Tag Archives: maritime history

The Dark Side of Old Salem

Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.

Henry David Thoreau, Slavery in Massachusetts (1854), an essay based on a speech given on July 4, 1854 in Framingham, Massachusetts, following the return and re-enslavement of Boston refugee Anthony Burns to Virginia in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

My romantic appreciation for “Old Salem” the olden/golden time of daring sea captains who brought home and commissioned the material culture I so admire, must be tempered by the historical myopia of its most expressive creators. While Henry David Thoreau’s generation included many Salem residents who were ardent and influential abolitionists, several generations later the Salem’s participation in the trans-Atlantic slavery system was forgotten quite conveniently. This must have been a national trend which at long last is provoking the equally-national revisionist trend we are in now, but still, we can’t let the authors of these histories and reminiscences of limited memory off the hook, for it is a fact that the first ship which brought enslaved Africans to Massachusetts was the Salem-made Desire, captained by a Mr. William Pierce of Boston. As noted in Governor John Winthrop’s manuscript history of Massachusetts, in 1638 the Desire, returned from the W. Indies after seven months. He [stopped] at Providence[Isle] and brought some cotton and tobacco and negroes &c, and salt from Tertugo [Tortuga]. Dry fish and strong liquors are the only commodities for those parts. He met there two men sent forth by the Lords &c. of Providence, with letters of marque who had taken divers prizes from the Spaniards, and many negroes.

Dark Winthrop

This was not a one-off cargo but the beginning of a trade, rationalized by the labor demands of a colony that had already incorporated indigenous slavery into its framework and was overwhelmed by all that land on the horizon: only very cheap, preferably free, labor turn it into something of value. Winthrop’s brother-in-law Emmanuel Downing, writing from his Peabody estate in 1645 rather than the elaborate Salem house he later lived in, explained it very succinctly in a letter to the Governor:  If upon a just war [with the Narragansetts] the Lord shall deliver them into our hands, we might easily have men, women and children enough to exchange for Moors, which will be more gainful pillage for us then we conceive, for I do not see how we can thrive until we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business, for our children’s children will hardly see this great Continent filled with people, so that our servants shall desire freedom to plant themselves, and not stay but for very great wages. And I suppose you know very well how we shall maintain 20 Moors cheaper than one English servant. Winthrop and Downing are very clear, even casual, in their acceptance of slavery, but their early twentieth-century historians don’t acknowledge their clarity, or seek to engage with it. Here’s what Ralph Delahaye Paine has to say about the Desire, in his popular The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: The Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement (1912).

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Well, I’m sure you can characterize his interpretation by the subtitle of his book, but still, it’s a bit alarming to see “negroes” in one sentence followed by this ship Desire was a credit to her builders with nothing in between! No judgement, no context, just obvious approval of the “genius” of Salem’s merchants and shipmasters, “for discovering new markets for their trading ventures and staking their lives and fortunes on the chance of finding rich cargoes where no other American ships had dreamed of venturing.” In one of my favorite domestic remembrances of Old Salem, there is a similar dismissiveness, or non-engagement: in Old Salem, “Eleanor Putnam” (1886; really Harriet Leonora Vose Bates) recalls Salem shops, Salem Schools, and Salem sea captains, but even though she discloses that the manuscript memories of her cousin the sea captain references the slave trade, she doesn’t engage—she is much more interested in telling her readers precisely how he took his rum!

Dark Old Salem

That’s pretty much how the Colonial Revival “Old Salem” generation dealt with slavery: the occasional reference, but minimal engagement or recognition that it was a foundation of the golden era which they hold in such high esteem. It is convenient that slavery became illegal in Massachusetts in 1783, so that the Salem of Samuel McIntire and the early republic can be depicted without its taint. But this limited view would not last forever: the ultimate antiquarian George Francis Dow, the force behind Pioneer Village, the restoration of the John Ward House, and the Essex Institute’s pioneering period rooms, published Slave Ships and Slaving in 1927. Dow’s book is largely based on first-hand accounts of those who experienced the slave trade over the early modern era—except for those enslaved, of course— and while he references the Desire (though he makes her a Marblehead-built ship) he does not note either the year or the specific date of August 25, 1619, when enslaved African-Americans first stepped foot in North America, in the Jamestown port of Point Comfort, traded for rations by the crew of the White Lion, an English privateering ship sailing under Dutch authority which had captured its human cargo from a Spanish slave ship in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the date now, and the 400th anniversary of this consequential date is upon us. It’s being marked by an ambitious series in the New York Times, initiatives and events by commissions across the country, and a nationwide bell-ringing moment (at 3 pm) initiated by the National Park Service. In its recurring role as the guardian of serious historic interpretation in Salem, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site has invited the community to engage in its bell-ringing event (on the deck of the Friendship) at 2:45 on Sunday, followed by an interactive tour of slavery at the site. I can’t imagine a better place to reflect—looking out over the water, on a ship—and I love the bell-ringing ritual, as it brings us back to the days of the fiery abolitionists, and very far away from those of the Old Salemites. In the same Independence Day speech which I quoted at the beginning of this post, Henry David Thoreau remarked that Every humane and intelligent inhabitant of Concord, when he or she heard those bells and those cannons, thought not with pride of the events of the 19th of April, 1775, but with shame of the events of the 12th of April, 1851 (when the first refugee from slavery after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act,  Thomas Sims, was returned to Georgia): the distortion of revolutionary ideals by slavery was so very clear to him, and them, and I think (hope) it is for us as well.


Pinnace in Port

The highlight of this year’s annual Salem Maritime Festival, hosted by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, was the Kalmar Nyckel, a reproduction seventeenth-century full-rigged pinnace built by the state of Delaware as a tribute to the Scandinavian founders of New Sweden, who were transported across the Atlantic on such a ship. While we’re all happy to have our own reproduction East Indiaman, the Friendship, back in Salem Harbor after a long spell away, the two ships called to mind a cardinalesque comparison with the brown and still-mastless Friendship looking like the drab female, and the colorful Kalmar Nyckel as the dashing male. Just to push the bird analogy a bit further, my husband referred to the latter as a “peacock” of a ship. And it is.

Pinnace CM

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I thought I knew what the word “pinnace” meant: a small ship’s boat, used for landing and other purposes which required a smaller size and more flexibility. Apparently the Dutch, the most innovative and productive shipbuilders of the seventeenth century, adapted the pinnace design to create a larger full-rigged version for war and trade, and the original Kalmar Nyckel and many of the ships you can see in all of those golden-age Dutch seascapes represent this innovation. The English built larger pinnaces as well: the first of many ships named The Defiance went head to head with Spanish galleons during the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and Governor Winthrop reported that several daring Salem men took pinnaces all the way to Sable Island off Nova Scotia in search of “sea horses” (walruses) in the later 1630s.

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Pinnace Playing Card Collage

Pinnace RiggedCornelis Verbeeck, A Dutch Pinnace in Rough Seas, National Maritime Museum of the Netherlands; Armada cards from the later 17th century, Royal Museums Greenwich, Wenceslaus Hollar, view of the Tower with pinnace-rigged ships, 1637, British Museum.

So it was great to see a pinnace in Salem Harbor again, along with a reproduction Viking ship, and booths representing (and reproducing) all the traditional maritime crafts and various local organizations, along with myriad performers, on shore. Salem is very fortunate to have the constant institutional presence of Salem Maritime, whose staff operate all of its venues and initiatives (including the Salem Regional Visitor Center) in such a professional and engaging manner. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Custom House, and no building—-certainly not the Witch “Museum” or even a creation of Samuel McIntire— represents Salem’s multi-layered past better.

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Mid-Century Maritime

The Peabody Essex Museum’s new building, or at least its exterior, is now completed, creating a sweep of contrasting structures along Essex Street, with the East India Marine Hall centered between two more modern monolithic structures. During the long construction process, and after we learned that the PEM would be removing Salem’s archival heritage to a new Collection Center in Rowley, it was revealed (not in a press release, of course) that the large anchor which was placed in front of the Marine Hall over a century ago would also not return. I believe it’s up in Rowley too. I don’t know the rationale for this decision with absolute certainty, but I did hear a rumor that the leadership of the museum believed that the anchor reeked of “maritime kitsch”, which is obviously incompatible with its new profile and identity. If that is indeed the case, it’s amusing to see several “Ladies of Salem” figureheads hanging prominently in front of the PEM’s sleek facades.

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Salem is awash in witch kitsch; I think a little maritime kitsch would balance things out. But the anchor is hardly kitschy when you compare it with some nautical designs from half a century ago, when Salem was embracing its maritime identity a bit more than its witch-trial one: before Bewitched white-washed the latter and paved the way for full-scale exploitation. The sleek nautical images of the 1920s and 1930s gave way to more idealistic and pictorial depictions in the 1940s and 1950s, and I don’t think you could find any better representative of this mid-century aesthetic than the marketing materials of the Hawthorne Hotel. I have a menu and a flyer which present a very colorful past, enabling the hotel to offer “the charm of Old Salem in a modern manner.”

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I don’t really see how the Hawthorne’s 1950s lobby “captured the spirit of Old Salem”, but its Main Brace cocktail lounge was indeed very “salty”. It featured murals by the Rockport maritime artist Larry O’Toole, who also produced a famous pictorial map, “A Salty Map of Cape Ann”, in 1947-48, as well as maritime murals and paintings commissioned by institutional and individual patrons. The netting, the captain’s chairs, the mural: not a nautical detail was overlooked in the Main Brace.

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Mid Century Maritime HH Main Brace 1942

Mid-Century MapThe Hawthorne Hotel’s lobby and Main Brace cocktail lounge; Jonathan Butler, Harriet Shreve & John Pickering X in the Main Brace c. 1942 from Kenneth Turino’s and Stephen Schier’s Salem, Volume 2 (Arcadia Publishing, 1996); Larry O’Toole’s Salty Map of Cape Ann from Geographicus.

The idealized maritime aesthetic was not just a presentation or projection: it was also a perspective, as illustrated in the many “great men in their great ships” books which were published in the 1950s and 1960s portraying American history as the history of expansion by land and sea—-and Salem playing an absolutely central role in the latter. Consequently when tourists came to Salem they wanted to see the remnants of this glorious past. Arthur Griffin’s photographs of Salem in the 1940s and 1950s (at the Digital Commonwealth) depict well-dressed tourists looking at all manner of maritime relics in the old Peabody Museum of Salem: how far we’ve come from that innocent age.

Mid-century Collage

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Mid Century Griffin 3

 


The Friendship Returns

Yesterday the reproduction East Indiaman Friendship of Salem returned to Salem Harbor after an absence of nearly three years after she was hauled-out in the summer of 2016 for what proved to be substantial repairs. Everyone was very excited, and when I finally made it over there towards the end of the day, the resident ranger told me that 400 people had come out to greet her, despite the dreary weather. It’s nice to have some history, even of the reproduction variety, return to Salem. I’m also struck, yet again, by how maritime history unites and illuminates, as opposed to the divisive and exploitative aspects of Halloween “happenings”. The arrival of the Friendship was a bit “exuberant”, we shall say, as it actually hit the pier alongside the Pedrick Store House, and apparently it’s going to take many months for her to achieve her fully-rigged glory (“there’s a lot of work to do”, said my ranger, in the midst of sails and ropes in the Store House, with a view of her masts out the window), but no matter, our ship has come in.

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Many ships named Friendship have returned to Salem Harbor over the years, as there was a succession of seven so-named ships in operation during the first half of the nineteenth century. I believe that our 21st-century Friendship was modeled on the ship built by Enos Briggs in 1797 which recorded fifteen long voyages before its capture as a prize ship by the British at the outset of the War of 1812 precisely because there is an extant model of this ship in the Peabody Essex Museum, but my colleague Dane Morrison, maritime historian extraordinaire, tells me that this Friendship was also the “perfect” East Indiaman.

Friendship Model PEM

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Model of the 1797 ship Friendship, c. 1804, Thomas Russell and Mr. Odell, Peabody Essex Museum; the Friendship in the Essex Institute’s Old-time Ships of Salem, 1917, and a bow view by Lewis Bridgman on the title page of John Robinson’s Marine Room of the Peabody Museum of Salem, 1921.

I envy Dr. Morrison his research because it’s fun to read the letters sent home from captains of the Friendship (and I presume other vessels as well), which were published in the newspaper: they are their era’s foreign correspondents! Captain William Storer gives us the first European accounts of the assassination of the Russian Tsar Paul I in 1801 in a letter from Hamburg dated only a few weeks after the crime was committed: thus putting an end to Paul. From Palermo, Captain Williams informs his owners that the Mediterranean markets are “gutted” due to the onset of the Napoleonic wars several years later. In 1811, the year before the Friendship was captured by the British, we can read about its entry into the Russian port of Archangel after the ice had finally melted in late Spring. The “market for imports was [still] uncommonly dull” and one wonders why the ship was not in warmer and more profitable waters in East Asia, but ultimately Archangel would be this Friendship’s last port as a free ship.

Friendship Paul 1801

Friendship 1807

Archangel

Letter from Capt. William Storer published in the Impartial Register, June, 1801 and portrait of Tsar Paul I (1754-1801) by Vladimir Borovikovsky; Letter from Captain Williams published in the Salem Gazette and painting of Palermo Harbor in the later eighteenth century by Luigi di Pietro; Letter from Archangel, June 7, 1811, Essex Register, and the port on the White Sea, 1829 map by Wilhelm Ernst August Schlieben, David Rumsey Map Collection.


Historic Happenings in Salem

As always, I’m excited for the Salem Film Fest commencing this weekend and running through most of next week, but next weekend will see two big events inspired by Salem’s dynamic 18th-century history: the Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall on Saturday the 6th, and “Salt Cod for Silver: Yankees, Basques, and the North Shore’s Forgotten Trade”, a symposium focused on greater Salem’s trade with the Basque port of Bilbao on Sunday the 7th. I wish every weekend in Salem could be like next weekend, highlighting history in creative, comprehensive, and collaborative ways. The Resistance Ball is co-sponsored by Hamilton Hall and the Leslie’s Retreat Committee, dedicated to the ongoing interpretation and commemoration of the event of February 26, 1775 in which a large group of Salem citizens foiled the attempt of a British regiment to confiscate concealed cannon in particular and the spirit of resistance in general, while the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium is co-sponsored by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Salem State History Department, Historic Beverly, the Marblehead Museum, and the Bilboko Itsasdarra Itsas Museoa (Bilbao Maritime Museum).

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Historical Flyer

I am going to both events and you should too if you are in our area: tickets for the ball are still available here, and the symposium is a first-come, first-seated event (the capacity is 200 at the Visitor Center). This is the second run for the Resistance Ball, and we hope to make it a regular occasion. Do not be deterred by fear of period dress: there will be some 18th-century dress (both reproductions and costumes) in attendance but also formal and creative garb. I prefer to be inspired by the spirit of resistance rather then the actual eighteenth-century event myself. I made a list of my favorite female resistors, and at the very top was Joan of Arc, but I do think this is an American history-themed event so I am forgoing armor in favor a toile dress with quite a modern, short cut: I guess I’m just going as myself, the perpetual PEM resistor! There will be period dancing, but again: do not be fearful: the caller from the last ball, whom we have engaged again, was an amazing instructor and so it was really easy and fun to participate.

Salem Resistance Ball

Salem Resistance Ball2There WILL be fiddlers—and dancing! (Not really sure who took these pictures at the last ball two years ago, sorry)

I’m excited about the symposium for several reasons. In terms of interpretation, it seems like all Salem trade is China trade and even a cursory glance at the sources contradicts that perception. Yet I imagine that China is still part of the picture. Years of teaching European and World History in the early modern era has familiarized me with the concept of the Chinese “Silver Sink”: the west wanted so many things from China, but all it really had to offer (before Indian opium) was American silver, the first truly global commodity, and consequently much of it ended up there. So North Shore merchants are trading are trading fish for silver, which I presume they are using to purchase Asian wares and commodities? A variation on the same theme, or did more silver stay in Salem rather than just flowing eastward? We shall see. Any research on this trade has got to be based on the rich sources in the Phillips Library, so it will be wonderful to hear about what has been mined in these treasures, particularly the papers of the Orne and Pickman families. (The Essex Institute used to publish such information: see the wonderful text by its librarian Harriet Tapley published in 1934, Early Coastwise and Foreign Shipping of Salem; a Record of the Entrances and Clearances of the Port of Salem, 1750-1769). And of course I’m also eager to discover the stance of Great Britain regarding this trade, particularly before the Revolution.

The Ornes

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Salem merchant Timothy Orne, flanked by his daughters Rebecca and Lois, in paintings he commissioned from Joseph Badger in 1757. The portraits of the girls (I have always loved Rebecca and her squirrel, so I took this opportunity to showcase her again, and Lois is the mother of the woman who lived in my house for its first few decades) are from the Worcester Art Museum, and the Orne’s portrait belongs to the Newport Restoration Foundation.  The Orne House at 266 Essex Street (here in a Frank Cousins photograph from the “Urban Landscape” collection at Duke University Library) is still standing, though much changed. Orne is a very good representative of Salem’s “codfish aristocracy”, with more than fifty ships in operation over his commercial career, sailing to the West Indies and Europe and carrying fish, spirits, molasses, cloth and other commodities, as well as slaves, in addition to a fleet of fishing ships.

Below: As I don’t think the technology of drying cod has changed over the centuries, I thought I’d add this photograph of a shop in Lisbon two weeks ago.

Cod in Lisbon


Uncovering a Shipwreck

Our recent nor’easter uncovered a skeletal shipwreck on Short Sands Beach in my hometown of York, Maine, and I dispatched my parents to take pictures almost as soon as the skies cleared, knowing that our mercurial weather could result in its resubmergence at any time. This particular shipwreck has actually appeared several times over the last fifty years or so, but this time it attracted a lot of attention, both locally and nationally. Many of the stories referred to it as the remains of a “revolutionary era” ship, but the most recent report, based on empirical mapping and sampling by an archaeologist for the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and past research, indicates that the ship might have been a pre-revolutionary “pinky” sloop named the Industry, which ran aground in York with a southbound cargo of lumber in October or November of 1769. The source for this information is a retired York police officer named Barry Higgins, who became curious about the shipwreck after its appearance in the 1980s. And where did Mr. Higgins go to research this wreck? Why the Phillips Library of course, which was/is not only the major repository of local and family history in our city and region, but also of maritime history. At that time, it was open and accessible, and Mr. Higgins found the reference to the Industry in the journal of York notary public Daniel Moulton: for which we can all see a description in the digitized catalog, but not much more than that.

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Shipwreck SS3The Short Sands Shipwreck last week.

First impressions are of the remains of a relatively small ship, yet the national reports immediately went naval: the Washington Post consulted with a Naval History and Heritage Command official who consulted a database of 2,500 shipwrecks but was unable to find any records indicating it was an American sloop. But Mr. Higgins knew just where to go thirty years ago, to Salem’s Phillips Library, a well-known repository of maritime history. All of these records are now removed from their natural foundation, en route to Rowley (or perhaps already there in their boxes), and hopefully the state of Maine will have enough sway to gain access so that the identity of this slippery sloop can be verified, again and once and for all.

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Shipwreck gone The Short Sands Shipwreck yesterday–gone but not forgotten.

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Anchor Away?

As if it is not enough to bury the archives of a historical seaport in an inland warehouse 45 minutes away, rumor has it that one of the prominent symbols of Salem’s maritime heritage will also be removed: the large anchor that stood sentinel in front of the East India Marine Hall for over a century. I don’t like to trade in rumor, but given the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum’s propensity to avoid announcements until their intended actions have become faits accomplis, I think I should. We’re all scrambling to save as much of Salem’s historic fabric as we can. But I have a question mark in my title and am ready, indeed eager, to issue a retraction. Looking at the latest renderings for the addition that is rising on the western side of hall, however, I fear that that won’t be necessary.

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Anchors NS MAG EssexStreetLookingEastatNight-ba45be61East India Marine Hall and its milieu, 1912-the near future? As you can see, the anchor—clearly maritime kitsch that would spoil the sleek streetscape envisioned—is not there. Below we have a livelier, anchor-centric rendering from Rich Mather Architects: unfortunately Mather died and the PEM looked elsewhere, although his colleagues and successors at MICA Architects carried on with the rest of his commissions.

Anchors Aweigh Rich Mather Landscape Architect

To be fair, the anchor has not been in front of the East India Marine Hall from the date of its erection, but only since 1906. It was a gift from Theodore Roosevelt’s short-lived Secretary of the Navy Charles Bonaparte, of the “American Bonapartes” descended from the little Emperor’s younger brother Jerome. Secretary Bonaparte seems to have been a remarkably tone-deaf official, as almost immediately upon his appointment, in response to solicitations for funds to restore the venerable USS Constitution, he asserted that Old Ironsides should be towed out to sea and used as target practice! This caused an uproar in Boston, as you can imagine: the Boston Transcript opined that “to New England sailors, firing on the Constitution would be almost as offensive as bombarding Bunker Hill Monument or Plymouth Rock” and the national press ran stories under the headline “Secretary Bonaparte’s Collision with New England Patriotism”. There were Save the Constitution fairs and petitions, as the combined forces of the Daughters of the War of 1812 and the Massachusetts Historical Society shepherded a movement which forced Bonaparte to back down. He wisely did so, and in his second (and last) annual report he called for patriotic celebrations in Massachusetts’ seaport towns, in recognition of the Bay State’s maritime heritage. This was the compensatory initiative that brought a hand-forged c. 1820 anchor to rest before the East India Marine Hall in 1906. As long-time Peabody Museum treasurer and trustee John Robinson noted in his 1921 pamphlet The Marine Room at the Peabody Museum of Salem,“as an anchor is the emblem of the Salem East India Marine Society, for whom the building was erected in 1824, the placing of this large, old-time anchor at its front is very appropriate”. Apparently not now.


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