Object of the Month

"To the Farthest Ports of the Rich East": Salem and the Sumatra Pepper Trade

A New Chart of the West Coast of Sumatra From Analabo to Bankolle Map

A New Chart of the West Coast of Sumatra From Analabo to Bankolle

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This map, published in 1827 by James R. Buffum of Salem, and drawn by Samuel Lambert, with corrections by Charles Moses Endicott, shows the west coast of Sumatra where for nearly fifty years, the merchant vessels of Salem enjoyed a near monopoly in the trade for pepper.

The Spice Islands

The origins of Salem's multi-million-dollar pepper trade with Sumatra are somewhat mysterious. Although the intrepid ship captains of Salem had long undergone lengthy and hazardous voyages to the East, the trade with Sumatra seems to have begun with Captain Jonathan Carnes who discovered an island teeming with pepper that could be bought directly from the suppliers, without the charges of Dutch middlemen. His first successfully-landed cargo of pepper to Salem (it is believed that on one of two previous unsuccessful voyages, he had learned of Sumatra and possibly brought back pepper that was lost) was in 1797. His ship Rajah, which departed Salem in December of 1795 with "two pipes of brandy, fifty-eight cases of gin, twelve tons of iron, two hogsheads of tobacco, and two boxes of salmon," returned eighteen months later with a cargo of pepper that netted him a neat 700 per cent profit. Carnes managed to keep the source of his cargo a secret from the other Salem shipmasters for one more voyage on the Rajah before it was discovered. Needless to say, the other ship owners and masters in Salem were eager to get in on the action.

The pepper ports known to the Salem merchants--Qualah Batoo (now Kuala Batee), Muckie, Soosoo, Pulo Kio--are located in what is now known as the Aceh Province. In the years between 1799 and 1846, 179 ships sailed between Salem and Sumatra, with even more landing their cargoes in other American or European ports. In only five years--1813-1815 (War of 1812), 1822, and 1837--did no Salem ship enter port from Sumatra. Interestingly, although millions of pounds of pepper arrived in Salem and other American ports, much of it was immediately reshipped to Europe rather than consumed domestically.

The pepper trade was extremely dangerous. The island was surrounded by treacherous reefs and the natives of the island were often hostile and extremely eager to capture American ships, killing crew members and plundering their cargo while ships lay in port. It could be days before the ship's hold was full, exacerbating the risk of midnight raids by pirates. The actual trading of pepper occurred on dry land--the captain and a couple of crew members would go ashore with their scales (hopefully leaving the ship adequately guarded) to weigh the pepper and negotiate prices, which could change during the transaction, based on supply, the local authority's whim, or whether another ship happened to arrive in port and offer a higher price. As the pepper trade went on, captains were sometimes captured while trading onshore and held for ransom. In the eyes of the Salem captains, however, the rewards outweighed the risks.

Who were Samuel Lambert and Moses Endicott?

Samuel Lambert (1768-1832) came from a family of mariners and was a member of the East India Marine Society of Salem. Well-known in Salem as both a mariner and teacher of navigation, Lambert also published charts of the Massachusetts coastline and the Bahamas, as well as a pamphlet entitled Information Useful for Navigators (1820). Diarist William Bentley of Salem recorded in 1816 that "Capt. S. Lambert is continually employed in copying such maps as are in demand for our seamen in Salem with his pen." With the founding of the East India Marine Society, famed navigator Nathaniel Bowditch encouraged Salem shipmasters to record and share their navigational discoveries for the benefit of all.

Charles Moses Endicott was born in 1793, the son of Moses (a shipmaster who died in Havana in 1807) and Anna (Towne) Endicott. Educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, by the age of fifteen, he was working in the counting house of his uncle Samuel Endicott in Salem. Following the War of 1812, Endicott went to Sumatra as a supercargo in the pepper trade; he engaged in this trade for the next twenty years while compiling a survey of the treacherous coastline that was translated into French and widely used, including by the United States Navy. In addition to his seafaring career, Endicott served as president of the East India Marine Society and cashier of the Salem Bank. He also penned several historical and genealogical works.

The fate of the Friendship

Captain Endicott was in command of the Friendship when it arrived in port at Pulo Kio in 1831. Soon after their arrival, Captain Endicott was awakened in the middle of the night by the watch, warning that a boat was approaching the Friendship. Endicott hailed the crew of the boat in their own dialect and was informed that they were "friends" from Qualah Batoo with a load of smuggled pepper. The crew, alerted by the boat's surreptitious arrival, armed themselves and prepared to board the smaller boat to determine whether or not their story was true. Although the midnight visitors really did have pepper on board, Endicott immediately suspected that the boat had been sent to find out how good the watch was and--if lacking--to board and take the ship.

A few days later, Endicott was informed that the new crop of pepper was ready and he proceeded into Qualah Batoo to trade, impressing on the crew remaining onboard the need for extreme vigilance. There he met Po Adam, a local dignitary and a friend of the Salem merchants, and began the work of trading. Po Adam expressed fears for the safety of the Friendship that soon proved all too accurate. While the natives on shore were bringing Endicott bags of pepper one by one--and suspiciously slowly--a boatload of pirates was nonchalantly setting out to take the Friendship. The ship was violently taken and Endicott and the men who had accompanied him on shore barely escaped with their lives, accompanied by Po Adam who is reported to have said "You got trouble Captain, if they kill you, must kill Po Adam first." In a small boat, they navigated around the pirates and to the safety of the port of Muckie where they found the brigs Governor Endicott and Palmer of Salem and Boston and the ship James Monroe of New York. Soon, the three ships were on their way to retake the Friendship by force. An armed battle ensued and the Friendship was abandoned by the pirates, although not before being thoroughly looted. When the smoke cleared, five men of the Friendship had been killed and six injured, three suffering lifelong disabilities. Less than a year after the attack, the U. S. Frigate Potomac returned to Qualah Batoo and avenged the Friendship, destroying the nearby forts and setting fire to the town. Sadly, as a letter from Po Adam to Salem merchant Joseph Peabody attests, his assistance to Captain Endicott earned him the "hatred and vengeance of my misguided countrymen ...the last of my property was set on fire and destroyed, and now, for having been the steadfast friend of Americans, I am not only destitute, but an object of derision ..."

Belknap, Henry W. The Lambert Family of Salem, Massachusetts. Salem: Essex Institute, 1918.

Endicott, Charles M. "The Endicott Family," New England Historic and Genealogical Register, vol. 1 (Oct. 1847), p. 335.

Endicott, William C. Memoir of Samuel Endicott with a Genealogy of His Descendants. Boston: Privately printed, 1924.

Findlay, Alexander. A Directory for the Navigation of the Indian Ocean ... 3rd ed. London: Richard Holmes Laurie, 1876. Pages 1108-1110 contain detailed information about the ports frequented by Salem merchants.

Paine, Ralph D. The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: the Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement. Boston: Charles E. Lauriat Co., 1923.

Phillips, James Duncan. Pepper and Pirates: Adventures in the Sumatra Pepper Trade of Salem. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.

_____. Salem and the Indies: the Story of the Great Commercial Era of the City. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947.