More than witches....

Trip Start Mar 04, 2005
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Trip End Dec 31, 2014


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Flag of United States  , Massachusetts
Friday, August 24, 2012

So, if you are anything like me when you think of Salem, Massachusetts you think of the witch trails.  It came as a bit of a surprise to me when I looked up the national park here and discovered it was about the cities maritime history, not the witches! 

Here's what we learned.  Shipwrights were at work in Salem soon after its founding in 1626.  In the 1630's Salem was one of many New England fishing ports.  But shipping soon proved more lucrative than fishing and by 1643 Salem ships were running the coastal trade, carrying New England cod and lumber to the West Indies, then sailing with molasses and rum for home or Europe, where they were traded for manufactured goods.  Salem prospered on this modest scale until duties, taxes and restrictive trade regulations imposed by England cut deeply into the merchants' profits.  Shipowners, especially in Massachusetts, became the prime financial backers of the American Revolution  - we didn't know that, did you??

Here's something else we didn't know.  When the colonies declared independence, the Continental Navy's 25 vessels were no threat to the Royal Navy, so the Continental Congress issued hundreds of Letters of Marque and Reprisal ( an official commission) to shipowners, authorizing them to prey on enemy shipping for profit during their commercial voyages.  Congress also licensed privateers who sailed with the sole intent of taking prizes.  Privateers, at first coastal and fishing vessels armed with six and nine pound cannon and later more heavily armed brigs and ships, were successful early in the war.  They disrupted enemy communications, harassed British ports, and commandeered munitions and supplies.  Salem was adept at this profit and patriotism, supplying more ships (158) and sailors than any other port. 

From 1784 until the 1880's vessels of various sizes and rigs sailed from Salem Harbor, but most of the vessels headed for the Eastern waters were East Indiamen - durable, full bottomed, three masted ships developed to meet the needs of post-independence commerce.  They were small compared to European merchantmen.  A typical Salem East Indiaman was 100 feet long, 28 feet wide amidships, with a capacity of about 300 tons.  They were slow, with an average speed of not much over 5 knots.  A trip to China took over 100 days in good weather.  But speed was less important to Salem's merchants than seaworthy, maneuverable ships that could carry valuable cargoes on one or two year voyages.  The crews on these ships were usually fewer than 20 men and it was not uncommon for the master of the ship to barely be in his 20's.  Crews could share in the profits from lucrative voyages. 

Salem's ships opened foreign ports to U.S. trade, including Calcutta, Kronstadt ( at St Petersburg) Sumatra, Zanzibar, Bombay, Madras, Guam, Madagascar, Lamu and Mombasa ( Kenya), Ceylon, Ile De France, Mocha (Yemen), Siam, Burma and St. Helena. A trusted captain was allowed much discretion by Salem shipowners.  On a typical voyage he would sail with a full cargo of American and West Indian good.  After selling or trading part of the cargo in Cape Town, he continued to Ile de France, where, if prices were right, he traded the rest for coffee, pepper and tea or sold the whole ship and took the cash home.  If prices were low he sailed for Bombay to pick up indigo and cotton, which he had heard would bring good prices in Jakarta.  After the sale, he might try to gain more profit by buying bird's nests and opium that could be traded for tea in Canton.  Returning to Cape Town, he might fill remaining cargo space with wines and hides.  The shipowner might expect at least 100 percent profit. 

As happens, Salems maritime prominence began to fade in the 1840's.  It couldn't compete with bigger ports like New York and Boston which could handle bigger ships but also had an inland transportation networks.  Salem ships called at foreign ports until the early 1890's when the last square rigger cleared Derby Wharf.  The National Park site contains Derby Wharf along with the remains of a couple other wharfs.  The custom house is still here along with a few of the homes owned by the millionaire shipowners.  It is a fascinating bit of history.

And, in case you are wondering.  Yes, there are 'witchy' things here as well.  Most of the sites related to the witch trails are long gone but the entrepreneurial spirit lives on here in Salem with a whole range of  witch museums, wax displays and tours.  We opted to avoid them all! 



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