September 15 commenced Hispanic Heritage Month here in Salem; as I walked by the flag-raising in Riley Square the other day I wondered, what now? How are we going to recognize Hispanic Heritage Month? And given that Salem has an increasing population of Latino Americans, how are we going to expand “Salem history” to include their stories going forward? If I could offer a suggestion (which I am prone to do), why don’t we take advantage of two dynamic historiographical trends connecting Salem and the Iberian world in the eighteenth-century: the renewed focus on the codfish trade which generated so much wealth (and so many connections) on the North Shore in the eighteenth century and new perspectives on Spain’s role in the American Revolution? The importance of the codfish trade between New England and southern Europe has been emphasized by academics for quite some time (this particular study has been very influential) but I don’t think it has trickled down (or out) to a more general audience. My department co-sponsored an afternoon symposium along with the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Marblehead Museum, and Historic Beverly in 2019 entitled Salt Cod for Silver: Yankees, Basques, and the North Shore’s Forgotten Trade organized by the independent scholar Donald Carlton, but I think the trade remains relatively “forgotten,” and overshadowed by the China Trade which flourished after the Revolution. Actually I think the codfish trade is paradoxically both forgotten and taken for granted: the symbolism of the cod is everywhere in late eighteenth century Massachusetts and if not for this lucrative and expansive trade how else could both Salem and Marblehead appear on the list of the ten most populous American towns in the first census of 1790? To its credit, Salem Maritime has been stressing the importance of the pre-revolutionary fish trade almost since its founding, and in myriad ways: the map below is from its Spring 1940 Regional Review (I know it’s a bit hard to read, but Bilbao is definitely in the center of the world) and the “flying fish” from the site’s 2017 virtual reality “exhibition” (experience?) The Augmented Landscape.
But neither fish or trade are particularly “sexy” or accessible topics of historical interpretation, especially historic interpretation for a general audience. Believe me, I know, I’ve been teaching pre-modern world history, which is very much about cross-cultural trade, for years: I’ve seen my students’ eyes glaze over many, many times even as I’ve tried all sorts of tricks to keep their attention. You need people, particularly individual stories, and you need a war (or some sort of conflict). So that’s why I’d like to see an interpretive focus on the relationships that were fostered by and through this long and lucrative trade and their eventful revolutionary impact. Material manifestations are helpful too: these are a major hook of the China Trade are they not? I’m not sure that the Iberian Peninsula can compete in this realm, but there was certainly a range of goods with the label “Bilboa” (the 18th century spelling) attached to them which were in demand in the later eighteenth century: most importantly Bilbao handkerchiefs, Bilbao yarn and caps, and Bilbao mirrors, which might or might not have been manufactured on the Iberian Peninsula.
A very typical 1770s shipping report in the Essex Gazette; of course the destinations listed point to the intersection of the fish and slave trades in the Atlantic system; Advertisements from the Salem Gazette, and a “Bilbao Mirror” from Bonhams Skinner. I should say that the only references that I found for “Bilbao caps” in the pre-revolutionary newspapers were in runaway slave advertisements.
The stories of the Salem men (sorry, they were all men when it comes to the maritime trade; manufacturing, processing and retail by-products I just don’t know) who dominated this trade can all be found in the papers of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library in Rowley: Samuel Browne early in the eighteenth century, the Derbys, the Ornes, the Cabots, and others later (and there are very helpful appendices to the finding aids for these papers along with a recently-digitized collection of logbooks). These later men, like their counterparts in nearby Marblehead, Beverly, Gloucester, and other New England ports, dealt with Diego de Gardoqui Y Arribuibar, the head of an eminent family merchant house in Bilbao, Joseph Gardoqui & Sons. The Gardoqui firm had been importing salted codfish from the British American colonies since 1763, and because of stiff competition with other Iberian ports, its increasing focus in commercial relations was on the merchants of the North Shore of Boston. Diego de Gardoqui developed relationships with the Marblehead merchants Jeremiah Lee and Eldridge Gerry, and also with members of the Cabot family based in Beverly and Salem and the Derbys of Salem. When the Revolution began, these connections resulted in the Gardoqui firm suppling the Americans with arms, gunpowder and other supplies even before Spain entered the war on the side of America and France in 1779; the first foreign rifles supplied to the colonists were sent from Bilbao to Massachusetts in 1775. Gardoqui committed to the Colonies personally and then officially, assuming the role of a Spanish government official tasked with overseeing military aid during the Revolution and Spain’s first Ambassador to the United States afterwards. He was present at the inauguration of George Washington in 1789. Diego de Gardoqui appears like an Iberian Lafayette to me, and I am not the only one: recent historiography and initiatives (like these sponsored by global utility company Iberdrola, which actually built our new power plant in Salem and recently emerged victorious from a major lawsuit brought by its owner/developer) seek to re-center Spain in the history of the American Revolution, right alongside France. Salem and its region are part of that re-centering story, and could look eastward for inspiration as it approaches the anniversaries of both its founding and the Revolution in 2026. In an interview explaining the Iberdrola project and its mission, the historian José Manual Guerrero Acosta asserted that “I believe that millions of Hispanic people living today in the US are entitled to recognition of the fact that the Hispanic world and its forebears, which made up part of the Spanish crown territories in America, were present in a significant way at the birth of their country.”
Two recent titles, including a stirring study of the namesake of Galveston, Texas, Bernardo de Gálvez; Diego de Gardoqui, Ca 1785. Courtesy Family Cano Gardoqui.
Bilbao was a bit of a free port in the eighteenth century, owing to its customary fueros granting exemption from Spanish taxes and its role as a haven for privateers, including those from Salem. Just offshore in June of 1780, Captain Jonathan Haraden, the “bravest of the brave” and “Salem Salamander,” fought his most spectacular engagement with the British privateer Achilles, ostensibly to cheering crowds in port. The Gardoqui firm reported Haraden’s exploits to Benjamin Franklin, then Minister Plenipotentiary, and Franklin replied on July 4: “Captain Haraden–whose bravery in taking and retaking the Privateer gave me great pleasure.” Haraden is such a hero in nineteenth-century naval histories and twentieth-century boys’ magazines, and currently in Eric Jay Dolan’s Rebels at Sea. Privateering in the American Revolution, but in Salem both he and his profession seem truly forgotten. Cape Cod pirates, some real, some not, rule while Salem’s very real privateers languish in the dusty recesses of Salem’s ever-dimming historical consciousness. We seldom hear of them, despite the facts that 158 privateering vessels originated from Salem during the Revolution, capturing 458 prizes, the largest prize tonnage of any single American port. Perhaps a revolutionary re-focus, inspired by the need to expand our city’s history to include as many of our residents as possible, might also forge a reaquaintenance (and/or re-evaluation) with some previously-aclaimed dead white men too! There’s a lot of ground–or should I say ocean—for exploration, inspiration, and revelation.
Top: Nowland Van Powell’s depiction of Captain Haraden’s engagement with the Achilles, which had stolen his prize, the Golden Eagle, off Bilbao, Eldred’s Auctions.
APPENDIX: Those of you who are familiar with my blog know that I’m not exactly a fan of Salem’s “heritage management,” so I can’t resist this comparison of two Bilbao-connected plaques: one featuring Diego de Gardoqui prominently placed in front of the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead and another marking Jonathan Haraden’s very public victory over the Achilles, which is located inside a Korean barbeque restaurant on Essex Street in Salem. Seriously! BonChon, the restaurant in question, was one of my major pandemic take-out spots (it still is actually, as I adore their fried rice) so I became quite familiar with Haraden’s plaque during that time. The plaque was installed by the Sons of the American Revolution in 1909 on a house where Haraden once lived which was later demolished. I seem to recall that its replacement structure had the plaque on the exterior, but when that building was demolished and another built in its place a few years ago it ended up inside—not exactly sure why, but very Salem.