The town notorious for Witch trials also has a Maritime tradition which rivals Nantucket; competing narratives literally etched in history.
The excerpt of Essex County Chronicle Opinion article:
Essex County Chronicles: East India trade fraught with great risk, huge rewards
May 24, 2010
Essex County Chronicles
Strolling down the genteel, elegant, mansion-lined streets surrounding the Salem Common or in the city's McIntire Historic District, it's fascinating to think that many of the fortunes that made them possible were derived from Sumatra and the Fiji Islands, two of the most uncivilized and violent island nations of their times.
Evidence of the importance that Salem city fathers placed on Sumatra, whose inhabitants terrorized local mariners doing business there, and its valuable export, pepper, can be found even on the city's official seal adopted in 1839. Standing on a shore, flanked by tropical vegetation and with an East Indiaman under sail for a backdrop, is a depiction of a robed native of the Kingdom of Atjeh or Aachen, located on the northwestern coast of Sumatra.
This island nation was "discovered" by Salem Capt. Jonathan Carnes while on a voyage to the East Indies in the early 1790s. He managed to keep his find a secret, and in 1796 returned to Sumatra on the Rajah owned by his relatives, the Peeles. The cargo brought home by Carnes, which was landed in New York — probably in an attempt to keep the product and its source a secret from other Salem mercantile families — netted a whopping 700 percent profit.
When word of the success of this venture and a subsequent and equally profitable trip by the Rajah finally leaked out, other local merchants began outfitting voyages to the "pepper island." The vessels that managed to make it home without being taken by the generally lawless and opportunistic natives — not an easy task — made their owners wealthy men.
In "Peppers and Pirates," historian James Duncan Phillips chronicles many of the unpleasant encounters between Salem crews and the Sumatrans. Lapses of judgment or concentration on the part of the visiting mariners usually resulted in great loss of life or property. The cunning natives were adept at smuggling their weapon of choice — curved knives known as creeses — aboard visiting ships and then dividing and killing or maiming members of the crew.
After an attack on the Friendship of Salem in 1831 left five men dead and three crippled for life, the American government sent the warship Potomac to Sumatra to teach the locals a lesson. Five forts were leveled during an invasion or by cannon fire from the Potomac, and for a time the Sumatran pepper trade was carried on under less dangerous conditions. But another deadly attack, this one on the Eclipse owned by Joseph Peabody of Salem in 1837, signaled the beginning of the end the lucrative trade.
Equally dangerous, but, like Sumatra, well worth the risk, were the Fiji (or FeeJee) Islands.
In the early 1800s, Salem merchants figured out there was a growing market for sandalwood, which grew on one of the larger of the islands in the chain.
The sandalwood trade was carried on with great vigor until about 1820 when the supply had all but vanished.
But the Fijis offered to speculators another other high profit export: beche-de-mer, also known as trepang. As ugly as it was profitable, this colored sea slug was harvested from the ocean floor by Fijian divers. It was then boiled in large kettles and dried for four or five days in long huts built for just that purpose.
The work was hot, dangerous, and labor-intensive, but it paid off. Beche-de-mer could be sold at a great profit to the Chinese who valued it for its aphrodisiac properties.
One Salem captain, John Eagleston, sold for $27,000 a load of sea slugs which had cost him a relatively paltry $3,500.
The downside of the Fiji trade was the violent and cannibalistic behavior of the natives whom Ernest S. Dodge noted in his "New England and the South Seas" were the "most unpredictable, the most savage customers, the traders had to deal with."
Renowned the world over for their rampant cannibalism, the Fijians struck fear into the hearts and minds of those doing business there or, even worse, those whose ships were wrecked on the dangerous reefs just off the Fijian coast.
Two amazing accounts of life among the cannibals were left behind by North Shore residents.
Mary Wallis of Beverly accompanied her husband Benjamin on two lengthy trips to the Fijis in the late 1840s, and her daily journal was later published under the title "Life in FeeJee." The book includes eyewitness accounts of many acts of violence and cannibalism, and of her husband's near demise at the hands of an irate native.
William Endicott of Danvers was serving aboard the Glide out of Salem when it went down off the Fiji coast. His "Wrecked Among the Cannibals in the Fijis," contains a description of an act of cannibalism that is not for the dainty or faint of heart.
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Jim McAllister of Salem writes a weekly column on the region's history. Contact him at culture email@example.com.
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