Aye, My Hearties, the Six of Coins!

Pickering Wharf today. At left is the reconstructed Salem privateer schooner Fame. The original Fame  operated during the War of 1812 against British shipping, while the newer version offers summer day cruises in Salem Sound.

The history of Salem, Mass., is more about the sea than the witches — at least through the 18th and early 19th centuries, the peak of the Age of Sail.

Kids climb an old anchor at the National Park Service’s Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

In the beginning, all the coastal communities were fishing ports, but while some like Gloucester stayed that way, Salem went mercantile, first in the coastal and West Indies trade and then — for the big money — the Spice Trade. Pepper from Sumatra, cinnamon from India, tea from China, plus other Asian goods, were all in demand. Per capita, Salem was the richest town in Revolutionary War-era America, based on importing and re-shipping West Indian and East Asian goods.

A miniature portrait of Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1776–1808.

There was risk, of course. For example, Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne (the author’s father), a sea captain on the verge of big success, died of yellow fever in South America at age 32.

Model of original Friendship. Note cannon on deck.

The ships themselves were typically three-masted “East Indiamen” — like the Friendship of Salem, a working reconstructed ship based on a 1797 original. It is currently undergoing repairs, so I was not able to visit it last month.

The ocean was not necessarily a friendly place. There were European pirates still, plus privateers in wartime (pirates with a government license), and in the Far East there were local pirates as well.1)Salem ship captains also turned privateer in the 1850s against the French and during the Revolution and War of 1812 against British merchant ships. So the merchant ships carried cannon and other weapons for self-defense and the crews were trained in their use.

But by the time that Nathaniel Hawthorne the writer was working at the federal custom house in Salem in the 1840s, the trade was falling off.2)Consequently, he had plenty of time to plot “The Scarlet Letter.” But I wonder if the declining shipping trade in Salem contributed to Hawthorne’s nostalgic outlook. One reason was competition with Boston and New York.

The other was environmental. Salem’s merchants built so many private wharves (Pickering Wharf, Turner Wharf, Derby Wharf, etc.) for their ships and goods that they affected water movement, leading to increased silting-up of the harbor. Consequently, the newer, larger clipper ships of the 1840s–1850s could not easily use it.3)Salem could still accept shipments of leather, coal, and other raw materials needed for its new era as a manufacturing town.

While I drank a beer at Jaho Coffee on Derby Street, M. revisited the Spice Trade, making some purchases at Salem Spice on Wharf Street. Somewhere, the old sea captains nodded in approval.

Wharf Street: nautical New England with psychic readings.

But today’s Pickering Wharf neighborhood looks more like Diagon Alley. Yes, there is a fishing-tackle shop and nautical-theme gifts on sale, but there are also multiple occult shops. (Gypsy Ravish’s Nu Aeon is the only that I have visited.)

It turns into another time-slip: After spending the morning ashore, the second mate of the privateer Annabelle returns to the ship.

Summoning the sailors on deck, he sits on a hatch cover.

“Feast your eyes on my new Tarot deck,” he says. “Let’s have a quick reading for the voyage ahead!

“Ah now, look at that!” he exclaims, tapping a card with tar-stained fingernail. “Aye, my hearties, the Six of Coins! We’ll be coming back rich men!”

Notes   [ + ]

1. Salem ship captains also turned privateer in the 1850s against the French and during the Revolution and War of 1812 against British merchant ships.
2. Consequently, he had plenty of time to plot “The Scarlet Letter.” But I wonder if the declining shipping trade in Salem contributed to Hawthorne’s nostalgic outlook.
3. Salem could still accept shipments of leather, coal, and other raw materials needed for its new era as a manufacturing town.