A Clean Bill of Health

There are several things that interest me about this 1787 “Bill of Health” issued by Massachusetts Naval Officer/customs official Joseph Hiller for the (first) Salem ship Grand Turk, an item that comes up for auction next week (in a lot that includes a personal dinner invitation to the ship’s captain, the son and namesake of America’s first millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby, from the Marquis de Lafayette). The first thing that caught my attention is the seal, which is quite faint in this scan so I doctored it a bit (and you can click on the document to examine it in more detail):

Derby Bill of Health

Derby Bill of Health seal

I still can’t really make it out, but it’s clearly not the official Massachusetts or US seals, both of which had been adopted by this time. The Commonwealth seal was a Nathan Cushing-designed, Paul Revere-engraved version of the older Massachusetts Bay Colony seal, with a Native American at its center but the unfortunate wording “come over and help us” left out. Instead, what I can barely see here is the faint outline of a pine tree, a symbol which was adopted by the Massachusetts navy after the Battle of Bunker Hill, and later incorporated into the new state’s naval and maritime flags. For naval-officer Hiller, this was obviously the ultimate seal of authority, the seal of his office, rather than his commonwealth or country.

Massachusetts Seal

Mass Flag

Library of Congress.

The other thing that intrigues me about this document is its dating, or more precisely, the wording of its dating: the sixth day of December in the twelfth year of American Independence, and in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eighty-Seven. It is double-dated, in standardized format, with reference not only to conventional western dating but also to the American Revolution. Very interesting: I knew that the French Revolutionaries recognized the importance of the calendar as a nationalistic medium, but I had no idea that the Americans did–I wonder how many other official documents utilized this wording, and for how long?

I haven’t even addressed the content of this document: clearly Derby could not sail his ship to to the Isle de France (Mauritius) until it had received a clean bill of health from the authorities. The Grand Turk, the first of several Salem ships bearing that name, was at this time perhaps the most famous ship in New England, if not the new nation, having returned from a voyage to China and the East Indies earlier in 1787. Mauritius was becoming the gateway to this potentially lucrative trade, and its French governors were clearly aware of its emerging importance. I know of no global plague pandemic at this time (the last one was in the port of Marseilles in 1721) but the document uses the phrase Pestilence or contagious Distemper which is not plague-specific. Smallpox was rampant in New England at this time so that was probably the primary concern.

Mauritius Lodge 1781 BPL

John Lodge, A Correct Map of the African Islands of Bouron and Mauritius or the Isle of France, The Political Magazine, London, 1781; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Having received his clean bill of health from Naval Officer Hiller, Derby embarked for the east. Shortly after the Grand Turk arrived in port on the Isle de France, its fame (and size) attracted an offer that apparently could not be refused, and the ship was sold to a French merchant. More Salem ships would follow in its pioneering path, and more Grand Turks would be launched, but the exploits of the first one would be remembered not only because of surviving documents like this form, but also through its starring role as the original Old Spice ship.

PicMonkey Collage

Hull Pottery Old Spice Shaving Mug, 1930s, and lots of other examples of “Old Spiceiana”, available here.

16 responses to “A Clean Bill of Health

  • James Schmidt

    The wording of the date is, indeed, intriguing.

    Since the Google Ngram supports wild card searches, I thought it would be simple enough to search for “the * year of American Independence” and see what turned up. Unfortunately, Ngram wildcard searches are limited to 5 words, so I had to make do with “the * year of American.” Searching from 1777 to 1900 turns up a small cluster of predictable results, with phrase such as “the fiftieth year of American” and “the centennial year of American” clustering right where one might assume. The other top six phrases are “the first year …” (which peaks in the late 1880s), “the thirteenth year” (which peaks shortly after 1870), “the second year,” and “the Centennial year” (the Ngram is case sensitive). Most of what seems to be turning up, however, are histories, rather than government documents, so this really doesn’t cast much light on your question.

    I also tried setting the date span to 1776-1825 and did individual searches for the phrase “first year of American Independence”, “second year, etc.” That also turned up nothing. I suspect that a more targeted search of government documents might be more productive, but since I’m not an Americanist, I’m not sure what databases might be worth searching.

    • daseger

      I tried a similar search and came up with nothing, James: just histories, no sources. I’m in the same boat as you–it’s not my era or area so I’m hoping some Americanists weigh in here.

  • markd60

    Since I shave with a mug and a brush, I looked on eBay for an OId Spice Shaving mug. There seems to be many, some very old…

  • Brian Bixby

    I’ve seen the double dating even on contemporary documents; it is customary on ceremonial proclamations issued by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. See for examples:

    • daseger

      Wow, Brian, interesting! I wonder if this is just a Mass. thing?

      • Brian Bixby

        It’s not universal, since I just looked at proclamations from Iowa and California, the former of which used “in the year of our Lord” only, and the latter just used the Gregorian calendar date without describing the era in any way.

      • Brian Bixby

        On the other hand, New Hampshire does use the double dating. And you might recall it is also used on the original U.S. Constitution, in other words before the French adopted the notion.

      • James Schmidt

        I think it is worth distinguishing between the practice of using a double system of dating and French revolutionary calendar, which was intended to supplant previous calendars. I suspect the convention of referring to the “third year of American independence” and so on was a modification of the convention of dating proclamations according the reign of monarchs (e.g., the sixth of George III).

      • daseger

        I agree, James. Like so many other things, the French Rev. is more revolutionary. But still, this language reinforces the break that has occurred.

  • sean

    This one isn’t much clearer, but same signature and a seal.


  • eamurphy

    One important note — this certificate (and the invitation, which has come up for auction before) are for Elias Hasket Derby, Junior, the son of the merchant. He was the captain of the Grand Turk for this voyage. The customs document was a standard one, and without it you would not be allowed into a port without spending time in quarantine. Quarantine could last for months, so not having this document could impede trade badly.

  • Brian Bixby

    As a follow-up to the discussion of proclamation, I’ve posted a mock proclamation for Groundhog Day: http://sillyverse.com/2014/02/01/the-governors-proclamation/

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