Cosmopolitan Salem

From out modern vantage point, we think of ourselves as sophisticated and worldly, and the eighteenth century as primitive and insular. Well, that may be partly true. But international trade during the 1790’s was extensive. Salem Mass, as the city that sent out the first American merchant ships, was especially cosmopolitan and affluent to boot.

We learn in school about the search for spices. And spices were a big part of the trade. The first merchant ship that went to India and environs in 1783, the Grand Turk, returned to Salem with pepper and made a profit of 700%.

But spices, although important, were not the only cargo. Ships went out to Russia and traded furs and iron, to India for spices, cloth and opium, and finally to China. One of the trade goods that became such a part of American culture that no one recalls the origin is the humble bandanna. Yes, these simple cloth squares were imports from India and became an essential part of, first, a sailor’s wardrobe, and then a cowboy’s. The fabric used was bandhini (hence the name) which means tie and dye.

Sailors, primarily whaling men. brought back the art of tattooing from Polynesia. This is why early stereotypes of sailors mark them as tattooed; they adopted the practice before it became popular in the wider American culture.

Moreover, People in Salem saw merchants from these exotic countries. Salem is home to one of the first colonies of immigrants in the US.

Salem declined in importance as a shipping port during the 1800s as the harbor began to silt up and Boston took over. But the East India Marine Society established a museum (and a library as well as a number of other institutions) which included artifacts from India and numbered some Indian gentlemen among the donors.


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