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Head of the Mercantile Community of Boston
On August 2, 1841, the Boston Exchange Company laid the cornerstone of its new building on State Street. The Merchant's Exchange, as this edifice was called, became the epicenter of the city's commerce. Sometime home of the Boston Stock Exchange, in the mid-19th century this merchant's complex housed insurance companies, banks, a post office, a telegraph office, and a hotel. The second floor served as headquarters for six railroad companies. The Exchange had offices of engravers and a Board of Brokers. It also had a glorious, domed reading room where the merchants gathered their intelligence.
A week before the event, the Building Committee of the Boston Exchange Company sent a letter to the dean of Boston merchants, Thomas Handasyd (pronounced "Handy Side") Perkins, inviting him to preside over the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone. The Committee chose Perkins for this honor as one who had "long and honorably sustained the position of head of the mercantile community of Boston." Writing in 1845, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story concurred with the committee's assessment of Perkins's stature among merchants. Addressing Perkins, Story wrote, "You justly stand at the head of our commercial community; and you have achieved this enviable distinction by a life of successful enterprise." When Perkins died in 1854, Abbott Lawrence, from a family of renowned Boston merchants, said to a gathering of his peers, "I feel as you feel that we have lost our guide, our great exemplar in the mercantile profession." Perkins was the merchants' role model, the biggest fish in his particular harbor.
The records left by Perkins and his associates are a portal into the world of the 19th-century Boston merchants who created the New England textile industry, including their sources of funding and the values and business practices they left to posterity. This template for the nation's commerce has outlasted by many years the granite stone Perkins help to lay on State Street in 1841.
Perkins, like many merchants of his day, did not specialize in any single commodity. His occupation was to buy anything in one place that he could sell at a profit somewhere else. Most of his dealings were overseas, especially in the West Indies, Europe, and China. At various times he traded in flour, horses, fish, furs, slaves, and opium. As his business matured, Perkins invested his profits from overseas trade in bedrock U.S. industries including mining, iron manufacturing, banking, and resort hotels.
Among his other interests, Perkins was among the players in the New England textile industry as an owner and as an investor. In the early 1820s, he was a founder of the Elliot Manufacturing Company, a cotton mill in Newton, Massachusetts. As a founder of the Appleton Company, he was also on the ground floor of the prototype of textile mill towns: Lowell, Massachusetts.
Perkins's memo book records his investments in textiles and related businesses in 1845. He owned stock in ten cotton and woolen mills in Lowell to the tune of $480,750. He held a $212,300 stake in the Chicopee, Cabot, Perkins and Dwight textile manufacturing operations in Western Massachusetts. He had $116,000 in Manchester, New Hampshire's Amoskeag, Stark and Manchester mills and $11,000 invested in a Nashua, New Hampshire cotton mill. Mills in Salem, Massachusetts and Salmon Falls, New Hampshire, and a machine shop and a bleachery ancillary to the textile trade, attracted another $77,500 of Perkins's capital. All told, Perkins held over $800,000 in textiles and related stocks. It is safe to assume that a large share of Perkins's money in 1845 was invested in textiles, since, upon his demise nine years later, his fortune totaled $1.6 million.
Born in Boston on December 15, 1764, Perkins had a knack for showing up wherever history was made. He was a boy when he saw the frozen blood of the victims of the Boston Massacre in the street. At age twelve he heard the Declaration of Independence, fresh off the presses, read publicly in Boston in July 1776. He departed what is now Haiti a few years before the slave rebellion there, but his brothers who remained behind wrote letters to him with the news. Perkins was in China when the ship Columbia arrived. It was the first U.S. ship to circumnavigate the globe. Doing business in Europe during the French Revolutionary Wars, Perkins dined most Saturdays in Paris with the U.S. ambassador and future president James Monroe (he was quite taken with Mrs. Monroe). He agreed to smuggle Lafayette's son out of France and into the U.S. after the Marquis fell afoul of the French Revolution and found himself in an Austrian prison. Perkins was in Paris to see heads fall into the baskets as the guillotine did its business. And he saw and did all of this before he turned thirty-one.
Perkins's grandfather had been a fur trader. His mother Elizabeth (Peck) Perkins was a successful merchant with international contacts. His father James Perkins had a checkered career as a joiner and then as a merchant, selling oil, fish, gunpowder, and Native American slaves. On occasion, James Perkins found himself on the wrong side of the law. He was arrested for breaking and entering but acquitted. On another occasion, he was convicted of passing counterfeit money and fined accordingly. Thomas Perkins was eight years old when his father died, leaving a large family about £350, most of it in merchandise, and one "Negro woman valued at less than £27."
At age 21, he collected an inheritance from his grandfather, the fur trader, and traveled to Saint-Domingue. Thomas's brother James was employed by a merchant house there and was trading on that island. Saint-Domingue's major products were sugar and coffee for European and North American tables produced by armies of slave laborers. Cotton cultivation to supply Britain's mills was another cash crop. When the Perkinses began to do business of their own in Saint-Domingue, the French colony was the habitation of 37,000 Europeans and 425,000 African slaves, while the island imported slaves at a precipitous clip of greater than 40,000 per year in this era. The mortality rate among slaves was higher than in the U.S. contributing to the brisk demand.
When the Perkins brothers co-founded the firm of Perkins, Burling & Perkins in 1786, one of their first moves was to enter the island's slave trade. A letter from Thomas Perkins to Daniel Sargent of Boston, dated July 27, 1786, states: "We have already made some advances in establishing ... a place for the disposition of slaves in this quarter as will be attended with safety & advantage to the proprietors." The Perkinses sold slaves from one Caribbean port to another, a business the Perkins brothers claimed they were "particularly well situated to effect." The Perkinses were middlemen in the slave trade. They would meet ships on their arrival in Saint-Domingue from the African Coast and buy slaves on spec or per the orders of third parties. They would then hold the slaves pending sale. The Baker Library at Harvard University holds the papers of Samuel Cabot, Jr. who, much later, became a partner in one of the many incarnations of the Perkins firm. Among these documents is an account for the most notorious of slave ships: Amistad. This ship was traveling from Havana to another Cuban port when slaves seized control of the vessel.
Thomas Perkins returned to Boston in 1788 and another brother, Samuel, took his place in the firm. Thomas turned his interests toward trade in Asia, but he partnered with his brother James again in 1792. They became Boston agents for a shipowner named Daniel McNeill who owned several vessels plying the slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean, and between several West Indies ports.
The following letter from the Perkins company files alludes to the trans-Caribbean transportation and sale of slaves. It draws an image of the matter-of-fact transactions of the slave trade in this period.
October 6, 1792
To Perkins, Burling & Co.:
This money you will appropriate to the purchase of the Slaves & other articles specifi'd in the enclosed Memo. (for us as agents of Dan'l McNiel [sic] from the Cape [in Haiti] to Havanna [sic] & from there here). If you cannot readily buy the Slaves in the road, we hope you will find some new Negroes from on shore, who know nothing of the language, and will answer to admit the vessel ... .We are to fit out his vessel (Brig' Katy) for the Coast, & send a number of vessels to take away the Molasses he has consigned to us: they will take the Cape on their way, in "order to get the Slaves for admission." For this business we are to receive 5% on outfit, & 5 on sales.
The brig Katy never made it to its destination after loading up with slaves. It went down into the sea sometime in 1793 and was lost. The ship had a capacity of approximately 130 slaves, and these enslaved people along with the crew of the Katy suffered a silent death beneath the ocean. Another document from the Perkins letters, addressed to Samuel Perkins, mentions the loss of the Katy most casually.
To S. G. Perkins:
If you cou'd buy more Slaves at 150 or 200 dollars, such for instance as went down in the Katy, & charter a vessel to take them down to Havanna, all on a/c [account] of the Sachem, it w'd do well. ... They are worth 250 to 270 Ds.
McNeill most likely penned the following 1792 memo from the Perkins company papers addressing a Captain Robert Adamson. Adamson was master of McNeill's vessel the Willing Quaker bound for Africa for slaves. McNeill gives detailed instructions for the proper selection and "handling" of the human cargo.
He is to take care that they [the slaves] are young & healthy, without any defects in their Limbs, Teeth & Eyes, & as few females as possible. Every attention is to be paid them that they are well fed, well used, kept clean & dry. For if once they get disheartened they will die like Sheep. Suffer no person to strike them on any account, & always keep your men Slaves in Irons, & see the Gratings Locked at Sunset ... [P]roceed to Surinam & there dispose of your Women Slaves. ... [I]f you can get $50 a head you may dispose of the whole.
McNeill also wrote a letter accompanying this voyage of the Willing Quaker to a personage he called King Nembana at Sierra Leone demanding "the balance due me of seven Slaves."
To ply such a trade, it helped the merchants to have "ideas convenient to their business." These are the words of Joseph Ingraham, a ship's captain the Perkins firm engaged. He confessed to mixed feelings when he encountered a ship from Liverpool, then one of the world centers of the slave trade. The captain of the British ship, bound for the African coast to transport 500 slaves, invited Ingraham to dinner. When the British Captain offered the first toast to "the land of liberty," Ingraham perceived the irony.
"I could scarce conceal my feelings at hearing such a toast given on board a ship bound to enslave five hundred poor wretches," Ingraham confessed. "However, perhaps they possess'd ideas convenient to their business, which I have often witnessed in the West Indies, namely that Negroes were a lower order of Human beings, born to be slaves."
Not everyone in that period shared ideas "convenient to their business," however. In 1788, the Massachusetts state legislature passed a law that was by no means ambiguous in its prohibition of the slave trade: "Whereas by the African Trade for Slaves, the lives and liberties of many innocent persons have been ... sacrificed to the lust for gain ... Be it therefore enacted" that no one, "either as master, factor, supercargo, owner, or hirer ... cause to be imported or transported any of the inhabitants of any state or kingdom in that part of the world called Africa as slaves or servants." Although the Perkins firm's trans-Caribbean slave commerce in the 1790s may have escaped illegality, its involvement in the transatlantic trade was in violation of the spirit of Massachusetts law. Havana, however, was far away and the firm evaded the law by sailing under colors other than the Stars and Stripes.
Perkins and associates had an instrumental view of the law: it could be ignored at will or leveraged to commercial advantage. One scholar quipped, "the Perkinses felt that unfair laws demanded creativity, not obedience." As for those who wrote and enforced the laws, in the words of Samuel Eliot Morison, the Eastern Massachusetts merchants looked at politics "as from the quarterdeck of an East-Indiaman" and regarded their elected representatives as "little more than their political chantey-men." Perkins became close to "political chantey-men" of national stature. Later in his career, he would spend the night at Mount Vernon as a guest of George Washington. Perkins would also guide John Quincy Adams as the President toured the entrepreneur's railway and his granite quarry in the town of Quincy, Massachusetts. Perkins became de facto leader of the Massachusetts Federalist Party in the early 19th century and somehow found the time to serve as a state legislator. He received a nomination to serve his district in the U.S. House of Representatives but declined the honor. He also refused an appointment as Secretary of the Navy because his fleet was larger than the U.S. government's.
The Massachusetts state law prohibiting the slave trade was a minor disincentive for Perkins. But when the slave rebellion broke out in Saint-Domingue, the Perkins's company there suffered a loss. The state's prohibition, as well as the slave rebellion, signaled that the "execrable commerce" in slaves, as Thomas Jefferson once termed it, was becoming too risky. The slave trade in the West Indies was a side business for the Perkins firm and the wars of the French Revolution generated new opportunities for them.
But the commitment of the New England merchants to the slave trade was indirect as well. The West Indies were suppliers of consumer products and of raw materials for refinement, while they were also markets for New England produce. New England imported coffee and sugar, as well as molasses for distilling rum, while it exported fish consumed by slaves. The merchants were not alone in their dependence on this transatlantic economy. Artisans such as shipwrights, ropemakers, timbermen, nail makers, coopers, and others whose livelihood depended on the ships coming in and out of the region's ports from the West Indies, were enmeshed in the slave-labor economy. Slave-based agriculture embedded itself in the entire Atlantic economy of the era.
The West Indies adventures were formative for the Perkins brothers. The colonial powers on the islands had laws restricting trade, allegedly to the benefit of the mother countries. The Perkins firm's moves to evade these restrictions involved smuggling, bribery, and subterfuge, what historians have called "the shadow trade." These "shadow" methods had been in the U.S. mercantile playbook since Colonial times, but Perkins and his generation were poised to take them global.
The Merchant Princes and the Old China Trade
A global economy is nothing new. Before 1800, Boston merchants were doing business worldwide. Insurance rate quotations from 1796-1797 show merchant vessels bound from Boston to the following locations: various European ports; the Cape of Good Hope; Isle de France (today's Mauritius); Medeira, Canaries, and Cape Verde Islands; Persia; India; China; Jamaica and other West Indies Islands; Nova Scotia and Newfoundland; QuÃ(c)bec; New Orleans (not yet a part of the U.S.); Saint Augustine and the Bahamas; and United States ports.
Immediately after the U.S. wrested its independence from Great Britain, merchants of Boston and other "United States ports" coveted the lucrative trade goods of China. Tea was the most important of these commodities, although silks, ceramics and other Asian goods were also prized. As early as 1788, Thomas Perkins served as a supercargo (i.e., a supervisor of the cargo) on board a ship bound for China. Officially, foreigners in China could trade only through commissioned dealers, known as Hong merchants, in the port known to the English-speakers as Canton.
For the Boston merchants, the China trade entailed vast distances in both space and time. It required patience and capital. Only the savviest firms, such as the Perkins group, could afford to finance these lucrative voyages. But first U.S. merchants had to solve a problem: finding something they had that the Chinese wanted. While American consumers had an appetite for Chinese goods, the Middle Kingdom didn't have as much use for what the westerners were offering. For a time, New England ginseng proved popular. The Chinese believed it was an aphrodisiac. The merchants offered the East Asians cotton and varieties of exotic wood. The Perkins firm traded furs and skins from the Pacific Northwest at Canton, including prized sea otter pelts. For a time, New England ginseng proved popular. The Chinese believed it was an aphrodisiac. The merchants offered the East Asians cotton and varieties of exotic wood. The Perkins firm traded furs and skins from the Pacific Northwest at Canton, including prized sea otter pelts. For a period, the Perkins firm had a contract with the Montréal-based fur-trading concern, the Northwest Company, to carry its furs to China. But soon that market became crowded and sea otter scarce.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Distinct Alien Race"
Copyright © 2019 David Vermette.
Excerpted by permission of Baraka Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: A Sprint Through 250 Years of History 23
Section 1 From Ships' Captains To Captains Of Industry
Chapter 1 Head of the Mercantile Community of Boston 39
Chapter 2 A Textile Industry for New England 50
Chapter 3 Enter The Cabots 62
Chapter 4 Textiles in Brunswick - The First Half-Century 77
Section 2 The Other Side Of The Cotton
Chapter 5 Franco-Americans Rescue King Cotton 91
Chapter 6 Franco-Americans Come to Brunswick 117
Chapter 7 The Case of the Cabot Mill 131
Chapter 8 A Rich Uncle from the States? 152
Chapter 9 Who Were the Immigrants? 172
Chapter 10 They Came from L'Islet 186
Section 3 The Reception Of Franco-Americans
Chapter 11 Franco-Americans and Americanism 195
Chapter 12 Fears of Franco-American Conspiracy 212
Chapter 13 Eugenics and the Alien in Our Midst 244
Chapter 14 A Klan For New England 264
Section 4 Tenacity And Modernity
Chapter 15 Textiles Go South 295
Chapter 16 Drifting Away from Little Canada in Body and Mind 308
Chapter 17 A Distinct Alien Race No Longer 318
Chapter 18 Franco-Americans and Québécois 325
Epilogue: Back to the Cemetery 335