The East India Traders of Old Salem

And the first Indian in Salem…..

Most people have concentrated on the connections India had with Britain in the centuries and decades leading eventually to Indian Independence. However, for a brief period of time, there existed a robust amount of trade between the American state of Massachusetts and India. Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were the destinations of choice to some of the early merchant sailors of the cities of Salem and Boston. While they traded in traditional items such as textiles, spices and so on, these ships even went on to carry exotic items like ice from the Walden pond across the wide oceans, a topic I had written about earlier. The time period between 1780 and 1850 was a time when the sea routes to India were shared by the Americans. And that was also the time when the first Indians visited America.

The British East India Company started trading with Indian merchants at the start of the 17th century and were in joint control of the sea coasts of India, though sharing some power with the Portuguese and the Dutch. Soon the members became incredibly wealthy, and were able to form a complete monopoly by the 18th century. Even though the French were rivals to some degree, Indian goods were in high demand in the post Industrial revolution Europe and the standards of living improved drastically in Britain. Britain and the EIC went on to become more imperialist and monopolist in their approach resulting in the enforcement of tea act in America which led to rebellions, the Boston tea party and eventually the 1776 American declaration of Independence. But things continued as before in subservient India where the British government taking over from the EIC made merry and continued with the enriching of the imperial coffers and themselves.

America which had just become independent, were also eyeing this lucrative business resulting from Indian contacts. The state of Massachusetts was foremost in matters of maritime adventures and was home to wealthy merchants. In fact Salem which was in 1726 just 100 years old in age as a European settlement deriving its name from the Hebrew word Shalom or peace, went on to top the exploits at sea. Until 1763, the maritime industry of Salem, did well on account of its good fishing exploits and during the revolution the sailors became privateers hell-bent on capturing British ships. Salem soon became numero uno in this business with about 50 armed ships and after the revolution these took to the open oceans looking for trade. One of the big ship owning merchants was Richard Derby. 

EH Derby
Towards the end of the revolution, he handed over the management of the family business to his second son, Elias Hasket Derby, who was destined to become the foremost American merchant of his time. By 1776, three of the peace-loving Derby’s ships were destroyed by the British and so he decided to arm his fleet (25 owned and 25 partnership owned ships, 158 ships in total at Salem). He also possessed larger 300 ton ships and two of them were the well-armed Grand Turk and Astraea. Ships like the Grand Turk and Astrea, though only of some 300 tons burden, were too large for coastwise and West Indies trade.

Salem had a population of roughly 5,000 during this period and as we saw its mariners early established quite a daring reputation.  It is said that they followed the advice of the old salt:   “Always go straight forward, and if you meet the devil, cut him in two and go between the pieces.” 

This aggressive American merchant Elias Hasket Derby promoted discovery of new avenues, sailing routes and markets. At Derby Wharf, he built up one of the leading mercantile establishments in the United States, and through the development of his extensive trade to Europe, the East Indies, and China did a great deal to promote the growth and prosperity of the country. We see that by 1790, Salem had become the sixth largest city in the country, and a world-famous seaport and that Derby’s ship Grand Turk had sailed to the Chinese exporting port of Canton.

On the second voyage of the Grand Turk to the Isle of France (Mauritius), which began in December 1787, Mr. Derby sent along his eldest son, Elias Hasket Derby, Jr., a young man 21 years of age, to serve as his agent. This move proved to be a wise one, for, during the 3 years he spent in the East, the young man formed profitable relationships with the leading merchants at Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, and had a hand in breaking the monopoly of the British East India Company.

EH Derby Jr
As American vessels did business at Mauritius, the Dutch and Portuguese collaborated with these new traders and the British had no choice but to admit American vessels to the ports of India on the basis of the most-favored foreigners. This decree went into effect about the time Elias Hasket, Jr., arrived at the Isle of France. Derby vessels were allowed access to Madras, Bombay, or Calcutta for cotton and other India goods. On the arrival of a ship from the East at Derby Wharf a small part of her cargo would be sold in Salem and much would find their way to Boston, New York, or Philadelphia, and even back to Europe if the price there was better. Starting in In 1788 Hasket continued to trade in India throughout the late 1780s, eventually returning home in 1790. The Derby ships were to frequent Indian shores with marked regularity after the initial establishment of the relationship. “Boston was the Spain, Salem the Portugal, in the race for Oriental opulence,” writes historian Samuel Eliot Morison  and 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. Derby’s business thrived and he is considered to be America’s first millionaire.

But interestingly, while Derby Jr from Salem was trading with Madras, a chap from Madras was destined to American shores and appears in the annals of history as one of the, if not the first Indian to formally visit and live in America for a while. The year is 1790.

It all started with Derby’s acquisition of the 140 ton copper bottomed brig Sultana and a visit to Bombay on the ship together with sister ship Peggy during the fall of 1788. That was the very first time an American ship touched Indian shores (An earlier ship Unites States visited French Pondicherry in 1784). They visited various ports on the west coast of Malabar in addition to Bombay. The cotton that was shipped back to Salem in 1789 on the sister ship Peggy found few buyers, and the rough cotton proved unpopular. They wanted coffee in America! So the cotton was sent to Liverpool.

An EastIndaman
Derby went on the Sultana to Madras, caught dysentery and to add to the discomfiture found that there were no buyers for his American wine in Madras. He spent awhile in an ‘out of town’ plantation recuperating. Meanwhile on the west coast, the Maratha piracy was picking up and the seas were a little dangerous for the Americans. But remember that these America ships were privateer ships too once and knew how to handle such threats!

This was when the ships Henry, Lighthouse and Atlantic joined the team scouting or trade in India. They visited various ports in Malabar and the Coromandel, Ceylon included and were the first to fly American colors at Calcutta in 1789. Eventually Sultana was sold off in 1789 in Madras and Henry was to proceed back to Salem. Henry was loaded with Cotton of which a large amount was disposed of in Mauritius. The space was loaded with Bourbon Coffee. The Lighthorse went on to become the first American ship to touch Canton.

Henry was captained by Benjamin Crowninshield (Derby’s cousin). Captn John Gibaut, a well-educated man, who was related to him through his mother, accompanied him. Benjamin happened to be Derby’s school buddy and both he and Crowninshield were to make big names in the India trade. Derby and friends were finally returning to Salem, flush with profits from India, three years after Derby Jr had set out to the east. John Gibaut, we see was a Harvard graduate and mariner from Salem, the son of Edward Gibaut and Sarah Crowninshield.

But there was one exotic item in that had come on the ship Henry which the Americans were to observe and record for the first time. Henry incidentally sailed from Calcutta to the West Indies. Gibaut and the Indian man thence proceeded to Salem on another Derby vessel.

The Indian man as he was known since then, was a person presumably from the Indian Coromandel coast, a Tamilian perhaps. Regrettably his name was never recorded by anybody and even though he spent a few months at Salem, it is quite an anomaly that we cannot find his real name anywhere or his antecedents. Was he Gibaut’s servant, a lascar, a dubash (translator), a bania or chetty trader or was he Gibaut’s friend? It is very difficult to make a conclusion. Some accounts mention him as Gibaut’s servant and that he joined the voyages in March 1790.
Ft St George Madras 1754

It was perhaps not the first time a person of Indian origin visited the American shores. Many British merchantmen ships had lascars from Bombay, Cochin or Malabar on their ships. So surely others preceded the Indian man of 1790. It is clear that there were others brought into America by British as slaves. In fact they date back to 1719 and are quite a few in number though details are sketchy. But this happens to be the first on record. Now let us see what more we can find out about ‘the Indian man’ of Salem.

What he did for the next few months is not clear but it is believed that the Indian man spent the winter in Salem and left with Gibaut on the ship Astrea, back to India in May 1791.

Rev Bentley
William Bentley records in his diary - Had the pleasure of seeing for the first time a native of the Indies from Madras. He is of very dark complexion, long black hair, soft countenance, tall, & well proportioned. He is said to be darker than Indians in general of his own cast, being much darker than any native Indians of America. I had no opportunity to judge of his abilities, but his countenance was not expressive. He came to Salem with Capt. J. Gibaut, and has been in Europe.

In 1799, Salem’s globe-traveling sea captains and traders established the city’s East India Marine Society, whose bylaws charged members to bring home “natural and artificial curiosities.” We see a number of them at the Peabody, Salem and other museums of Massachusetts. As is explained - The city seal of Salem, Massachusetts, features neither a black-clad Puritan elder nor an American eagle but, instead, a robe-and-slippered Sumatran dignitary standing next to a row of palm trees. Below him, the city motto: Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum (“To the farthest port of the rich East”). It was to the “rich East,” indeed, that Salem owed its brief but dazzling period of commercial glory.

The Astrea with Gibaut as master faced a lot of misfortune and in 1793 the Sultan of Pegu detained it for his own use and held Gibaut a hostage. But as it appears Gibaut spent time collecting curiosities in Burma for Rev Bentley’s museum. The Astrea was misused by the Sultan and had to be condemned in Calcutta. He sailed back on the Henry but was waylaid by the British this time at the Cape of Good Hope. Three years later Gibaut was back in Salem after these hair raising adventures.

Gibaut was an expert mathematician and the first American Navigator, who introduced the practice of Lunar observations, into the USA. He was briefly involved earlier in the survey of Salem but eventually went back to sea and his work was completed by the eminent  Dr Bowdich. He fell ill and returned to Salem in 1801 when his friend Crowninshield recommended Thomas Jefferson to make him a collector of Boston port, which did not work out but he went on to become collector of Gloucester. He retained the position until his death in 1805

The Derby family continued on course with the India trade. But things were not rosy for too long. As the American shipping prosperity increased, resentment at Britain increased and the British started what they called impression. By 1811, the British Royal Navy had impressed (which was the Royal Navy’s practice of removing seamen from American merchant vessels) at least 6,000 mariners who claimed to be citizens of the United States. In addition to impressments, Americans were dismayed by British agitation of the native population on the western frontier. Congress declared war on June 18, 1812.

As the Salem vessels and their sailors were being kidnapped by the British at high seas, and the trade embargo was brought about by President Jefferson, the Salem merchants had a choice of either braving it out or sitting still (as they said – swallow the anchor) at home. But as the days of glory vanished, what they chose to do is a story for another day.

Essex Institute Historical collections (Vol 98)-  Elias Hasket Derby – Richard H McKey
The Diary of William Bentley - William Bentley
The United States and India 1776-1996 – MV Kamath
Salem's Part in the Naval War with France - James Duncan Phillips
"That Every Mariner May Possess the History of the World": A Cabinet for the East India
Marine Society of Salem - James M. Lindgren
Merchant Venturers of old Salem – Robert Peabody
The maritime history of Massachusetts – Samuel Eliot Morison

Pics – Wikipedia, (Rev Bentley)


Brahmanyan said…
I used to wonder how there is a town named Salem in US. Glad that you have cleared my doubt.
Maddy said…
thanks Bhrahmanyan..
There are many towns named after popular Indian places, in USA and Canada. I was also under the impression that Salem was one of them, but only recently found out that it was not the case
Thank you for this writing this article. I have enjoyed all the articles in "Maddy's Ramblings," and I look forward to reading the next!
Maddy said…
Thanks Austin
Nice to hear that you liked it..