I Found It at the JCB

This month

May 2010

ARTHUR, the Brown & Ives ship in this piece, departed Providence for Salem exactly 207 years ago this month.


Sailing in the South China Sea


"Carte de l'Entrée de la Rivière de Canton dans la Chine" by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, Petit Atlas maritime, Tome III, n°. 58.

Original in the John Carter Brown Library.

An unexpected sighting of a tall ship at the JCB  Susan E. Schopp

My research at the JCB focused on chop boats, the Chinese lighters that transported cargo to and from foreign vessels trading with China during the period c. 1700-1842. The vessels anchored at Whampoa, 12 miles downriver from Canton. As I pored over her log at the JCB, I little suspected I would find mention of a Salem (Massachusetts) East India ship to which I feel a personal connection.

South China Sea, December 17, 1803. Homeward bound from China, Captain Amos Warner, master of Brown & Ives’ ship Arthur, took a bold gamble: spotting an unidentified ship in the distance, he directed his vessel to catch up with her. 

Approaching an unknown vessel could spell disaster if she turned out to be an enemy, but Warner believed he knew her identity. The gamble paid off; she was the 342-ton Friendship of Salem, Massachusetts. Warner invited her master, Captain William Story, to come on board.

Captain Story delivered startling news: the United States and France, he reported, were at war.

Only eleven days earlier, Arthur had weighed anchor at Whampoa and began her trip downriver to Macao. Her hold was packed with green and black teas, including 1052 chests of Hyson tea alone; nearly 2000 bales and packages of the cottons known as nankeens; plus quantities of porcelains, silks, rhubarb, and other products. Also on board were the private trade goods, or “Adventures,” belonging to Captain Warner, Samuel Aborn (the ship’s supercargo, or business agent) and members of the crew.

Arthur made the trip back down the Pearl River much as she had made it up, in stages and guided by a Chinese pilot. The pilot’s aid was essential, not only because it was required by the Chinese authorities, but also because the tides, shoals and eddies of the river posed an ever-changing array of navigational hazards to deep-draft Western vessels.

That first evening, December 6th, Arthur anchored some 30 miles below Whampoa; she resumed her trip the next morning. She was not alone: “ran down the River in Company with the Ship Friendship of Salem,” states her logbook.
The two vessels discharged their pilots at Macao and remained in company for a week. On December 13th, Friendship disappeared from Arthur’s view. When, four days later, Captain Warner spotted an unknown sail, he correctly supposed it was she.

Arthur’s logbook entry for December 17th describes Captain Story’s startling announcement. “He inform’d us that last Evening he fell in with & spoke 2 English Frigates, they inform’d him that America & France was [sic] engaged in a War, that the French Cruizers in these Sea[s] had taken American Vessels …”

Captain Story remained on board until 6 PM and then returned to his own ship. Early the following morning, the two vessels parted company. Friendship, a faster sailor than Arthur, soon disappeared from view. Both reached home safely in April 1804, though the whereabouts of Friendship’s logbook for the voyage are today unknown. Ironically, both vessels met an untimely end at the hands of the British: Arthur was captured in 1810, and Friendship, early in the War of 1812.

In 2004 I became a member of the volunteer crew of Friendship of Salem. A full-size, fully operational replica of the vessel that Arthur encountered in 1803, she is administered by the National Park Service and berthed at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Thanks to the connection she has given me to her ancestor, sighting Friendship in nineteenth-century logbooks is simultaneously informative and poignant.

Susan E. Schopp, an independent scholar, was the Alexander O. Vietor Memorial Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library in the spring of 2010.


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