Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Will the Real Salem, Massachusetts, Please Stand Up?

Chances are pretty good that when you see or hear the words "Salem, Massachusetts" you think of witches. And that's understandable, since the infamous witch trials of 1692 are a valid part of Salem's history.

But consider this...

By the 1640s (that's 135 years before the first shots of the American Revolution were fired in Lexington), ships from Salem, Massachusetts, were carrying New England lumber and Atlantic cod down to the West Indies. There the lumber and cod would be traded for rum and molasses which would then be either sailed back home to Salem or sailed to Europe where they were traded for manufactured goods that were then brought back home. This profitable trade continued until England, in the 1770s, imposed upon the colonies a series of duties and taxes and altogether very restrictive trade regulations. But woe to the country that gets between a wealthy shipowner and his profits. Many of Salem's shipowners subsequently became the prime financial backers of the American Revolution.

And consider this...

When the American Revolution began, the fledgling Continental Navy had a grand total of 25 ships. Certainly not much of a threat to the Royal Navy. So the Continental Congress got creative. Firstly, they authorized colonial shipowners to prey on English merchant ships during their own commercial voyages. Then they licensed privateers to attack and capture English ships. By war's end, Salem had supplied more sailors and ships during the American Revolution than any other North American colonial port.

And then there's this...

Shortly after the conclusion of the American Revolution, England closed its ports in the West Indies to American shipping. A spiteful move, yes, but not surprising. It would have been devastating to those American ports whose economies were based on trade, were it not for the bold merchants of Salem. They would not be deterred. They began to send Salem's ships to Russia, to the Philippines and even to the East Indies. From 1790 until the War of 1812, Salem's trade, especially with the East Indies, made it one of the richest cities in our very young country.

So why isn't this information as well known as the Salem witch trials?

Why does one year of witch trials trump thirty years of incredibly lucrative trading that helped to pay, through customs taxes, the bills of our fledgling government?

Is it that shipping and trading are simply not as interesting, not as sensational as witches?

Then more's the pity, because the 170+ years of maritime history in Salem, Massachusetts, had a much more profound effect on the development of our country than a year of hysteria.

So here's the question. What represents the real Salem, Massachusetts?


Or this?

I've made my choice.

End of rant.

--- Barbara (currently in Pomona, California)
Day 163
Total miles: 14,717

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