This past weekend was happening; the streets of Salem were full of tourists and the historical events in which I was somewhat involved came off very well: the Salem Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall and the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Clever costumes and a joyful spirit imbued the former, while a packed house turned out for the latter—for fish, and a deep dive into this often-overlooked Atlantic trade which brought a lot of wealth to Salem and the North Shore. The Resistance Ball is kind of important to me for several reasons, so I’m very grateful to everyone who made it a success. It benefited Hamilton Hall, a beautiful historic hall with a slight endowment that has to work for a living: the more support the Hall gets from its fundraising activities the more it can support the community (as for example, by providing its ballroom to Salem High School for the Junior Prom free of charge on Friday night) and the fewer weddings it has to host. I live right next to the Hall and I was president of its Board of Trustees for six years. But more than all of that, this particular event represents a relatively unique attempt to showcase the comprehensive and the progressive forces in Salem’s history, rather than one singular dark event that serves (and provides) the basis for constant exploitation. This is a city in which the commercial symbol of that exploitation is situated in its chief city square, so an event that celebrates resistance to: British rule in particular, imperialism in general, segregation, slavery, gender and racial discrimination, inequality, let alone Star Wars, is very welcome. Hester Prynne was in attendance as well as a lightsaber-wielding Rey. There is always some power force which provokes resistance, so how universal is this theme?
Tried to get more juxtapositions of historical and modern dress but what can I say? I was enjoying the party! Above is my beautiful friend and a very talented seamstress, Louise Brown, in her own creation of course. Below is our committee (with a few conspicuous absences) with chair Michael Selbst in the middle, to the right of me! And then we have some swag…..thanks to all our sponsors too!
Saturday night to Sunday afternoon: from festivities to fish! Salem is so fortunate to have a National Park in its midst: the Salem Maritime National Historic Site is always the perfect host, the perfect partner, the sole steward of our maritime history with the retreat of the PEM. The symposium went off beautifully and I was particularly interested to see some maps I had never seen before in the presentation by Karen Alexander of the University of New Hampshire (including a 1774 map from the British Museum which shows a very-populated and strategic Salem). It’s always interesting to hear about how port cities actually work, and I thought that Xabier Lamikiz of the University of the Basque Country explained the inner (and outer) workings of Bilbao really well. It was kind of odd to be staring at a screen with sources from the Phillips Library while the Salem storage facility for the same was being dismantled just next door, but I doubt very many people in the crowd were aware of that dissonance.
Scenes from the Salt Cod for Silver Symposium, and the demolition of the Stacks next door.
In my last post I decried the dehumanization of microhistory in favor of “commodity history” but truth to tell there is definitely some value in the latter, particularly in reference to the big three global commodities: salt, sugar and pepper. When it comes to Salem’s history, pepper is big: Salem merchants established trading contacts in Sumatra in the 1790s which gave them a near monopoly on the lucrative trade for nearly fifty years, during which 179 Salem ships sailed to the Aceh Province, bringing back millions of pounds of pepper, much of which was re-exported to Europe. The immense profits from pepper–black gold–built the street on which I live and made Salem Salem: whenever I get depressed about living in “Witch City”, all I have to do is look at the city seal, emblazoned with the motto “to the farthest points of the rich East”, the source of all that pepper. At the intersection of global history and local history is national history, and here, too, pepper plays a big role: when the crew of the Friendship were massacred by natives of the chiefdom of Kuala Batu in February of 1831 while their captain, Charles Endicott, was ashore securing his cargo of pepper, the United States Navy responded with at retaliatory expedition a year later: Salem’s trade was apparently “too big to fail” at the time.
As daring and entrepreneurial as Salem’s pepper merchants were, they were just the latest purveyors of an eastern commodity that had long been desired in the West. Alexander the Great supposedly developed a liking and a name for it, and centuries later Pliny the Elder observed that “its fruit or berry are neither acceptable to the tongue nor delectable to the eye: and yet for the biting pungency it has, we are pleased with it and must have it set forth from as far as India.” Marco Polo presented pepper as one of his wonders of the world, and it was so valuable in the Middle Ages that it was accepted as currency, collateral, and a very appropriate gift for a King. Pepper was a prominent motivation for the discovery of a sea route to the East, which would effectively bypass Muslim middlemen, and consequently Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships became the major European suppliers in the early modern era. What is so interesting to me about the Salem re-export trade in pepper is that the Americans replayed the European role a few centuries later: in seeking to cut out intermediaries, they became the intermediaries themselves (for a while).
Procuring Pepper: harvesting and presenting pepper in Marco Polo’s Livre des Merveilles du Monde, MSFrançais2810 , BibliothèqueNationaledeFrance; more harvesting in Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Pare … / Diuisees en vingt sept liures, auec les figures et portraicts, tant de l’anatomie que des instruments de chirurgie, et de plusieurs monstres, 1579 (Welcome Library Images); pepper varieties in Johannes Nieuhof’s ‘An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China’ (London: 1669, British Museum); An East India Company catalog from 1704, British Library; James Frothingham, Portrait of Captain Joseph Peabody (1757-1844), privateer, shipowner, and Salem’s richest pepper importer.