Windham Life and Times – October 14, 2016

Frederick Bessell



“It was to the ‘rich East,’ indeed, that Salem owed its brief but dazzling period of commercial glory. In the two decades following the American Revolution, Salem’s sailing ships returned from China and East India (as Americans then called India, Indochina and the Malay Archipelago) brimming with tea and spices, silks and porcelain, ivory and gold dust. “Boston was the Spain, Salem the Portugal, in the race for Oriental opulence,” wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison in 1921. Salem’s hugely profitable trade with the Orient transformed this hardscrabble New England seaport into a global powerhouse and, by the early 1800s, the wealthiest city per capita in the United States.” Read more: Doug Stewart, 2004

“The origins of Salem’s multi-million dollar pepper trade with Sumatra are somewhat mysterious. Although the intrepid ship captains of Salem had long undergone lengthy and hazardous voyages to the East, the trade with Sumatra seems to have begun with Captain Jonathan Carnes who discovered an island teeming with pepper that could be bought directly form the suppliers without the charges of Dutch middlemen.”

In 1795, Jonathan Peele, a wealthy distiller of Salem, purchased and altered a large schooner called the Rajah, fitting her out for a long voyage to procure a cargo of pepper. The command was given to Captain Carnes. The Rajah was armed with four iron guns, and she carried a crew of ten men. This voyage was to last eighteen months. After arriving in Padang Sumatra, he procured intelligence that he would find large quantities of pepper to the north. “Without chart or guide of any kind, he made his way among numerous coral reefs, of which navigators have much dread even at present day, as far as the port of Analaboo, touching also at Soo-Soo, where he succeeded in procuring a large portion of his cargo.” With his vessel gone so long, Mr. Peele began to grow anxious over his investment in the ship. “But one fine morning, October 15, 1799, a vessel entered the harbor, with colors flying, and as rusty as a coal barge. The people hurried to the wharves, and great curiosity was manifested to learn what part of the eastern world Captain Carnes had been so successful in loading his vessel in so short a time with pepper. The cargo had been purchased of the natives for a few boxes of trinkets and hardware of comparatively little value, and was sold in Salem for thirty-seven cents a pound. The long absence of Captain Carnes was owing to the necessity of remaining in port until a second crop of pepper had ripened and had been gathered. There had never been so much pepper brought in one vessel to the United States. It is worthy of remark also, that at this time  period a vessel of 150 tons was deemed large enough to bring the whole crop raised on the west coast of Sumatra. The cargo was sold at a profit of seven hundred percent.”  Salem Vessels and Their Voyages: A History of the Pepper Trade with the Island of Sumatra.


     “Carnes managed to keep the source of his cargo secret from the other Salem ship-masters for one more voyage on the Rajah before it was discovered. Needless to Say, the other ship owner and masters in Salem were eager to get in on the action.” “Pepper was exceedingly valuable, as both a spice and a preservative, but the Dutch and the British had forfeited most of their Atjeh trade through futile efforts at conquest. Salem men were recognized as a different breed of ‘white devil,’ and Salem’s merchants took full advantage to corner the American pepper market while also shipping to Europe and the Caribbean. They insisted that their ship-masters show respect to the rajahs and exercise great restraint if provoked. Living up to their ideals, they found themselves winning friends and growing rich.” “A typical Salem ship was “loaded with valuable cargoes: on typical merchantman of three hundred tons burthen might carry away goods worth $50,000, or tens of millions of dollars in today’s prices.” “The pepper ports known to the Salem merchants…are located in what is now known as the Aceh Province. In the years between 1799 and 1846, 179 ships sailed between Salem and Sumatra, with even more landing their cargoes in other American or European ports…” Death of and Empire, The Rise and Murderous Fall of Salem, America’s Richest City. Robert Booth

“The pepper trade was extremely dangerous. The island was surrounded by treacherous reefs and the natives of the island were often hostile and extremely eager to captures American ships, killing crew members and plundering their cargo while ships lay in port. It could be days before a ships holds were full, exacerbating the risk of midnight raids by pirates. The actual trading of pepper occurred on dry land—the captain and a couple of crew members would go ashore with scales (Hopefully leaving the ship adequately guarded) to weigh the pepper and negotiate prices, which could change during the transaction, based on supply, the local authorities whim, or whether another ship happened to arrive in port and offered a higher price. As the pepper trade went on, captains were sometime captured while trading onshore and held for ransom. In the eyes of the Salem captains, however, the rewards outweighed the risks.” To the Farthest Points of the Rich East: Salem and the Sumatra Pepper Trade. Massachusetts Historical Society August 2012


“The Salem Captains found that adopting the ways of the natives helped with trade and lowered the amount of violence. Captain “Nichols moved easily among the natives, picking up their language and adopting their mode of dress, in the tropical heat: a turban, a short, open jacket, and striped silk cutoffs, with a kris, or dagger, and a short sword tucked in the waistband. He respected their reputation for violence and never spent a night onshore…In showing respect to the locals by dressing in their attire and learning some of their language and speeding time with them, Captain Nichols won a trading advantage. ‘Nothing pleased the natives more than to find me ready to conform to their customs. I often walked arm-in-arm with their leading men, went into their huts to light my cigars, and, offering them some. Would sit down and smoke with them.”

Friendship, improbably, would permanently mark the relations between Christian Salem and Muslim Sumatra, good partners across the waters separating a sophisticated Western capital and a scattering of bamboo villages. For all of their daunting reputation, the Atjehnese would not cause problems for the ships and sailors of Salem; and trade along the Pepper Coast would be preserved in unbroken peace over the course of hundreds of voyages and many millions of dollars in profits.” Death of and Empire, The Rise and Murderous Fall of Salem, America’s Richest City. Robert Booth

Next week:  Franz Bessell goes native.


2 thoughts on “Windham Life and Times – October 14, 2016

    • Hey Ken. Thanks for the link. It becomes even more interesting to me (after reading the account you sent) that Franz Bessell assimilated with the natives of Sumatra after living there 22 years and had three sons, apparently with a native woman. I really found the history of Salem and the trade with the East fascinating and never quite understood before how wealthy the residents of Salem became. Thanks again for the link.


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