Windham Life and Times – November 11, 2016

Frederick Bessell

The Bessell Brothers Return Home

The Bessell Brothers Return Home


Just to recap what we’ve discovered about Frederick Bessell, A.K.A “F.L. Bissell,” the wild and rowdy occupant of “Bissell’s Camp,” who arrived along with Major Dudley, in Windham on a May day during 1823. While we’ve learned a lot about the Bessell brothers of Salem, Massachusetts, we know little about Major Dudley, other than the fact, that the Dudley’s were a very prominent family in Massachusetts and produced one of its earliest governors.  So the question remains, why did young Frederick Bessell, who was about twenty in 1823, end up pitching camp in Windham.  It is most certain, that the tragic deaths of his brothers played a part in his seeking an escape. This is what we know about Frederick Bessell’s brothers and how they died far from Salem but close to home.

“Far out at sea, on board the Salem brig, Mary & Eliza, the Bessell brothers were thriving. They had cleared Marseilles in April 1821, having gone first to Genoa and then back across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, the capital of Brazil and home of Portugal’s King Joao VI… The Salem men noted with interest that Rio had begun direct trade with India and China, only a seven month round trip.”

“The Mary & Eliza sailed once again for the Mediterranean. As supercargo, Mathias Bessel turned over their cargo at Marseilles, perhaps taking on cases of opium as well as a treasure chest of specie. By 1820, American opium exports from Smyrna to the Orient has outstripped those of the British at Bengal. Batavia was the mart for the trade of Java; in Sumatra, especially along the Pepper Coast, each outpost now expected American vessels to bring Turkey opium as well as specie. Specie made the rajahs rich, and opium helped them consolidate power, for the rajahs and their favored lieutenants were the only suppliers for the growing population of addicts.”

“Well into the Indian Ocean by the end of May 1821, near the lonely volcanic island of Saint Paul, the Mary and Eliza ran into a violent gale from the north…The storm grew monstrous, with deafening winds and raging seas…In early June, Captain Beckford finally brought the battered Mary & Eliza up the channel to Padang. Beckford and the Besells conferred. The vessel needed more repairs than they could get there, but they had come all the way around the world to see their old home, and they had a keen desire to set foot on land, any land, after their terrifying experiences…The Mary & Eliza’s men stayed just long enough to get water and supplies and to make emergency repairs. It was a fatal mistake, for cholera morbus was rampant ashore, and Charles Bessell fell ill and died within days. He had gone home to be buried.”

“The crippled Mary & Eliza moved on eastward, toward the Strait of Sunda. Captain Beckford sailed on to Batavia, where Governor Franz Bessell had worked for the old Dutch East India Company. Here too they found great sickness, as was so often the case; but they had to stay. They came to anchor, and the surveyors inspected her. After hundreds of thousands of miles, eighteen years since her launch at the Magoun shipyard—at a point about as far away from Salem as one could get on the planet—The Mary & Eliza was finished.”

“During the same Thanksgiving season, the White family learned about the Mary & Eliza. Stephen White was especially anxious—losing Charles was a bitter blow, and he could not rest until Mathias was home. He opened Captain Beckford’s letter, and it was not good news. The Mary & Eliza had been condemned at Batavia. As passenger on another vessel, Captain Beckford and the crew were on their way, but not the supercargo; Mathias Bessell had died on July 17, aged twenty-three, a month after his brother. The sudden loss of Charles had been a fatal blow, leaving Mathias deeply depressed and unable to fight the effects of the Batavia epidemic.”

“It seemed impossible that the two brothers had been lost on their voyage of adventure and homecoming. Stephen White and Captain Joseph White experienced terrible grief in the deaths of these young men and in the brutal finish to the story of Joseph White Jr. and the two little boys whom he had promised to raise into gentleman.”

“Stephen composed and elegy for the Register, recounting the arrival of the boys and how, in ‘a family of strangers they were cherished with all the interest and care which the nearest ties could have claimed or created.’ Mathias himself—suave, generous, friendly, talented—was ‘truly, a virtuous man. He valued virtue for it intrinsic excellence, scanning and regulating his actions by its most rigid precepts. Integrity and honor were stamped upon all his transactions with mankind—it was not, however, that appearance of honesty, which circumstances and occasions and interest exact of us for effect, but an habitual and indelible principle upon the mind.’ ”

The tragic death of his only blood relatives, his brothers Charles and Mathias, must have had a devastating impact upon the young Frederick Bessell. It was after this personal blow, that we find him establishing his camp in Windham.



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