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Salem Sets Sail

After the Revolutionary War, ships from a little Massachusetts seaport brought the new nation wares from China and the mysterious East

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The smart barbarian knew that New England staples like lumber and salt cod would never do. So Salem’s traders practiced a seagoing form of Yankee peddling, stocking their ships with homegrown goods—nails, buttons, whale oil, rum, some barrels of beef, maybe a few crates of prunes—and swapping them for iron bars at St. Petersburg or umbrellas at Marseille. Vessels meandered around the coast of Africa or among the PacificIslands, continually trading for items in greater demand at later ports. “Some of these ships were veritable convenience stores,” says Finamore. A ship might turn over her inventory four or five times during a voyage, which could last two years.

Capt. Benjamin Carpenter, whose portrait graces the Peabody Essex’s East India Marine Hall, offered painstakingly detailed advice to his fellow merchant-sailors in a logbook, which is also in the museum’s collection. In a script as refined as a copperplate engraving, Carpenter recommended carrying tobacco, spoons and coarse blue cloth to the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, and there trading them for a boat-A frequent contributor, DOUG STEWART wrote most recently for these pages about the Doris Duke museum of Islamic art in Hawaii. load of coconuts. “This cargo of nuts will purchase at Rangoon a full load of timber,” he wrote, “which will net a handsome profit on [India’s] Coromandel coast.” Be careful “not to assume any haughty airs during your stay [in Rangoon],” he cautioned, or you will be “severely handled.”

All this parlaying of goods ideally resulted in a cargo heavily weighted in silver dollars, one commodity the Chinese were happy to accept. For their part, the Yanks who flocked to Canton were after high-value, low-bulk items—“the little elegancies of life,” as Salem diarist the Rev. William Bentley called them in 1796. The most desirable of these was tea. “There are few families in our country, however humble their situation,” China-trade merchant Robert Waln would write in 1820, “which would not be greatly inconvenienced by a deprivation of this exhilerating beverage.” After tea came silk, which the Chinese had produced by secret methods since ancient times. (Punishment for revealing these methods was said to be death by torture.)

A third popular import was Chinese porcelain, or chinaware. For Americans 200 years ago, hand-painted china was a relatively inexpensive household luxury, not the collectible it is now. In fact, sailors used it as ballast, stacking crates of silk and tea on top. “But the teas were consumed, and the silks wore out,” says William Sargent, the Peabody Essex’s curator of Asian export art. “Porcelain is simply what has survived.” When the Pallas, a Baltimore ship, arrived home from Canton in 1785, President Washington himself inquired about buying a good set of dishware, “if great bargains are to be had.” And bargains there were: Americans in the early 1800s could buy an ordinary 50- piece tea service imported from China for $3 (about $40 today).

China-trade ships also carried home a hybrid form of art made expressly for the Western market: paintings, jewelry, fine silver and furniture, all of which fed the West’s fantasy of China as a tranquil and opulent land. In reality, the goods were produced by industrial-style Canton workshops employing nearly a quarter of a million low-paid artisans. Landscapes and seascapes were especially popular. In the 1830s and ’40s, ship portraits were in vogue. “We have a huge collection of ship paintings, because anyone who went to China had their ship portrait done,” says Sargent. Today, their surfaces sometimes are covered with fine cracks. “It’s from the paint drying too fast,” he explains. “My theory is that the artists put too much drying medium in the paint because they were always in a rush to get the paintings out the door.” Canton’s hongs (waterfront trading houses) were another popular motif. Tankards, punch bowls and chests decorated with picturesque views of the hongs made apt souvenirs for sea captains, as the Canton waterfront was the only sliver of Chinese soil on which Westerners were allowed to tread.

A visiting American sailor might drop off a locket miniature of his wife, or perhaps an American-eagle coin. Returning a few weeks later, he could pick up a full-sized oil painting of his spouse or an eagle-themed dinner service. “The people in these parts are very Ingenious, Laborious, and Nimble,” Dutch visitor Johan Nieuh of observed in 1669, “and can imitate any thing which they see made before them.” An enterprising Philadelphian, Capt. John Sword, arrived in Canton in the 1790s carrying one of Gilbert Stuart’s many oil portraits of George Washington. Sword returned home with more than 100 finely painted copies on glass, prompting legal action by the indignant Stuart.

The value of cargo carried by ships returning from China and the East Indies was enriching merchants in cities up and down the East Coast, but especially in Salem. The contents of three square-riggers returning from Canton to Salem in early June 1790, for example, averaged nearly $18,000 (a third of a million dollars today); and the $16.5 million in shipping duties paid at Salem’s customhouse in 1807 accounted for nearly 5 percent of all federal revenue collected that year. Salem’s entrepreneur in chief was Elias Hasket Derby, the merchant who in 1786 had dispatched the Grand Turk to China, Salem’s first ship to make the trip. By the time he died in 1799, Derby was likely the new nation’s first millionaire.

“The city was completely transformed,” says Dean Lahikainen, the Peabody Essex’s curator of American decorative art. “There were people here with so much wealth they could buy anything they wanted.” While their husbands built mansions, women wrapped themselves in silk shawls, donned carnelian necklaces and sipped tea from dainty Nanking china cups. The museum’s two dozen historic homes and properties include the Federalist-style Gardner-Pingree House from 1806, with carvings by Salem’s master builder and shipwright, Samuel McIntire.

Salem’s merchant fleet was hurt by a shipping embargo in 1807, then devastated by the British in the War of 1812. Much of the trade shifted to larger cities like Boston and New York with deeper harbors, larger ships, and rail lines radiating inland. By 1850, the founders of the city’s East India Marine Society had all died, but their little museum survived and grew. In 1984, it absorbed the ChinaTradeMuseum in Milton, Massachusetts, and in 1993 it merged with Salem’s historic preservation pioneer, the Essex Institute.

The most impressive artifact in the Peabody Essex Museum has only an indirect connection to Salem’s China trade. The 16-bedroom Yin Yu Tang house, with ornate lattice windows, carved dragons and a courtyard with fish ponds, was built 200 years ago, roughly the time of the museum’s founding, and tea leaves from the nearby hillsides of China’s prosperous Huizhou region may well have steeped in Salem pots. Nancy Berliner, the museum’s curator of Chinese art, happened upon the house in the tiny hamlet of Huang Cun, some 250 miles from Shanghai, on an architectural field trip in 1996. The majestic but timeworn mansion, which had been in the hands of a single merchant family for its entire existence, was uninhabited and slated for demolition.

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