From the Piscataqua to the Packnam:
Portsmouth in the East Indies Trade
A Preview of my upcoming talk at the Portsmouth Athenaeum
18 March 2015
When we think of America’s first encounters on the world stage, when we read about the first Americans in the Old China Trade and the Indies Trade, the names of seaports such as Salem and Boston, Philadelphia and New York come to mind. We recall the first voyage, that of the Empress of China from New York to Canton in 1784 and that of the United States from Philadelphia to India the same year. Yet, more modest ports played an important if forgotten role, as well, and Portsmouth was one of these. In fact, Portsmouth men were among the first Americans to sail to the East, its merchants went on to trade in Zanzibar and collect otters pelts along the Northwest Coast, and its female missionaries are buried in Macao’s Protestant Cemetery. One Portsmouth man claimed unknown islands in the Pacific, another negotiated the first treaties with Siam (Thailand) and Muscat (Oman) and laid down plans for the first US treaties with Vietnam and Japan, and another exchanged Indian opium for Canton’s teas, silks, and porcelain.
Where do we find the historical clues? Combing through hoary libraries and archives, like the Portsmouth Athenaeum, we may happen on obscure references and curious hints. I encountered one of these tantalizing clues a couple of years ago and became intrigued. In the pages of a dusty volume entitled A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round the World; together with a Voyage of Survey and Discovery, in the Pacific Ocean and Oriental Islands, published in Boston in 1817, its author, Amasa Delano inserted a tantalizing chart. Delano was describing his first voyage to the East, aboard the ship Massachusetts, in 1790.
Amidst the names of men from Boston, England, Ireland and Sweden, men who survived and men who “died at Canton” and “died at Macao” and men lost overboard or captured by pirates, we notice names of five Portsmouth mariners:
On the next page, an unnamed seaman, “Drowned off Java Head, in 1790,” also from Portsmouth:
Intrigued, we peruse Delano’s book, and we find more familiar names:
The first mate was another Portsmouth man named Josiah Roberts. He “died at River La Plate in 1810 or 1811.” The third mate was Jeremiah Parker of Portsmouth; he “died on homeward passage and thrown overboard.”
What this suggests is that Portsmouth men were active in the early Indies trade. But, we are left with more questions: Principally, who were these people? What happened to them? And, were there others?
For more information about the talk, see the Portsmouth Athenaeum web site: