was a powerhouse of world commerce. Seldom a day passed when a vessel did not clear for foreign ports or when some sharp-eyed boy did not come running to “King” Derby to collect a Spanish silver dollar for the news that a returning Salem ship stood off Baker’s Island.

It was a full century since the last witch had been hanged on Gallows Hill, a century and a half since Governor Winthrop had advised his hard-pressed farmers to seek their fortunes on blue water. The men of Salem had learned their seamanship in the rigorous school of Grand Banks fishing and long before the Revolution they had developed a thriving trade with the West Indies. Their trim little schooners carried the produce of New England—chiefly codfish and lumber—to the Indies and brought back cargoes of sugar, salt or molasses. Often they ventured to the wine islands or to the Mediterranean ports and rarely to the coast of Africa. But neither before nor after the Revolution was there any important trade in slaves, for it took a pretty hardened skipper, even if he cared nothing for the law of Massachusetts, to walk into the old East Church with slave-trading money in his pocket and face the accusing Congregational eye ot the Reverend Dr. Bentley.

The Revolution offered New England the greatest challenge of its maritime history. Salem’s response was a fleet of 158 privateers, some of them converted traders and some newly built, which issued from the port to prey on England’s commerce and carry naval warfare to the very shores of the British Isles. In 1781, the surrender of Cornwallis left Salem with a double problem. The privateers were built too large for the coastwise or the West Indian trade; and the British West Indian ports which had been open to Salem masters as colonials were closed to them as citizens of the new Republic. Casting about for new opportunities, the merchants fixed their gaze on the Orient, until then the exclusive trading province of the European East India companies.

Elias Hasket Derby, whose business acumen and imagination did much to build Salem’s prosperity, sent one of his larger vessels, the Grand Turk , to the Cape of Good Hope in 1784, with a cargo of rum, cheese, salt meat, sugar and butter. The cargo was to be exchanged at the Cape for tea and other China goods. But there was one flaw in the plan: the British East India Company vessels were not allowed to break bulk at that place. By luck Captain Jonathan Ingersoll was able to buy tea, silks and nankeens from the East India Company ship Calcutta , which had been forced to put into the Cape.

The success of this voyage prompted Derby to make another attempt to trade in the same region. In December, 1785, the Grand Turk was sent to Isle of France with the following cargo: pitch, tar, flour, rice, tobacco, butter, claret wine, bar iron, sugar, oil, chocolate, brandy, beef, rum, bacon, ham, candles, soap, anise seed, fish, beer, porter, and pork. Included in this typical cargo of a maritime Yankee peddler were not only the native products of New England but goods gathered from all around the shores of the North Atlantic.

Captain Ebenezer West put into Cape Town to sell his cargo, but finding the market slow, he moved on to Isle of France. Conditions there were not much better, but he sold his cargo and then he received the offer of a freight to Canton from a French merchant. The Grand Turk of Salem was the third American vessel into China, having been preceded by the Empress of China and the Hope , both of New York. The return cargo was largely tea—3151/2 chests of Bohea, 2 chests of Hyson, 52 chests of Souchong and 32 chests of Bohea Congo—together with 130 chests of cassia, 10 chests of cassia buds, and 75 boxes of chinaware.

For American seamen the approach to Canton was a trip into fairyland. From shore to shore the Pearl River was alive with ferryboats and canal boats, sampans housing whole families, elegant barges, junks with gaudily painted eyes on their prows, flower boats with tinkling music and all manner of craft for business or pleasure. Leaving their vessels at Whampoa Reach, the Americans picked their way through this strange, uncounted fleet to the warehouses or “Hongs” where, by imperial edict, foreigners must live and trade. The heads of the Hongs were merchants of great wealth who sometimes won, as Houqua did, the respect and lifelong friendship of Yankee captains.

Yet despite oral tradition and despite the fascination that Canton held for the young New England seamen, the China trade never played an important part in Salem’s commerce. There were great profits to be made from the teas and silks and chinaware that Canton offered, but it was hard to find anything that the self-sufficient Chinese would take in return. One product in demand was ginseng, a medicinal root which resembles a man in form and, according to the doctrine of signatures in medieval medicine, is good for the whole body. But since ginseng grew mostly in the Middle Atlantic states, New York and Philadelphia got the lion’s share of this trade, as Boston did of the trade in sea otter skins from the Pacific Northwest coast.


After 1800 Salem’s Canton business picked up when Joseph Peabody’s captains discerned a vast Chinese appetite for the bêche-de-mer, a sea slug which the mandarins prized for soup. The bêche-de-mer lived on the islands of the South Pacific and there the Salem captains hunted them. In doing so many a Salem boy had his horizons widened by meeting up with exotic island girls, with cannibals and headhunters, and with pieces of native art which he carried home to his mother and aunts in Salem. The great Pacific collection of the Peabody Museum, America’s greatest ethnological treasure of the South Seas, is largely a by-product of this odd hunt for a marine worm to flavor Chinese soup.

The China trade has always been the most romantic one of Oriental commerce, but, as far as Salem was concerned, the trade with British India was more important. During the period from 1784 to 1800, when twelve voyages were made to Canton, 54 voyages were made to India. The ship Lighthorse , Ichabod Nichols master, owned by Elias Hasket Derby, was in Calcutta in 1788 where she loaded cotton to be taken to China. Captain John Gibaut took the Astrea to the Orient in 1791, stopping at Cape of Good Hope and Isle of France, then heading for the Coromandel Coast to trade. She put into Colombo and went on to Madras where she found a freight to Rangoon. At that port she was seized by the Sultan of Pegu to transport supplies to his army, then making war in Siam, and her master was held as a hostage. When the Astrea was released in 1793 she was in such had condition that Captain Gibaut was forced to sell her in Calcutta and return home on another vessel. In 1794 Elias Hasket Derby’s second Grand Turk arrived in Salem with 1,200,000 lbs. of sugar, 60,000 lbs. of pepper, and about $50,000 worth of general merchandise, largely textiles.

A group of life-size clay portrait figures of Hindu and Parsee merchants sits as if in conference in the Peabody Museum today. These portrait figures, dressed in clothes actually worn by the Indian merchants themselves, were sent to Salem merchants, just as we send photographs to distant friends and relatives today.

In the language of the Eighteenth Century the term “India” included not only the Asian subcontinent but all the Southern lands and islands beyond the Cape of Good Hope. In this vast watery empire, extending 5,000 miles from Table Mountain to Java Head, Salem ships opened scores of ports to American trade. The datu of Quallah Battoo was not the only native prince who believed, well into the Nineteenth Century, that Salem was a sovereign nation.

Of all the branches of the East India trade the Sumatra pepper trade was the most exciting. The Dutch had maintained nominal control over the island for several centuries but had never extended actual control beyond a little trading post of the Dutch East India Company. The British East India Company also had a trading post, called Fort Marlborough, on the island, and it was to these two settlements that the Malays brought their pepper to sell. Neither of the East India Companies had sought to develop the pepper trade but had been content to accept what they could get at the trading posts and charge a high price for it in Europe.

The discovery by Americans that pepper could be purchased easily on the Sumatra coast was made by two Salem men, Captain Jonathan Carnes [brother of John Carnes, whose portrait appears on the cover of this issue] and William Vans, who sailed from Salem as master and supercargo respectively of the brig Cadet . After a voyage of two years the pair arrived in New York with a cargo of pepper and other spices. Jonathan Carnes, realizing he had an opportunity to open a new field, approached his uncle, Jonathan Peele, who supplied him with the schooner Rajah and a cargo of brandy, gin, scrap iron, tobacco and fish. The schooner sailed in November, 1795, disappeared from sight for nearly two years and then came into New York with a full cargo of pepper. Salem buzzed with the news and there was speculation in all the counting houses as to where Carnes had found his cargo, but neither Peele nor Carnes would tell. Tradition says that a profit of 700% was realized on the investment.

With the return of the Rajah , Salem entered upon a trade which built the fortunes of many merchants and made Salem for a time the capital of the world’s pepper market. This should have been an idyllic trade. Sumatra is a tropical island with a strip of lowland along the coast and green towering peaks beyond; the sea breaks over the coral reefs and only ripples reach the palm-fringed shore; just beyond the strip of white sand lie the villages, groups of nipa huts peopled with Malays dressed in gay-colored sarongs. In the trading days a vessel arrived, the captain came ashore and dickered with the local datu for pepper. When a price was agreed upon the ship’s crew brought a beam balance and weights on shore to weigh the pepper, which was carried out to the ship in praus (native boats). In this green paradise the serpent was the Malay himself, who reasoned, logically, why bring pepper to sell when we can capture the vessel, kill the crew, take the cargo and money. The master who relaxed his vigilance lost his vessel and often his life. Many times sailors and mates new to the coast dismissed the pirate tales as mere imagination, only to discover the laughing innocent Malay transformed in an instant into a murderous pirate.

Off the pepper coast in 1806 Captain William Story was sitting in the cabin of the Gardners’ ship Marquis de Somereulas when he heard his first mate, Mr. Bromfield, cry out that he was “creesed.” There followed a brief scuffle between the four seamen left on deck and a band of native pirates armed with the wicked Malay short sword called a kris or, in Salem spelling, creese. Rallying his men, the captain started up the companionway, only to be beaten back by the Malays, who now controlled the deck. Before making a second attempt, Captain Story stationed a man by the powder magazine with instructions to apply a match and blow up the ship if the Malays won the fight. Thereupon the captain and crew rushed the deck, only to find the natives unaccountably making for shore in the praus that brought them.

The net profit on this voyage of the Marquis de Somereulas was $99,751.50. Such profits help to explain why, despite all the perils, men still went to Sumatra.

Foreign trade before the advent of modern communication, fast steamships and submarine cables, depended largely on the good judgment of the master, since both the navigation of the vessel and the disposal of the cargo were entrusted to him. At the start of each voyage the owner handed the captain a letter of instructions that gave him not only directions as to the voyage but also an amazing liberty in the conduct of his business. The following letter to Captain William D. Waters of Salem is quite typical:


June 18th 1824

Capt Wm Waters

Sir! You being Master & part owner of the Brig Otter now… ready for sea we advise you to proceed to the port of Manilla in the Island of Luconia & there invest your funds in such produce as you think will pay the most profit in this Market such as Sugar, Hides, & Indigo, Turtle-shell, dye wood & Manilla grass, bearing in mind however that the latter as well as Indigo & Turtle shell may not be so high next year as it is this. You will therefore be governed by the best information you can obtain & your own prudent judgment. If you find in Manilla that you can obtain a cargo that would answer better for Europe this you are at liberty to do or if you can obtain a height from there to Europe or any other part of the world if you think it for our advantage, you are at liberty to employ your vessel as long as you think you can make it profitable. Should you not succeed at Manilla in procuring a cargo for this country or Europe you may then proceed to any Island or Port in India where you think best for the benefit of the voyage. You will receive for your services 3 p.c. of the Nett proceeds of the cargo at her port of discharge in Europe or the United States. If you should return to the United States you will hoist a white flag for your signal & proceed to Boston.

Should any accident befal you during this voyage to deprive us of your services, your first Officer will take charge of the property so as to obtain a cargo & return to the United States.


Since the Otter was a new vessel a common instruction was omitted in the letter, viz., the permission to sell the ship itself. Such is found in the letter of William Gray to Captain Clifford Crowninshield of the ship Ceres in 1789:

“…sell the cargo now on board for the most it will fetch, and if you can, sell the Ceres…”

If the master found a good market for his cargo and also found an abundant return cargo, he frequently bought or chartered another vessel and freighted the two of them.

A ship’s captain was not a mere employee, even though he received a monthly wage, but had certain privileges. He received from 1% to 8% of the net profits of the voyage, a great inducement to careful trading, and in addition was allowed to carry up to five tons of goods to trade on his own account. On the early Salem voyages, each seaman was allowed a certain number of cubic feet of hold space for his own private trading stock, which might be a few kegs of tobacco or some large New England cheeses. From such an allotment fortunes were built.

Seldom, indeed, has Opportunity knocked so insistently on a boy’s door as it did in Essex County during the early years of the East India trade. Though Salem in 1785 was the sixth largest city in the country (after New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and Charleston), it still had only 6,665 people and in the main seafaring age group of sixteen to thirty it numbered but 694 males. From all the surrounding countryside farm lads, catching the smell of adventure and fortune, made their way to the Salem wharves, each laden with a bagful of belongings, a few books or comforts from his anxious mother and such stern advice as this from a Boston uncle: “If you meet the Devil, cut him in two and go between the pieces.”


Except for the merchants’ sons, who went to Harvard, their schooling was sound but short. Nathaniel Bowditch, the great mathematician and navigator, had no formal schooling after he was ten and went to sea when he was fourteen. But these youths were men of the world when most of their compatriots were stuck behind a plow. Many a Salem boy had seen Calcutta and the Coromandel Coast before he ever set foot in Boston.

The captains themselves, in many cases, were hardly more than boys. When Nathaniel Silsbee took Mr. Derby’s Benjamin out of Salem in 1792, on a voyage that lasted eighteen months and brought its owner a profit of 100%, he was nineteen years old; his first mate was twenty and his clerk was nineteen. But Nathaniel Silsbee was a seasoned skipper, having been at sea since he was fourteen and captained a sloop in the West Indies trade. His two brothers both commanded ships before they were twenty and all three of them, having made small fortunes, left the quarterdeck to set up as merchants before they were thirty.

Very few Salem merchants inherited wealth; most of them worked up from common seamen. Elias Hasket Derby, son of the merchant Richard Derby, was the great exception. Young Mr. Derby had never gone to sea, yet he knew the whole world almost as well as he knew the long wharf where he unloaded his ships or the fine mansion which he built across the street from it. Before the Revolution he was the leading merchant of the West Indies trade and when war broke out he took the lead in building and outfitting privateers. Few merchants knew as much about the design and building of a ship and none had his mastery of a worldwide business empire. His neighbors knew that Mr. Derby was a man of great fortune but few suspected its size until he died. He was America’s first millionaire.

“King” Derby had a fine talent for picking men. Joseph Peabody, Nathaniel Silsbee, Stephen Phillips, Jacob Crowninshield, George Crowninshield, Benjamin Hodges and Ichabod Nichols, all of whom were well-known Salem merchants, started their careers on Mr. Derby’s vessels.

The firm of George Crowninshield and Sons was made up of George Sr., George Jr., Benjamin W., Jacob, John, and Richard. The sons learned their business on their father’s vessels on the West Indies run and then were transferred to the Oriental trade. Before 1805 the five sons had made nearly twenty voyages to the Indies. The firm broke up during the early Nineteenth Century when Jacob became a member of Congress, Benjamin, Secretary of Navy under Madison, and John and Richard turned to manufacturing. George, Jr., kept his interest in the sea and during the War of 1812 he outfitted the ship America as a privateer. With the coming of peace he built the brig Cleopatra’s Barge , the first American ocean-going yacht, and made a cruise of the Mediterranean, entertaining princes and potentates and stirring up rumors that he was going to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena. A replica of the cabin saloon, complete with original furnishings, can be seen at the Peabody Museum.

The flood tide of East India commerce brought Salem not only wealth but a cosmopolitan air and a taste for beautiful things which set her apart from most American cities. “The fruits of the Mediterranean are on every table,” wrote Harriet Martineau, an English visitor. “They have a large acquaintance in Cairo… wild tales to tell of Mozambique and Madagascar.” A merchant, in his progress down Essex Street, might be followed by a Chinese boy in bright silks. A turbaned lascar might serve his dinner. Or he might, like Jacob Crowninshield, bring back from Africa the first elephant seen in the United States. Almost certainly, before he died, he would build one of the square Federal mansions which have made Chestnut Street the finest street, architecturally, in America.


This was the zenith. In the seven years between 1807 and 1814 Federalist Salem endured first Jefferson’s hated Embargo and then Madison’s unpopular war. Once more Salem privateers made a brilliant record at sea, but the cost was heavy. Of more than 200 sail at the start of the war, only 57 remained under Salem registry at the close. The fleet was soon rebuilt and Salem entered a long Indian summer of trade in which Joseph Peabody, last of the great merchant princes, enjoyed as great a primacy as E. H. Derby had a generation before. But the tide was running against the port. Salem’s harbor, inferior to a dozen others on the Atlantic coast, was too shallow for the larger ships of the 1820’s and 30’s. Salem had no great river or hinterland to feed it commerce. Slowly the business shifted to Boston and with it, many of the merchant houses.

It was not until 1893 that the last Salem ship, owned by the great old house of Silsbee, Stone and Allen, left Derby Wharf to become a coal barge. But by 1846, when Nathaniel Hawthorne wanted a sinecure post in which to write his novels of Salem decadence, he wangled an appointment as Surveyor of the Port of Salem. In the big drafty Customs House, built at the close of Salem’s great mercantile era, only a few old shipmasters remained to doze in the sun, record the arrival of a coastwise lumber schooner and swap tales of great days in distant seas.

In 1836, when Salem became a city, it adopted a seal showing an East Indian with a parasol standing under a palm tree with a ship in the distance. Engraved on this unique American city seal is the motto: Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum Sinum , which is rendered: “To the farthest port of the rich East.”

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