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

Part 1 out of 3


Scanned by Dianne Bean. Proofed by Carrie Lorenz.







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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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,

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

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

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

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

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

'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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"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

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.


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