Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chronicles of America

There is a 56 volume series of books on American history called Chronicles of America, published by Yale University circa 1920. Many years ago I read one of the volumes, The Old Merchant Marine A Chronicle of American Ships and Sailors, by Ralph Delahaye Paine. It's in the public domain, and it's a great chapter in American history. Here is one of the best chapters from the book:


In such compelling circumstances as these, necessity became the mother of achievement. There is nothing finer in American history than the dogged fortitude and high-hearted endeavor with which the merchant seamen returned to their work after the Revolution and sought and found new markets for their wares. It was then that Salem played that conspicuous part which was, for a generation, to overshadow the activities of all other American seaports. Six thousand privateersmen had signed articles in her taverns, as many as the total population of the town, and they filled it with a spirit of enterprise and daring. Not for them the stupid monotony of voyages coastwise if more hazardous ventures beckoned and there were havens and islands unvexed by trade where bold men might win profit and perhaps fight for life and cargo.

Now there dwelt in Salem one of the great men of his time, Elias Hasket Derby, the first American millionaire, and very much more than this. He was a shipping merchant with a vision and with the hard-headed sagacity to make his dreams come true. His was a notable seafaring family, to begin with. His father, Captain Richard Derby, born in 1712, had dispatched his small vessels to the West Indies and Virginia and with the returns from these voyages he had loaded assorted cargoes for Spain and Madeira and had the proceeds remitted in bills of exchange to London or in wine, salt, fruit, oil, lead, and handkerchiefs to America. Richard Derby's vessels had eluded or banged away at the privateers during the French War from 1756 to 1763, mounting from eight to twelve guns, "with four cannon below decks for close quarters." Of such a temper was this old sea-dog who led the militia and defiantly halted General Gage's regulars at the North River bridge in Salem, two full months before the skirmish at Lexington. Eight of the nineteen cannon which it was proposed to seize from the patriots had been taken from the ships of Captain Richard Derby and stored in his warehouse for the use of the Provincial Congress.

It was Richard's son, Captain John Derby, who carried to England in the swift schooner Quero the first news of the affair at Lexington, ahead of the King's messenger. A sensational arrival, if ever there was one! This Salem shipmaster, cracking on sail like a proper son of his sire, making the passage in twenty-nine days and handsomely beating the lubberly Royal Express Packet Sukey which left Boston four days sooner, and startling the British nation with the tidings which meant the loss of an American empire! A singular coincidence was that this same Captain John Derby should have been the first mariner to inform the United States
that peace had come, when he arrived from France in 1783 with the message that a treaty had been signed.

Elias Hasket Derby was another son of Richard. When his manifold energies were crippled by the war, he diverted his ability and abundant resources into privateering. He was interested in at least eighty of the privateers out of Salem, invariably subscribing for such shares as might not be taken up by his fellow-townsmen. He soon perceived that many of these craft were wretchedly unfit for the purpose and were easily captured or wrecked. It was characteristic of his genius that he should establish shipyards of his own, turn his attention to naval architecture, and begin to build a class of vessels vastly superior in size, model, and speed to any previously launched in the colonies. They were designed to meet the small cruiser of the British Navy on even terms and were remarkably successful, both in enriching their owner and in defying the enemy.

At the end of the war Elias Hasket Derby discovered that these fine ships were too large and costly to ply up and down the coast. Instead of bewailing his hard lot, he resolved to send them to the other side of the globe. At a time when the British and the Dutch East India companies insolently claimed a monopoly of the trade of the Orient, when American merchant seamen had never ventured beyond the two Atlantics, this was a conception which made of commerce a surpassing romance and heralded the golden era of the nation's life upon the sea.

His Grand Turk of three hundred tons was promptly fitted out for a pioneering voyage as far as the Cape of Good Hope. Salem knew her as "the great ship" and yet her hull was not quite one hundred feet long. Safely Captain Jonathan Ingersoll took her out over the long road, his navigating equipment consisting of a few erroneous maps and charts, a sextant, and Guthrie's Geographical Grammar. In Table Bay he sold his cargo of provisions and then visited the coast of Guinea to dispose of his rum for ivory and gold dust but brought not a single slave back, Mr. Derby having declared that "he would rather sink the whole capital employed than directly or indirectly be concerned in so infamous a trade"--an unusual point of view for a shipping merchant of New England in 1784!

Derby ships were first to go to Mauritius, then called the Isle of France, first at Calcutta, and among the earliest to swing at anchor off Canton. When Elias Hasket Derby decided to invade this rich East India commerce, he sent his eldest son, Elias Hasket, Jr., to England and the Continent after a course at Harvard. The young man became a linguist and made a thorough study of English and French methods of trade. Having laid this foundation for the venture, the son was now sent to India, where he lived for three years in the interests of his house, building up a trade almost fabulously profitable.

How fortunes were won in those stirring days may be discerned from the record of young Derby's ventures while in the Orient. In 1788 the proceeds of one cargo enabled him to buy a ship and a brigantine in the Isle of France. These two vessels he sent to Bombay to load with cotton. Two other ships of his fleet, the Astrea and Light Horse, were filled at Calcutta and Rangoon and ordered to Salem. It was found, when the profits of these transactions were reckoned, that the little squadron had earned $100,000 above all outlay.

To carry on such a business as this enlisted many men and industries. While the larger ships were making their distant voyages, the brigs and schooners were gathering cargoes for them, crossing to Gothenburg and St. Petersburg for iron, duck, and hemp, to France, Spain, and Madeira for wine and lead, to the French West Indies for molasses to be turned into rum, to New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond for flour, provisions, and tobacco. These shipments were assembled in the warehouses on Derby Wharf and paid for the teas, coffees, pepper, muslin, silks, and ivory which the ships from the Far East were fetching home. In fourteen years the Derby ships made one hundred and twenty-five voyages to Europe and far eastern ports and out of the thirty-five vessels engaged only one was lost at sea.

It was in 1785 when the Grand Turk, on a second voyage, brought back a cargo of silks, teas, and nankeens from Batavia and China, that "The Independent Chronicle" of London, unconsciously humorous, was moved to affirm that "the Americans have given up all thought of a China trade which can never be carried on to advantage without some settlement in the East Indies."

As soon as these new sea-trails had been furrowed by the keels of Elias Hasket Derby, other Salem merchants were quick to follow in a rivalry which left no sea unexplored for virgin markets and which ransacked every nook and corner of barbarism which had a shore. Vessels slipped their cables and sailed away by night for some secret destination with whose savage potentate trade relations had been established. It might be Captain Jonathan Carnes who, while at the port of Bencoolen in 1793, heard that pepper grew wild on the northern coast of Sumatra. He whispered the word to the Salem owner, who sent him back in the schooner Rajah with only four guns and ten men. Eighteen months later, Jonathan Carnes returned to Salem with a cargo of pepper in bulk, the first direct importation, and cleared seven hundred per cent on the voyage. When he made ready to go again, keeping his business strictly to himself, other owners tracked him clear to Bencoolen, but there he vanished in the Rajah, and his secret with him, until he reappeared with another precious cargo of pepper. When, at length, he shared this trade with other vessels, it meant that Salem controlled the pepper market of Sumatra and for many years supplied a large part of the world's demand.

And so it happened that in the spicy warehouses that overlooked Salem Harbor there came to be stored hemp from Luzon, gum copal from Zanzibar, palm oil from Africa, coffee from Arabia, tallow from Madagascar, whale oil from the Antarctic, hides and wool from the Rio de la Plata, nutmeg and cloves from Malaysia. Such merchandise had been bought or bartered for by shipmasters who were much more than mere navigators. They had to be shrewd merchants on their own accounts, for the success or failure of a voyage was mostly in their hands. Carefully trained and highly intelligent men, they attained command in the early twenties and were able to retire, after a few years more afloat, to own ships and exchange the quarterdeck for the counting-room, and the cabin for the solid mansion and lawn on Derby Street. Every opportunity, indeed, was offered them to advance their own fortunes. They sailed not for wages but for handsome commissions and privileges--in the Derby ships, five per cent of a cargo outward bound, two and a half per cent of the freightage home, five per cent profit on goods bought and sold between foreign ports, and five per cent of the cargo space for their own use.

Such was the system which persuaded the pick and flower of young American manhood to choose the sea as the most advantageous career possible. There was the Crowninshield family, for example, with five brothers all in command of ships before they were old enough to vote and at one time all five away from Salem, each in his own vessel and three of them in the East India trade. "When little boys," to quote from the memoirs of Benjamin Crowninshield, "they were all sent to a common school and about their eleventh year began their first particular study which should develop them as sailors and ship captains. These boys studied their navigation as little chaps of twelve years old and were required to thoroughly master the subject before being sent to sea.... As soon as the art of navigation was mastered, the youngsters were sent to sea, sometimes as common sailors but commonly as ship's clerks, in which position they were able to learn everything about the management of a ship without actually being a common sailor."

This was the practice in families of solid station and social rank, for to be a shipmaster was to follow the profession of a gentleman. Yet the bright lad who entered by way of the forecastle also played for high stakes. Soon promoted to the berth of mate, he was granted cargo space for his own adventures in merchandise and a share of the profits. In these days the youth of twenty-one is likely to be a college undergraduate, rated too callow and unfit to be intrusted with the smallest business responsibilities and tolerantly regarded as unable to take care of himself. It provokes both a smile and a glow of pride, therefore, to recall those seasoned striplings and what they did.

No unusual instance was that of Nathaniel Silsbee, later United States Senator from Massachusetts, who took command of the new ship Benjamin in the year 1792, laden with a costly cargo from Salem for the Cape of Good Hope and India, "with such instructions," says he, "as left the management of the voyage very much to my own discretion. Neither myself nor the chief mate, Mr. Charles Derby, had attained the age of twenty-one years when we left home. I was not then twenty." This reminded him to speak of his own family. Of the three Silsbee brothers, "each of us obtained the command of vessels and the consignment of their cargoes before attaining the age of twenty years, viz., myself at the age of eighteen and a half, my brother William at nineteen and a half, and my brother Zachariah before he was twenty years old. Each and all of us left off going to sea before reaching the age of twenty-nine years."

How resourcefully these children of the sea could handle affairs was shown in this voyage of the Benjamin. While in the Indian Ocean young Silsbee fell in with a frigate which gave him news of the beginning of war between England and France. He shifted his course for Mauritius and there sold the cargo for a dazzling price in paper dollars, which he turned into Spanish silver. An embargo detained him for six months, during which this currency increased to three times the value of the paper money. He gave up the voyage to Calcutta, sold the Spanish dollars and loaded with coffee and spices for Salem. At the Cape of Good Hope, however, he discovered that he could earn a pretty penny by sending his cargo home in other ships and loading the Benjamin again for Mauritius. When, at length, he arrived in Salem harbor, after nineteen months away, his enterprises had reaped a hundred per cent for Elias Hasket Derby and his own share was the snug little fortune of four thousand dollars. Part of this he, of course, invested at sea, and at twenty-two he was part owner of the Betsy, East Indiaman, and on the road to independence.

As second mate in the Benjamin had sailed Richard Cleveland, another matured mariner of nineteen, who crowded into one life an Odyssey of adventure noteworthy even in that era and who had the knack of writing about it with rare skill and spirit. In 1797, when twenty-three years old, he was master of the bark Enterprise bound from Salem to Mocha for coffee. The voyage was abandoned at Havre and he sent the mate home with the ship, deciding to remain abroad and gamble for himself with the chances of the sea. In France he bought on credit a "cutter-sloop" of forty-three tons, no larger than the yachts whose owners think it venturesome to take them off soundings in summer cruises. In this little box of a craft he planned to carry a cargo of merchandise to the Cape of Good Hope and thence to Mauritius.

His crew included two men, a black cook, and a brace of boys who were hastily shipped at Havre. "Fortunately they were all so much in debt as not to want any time to spend their advance, but were ready at the instant, and with this motley crew, (who, for aught I knew, were robbers or pirates) I put to sea." The only sailor of the lot was a Nantucket lad who was made mate and had to be taught the rudiments of navigation while at sea. Of the others he had this to say, in his lighthearted

"The first of my fore-mast hands is a great, surly, crabbed, raw-boned, ignorant Prussian who is so timid aloft that the mate has frequently been obliged to do his duty there. I believe him to be more of a soldier than a sailor, though he has often assured me that he has been a boatswain's mate of a Dutch Indiaman, which I do not believe as he hardly knows how to put two ends of a rope together.... My cook... a good-natured negro and a tolerable cook, so unused to a vessel that in the smoothest weather he cannot walk fore and aft without holding onto something with both hands. This fear proceeds from the fact that he is so tall and slim that if he should get a cant it might be fatal to him. I did not think America could furnish such a specimen of the negro race... nor did I ever see such a simpleton. It is impossible to teach him anything and... he can hardly tell the main-halliards from the mainstay.

"Next is an English boy of seventeen years old, who from having lately had the small-pox is feeble and almost blind, a miserable object, but pity for his misfortunes induces me to make his duty as easy as possible. Finally I have a little ugly French boy, the very image of a baboon, who from having served for some time on different privateers has all the tricks of a veteran man-of-war's man, though only thirteen years old, and by having been in an English prison, has learned enough of the language to be a proficient in swearing."

With these human scrapings for a ship's company, the cutter Caroline was three months on her solitary way as far as the Cape of Good Hope, where the inhabitants "could not disguise their astonishment at the size of the vessel, the boyish appearance of the master and mate, and the queer and unique characters of the two men and boy who composed the crew." The English officials thought it strange indeed, suspecting some scheme of French spies or smuggled dispatches, but Richard Cleveland's petition to the Governor, Lord McCartney, ingenuously patterned after certain letters addressed to noblemen as found in an old magazine aboard his vessel, won the day for him and he was permitted to sell the cutter and her cargo, having changed his mind about proceeding farther.

Taking passage to Batavia, he looked about for another venture but found nothing to his liking and wandered on to Canton, where he was attracted by the prospect of a voyage to the northwest coast of America to buy furs from the Indians. In a cutter no larger than the Caroline he risked all his cash and credit, stocking her with $20,000 worth of assorted merchandise for barter, and put out across the Pacific, "having on board twenty-one persons, consisting, except two Americans, of English, Irish, Swedes and French, but principally the first, who were runaways from the men-of-war and Indiamen, and two from a Botany Bay ship who had made their escape, for we were obliged to take such as we could get, served to complete a list of as accomplished villains as ever disgraced any country."

After a month of weary, drenching hardship off the China coast, this crew of cutthroats mutinied. With a loyal handful, including the black cook, Cleveland locked up the provisions, mounted two four-pounders on the quarterdeck, rammed them full of grape-shot, and fetched up the flint-lock muskets and pistols from the cabin. The mutineers were then informed that if they poked their heads above the hatches he would blow them overboard. Losing enthusiasm and weakened by hunger, they asked to be set ashore; so the skipper marooned the lot. For two days the cutter lay offshore while a truce was argued, the upshot being that four of the rascals gave in and the others were left behind.

Fifty days more of it and, washed by icy seas, racked and storm-beaten, the vessel made Norfolk Sound. So small was the crew, so imminent the danger that the Indians might take her by boarding, that screens of hides were rigged along the bulwarks to hide the deck from view. Stranded and getting clear, warding off attacks, Captain Richard Cleveland stayed two months on the wilderness coast of Oregon, trading one musket for eight prime sea-otter skins until there was no more room below. Sixty thousand dollars was the value of the venture when he sailed for China by way of the Sandwich Islands, forty thousand of profit, and he was twenty-five years old with the zest for roving undiminished.

He next appeared in Calcutta, buying a twenty-five-ton pilot boat under the Danish flag for a fling at Mauritius and a speculation in prizes brought in by French privateers. Finding none in port, he loaded seven thousand bags of coffee in a ship for Copenhagen and conveyed as a passenger a kindred spirit, young Nathaniel Shaler, whom he took into partnership. At Hamburg these two bought a fast brig, the Lelia Byrd, to try their fortune on the west coast of South America, and recruited a third partner, a boyish Polish nobleman, Count de Rousillon, who had been an aide to Kosciusko. Three seafaring musketeers, true gentlemen rovers, all under thirty, sailing out to beard the viceroys of Spain!

From Valparaiso, where other American ships were detained and robbed, they adroitly escaped and steered north to Mexico and California. At San Diego they fought their way out of the harbor, silencing the Spanish fort with their six guns. Then to Canton with furs, and Richard Cleveland went home at thirty years of age after seven years' absence and voyaging twice around the world, having wrested success from almost every imaginable danger and obstacle, with $70,000 to make him a rich man in his own town. He was neither more nor less than an American sailor of the kind that made the old merchant marine magnificent.

It was true romance, also, when the first American shipmasters set foot in mysterious Japan, a half century before Perry's squadron shattered the immemorial isolation of the land of the Shoguns and the Samurai. Only the Dutch had been permitted to hold any foreign intercourse whatever with this hermit nation and for two centuries they had maintained their singular commercial monopoly at a price measured in terms of the deepest degradation of dignity and respect. The few Dutch merchants suffered to reside in Japan were restricted to a small island in Nagasaki harbor, leaving it only once in four years when the Resident, or chief agent, journeyed to Yeddo to offer gifts and most humble obeisance to the Shogun, "creeping forward on his hands and feet, and falling on his knees, bowed his head to the ground, and retired again in absolute silence, crawling exactly like a crab," said one of these pilgrims who added: "We may not keep Sundays or fast days, or allow our spiritual hymns or prayers to be heard; never mention the name of Christ. Besides these things, we have to submit to other insulting imputations which are always painful to a noble heart. The reason which impels the Dutch to bear all these sufferings so patiently is simply the love of gain."

In return for these humiliations the Dutch East India Company was permitted to send one or two ships a year from Batavia to Japan and to export copper, silk, gold, camphor, porcelain, bronze, and rare woods. The American ship Franklin arrived at Batavia in 1799 and Captain James Devereux of Salem learned that a charter was offered for one of these annual voyages. After a deal of Yankee dickering with the hard-headed Dutchmen, a bargain was struck and the Franklin sailed for Nagasaki with cloves, chintz, sugar, tin, black pepper, sapan wood, and elephants' teeth. The instructions were elaborate and punctilious, salutes to be fired right and left, nine guns for the Emperor's guard while passing in, thirteen guns at the anchorage; all books on board to be sealed up in a cask, Bibles in particular, and turned over to the Japanese officials, all firearms sent ashore, ship dressed with colors whenever the "Commissaries of the Chief" graciously came aboard, and a carpet on deck for them to sit upon.

Two years later, the Margaret of Salem made the same sort of a voyage, and in both instances the supercargoes, one of whom happened to be a younger brother of Captain Richard Cleveland, wrote journals of the extraordinary episode. For these mariners alone was the curtain lifted which concealed the feudal Japan from the eyes of the civilized world. Alert and curious, these Yankee traders explored the narrow streets of Nagasaki, visited temples, were handsomely entertained by officers and merchants, and exchanged their wares in the marketplace. They were as much at home, no doubt, as when buying piculs of pepper from a rajah of Qualah Battoo, or dining with an elderly mandarin of Cochin China. It was not too much to say that "the profuse stores of knowledge brought by every ship's crew, together with unheard of curiosities from every savage shore, gave the community of Salem a rare alertness of

It was a Salem bark, the Lydia, that first displayed the American flag to the natives of Guam in 1801. She was chartered by the Spanish government of Manila to carry to the Marianne Islands, as those dots on the chart of the Pacific were then called, the new Governor, his family, his suite, and his luggage. First Mate William Haswell kept a diary in a most conscientious fashion, and here and there one gleans an item with a humor of its own. "Now having to pass through dangerous straits," he observes, "we went to work to make boarding nettings and to get our arms in the best order, but had we been attacked we should have been taken with ease. Between Panay and Negros all the passengers were in the greatest confusion for fear of being taken and put to death in the dark and not have time to say their prayers."

The decks were in confusion most of the time, what with the Governor, his lady, three children, two servant girls and twelve men servants, a friar and his servant, a judge and two servants, not to mention some small hogs, two sheep, an ox, and a goat to feed the passengers who were too dainty for sea provender. The friar was an interesting character. A great pity that the worthy mate of the Lydia should not have been more explicit! It intrigues the reader of his manuscript diary to be told that "the Friar was praying night and day but it would not bring a fair wind. His behavior was so bad that we were forced to send him to Coventry, or in other words, no one would speak to him."

The Spanish governors of Guam had in operation an economic system which compelled the admiration of this thrifty Yankee mate. The natives wore very few clothes, he concluded, because the Governor was the only shopkeeper and he insisted on a profit of at least eight hundred per cent. There was a native militia regiment of a thousand men who were paid ten dollars a year. With this cash they bought Bengal goods, cottons, Chinese pans, pots, knives, and hoes at the Governor's store, so that "all this money never left the Governor's hands. It was fetched to him by the galleons in passing, and when he was relieved he carried it with him to Manila, often to the amount of eighty or ninety thousand dollars." A glimpse of high finance without a flaw!

There is pathos, simple and moving, in the stories of shipwreck and stranding on hostile or desert coasts. These disasters were far more frequent then than now, because navigation was partly guesswork and ships were very small. Among these tragedies was that of the Commerce, bound from Boston to Bombay in 1793. The captain lost his bearings and thought he was off Malabar when the ship piled up on the beach in the night. The nearest port was Muscat and the crew took to the boats in the hope of reaching it. Stormy weather drove them ashore where armed Arabs on camels stripped them of clothes and stores and left them to die among the sand dunes.

On foot they trudged day after day in the direction of Muscat, and how they suffered and what they endured was told by one of the survivors, young Daniel Saunders. Soon they began to drop out and die in their tracks in the manner of "Benjamin Williams, William Leghorn, and Thomas Barnard whose bodies were exposed naked to the scorching sun and finding their strength and spirits quite exhausted they lay down expecting nothing but death for relief." The next to be left behind was Mr. Robert Williams, merchant and part owner, "and we therefore with reluctance abandoned him to the mercy of God, suffering ourselves all the horrors that fill the mind at the approach of death." Near the beach and a forlorn little oasis, they stumbled across Charles Lapham, who had become separated from them. He had been without water for five days "and after many efforts he got upon his feet and endeavored to walk. Seeing him in so wretched a condition I could not but sympathize enough with him in his torments to go back with him" toward water two miles away, "which both my other companions refused to do. Accordingly they walked forward while I went back a considerable distance with Lapham until, his strength failing him, he suddenly fell on the ground, nor was he able to rise again or even speak to me. Finding it vain to stay with him, I covered him with sprays and leaves which I tore from an adjacent tree, it being the last friendly office I could do him."

Eight living skeletons left of eighteen strong seamen tottered into Muscat and were cared for by the English consul. Daniel Saunders worked his passage to England, was picked up by a press-gang, escaped, and so returned to Salem. It was the fate of Juba Hill, the black cook from Boston, to be detained among the Arabs as a slave. It is worth noting that a black sea-cook figured in many of these tales of daring and disaster, and among them was the heroic and amazing figure of one Peter Jackson who belonged in the brig Ceres. While running down the river from Calcutta she was thrown on her beam ends and Peter, perhaps dumping garbage over the rail, took a header. Among the things tossed to him as he floated away was a sail-boom on which he was swiftly carried out of sight by the turbid current. All on board concluded that Peter Jackson had been eaten by sharks or crocodiles and it was so reported when they arrived home. An administrator was appointed for his goods and chattels and he was officially deceased in the eyes of the law. A year or so later this unconquerable sea-cook appeared in the streets of Salem, grinning a welcome to former shipmates who fled from him in terror as a ghostly visitation. He had floated twelve hours on his sail-boom, it seemed, fighting off the sharks with his feet; and finally drifting ashore. "He had hard work to do away with the impressions of being dead," runs the old account, "but succeeded and was allowed the rights and privileges of the living."

The community of interests in these voyages of long ago included not only the ship's company but also the townspeople, even the boys and girls, who entrusted their little private speculations or "adventures" to the captain. It was a custom which flourished well into the nineteenth century. These memoranda are sprinkled through the account books of the East Indiamen out of Salem and Boston. It might be Miss Harriet Elkins who requested the master of the Messenger "please to purchase at Calcutta two net beads with draperies; if at Batavia or any spice market, nutmegs or mace; or if at Canton, two Canton shawls of the enclosed colors at $5 per shawl. Enclosed is $10."

Again, it might be Mr. John R. Tucker who ventured in the same ship one hundred Spanish dollars to be invested in coffee and sugar, or Captain Nathaniel West who risked in the Astrea fifteen boxes of spermaceti candles and a pipe of Teneriffe wine. It is interesting to discover what was done with Mr. Tucker's hundred Spanish dollars, as invested for him by the skipper of the Messenger at Batavia and duly accounted for. Ten bags of coffee were bought for $83.30, the extra expenses of duty, boat-hire, and sacking bringing the total outlay to $90.19. The coffee was sold at Antwerp on the way home for $183.75, and Mr. Tucker's handsome profit on the adventure was therefore $93.56, or more than one hundred per cent.

It was all a grand adventure, in fact, and the word was aptly chosen to fit this ocean trade. The merchant freighted his ship and sent her out to vanish from his ken for months and months of waiting, with the greater part of his savings, perhaps, in goods and specie beneath her hatches. No cable messages kept him in touch with her nor were there frequent letters from the master. Not until her signal was displayed by the fluttering flags of the headland station at the harbor mouth could he know whether he had gained or lost a fortune. The spirit of such merchants was admirably typified in the last venture of Elias Hasket Derby in 1798, when unofficial war existed between the United States and France.

American ships were everywhere seeking refuge from the privateers under the tricolor, which fairly ran amuck in the routes of trade. For this reason it meant a rich reward to land a cargo abroad. The ship Mount Vernon, commanded by Captain Elias Hasket Derby, Jr., was laden with sugar and coffee for Mediterranean ports, and was prepared for trouble, with twenty guns mounted and fifty men to handle them. A smart ship and a powerful one, she raced across to Cape Saint Vincent in sixteen days, which was clipper speed. She ran into a French fleet of sixty sail, exchanged broadsides with the nearest, and showed her stern to the others.

"We arrived at 12 o'clock [wrote Captain Derby from Gibraltar] popping at Frenchmen all the forenoon. At 10 A.M. off Algeciras Point we were seriously attacked by a large latineer who had on board more than one hundred men. He came so near our broadside as to allow our six-pound grape to do execution handsomely. We then bore away and gave him our stern guns in a cool and deliberate manner, doing apparently great execution. Our bars having cut his sails considerably, he was thrown into confusion, struck both his ensign and his pennant. I was then puzzled to know what to do with so many men; our ship was running large with all her steering sails out, so that we could not immediately bring her to the wind, and we were directly off Algeciras Point from whence I had reason to fear she might receive assistance, and my port Gibraltar in full view. These were circumstances that induced me to give up the gratification of bringing him in. It was, however, a satisfaction to flog the rascal in full view of the English fleet who were to leeward."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Long View

Although it is depressing to see America descending into socialism, and away from the rugged individualism that was its glory for so long, it doesn't affect my view of Man. It's just another wrong path that will lead to a dead end, and then we will return to the path of reason and individualism and their result, the Ascent of Man.

Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than Man--
Man who makes the winds of winter bear him,
Through the trough of waves that tower about him,
Across grey wastes of sea;
Man who wearies the Untiring, the Immortal--
Earth, eldest of the Gods, as year by year,
His plough-teams come and go.
The care-free bands of birds,
Beasts of the wild, tribes of the sea,
In netted toils he takes,
The Subtle One.
Creatures that haunt the hills, the desert-dwellers,
His cunning snares; he lays his mastering yoke
On the horse's shaggy mane,
On the tireless mountain-bull.
Speech, too, and wind-swift thought
And the soul of the ruler of cities
He hath learned, untaught of any.
To shun the bitter arrows of the roofless frost,
The bitter shafts of rain,
He knows, the all-deviser; for without device
No morrow finds him. Only against Death
He shall call for help in vain,
Yet many a mortal sickness he hath mastered.

(Chorus, lines 332-375, Antigone, Sophocles)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Light Bulb Moment

While watching episode 13 of Dae Jang Geum, I noticed another of the seemingly countless Romantic moments of the drama. I mean those moments that show a character, usually, but not always, Jang Geum, demonstrating her intelligence and goal directed behavior. Jang Geum and Lady Han are investigating the reason why the bean paste (one of the basic ingredients of Korean dishes at the time) in the palace has gone bad.

Earlier in the day, Jang Geum had run into her foster parents, and they had offered her a special type of wine in thanks for something she had done for them. They said the wine had a very good taste because it fermented well. A seemingly small plot point, but it served more than one purpose---the writer of this drama is very clever in her plotting ability.

So, Jang Geum and Lady Han go to a place where the common people make bean paste, and try to figure out why theirs still tastes good, while the paste in the palace is bad. They are told that it tastes well when it is stored in three specific locations in the village, and nowhere else. The villagers attributed this to the village gods, who were worshipped in one of these locations. As they stand at one of these places, Jang Geum looks about, and then flashes back to her foster mother's earlier comment about the wine tasting good because it fermented well. Then she had the "light bulb moment," or Eureka moment, when she realized the solution to their problem.

It turned out the bean paste was stored, in big ceramic jars, underneath chestnut and pine trees, from which pollen fell into the jars and aided the fermentation process. This had also been the case in the palace, until some of these trees were cut down. That changed the taste. Jang Geum looked at all the facts, and came up with the solution.

This is the hero of the story, admired and valued by all fellow people of good will in the drama, precisely because of her intelligence, independence, self-confidence, and benevolence. She is intrepid, and a risk taker. Just another Romantic episode in the drama of Jang Geum.

In the same episode, one of the evil characters, the Head Lady, was speaking of the Highest Kitchen Lady, Lady Jung, who is one of the good characters. The Head Lady hated Lady Jung, but admitted that she was a woman of upright character---and this was her weakness! Because, said the Head Lady, such people never make allowance for the deviousness of other people, assuming everyone is as upright as themselves. I forget what Ayn Rand called that attitude, where the evil take advantage of the good, by counting on their goodness. Anyway, it is yet another example of this writer's brilliance, and her psychological understanding of the good, and the evil.


For some reason the word stragglers came into my mind today. In my teenage years I used to read a lot of military history, and especially a lot of books on Napoleon and his campaigns. In such books, you become acquainted with the term stragglers. The majority of all armies at the time were infantry, and they marched great distances, day after day. Sometimes there were forced marches, meaning at increased speed or duration, to get to some location before the enemy expected you to get there. Stragglers are those soldiers who cannot keep up with the main body of the army. They stop to rest, or just walk more slowly. They may be physically weaker, or they may be deliberately malingering, planning to desert. If the march is a retreat, and in poor conditions---for example, the retreat of Napoleon's Grande Armée in the Russian Campaign---most of the stragglers will become casualties: deserters, killed by the pursuing enemy, or simply die of exposure.

When the word came to mind today, I realized it must be a dying word, because even the infantry in modern armies is mechanized, and do very little marching, except as physical training. Our army flies to places of conflict, or gets there by naval transport. So I looked up stragglers in my Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. It didn't even get its own entry, but was reduced to being appended to the verb straggle, as its noun form. The definition made no mention of armies:

straggle vi straggled: straggling 1. to wander from the direct course or way: ROVE, STRAY 2. to trail off from others of its kind (little cabins straggling off into the woods) straggler n

Next I looked in a more comprehensive dictionary, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, where straggler still had its own entry:

straggler noun 1. A person who straggles; spec. (a) a person who strays away from or trails behind a main body, esp. on a line of march; . . . . .

So ordinary dictionaries have relegated the word to obsolescence, and only the extraordinary dictionaries keep this barbarous relic of the past in their repertoire. It's not a bad thing that stragglers are a relic of the past, of course. But for those of us who like to learn from history, it's good to know the OED is still there to define the terms the modern world has left behind.

Postscript: To give some idea of the numbers of stragglers a failed campaign can have, here is Wikipedia's description of Napoleon's retreat from Russia:

It [the Grande Armée] reached its maximum size of 600,000 men at the start of the invasion of Russia in 1812. All contingents were commanded by French generals, except for a Polish and an Austrian corps. The huge multinational army marched slowly eastwards, with the Russians falling back before it. After the capture of Smolensk and victory in the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon and a large part of the Grande Armée reached Moscow on 14 September 1812; however, the army was already drastically reduced in numbers due to bloody battles with Russians, disease (principally typhus) and long communication lines. The army spent a month in Moscow, but was ultimately forced to march back westwards. Assailed by cold, starvation and disease, and constantly harassed by Cossacks and Russian irregulars, the retreat utterly destroyed the Grande Armée as a fighting force. As many as 400,000 died in the adventure and only a few tens of thousands of ravaged troops returned.

Monday, April 5, 2010

What Is Art?

From C. M. Bowra's The Greek Experience (© 1957):

Greek Poets had their own notion of the kind of truth which their art demanded. In the fourth century Aristotle faced the issue candidly and squarely and, in discussing the difference between history and poetry, came to a clear conclusion: 'It really lies in this: the one describes what has happened, the other what might. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and more serious than history; for poetry speaks of what is universal, history of what is particular.' No Greek poets would have used precisely this language, and most of them would have been surprised to hear their work called philosophical, but they would certainly have thought it serious. But Aristotle is right to call it philosophical, because in its own way it is concerned with the revelation of truth. The truth in question, as he saw, is not of particular facts, but of universal principles or tendencies or characteristics. Even if, as is perfectly possible, there was once a historical Achilles, the importance of Homer's presentation of him is irrelevant to his existence. The Achilles whom we know is indeed universal in the sense that he embodies in a convincing and satisfying form qualities which are to be found in many men, but seldom so clearly or so forcibly as in him. To find this universal element the poet must make a severe selection from reality and present it with decisive discrimination. Just as sculptors emphasized what they thought to be the essential characteristics of their subjects at the expense of the incidental and the accidental, so poets emphasized what they thought to be the essential characteristics of human beings and showed how these led to certain kinds of result in action and suffering. They saw too that behind the infinite variety of human behaviour and fortune there must be forces at work which could to some degree be understood and presented in a concrete form. Their idea of truth was to find out these principles and forces, which were indeed at work in individuals but could best be grasped if they were abstracted from the particular case and displayed through situations which manifested more clearly their significance and their reality. (p. 134-135, emphasis added)

If you take away the Greeks' unfortunate belief in the Gods influencing man's behavior and fate, this is very similar to Objectivist aesthetics. And, as is well known, Ayn Rand subscribed to Aristotle's view that art portrays man as he "might be."

Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 37)

By a selective re-creation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man's fundamental view of himself and of existence. Out of the countless number of concretes---of single, disorganized and (seemingly) contradictory attributes, actions and entities---an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction.

For instance, consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist's view of man's nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 37)

The Romanticists did not present a hero as a statistical average, but as an abstraction of man's best and highest potentiality, applicable to and achievable by all men, in various degrees, according to their individual choices. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 425)

Ayn Rand's aesthetic theory is more fully developed than these brief statements, of course. I am simply pointing to a possible source of inspiration, not only the Greeks and Aristotle, but C. M. Bowra's description of Greek art.

Postscript: With appropriate modifications, Bowra's description of Homer's Achilles fits a modern Romantic heroine of mine:

Even if, as is perfectly possible, there was once a historical Dae Jang Geum, the importance of Kim Yeong-hyeon's presentation of her is irrelevant to her existence. The Dae Jang Geum whom we know is indeed universal in the sense that she embodies in a convincing and satisfying form qualities which are to be found in many men, but seldom so clearly or so forcibly as in her.