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Robert Haswell

Robert Haswell Pastel on paper
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[ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

This portrait of Robert Haswell (1768-circa 1801) depicts him as a young merchant ship captain during his brief but extraordinary career. He sailed aboard the Columbia, the first American-flagged ship to circumnavigate the globe on the voyage (1787-1790) that opened the China Trade from Boston by way of the Northwest Coast of North America. Haswell's manuscript log/journal of the first part of that epic voyage is the best account we have of it. The portrait has been attributed to James Sharples, an English painter who lived and worked in the United States between 1794 and 1801.

The Voyage of the Columbia

At the close of the Revolution, American merchants were free to trade directly with China. The first American voyages to the Orient followed the traditional European route around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, but in September 1787, the ships Columbia-Rediviva and Lady Washington (commonly the Columbia and Washington) sailed from Boston, pioneering a route around Cape Horn to the Northwest Coast. There they traded for sea otter furs and then sailed on by way of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to Canton (Guangzhou), the residence of foreign merchants in China. When the Columbia returned to Boston by sailing across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope, it became the first ship to circumnavigate flying the American flag. Six weeks after the Columbia returned it set out on a second voyage to China, again by way of the Northwest Coast. It was during the second voyage that the crew discovered and named the Columbia River. The investors in the expedition "on the Pacific" struck a medal to commemorate it, along with pewter copies that were sent on the ships as exchange items.

Robert Haswell

Robert Haswell was born in in 1768, the eldest son of William and Rachel Woodward Haswell. Robert's father was an officer in the Royal Navy who was a customs official in Massachusetts. We know little of Robert's early life and that only because his stepsister, Susanna Haswell Rowson, became a famous actress, author, and educator. Lieutenant Haswell and his family were detained when the Revolutionary War began and sent out of the country in 1778, first to Canada and then on to England. Robert Haswell next appears in 1787, when, at age eighteen, he was made third mate of the Columbia on its first voyage. Haswell's log of the voyage continues only until the Columbia departed North American waters for China in July 1789, but it contains detailed information about the opening of the fur trade with Native Americans, and the diplomatic standoff between English vessels and Spanish authorities on the Northwest Coast. There also was drama aboard the Columbia, where Captain John Kendrick managed to alienate many of his subordinates including Haswell, who transferred to the Washington, and then back to the Columbia again when Kendrick exchanged commands with Robert Gray, the commander of the smaller ship.

The Columbia returned to Boston in August 1790 (the Washington remained in the Pacific). Although the first voyage was a commercial failure (its cargo of tea was damaged during the long voyage home), the Columbia sailed for China again only six weeks later. Robert Gray remained in command with Robert Haswell as first mate. His log of the second voyage, August 1791-December 1792, covers Columbia's time on the Northwest Coast and its second trans-Pacific passage. On the second voyage, the Columbia carried the frames used to construct a small vessel on the Northwest Coast, named the Adventure, which became Haswell's first command. In the Adventure, Haswell explored and traded along the coast, but his independent command meant that he was absent when Gray discovered and named "Columbia's River" for his ship.

After the Columbia completed its second circumnavigation, Haswell commanded in succession the Hannah and then the John Jay that made voyages to Batavia (Jakarta) in the East Indies between 1793 and 1798. Somehow, during all this time at sea, young Captain Haswell managed to find time to woo and win Mary Cordis of Reading, Massachusetts (and to have his portrait painted). Robert and Mary were married in 1798 and had two daughters. Haswell was popular among the merchants of Boston and known to President John Adams. During the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800), he was made the first lieutenant of the frigate Boston, a naval vessel built by public subscription in Boston. Haswell brought a valuable prize, Les Deux Anges (the "Coffee Ship") to Boston early in 1800. He distinguished himself by getting the battered prize, Le Berceau, safely to Boston when the Boston captured the French corvette in one of the two significant naval engagements of the "war," although that capture occurred after a peace treaty had been signed.

When newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson reduced the U.S. Navy in 1801 (and perhaps because of the turmoil that plagued command of the Boston), Haswell went back to merchant service as the captain of the Louisa, a ship bound for the Northwest Coast and China. The Louisa sailed from Boston on 10 August 1801, and disappeared. Robert Haswell was thirty-two.

James Sharples

This pastel portrait of Robert Haswell was a 1963 gift to the Massachusetts Historical Society from Marion Morehouse Cummings. Her husband Edward Estlin Cummings—better known as poet E. E. Cummings—inherited it from his mother, Rebecca Haswell Clarke Cummings, a descendant of Robert Haswell. The painting has been attributed to James Sharples, an English portrait painter whose first stay in the United States, 1794-1801, coincides with the brief periods that Robert Haswell was "on the beach" between his long voyages, but there is no record of Sharples painting a portrait of Haswell, or of Haswell being in Philadelphia and New York where Sharples lived and worked. Sharples became so celebrated for his pastel portraits—usually in profile—of distinguished Americans, especially George and Martha Washington, that many unsigned portraits from this period have been attributed to him. Complicating the question further, Sharples's wife, Ellen Wallace Sharples, also was an artist and painted portraits during this period. James Sharples returned to the United States in 1809, years after Haswell disappeared at sea, and died in New York City in 1811.

A New Exhibition

Robert Haswell's portrait and log of the first Columbia voyage are on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society as part of the Society's exhibition, Turning Points in American History. The exhibition examines fifteen decisive moments where the world suddenly changed, or a process began that would change what followed, as described by participants or observers of the events. The opening of trade to the Far East and the American claim to the lands of the Pacific Northwest is one of those decisive moments. Turning Points in American History is on display until 25 February 2017. The exhibition is open to the public without charge, Monday through Saturday, 10 AM to 4 PM.

Further Reading

Chaplin, Joyce. Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Haswell, Robert. "A Voyage Round the World Onboard the Ship Columbia-Rediviva and Sloop Washington, 1787-1789."

---. "A Voyage on Discoveries in the Ship Columbia Rediviva." 1791-1792.

Published along with other manuscript accounts and biographical information on Haswell and other members of the crews of the Columbia and Washington as: Voyages of the "Columbia" to the Northwest Coast, 1787-1790 and 1790-1793. Ed. by Frederick Howay. Massachusetts Historical Society Collections. Vol. 79. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1941.

Digital images of Haswell's logs are available online in the primary source collection, "China, America and the Pacific" from Adam Matthew, and can be accessed onsite in the library of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Howay, Frederick. "Some Notes on Robert Haswell." Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, October, 1932-May, 1936. Vol. 65. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1940, 592-600.

Knox, Katharine McCook. The Sharples: Their Portraits of George Washington and His Contemporaries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930.

Leiner, Frederick C. Millions for Defense: The Subscription Warships of 1798. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000.

Little, George. The George Little papers contain the logbook of the U.S. frigate Boston, 23 Sep. 1800-4 May 1801, covering the period of the capture in Oct. 1800 by the Boston of the French national ship Le Berceau during the Quasi-War with France.