Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective




The China Trade


China Trade

After the Revolution, there was a new dimension in trade: merchants were free from the embargoes and monopoly restrictions formerly imposed on the colonies. The Orient, long a monopoly of the British East India Company, was open to Rhode Island shipping.

In 1787, John Brown of Providence dispatched his ship the General Washington to Canton by way of Madeira, Madras, and Pondicherry. The cargo consisted of anchors, cannon shot, bar iron, sheet copper, ginseng (an herb growing wild in New England which was much prized by the Chinese for medicinal purposes and as an aphrodisiac), tar, spermaceti candles, Jamaica spirits, New England rum, and Madeira wine and brandy.

The voyage to China took ten months. On the way back stops were made at St. Helena and Ascension Islands in the South Atlantic, and St. Eustacius in the Antilles. In July 1789, the General Washington reached Providence after 32,000 miles under sail. Her cargo of tea, silks, china, cotton, flannels, gloves, and lacquerware was valued at $99,848.

John Brown's brothers and their partners wasted little time in following suit. Brown and Benson (later Brown and Ives) sent out the 450-ton ship the John Jay in 1794 with a cargo valued at ($34,550, and two years later the vessel returned with goods worth $250,000.

The China trade sparked a flurry of shipbuilding. Captain Benjamin Tallman of Portsmouth, one of New England's best builders, was responsible for the design and construction of a large group of notable ships for the China trade. One of these was the Ann and Hope, named for the wives of the partners in Brown and Ives. For her time she was exceptionally fast, reaching Canton in four months and one day, including a stop in Australia. She returned with a valuable cargo in 126 days. On her sixth return trip, with a $300,000 cargo in her hold, she was wrecked on Block Island.

Later a second Ann and Hope was built to join other Brown family ships such as the Rising Sun, Hope, Hamilton, Three Fiends, President Washington, Harmony, Charlotte, Friendship, Isle Asta, and many more.

As the China trade flourished, other parts of the world were not neglected. Brisk business was done with Portugal, France, and Holland, and numerous trips were made to Baltic ports; the standard trade with the West Indian islands continued.

More often than not a voyage of two years might involve several exchanges of cargo. A ship loaded with Chinese goods might come directly back to Narragansett Bay or go to a European port where prices might be better. Captains and supercargoes carried authority to change plans en route if in their judgment better profits might be obtained. Lacking rapid communications systems, owners sent out letters of instructions to their shipmasters to various ports of call, hoping that intelligence weeks and even months old when it was received might still be valid. Frequently, a shipowner armed with the best intelligence he could gather about market conditions would load a special commodity which he knew to have been in short supply at a certain port, and when the ship arrived there, a half dozen others carrying similar cargoes would have preceded it.

John Brown's ship Hope was the second United States vessel to visit Australia. The Brown and Ives ship Mary Ann was one of the first to begin trade with Buenos Aires. It launched a South American trade that a number of Rhode Island shipowners continued for many years with the turbulent Spanish colonies as they emerged to nationhood.

Not all of the Narragansett Bay merchant fleet was built along its shores. One Brown and Ives vessel, the Robert Hale, was constructed in Marietta, Ohio, floated down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and sailed up the East Coast to Providence.

While Providence merchants were the leaders in foreign trade at the beginning of the nineteenth century, powerful competition came from the DeWolf family in Bristol. James DeWolf, who had made a fortune as a merchant and slave trader, was the owner of Narragansett Bay's most successful privateer, the 140-ton brigantine Yankee. Frustrated by British harassment of his merchant ships, DeWolf was ready for revenge when the War of 1812 began. He put a crew of 120 men aboard Yankee and sent her out to prey on British merchant shipping. In three years, Yankee captured prizes valued at $5,000,000, and returned $1,000,000 in profits to the people of Bristol.

Another DeWolf won seafaring fame in a different way; in 1803, at the age of 24, John DeWolf set out on almost four years of travel and adventure in the Pacific Northwest and Siberia. DeWolf took the 250-ton Juno around the Horn, with stops in Chile, to the Pacific Northwest to trade with the Indians for sealskins. He met Russian traders who had established settlements there and sold one of them his vessel for S68,000 plus a 40-ton sloop. He loaded the smaller vessel with furs and dispatched it to China under the command of his first mate, and spent the winter with his Russian friends. Traveling westward, he lived with the Russians on Kamchatka peninsula for a second winter. After numerous adventures, including travel across Siberia by boat, by horseback and in a buggy, he arrived in St. Petersburg, and finally returned to Bristol on April 1, 1808.

The diary of "Nor'west John" about his experiences and life in that little known part of the world provided a valuable historical record. His trading ventures, incidentally, added $100,000 to the family fortune.

The best account of the voyages of "Nor'west John" and the commercial adventures of the DeWolfs is Wilfred H. Munro's Tales of an Old Seaport. For a detailed insight into the great period of Narragansett Bay maritime commerce one must turn to the two-volume work of James B. Hedges, The Browns of Providence Plantations. The Brown family kept meticulous countinghouse records, and Hedges devoted a number of years of scholarly research on this wealth of material in preparation of his book.

Very little attention is paid today to Narragansett Bay's part in the whaling industry. Although the Nantucket captains were the acknowledged leaders in the search for the sperm whale, they were joined by substantial numbers of Rhode Islanders. Commercial whaling started in the waters near Nantucket, where whales were plentiful during certain seasons of the year, and gradually spread farther into the North Atlantic. Rhode Island's first whaler probably was the sloop Allica, sent out in 1733 by Benjamin Thursten of Newport. In the years that followed, numerous whaling ships were launched at the shipbuilding centers around the Bay and joined in the ever-widening hunt for the huge cetaceans. By 1775, the Narragansett Bay whaling fleet numbered 50 vessels.

The merchants of Providence and Newport, continuously scouting for export products, provided a major market not only for the Rhode Island fleet but for the Nantucket whalers as well through establishment of candle factories. Spermaceti candlemaking was brought to Newport by Jacob Rodrigues Rivera in 1748. He was one of the prominent Jewish merchants who helped maintain Newport's position in trade up to the Revolution. Spermaceti candles, made from the head matter of whales, joined rum as a staple export item. At one period in 1763, the Browns of Providence and their associates in Newport held a virtual monopoly of the spermaceti candle business throughout the colonies.

The major whaling fleets were based in Warren and Bristol both before and after the Revolution. There was a halt to whaling during the war and for a few years afterward, but then it was renewed with even more vigor. By 1821, the Rhode Island fleet, which had gone out of existence for a time, again numbered 50 vessels. The nineteenth-century whalers went farther afield, into the South Atlantic and then into the South Pacific. Voyages were extended to three years or more. By 1847, Bristol shipowners stopped whaling and turned to other pursuits, but Warren men continued for 14 more years.

The end came in 1861, when the market for whale oil disappeared as petroleum products proved superior. The last of the Warren whalers were laid up. Earlier, the bulk of the Narragansett Bay fleet had been either sold or put to work as passenger ships to carry fortune hunters to California during the gold rush, which began in 1849.

By 1840, foreign commerce in Narragansett Bay was no longer economically significant. Shipowners turned either to whaling or to coastal freighting and passenger service. The reasons were complex. Students of the period feel Rhode Island merchants were individualists, slow to form business corporations and institutionalize the movement of products and commodities. They preferred to keep their operations flexible and shift cargoes to suit business opportunities, to take personal risks for the chance of big profits. Further, competition with ports that had a more extensive hinterland, which could supply more raw materials and absorb more manufactured goods, might have put Rhode Island at a disadvantage. A more important factor, however, was the machinery that whirred and clattered in hundreds of mills—the merchants who had underwritten maritime commerce were shifting their financial backing to industry.

Samuel Slater, who had done an apprenticeship-as manager-trainee at a mill in Derbyshire, England. came to America to seek his fortune in 1789. The British government kept effective control over the designs of their textile-manufacturing machinery and over the emigration of skilled mechanics familiar with the machines, so Slater traveled as an agricultural laborer. He was working in a small textile mill in New York City when he heard about Moses Brown and his experiments in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Some Americans had been experimenting with designs for carding machines and spinning frames since 1786 (John Reynolds of East Greenwich and Daniel Anthony of Providence were two early mechanics), some of them basing their models t on the Arkwright machinery in the British mills. Moses Brown watched all these innovations with great interest, and early in 1789 he decided to go into the business of textile manufacturing full scale. He purchased all the important machines in Rhode Island at the time, and had them installed in a mill in Pawtucket. The mill was waterpowered and was set up to do the operations of carding, spinning, and weaving—not without great problems, however. Brown, his son-in-law, William Almy, and his nephew, Smith Brown, decided that they needed someone who not only understood the construction of the machines but had experience in managing the operation of them as well.

After Slater and Brown exchanged letters, Slater came to work for Almy and Brown, and within a short time, working with local mechanics, he had revised and rebuilt parts of the machinery so that the mill was operating effectively. Eventually, the mill began to produce more yarn and thread than the local weavers could use, and Almy, Brown, and Slater had to develop new markets for the surplus. The cotton industry was on its way in Rhode Island, and it dominated yarn and textile production in the country until 1815, when Massachusetts took the lead.

The woolen industry had a later beginning when Rowland Hazard of South Kingstown set up a wool-manufacturing mill in 1804.

Water power was supplied by the Blackstone, the Moshassuck, the Woonasquatucket, and the Pawtuxet Rivers. After 1830, the machines were driven by steam rather than water. By the 1840s New England was competing with British textiles in the markets.

Besides the manufacture of cotton thread and woolen yarn and textiles, there were other industries that developed: the manufacture of textile machinery, steam engines, and metal tools, jewelry and silverware. There was an upward population spiral augmented by waves of immigrant families from Ireland, French and English Canada, Italy, Portugal, the Azores, Cape Verde Islands, Poland, Armenia, Scandinavia, and Scotland.

The Industrial Revolution not only transformed the processes of production, the population patterns of the cities and mill villages, and the life-styles of the inhabitants, but it affected the movement of goods and passengers on both land and water. Eventually, it brought the age of sail, except for pleasure, to a close.

Present-day Rhode Islanders can take great pride in Narragansett Bay's two centuries of wind-borne commerce. The vessels launched in the Bay could sail with the world's best, and the men who manned them were hard-bitten, durable mariners able to hold their own in storm or battle.

Roger Williams demonstrated the same physical endurance. In 1672, when he was nearly 70 years old, he stepped into a dugout canoe in Providence one morning and paddled alone to Newport to debate points with two representatives of George Fox, the Quaker leader. The trip took the full day and part of the night, but the effort did not dim his fiery delivery during the debate, which went on for three days in Newport and another day In Providence.

When the Tall Ships paraded up the Bay in 1964 and then in greater numbers in 1976, thousands of Rhode Islanders were carried back in time to the days when full-rigged ships were as commonplace as today's diesel-powered tankers. To an admirer of the big wind ships, it is too bad that the Bay's part in their development came to an end when it did. The Bay just missed one of the most glamorous stages of their development—the clipper ships.

The Baltimore clippers, slim, fast, and graceful, with masts raked sharply aft, competed with the big square-riggers from Providence for trade and privateering prizes and were the forerunners of the famed China tea clippers. Although widely copied by the English and Scottish builders, the clippers were of American origin. About 200 feet in length, with a beam of 33 feet and carrying several staysails forward, square sails on three masts, and a fore- and aft- rigged mizzen, they established speed records that have never been broken. The first was the Rainbow, launched in 1845. The Sovereign of the Seas reached a top speed of 22 knots on a voyage from New York to Liverpool in 13 days and 14 hours. Others made and broke each other's records on trips around the Horn to California.

These swift ocean cargo carriers were built elsewhere, however. Rhode Island had cast its lot with the factories on shore, and when mayor shipbuilding resumed, strange hissing boilers supplied power to a new generation of commercial vessels.

The China tea clippers disappeared after the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, although variants continued to round the Horn in the Australian wool trade for another decade, and a few big square-riggers continued to carry coal and saltpeter between Europe and South America and freight out of West Coast ports. Among the last sailing from the East Coast were the ships of the Standard Oil Company, which carried tins of "oil for the lamps of China."

During the last half of the nineteenth century, business leaders in Providence, while busy with manufacturing, waited patiently for a resumption in foreign trade. The Providence River had been adequate in earlier times to accommodate the square-rigged ships of Brown and Ives and other merchants, but in 1851 work began to dredge the channel to a uniform depth of 25 feet at low tide. The work progressed sporadically and it was not until 1888 that the job was done. This was deemed sufficient to handle the largest oceangoing vessels of the day, but few appeared. Rhode Island never regained its former glory in foreign trade.


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