accounts of the sea


Assets = Capital + Liabilities
Every transaction is entered twice—first to show the effect of the transaction on the assets belonging to the business and second to show the effect of the transaction on the relationship between the business on one hand, and the providers of finance on the other.

—John Mair, Book-keeping Methodiz’d: or A methodical treatise of Merchant-Accompts, according to the Italian form. Seventh edition. Edinburgh: 1763.


Managing trade amidst the myriad “Dangers of the Seas” required the adaptation of record keeping methods to the unique aspects of maritime business. Ship owners and investors kept records of their adventures and vessels in designated account books. Merchants tracked cargoes with invoices and bills of lading, and masters and mates recorded shipboard events in logbooks and journals. Specialized printed forms were developed to delineate the roles and responsibilities of all members of the crew and to protect vessels and mariners in contested waters.

In addition to general maritime operations, the Library’s collections of business archives reveal details of particular types of sea-based commerce. On the other side of this case are items reflecting the management of the transatlantic slave trade and the China trade—two significant features of New England’s economic history.



Navigation book, 1779 – 1780. “A List of all the Vessels I Owned May 5th 1779. Their names &c.&c.”  Arnold family business records.

By 1779 Welcome Arnold was fully engaged in the maritime trade, often investing in portions of several voyages rather than owning an entire vessel outright. This account book shows his efforts to track his maritime activities, listing the various vessels’ names, tonnage (cargo carrying capacity), the “parts owned”, masters, locations, from whom purchased, and condition—poorly, middling, or well. The brief descriptions provide interesting details of Arnold’s fleet: the brig Venus is armed with swivel guns; several ships are missing anchors or sails; the schooner Peggy was “never heard of.” The records also reflect Arnold’s engagement with privateering during the Revolution—ten of the 27 ships listed were taken by the enemy.


Portage bill, Sloop Polly, 1791–1792. Voyage from Providence to Surinam, March 1791 to January 1792. Arnold family business records.

The portage bill (and the similar “articles of agreement) was developed in the late 18th century to serve as a contract between the vessel’s owners and its crewmembers. Following standardized language about the conditions of the voyage, a series of columns provides space for information about every member of the crew:  their signatures (or marks), the time of entry (when they signed on), “quality” (position on the vessel), wages (advance and per month), and “privilege” (a portion of the cargo allotted for personal investments) and the date they were officially discharged from the vessel. The master or mate also recorded significant events taking place during the voyage that would impact payment, such as desertion or death. At the conclusion of the voyage crew members would sign the back of the document to certify the receipt of payment.

In 1790 a Congressional Act declared that articles or portage bills were required of every vessel sailing to a foreign port, and for any vessel 50 tons or more sailing to a domestic port. This helped drive demand for printed forms for the document—this one was printed by John Carter, the Providence printer who created the Rhode Island shilling in Case 3. 

Mint Martin, the laborer discussed in Case 2, served in the crew as a hand. The numerous annotations reveal the trouble encountered by master Whipple Andrews in retaining his crew—at the time of discharge, four members had run away, one had to be dismissed, and another is listed as sick.


Sea letter, Brigantine Neptune, July 26, 1793.  Voyage from Providence to the West Indies, July 1793 to January 1794.  Arnold family business records.

A sea letter was a standardized document carried by foreign-bound vessels to declare nationality and protection under various international agreements. Signed by the President and Secretary of State of the United States, sea letters asserted a vessel’s neutrality, particularly when sailing in areas of international conflict. The statement on the document requests that all “MOST Serene, Serene, most Puissant, Puissant, High, Illustrious, Noble, Honourable, Venerable, wise and prudent, Lords, Emperors, Kings, Republics, Princes, Dukes, Earls, Barons, Lords, Burgomasters, Schepens, Consullors..." treat the vessel and crew with respect, and was printed in three, four, and at times six different languages.
There are numerous examples of sea letters in both the Brown and Arnold family records; this one is printed in French, English, and Dutch and bears the signatures of President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.


Slop book, Ship Isis.  1806–1808.  Brown family business records.

A ship’s “slop book” lists material provided to sailors during a voyage—generally clothing—and records how much each item cost. This example also shows the weekly menu for the voyage.
Receipt for payment of duties for lighthouse maintenance at Wintertonness in Norfolk and Orfordness in Suffolk. April 29, 1795. Brigantine Harriet, voyage from Providence to Europe, 1793 to 1796.  Arnold family business records.

Vessels encountered countless charges and fees as they traveled from port to port. This beautifully printed receipt registers payment for fees to maintain the lighthouses in Suffolk, England, with actual depictions of the lighthouses.


Seaman’s protection certificate for William E. Tillinghast.  December 15, 1797.  Tillinghast family business records.

In 1796 Congress passed “Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seamen” in response to the British impressment of American mariners. Issued by the customs collector, a Seaman's Protection Certificate vouched for the seaman’s citizenship and provided identifying information such as age, height, and place of birth. This example shows that William Tillinghast was 5 feet, 6 inches tall and of “dark complexion.”


Insurance policy for the Brigantine Polly & Betsey, May 11, 1798.  Tillinghast family business records.

Insurance was extremely important to merchants engaged in risky maritime adventures. According to this form, the assurers agreed to bear any losses caused by the “Danger of the Seas,”—but  the phrase “unless a war or Hostilities should commence during the Voyage” was struck out, most likely because the Quasi-War with France had recently begun. The handwritten annotations at the bottom attest that the phrase was struck before the policy was signed.



While slaving voyages were not a major part of the Browns’ maritime activities, their prodigious commitment to record-keeping has resulted in their ventures surviving as some of the best documented examples of the transatlantic slave trade. The disastrous voyage of the brigantine Sally in 1764, which prompted three of the four brothers who formed Nicholas Brown & Co. to leave the African trade, formed part of the study conducted by Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice, which issued its final report in 2006.

The documents for the voyage, including those featured here, can be viewed on the website of the Committee on Slavery and Justice; and at Voyage of the Slave Ship Sally, 1764-1765


Account book of the Brigantine Sally, 1764 – 1765.  Brown family business records.

The Sally left Providence for Africa in September 1764, commanded by Esek Hopkins, who would later serve as the Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War. Hopkins was also the ship’s supercargo, which meant that he oversaw the selling of the outbound cargo and the procurement of the cargo for the return voyage—in this case, slaves. 

This account book traces the transactions made on the voyage, including the acquisition of slaves as the Sally traveled along the African coast. Hopkins kept a tally of the Africans purchased—a total of 196 by August 1765.  As the voyage progressed another tally was kept—that of the 109 enslaved Africans who died by the time the ship reached the West Indies. This page shows a strikingly terse record of an uprising on August 28th, in which 8 slaves were killed and several others wounded.


Bill of lading, Brigantine Sally.  Sept. 11, 1764.   Brown family business records.

Most of the vessels represented in these collections left port with a bill of lading. Often printed, the form includes blanks to fill in with the names of the vessel and master and a description of the cargo, guaranteed to be delivered “in good order”  (“the Danger of the Seas only excepted”) and “marked and numbered as in the margin.” In this case, the cargo—primarily New England rum to be sold on the African coast in exchange for slaves—would be marked with a “BS”—for the Brigantine Sally.


Sales of twenty four Negroes imported in the Briggantine Sally, Esick [sic] Hopkins, master . . . November 25, 1765.  Brown family business records.

The surviving captives on the Sally were sold in Antigua—many were very ill and apparently fetched such low prices at auction that the merchant handling the sale wrote an apology to Nicholas Brown & Co. for the low profits.

This bill demonstrates the form used for recording the sale of slaves, including charges for a drummer to advertise the sale.


William Weston.  The complete merchant’s clerk:  or British and American compting-house.  London, 1762. 

The mechanisms of the transatlantic slave trade were conventional enough to merit inclusion in accounting manuals, as shown by this sample bill of sale for slaves, which shows that the agents for Nicholas Brown & Company were following standard practices.

This copy of Weston’s manual was actually given to a young man to prepare for a career on a plantation in Jamaica—the same month and year the Sally left for Africa. The cover inscription reads:

the Gift of William Rawlinson of Kirkham in Lancashire To Mr. John Birley Jun.r on his Departure from England for Jamaica in Sep.t 1764. Deo Juvante.
W. Rawlinson Kirkham 26th Sep.r 1764.



The first trading voyage from Providence to Canton was made by the General Washington in 1787.  Organized by John Brown, investors included his brothers’ company, Brown & Benson, Welcome Arnold, and other prominent Providence merchants. Records of the voyage can be found in both the Brown and Arnold family business records.

This adventure opened the East to the commercial community of Providence, beginning a lucrative traffic in China goods. Evidence of the China trade can be found throughout the archival collections and historic buildings of New England, including the two paintings that hang in the Reading Room of this Library—one depicting the port of Providence, the other of Hong Kong.


Log book, Ship Ann and Hope. A journal of a voyage to Canton and return by way of Australia.  1798 – 1799. Brown family business records. 

Master ship builder, Benjamin Tallman, constructed the ship Ann and Hope for the newly formed partnership of Brown and Ives; the ship was named after the wives of Nicholas Brown, Jr. and Thomas Poynton Ives. The Ann and Hope made five voyages for the firm from 1798 through 1804 before she was wrecked off Block Island.  A new ship Ann & Hope was constructed in 1806 – 1807, and made thirteen voyages from 1808 until 1836, remaining in service longer than any other vessel owned by the firm.  

The log of the first Ann & Hope’s maiden voyage gives a detailed account of the vessel’s voyage to Canton by going around the coast of New South Wales, as reflected in these unusually beautiful harbor views of the Australian continent. 


Account book, 1797.  Accounts of purchases made in China by John Bowers, supercargo.  Brown family business records.

In addition to tea, fabrics, and chinaware, American merchants also purchased a wide array of goods on the Canton market. This account book kept by John Bowers, the supercargo on the John Jay during her voyage to Canton in the 1790s reflects his dealings with a Chinese shoemaker called “Six –Finger.”


Muster of silk samples, Ship Asia, voyage to Canton, 1804 – 1805.  Brown family business records.

American and European traders were restricted to trading with a specialized class of business leaders in Canton, known as hong merchants. Poonqua is the name of the hong merchant from whom these fabrics were purchased. 


Bill of lading, Ship Asia’s cargo.  Canton, January 19, 1805.  Brown family business records.

This bill of lading from the Asia shows the quantity of silks purchased—likely those depicted in the muster from Poonqua—among the many other China goods acquired for the return cargo.


Exhibition may be seen in Reading Room from September 12 through
december 2012.

Exhibition prepared by Kim Nusco, Reference and Manuscript Librarian, John Carter Brown Library