Tag Archives: Slave Trade

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.


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