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The West India Trade Boom in NH

Admiral Nelson


Brewster offers a look at Portsmouth in its trading heyday. This essay includes an accidental meeting between a local merchant and Admiral Nelson. Plus an anecdote about an African-American sailor in Russia.





Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth, New Hampshire columnist and editor in the early to mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values. From Brewster’s Rambles About Portsmouth, 1869 exclusively on – JDR

Our Wharves -- West-India Trade -- Capt. Gilman -- Admiral Nelson -- Emperor of Russia, &c.

THE Navigation of Portsmouth for twenty years previous to 1812 was much more extensive and employed a larger fleet of vessels, but of smaller tonnage, than are now owned here. It is true the capital now invested is much greater, but our ships now are seldom seen here after they are built. We will for a moment take a retrospective view of the Navigation of Portsmouth some seventy or eighty years ago. The trade was then principally with the West Indias, in schooners, and brigs of from 100 to 200 tons. Some of these vessels were always at our wharves, either loading or discharging.

Their outward cargoes were fish, lumber, beef, pork, &c., in the hold and cabin -- with a deck load of horses, mules, oxen, sheep, pigs, chickens, geese, turkeys, &c., and would appear at the wharf when loaded, like a farmer's barn-yard, with hay piled up almost to the lower yards. Live stock would always pay largely when it could be got out safe; but of this there was only one chance in ten. Bad weather will soon clear the decks, and the deck load will soon be a-swimming without shore or bounds. The return cargoes were rum, molasses, sugar, coffee, &c., with some specie. This trade was a great advantage to the laboring classes, also to coopers, and fishermen. Our wharves from the North End to the Pier, and even to the Point of Graves, were lined with vessels, and our community busy and happy.

Capt. Gilman Meets Admiral Nelson

This West India trade was however quite a lottery. Sometimes good voyages would be made, but oftener losing ones; so that few made fortunes by it, and many became bankrupt. One voyage now in mind was considered a good one.

The brig Oliver Peabody, owned in Exeter by Gov. Gilman, Mr. Peabody, Col. Gilman Leavitt, and others in Portsmouth, the master Capt. Stephen Gilman of Exeter, left here in 1803, with a full cargo of lumber, provisions, &c. and a deck load of stock, oxen, sheep, poultry, &c. Capt. Gilman had been about twenty days from Portsmouth, when, concluding by his observation the day before he must be in the latitude of the Windward Islands, the next morning by day-light found himself surrounded by a large fleet of men-of-war. At that time, as our vessels were daily captured by a French fleet under the command of Victor Hughes, he concluded it was a gone case.

He soon however was released from his fears, for a cutter immediately boarded him from the Admiral's Flag Ship, with an officer, who stated to him that the fleet in sight was that of Admiral Nelson blockading the French West India Islands, and that he was sent by the Admiral with his compliments, saying that his officers had seen him since daylight, and they had concluded he had a deck load of live stock, of which they were much in want; and also told Capt. G. if he would go on board with him, the Admiral would purchase his deck load at his own price.

He accordingly went; the Admiral received him in his cabin and treated him with a glass of wine and great politeness, and after the price of the stock was settled, gave orders to his Purser to pay him the amount, which he did in Spanish dollars. Capt. G. then returned to his brig, and the stock was taken on board the fleet. Capt. Gilman would often after his return home relate his interview with Nelson, with much satisfaction: said he was a man about five feet in height, of a very gentlemanly, and polite appearance, with only one arm, and limping considerably in walking, from a wound received in the knee. He said he thought him a handsome man, and considered him between thirty and forty years old. This was about two years before the battle of Trafalgar -- where Nelson lost his life.

Admiral Nelson told Capt. G. he had liberty to go to any Island and dispose of the balance of his cargo. This he soon did, and returned home with full cargo of West India produce, and 10,000 Spanish dollars for his deck load. His outward cargo was invoiced at $5,000.

It was not unusual to see twenty or thirty vessels loading for foreign ports in Portsmouth at one time. We also had a number of vessels engaged in the Russia, South America, and some in the India trade.

In the year 1802 William Gray, Esq., then of Salem, (often called Billy Gray,) loaded a number of ships here for India. They took in spars and naval stores. The specie carried out was brought from Boston in large wagons and put up in small iron-bound kegs. These ships usually returned to Boston.

Portsmouth had merchants in the India trade. Col. James Sheafe and Matthew S. Marsh, Esq., father of George M. Marsh owned two or three ships in this line. They built a ship on Peirce's Island in 1804, and sent her to India. Messrs. N. A. & J. Haven also sent one there called the Hamilton..

A Black Steward in Russia

Nearly seventy years since, Capt. Charles Coffin, in connection with Thomas Sheafe, was engaged in the Russian trade. In one of his voyages he took a black man as a steward. Soon after the vessel was in port, there was a grand military display of troops to be reviewed by the Emperor. The steward requested permission to go on shore to witness the pageant. He was not aware that a black man had rarely been seen in Russia, and was surprised to find that himself and the Emperor became the observed of all observers. Nor did the Emperor himself overlook him. The next day a messenger was sent to Capt. C. by order of the Emperor, asking if the services of the black man could be obtained for the Royal household. Capt. Coffin offered to dispense with the steward's services if he could better his condition, and the black man in due time became a Royal butler, and being faithful, was distinguished in his position. A few years after, our informant says, he saw him in the streets of Portsmouth, with gold-laced dress, silk stockings, etc., returned to take to Russia his ebony wife and their dark diamonds, to sparkle in the outer court of the Autocrat.

The trade to Russia, Sweden, South America, Liverpool, &c. was then good: iron, hemp, and duck were imported from Russia and Sweden, as none of these goods were then of American production; and hides and tallow from Montevideo and Buenos Ayres. The trade to Liverpool and Bristol was considerable. Messrs. Abel & Robert Harris then owned a ship called the Bristol-Packet, which run regularly to Bristol with cargoes of flax-seed, pot and pearl ashes, and some lumber. These men have now all passed away from us, as well as the trade they prosecuted. Some of them have left large estates, which we daily see in the substantial brick buildings and stores built by them.

 Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
This digital transcript  © 1999

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