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. 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.
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.” The giant clamshells, poisoned arrows, silver hookahs and more than 4,000 other curios they collected formed the nucleus of what is now the PeabodyEssexMuseum, the oldest continuously operated museum in the country. Today the Peabody Essex owns one million works of art from around the world, along with 24 historic buildings and a library of 1.4 million books and manuscripts. In addition to maritime art, its vast holdings of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and South Asian art span five centuries. It also holds the hemisphere’s oldest collections of Native American, African and Oceanic art.
A dramatic $125 million expansion by Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, completed last June, has allowed the display of objects that had languished in storage since the 19th century. Adjacent to the new building is a spectacular, 200-year-old mansion from rural China, which was dismantled and brought to the United States in pieces in 1997. “A local provincial museum has morphed into a potential national icon,” wrote Robert Campbell, the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic, when the museum reopened a year ago. “Our central focus is on outstanding works of art,” says Peabody Essex director Dan Monroe, “but we’re trying to highlight their connections to the worlds in which they were made. Where did this object come from? Who made it and why? In most art museums, those connections are not often drawn out very thoroughly.”
The complex’s historic core is East India Marine Hall, a granite edifice built in 1824 by Salem’s ship captains to hold their curiosities. The hall was also the terminus of their society’s annual procession, in which the seamen paraded through town wearing ornamental robes and brandishing weapons from their travels. At a post-parade banquet inside, they offered ringing toasts—to “the strong limbs, hard faces, and free-born manners of our Sailors.”
The club’s first inventory, published in 1821, listed a “waistcoat made of the intestines of the Sea Lion,” a “Malay passport, written on a Palm leaf,” a “Model of a Dog, made of shells, by Miss Bell, of Nantucket, when only 6 years old,” and “Three thousand yards of human hair, braided.” Salem native son Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose father was a member of the society, satirized it in an 1841 story (“A Virtuoso’s Collection”) about a museum that housed Nero’s fiddle, Pandora’s box and the wolf that ate Little Red Riding Hood. Still on view is a circa 1820 Falkland Islands penguin, the first of its species ever exhibited in North America; unfamiliar with the bird, the taxidermist gave it a stork’s elongated neck. (In their fascination with exotica, Salem’s merchant sailors were far more open-minded than their forebears, who in 1692 hanged 19 people for witchcraft and crushed a 20th to death.)
“They called the objects they collected ‘curiosities,’ but not in the way we use the word today,” says Daniel Finamore, the museum’s curator of maritime art and history. “They considered them to be physical embodiments of knowledge about the world—pieces of information.” Of course, what lured these men into uncharted, often hostile waters halfway around the world in 100-foot ships wasn’t intellectual curiosity but dreams of riches. “People signing on to voyages to Asia weren’t just looking to make a living,” says Finamore. “They were looking to make it big.” With independence from Great Britain in 1783 came the freedom to trade in parts of the world that Britain had previously reserved for herself. And if a voyage was successful, the crew divvied up the profits, which could be considerable. Even a shopkeeper ashore might participate in the windfall by paying the freight charge on a box of handkerchiefs or a couple of boxes of ladies’ shoes, hoping eager buyers in some foreign port would pay dearly for them. All at once, wrote a Salem minister around 1800, “the citizens of this little town were dispatched to every part of the Oriental world, and to every nook of barbarism which had a market and a shore.”
When the schooner Rajah sailed into Salem Harbor in 1797, her hold was packed with wild Sumatran pepper—used as a meat preservative—valued at about $125,000 (more than $1.5 million today) and seven times the cost of the vessel and her contents when she’d left Salem 18 months earlier. Apepper-importing craze promptly seized the port. No wonder one Malay trader, taking in the sight of so many Salem ships riding at anchor off the Sumatran coast sometime around 1800, observed, “Salem must be a great country.”
By then, Salem’s port had become one of the world’s busiest, with miles of wharves and the fragrance of tea, pepper and cinnamon perfuming the muddy harbor. Deckhands in turbans milled around the docks, and monkeys and parrots were offered for sale. Alive elephant, the first to set foot in America, arrived in Salem in 1797, drawing a crowd of gawkers who paid 25 cents a look. Aclever local sea captain, Jacob Crowninshield, had bought the beast in India for $450. He sold it in New York City for $10,000.
But it was China that was the most alluring destination for American traders trying to strike it rich. The Chinese, however, were not the easiest trading partners. “Our Empire produces all that we ourselves need,” Emperor Ch’ien Lung had summarily notified England’s King George III in 1793. “But since our tea, rhubarb and silk seem to be necessary to the very existence of the barbarous Western peoples, we will, imitating the clemency of Heaven, Who tolerates all sorts of fools on this globe, condescend to allow a limited amount of trading through the port of Canton.”