Tag Archives: Salem Ships

A Salem Slaver

It’s beautiful here in Salem and I had a very colorful post all lined up for you: gardens, the arts festival, blue trees, doors of many colors, cats, my lady’s slippers, simple pleasures. But no, I had to read a letter from a son in a distant port to his mother back in Salem informing her of his father’s and her husband’s death during a slave revolt. I’ve even read this letter before, I’ve seen it quoted in undergraduate papers, I’ve been aware of its existence for years: but for some reason when I read it last night I knew I had to write about it, to exorcise it. I have been thinking about Jeremiah Lee of Marblehead and his wealth for several days, ever since I visited his beautiful house last week. I was curious about whether or not his wealth had been expanded through enslavement, and so I consulted the Massachusetts Slave Census of 1754, which has been digitized and made searchable by a very useful website entitled Primary Research: unfortunately, there was no return for Marblehead, but there was for Salem (83 enslaved persons) and since I was there I looked for some other Salem sources and then I found the letter. I thought, “I should read this again” and so I did and since then I’ve been unable to think of much else. It’s a terrible letter, but a very, very important one.

Transcript of the Fairfield/Felicity letter from Primary Research: it is also available in several collections and studies, and was first printed in the Essex Institute Historical Collections in 1888 (Volume XXV) where it is called a “strange epistle”. The original is in the Phillips Library. Crop of John Cary’s New Map of Africa, from the Latest Authorities (1805); A very complete description of Cape Mount several decades later is in Théodore Canot’s Captain Canot or Twenty Years of an American Slaver (1854): Canot was apprenticed in Salem, which he calls a “seafaring emporium” in the 1820s.

Here we have an early typed transcript of the letter of April 23, 1789 in which William Fairfield Jr. recounts a “very bad accident” which happened aboard the ship captained by his father William Fairfield, Sr., the schooner Felicity of Salem, while engaged in an illegal triangular trade: the legal institution of slavery had been outlawed in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1783 and the slave trade in 1787. Bound for Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana and a major slave market, with a cargo of 35 enslaved persons on board, the “slaves rised above us” on March 26, killed Captain Fairfield and held the ship for a while, before young William and his confederates regained control. It sounds like William was incapacitated for a while as a result of being “scalt with hot chocolate” so I suppose it was the Felicity‘s crew who repossessed the ship without his help. After recounting the death and burial of his father, William adds that “we have sold part of the slaves [in Cayenne] and I hope to be home soon.” He’s so callous, so matter-of-fact, talk about the banality of evil: I scalded myself with hot chocolate but am otherwise in good health and we sold part of the slaves—I hope to see you soon! He is writing to his mother, of course, but this is a man who sounds as if he fears no consequences, and I couldn’t find any consequences for him or the crew of the Felicity. Young William continued his maritime career, often sailing on ships belonging to one of the Felicity’s owner Joseph White, who would be murdered in his bed in one of Salem’s most scandalous crimes in 1830. There is no mention of how he died in Captain Fairfield’s brief death notice in the Salem Mercury. 

The only person who seems to cast judgement on the Fairfields, or Mr. White, is (of course) the Reverend William Bentley, our constant commentator, who criticized all the vague trips to an unspecified “Africa” during the 1780s and 1790s in general and Captain Fairfield’s voyage in particular. In the Fall of 1788, he wrote: Captain William Fairfield, Felicity, Sch. sailed, according to clearance for Cape Verde Islands. It is supposed from the cargo, this latter carried and the character of the owner, that the vessel is intended for the slave trade. The owner confesses that he has no reluctance in selling any part of the human race. The even in its probably consequences gives great pain to thinking men, and in consideration of the owner’s easy circumstances, is supposed to betray signs of the greatest moral depravity. It is a daring presumption to dictate to divine wisdom, but when God’s judgements are abroad in the earth, sinners will tremble. The positive law of this Commonwealth is against the Slave Trade which it is to be hoped will be seriously noticed [Diary, Volume I, 104]. Well obviously Bentley spared no words regarding Mr. White, but does not opine on the death of Captain Fairfield, noting only that he was “killed by negroes” in the following June. And I don’t seem to be able to find any “serious notice” taken of this particular voyage or the sixteen other slave voyages from Salem before 1860 listed in the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database [another extremely valuable source]. Perhaps that’s why there was a slave ship sitting in Salem Harbor on the eve of the Civil War.


The Spectre Ship of Salem

Despite the Salem marketing memo, Halloween is the time for ghosts, not witches, who already have their Walpurgis eve. I don’t think any ghost story could be more appropriate for a Salem Halloween than that of the legendary “Spectre Ship of Salem” which was supposedly reported by Cotton Mather in his Magnalia Christi Americana, according to all the internet “sources” and their sources. I can’t find the original reference, however, only one nineteenth-century gothic tale which asserts that it is embellishing Mather and indeed provides its readers with all sorts of romantic detail: a young couple bound for Old England set sail from Salem sometime in the later seventeenth century aboard the Noah’s Dove only to be presumably shipwrecked and perpetually cast adrift, their ship (and themselves) appearing periodically as an “apparition in the air” to the startled souls of Old Salem (always just before sunset, of course). The story of the “Spectre-Ship of Salem” first appears in print in Blackwoods Magazine in the spring of 1830, is transformed into one of the poetic Legends of New England by John Greenleaf Whittier, and then reappears in prose form in American periodicals over the next twenty years or so: with its repeated references to the elusive Mather, it is actually a ghost story about a ghost story! Mather does write about a ghost ship in his grand New England history, and cites a near-contemporary letter as evidence, but it is a ship out of New Haven rather than Salem, wrecked in 1647 and “perpetually sailing against the wind” thereafter.

Cotton Mather (including map embellished by me, 1702), John Greenleaf Whittier (1831) and Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion (1851).

Although his poem was penned early in his career, I suspect Whittier is responsible for the periodical popularity of the Salem spectre ship “legend” in the mid-nineteenth century, along with the fact that it could be linked to another spectral story increasing in appearances at the time, that of the Salem “witches”. It’s also so Hawthornesque. George Francis Dow commissioned the printing of a stand-alone edition of the Whittier poem in 1907, an act that was definitely in keeping with his other efforts to preserve/showcase/create colonial traditions. Ghost ships are the most global of eternal apparitions, so why shouldn’t Salem have one?

The Dow edition of the Spectre Ship of Salem, published in Salem in 1907; J. Flora illustration of a ghost ship from A Red Skelton in Your Closet: Ghost Stories Gay and Grim (1965).


A Salem Shipwright

Salem’s Federal-era shipwrights Retire Becket and Enos Briggs are justly famous, but the men who crafted ships both before and after the so-called Golden Age are a bit more obscure. A case in point is Edward F. Miller, who maintained a productive and prosperous shipyard (at the site of Briggs’ yard) in South Salem in the middle of the nineteenth century producing ships for Salem, Boston and New York merchants before he shifted his attention and skills to erecting structures for land: I first learned about Miller when I visited Stonehurst in Waltham, which he built for the architect Henry Hobhouse Richardson and his client Robert Treat Paine, but there is little mention of him in Salem. His shipyard built La Plata (bark, 1850); Dictator (schooner, 1853); Delight (bark, 1855); Mary Wilkins (brig, 1855); Arabia (bark, 1857); Guide (bark, 1857); Jacinta (schooner, 1860), Glide (bark, 1861); Jersey (bark 1869); and Taria Topan (bark, 1870, and the latter served as the model for the cabin headquarters of the Salem Marine Society on the top of the Hawthorne Hotel.

William Pierce Stubbs, Bark Taria Topan of Salem, 1881, Bourgeault-Horan Antiquarians; The Salem Marine Society Room at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel, The Bark Glide of Salem.

Miller had a dynamic nineteenth-century life: learning his trade at shipyards in his native Nova Scotia, East Boston, and Charlestown (where he worked on the Constitution), going to sea and to California at the time of the Gold Rush, returning to Massachusetts and investing his new fortune into shipyards in Marblehead and then Salem, and building ships for two decades until he moved to Newton, Massachusetts in 1878 and starting building houses (apparently he also had a third career in maritime publishing). In Salem Vessels and their Voyages, George Granville Putnam presents Miller’s ships as worthy successors of those of Becket and Briggs: “No vessel so large as the Grand Turk of 1791—which was allways spoken of in its day as ‘the Great Ship’—was built in Salem for nearly 80 years until the bark Jersey of 599 tons was built in South Salem by E.F. Miller for Captain John Bertram in 1868; the barks Guide and Glide each of 495 tons had preceded it and there followed in 1870 the bark Taria Topan, 631 tons, also built by E.F. Miller, the last large square-rigged vessel built in Salem.” At the beginning of every project and the occasion of every launch, the Salem papers heralded Miller’s activity, reminding us all that Salem’s “ebbing” maritime culture, so vividly depicted by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was still quite lively in the decades before and after the Civil War. And of course the Stonehurst connection is Mcintire-esque: when I first stepped inside its massive entry hall, I remember thinking, “this is like a ship’s cabin” and indeed it was.

Miller notices: Salem Gazette, 1.17.1856; Salem Observer, 7.16 1864, Salem Observer, 9.22.1860; Salem Register, 1.12. 1857; The cabin-like Great Hall at Stonehurst, built by Miller.


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