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  • Navigator at Work: The Seventeenth Century “Triangular Trade” in Court

    Janet Ireland Delorey and Marjorie Marsh Quigg

    Published Date : October-November 1989
    As all genealogists know, court records often contain startling surprises and document events that might otherwise entirely escape public record.  A case in point is testimony presented in June 1662 at the Salem Quarterly Court, Essex County, Massachusetts.  Had Alexander Jones possessed a better sense of nautical direction and Captain Thomas Barnard not withheld his pay, the seventeenth-century odyssey of the Ann would not have been chronicled — and an extraordinary glance at a major component of colonial economic life would have been missed.1

    Alexander Jones was a nautical pilot who had been hired on 18 January 1661 to ship on board the Ann for £4. 10s. per month or 450 pounds of sugar, in addition to which he was to receive 32 shillings a month for his service.  Not only was his pay withheld, Jones desired

    “the honorebell Court and Jewrey to Consider my Condition being turnd ashore the 6th day of this moneth not haveing where withal! to mayntayne my Selfe but what I have got of the good people of this towne upon Credett not Suffering upon aney a Count to Come abord to gett aney Clothes to Shift mySelfe and fayne to Continue here in a sad Condition."2

    In support of his suit, several residents testified that “Alexander Jones hath deported himselfe quietly honestly & sivelly since his coming among Us."3  However, testimony by Jones’ fellow crew members not only presents a different perspective of the reason for such treatment, but also provides details of a mercantile voyage in the mid-seventeenth century.

    Thomas Barnard, as commander of the Ann, with Samuel Venner, merchant, made agreements with at least nine seamen — Henrie Watson, John Howard, William Liddell, William Haskoll, Thomas Bomer, John Johnson, Walter Cowllston, William King and William Leverock — to sail the Ann on her “intended voyage from New England to the Western Islands, thence to the Madera Island, thence to the Islands of Cabo Verd and thence to Barbadus."4  Part of their pay would be given to them at Madeira, another portion when coming out of old England, and more to be paid in muscovadus sugar (an unrefined or raw sugar obtained from sugarcane juice by evaporating and draining off molasses)5 at the Barbadoes, where they were to be discharged. Each was also allowed to carry in one “Asse negro” [”Asse” merely indicates an origin in southern Africa] from Cape Verde, freight free with provision.  It was further agreed that the ship would “not go to Ginnea nor load salt at the Cape Verde Islands.”Unfortunately for all, the term “pilot error” would take on new meaning on this ill-fated voyage, as indicated by the testimony that follows.

    According to Thomas Bomar,

    “coming in sight of Margarita [off the coast of Venezuela], Mr. Jones did not recognize it and stood off to sea, then coming upon it again, he called it the Margarita. From thence wee shaped our course to the salt tortoogoes [Isla de Tortuga, 55 miles west of Margarita] & anchored safely there from whence goinge to Mona he likewise mistooke that iland alsoe from whence wee (by want of water) went to the iland of Savona [Savana, in the Virgin Islands] from whence cominge on the Coast of New England beinge thick weather & in a weake condition for want of provisions & water being constrained wee tooke a man from a Catch by reason Mr. Jones said he had beene sofarr to the eastward. "7

    John Howard testified that

    “they loaded the ship at Tortogos and went to Mona for water, and coming to the iland of St. Johns [Virgin Islands], Mr. Jones supposed it to be St. Cruse [St. Croix].  They bore away in the evening and came up with Mona, which Mr. Jones did not know, so they bore away that evening, all the company knowing it was Mona.  Then they went to Savona for water, and coming to the New England coast, they spied two sails of small vessels to the northward, and speaking with them were informed that they were off from Casco Bay.  They hoisted their boat and went aboard one of the vessels and one of their men came aboard the Ann, which man was detained by the company because their pilot, Mr. Jones, was not acquainted to the northward.  They had no bread, water, nor provisions, and the wind being westerly, the man promised he could carry them where they could get food, but he would not undertake to carry them into Paskattaway; however, they came between the Isles of Shoales and Passcattaway toward night, and Mr. Jones bore in, supposing that the iland to the southward was Passcattaway, but the company knew otherwise. "8

    It is perhaps not surprising that Howard saw “Mr. Jones and the master scuffling in the cabin and some bad language was used, and the master’s neckcloth torn.”9

    This saga of an errant pilot who placed ship and crew in jeopardy documents the involvement of [147] seventeenth-century New England in the triangular trade.  The intended route was specific — from New England to the “Western Island [Azores],” thence to Madeira, Cape Verde, “old England,” back to the Barbadoes and then to New England.  The cargo, less specific, did identify one commodity: African slaves from the Cape Verde Islands — one of the components of the “triangular trade.”

    The importation of slaves by New Englanders was certainly known prior to 1662 as noted in a letter of 1642 written by Thomas Gorges, Deputy Governor of the Province of Maine, to Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the holder of the patent: “As for slaves out of Ginney [Guinea, West Africa], if thyr bodyes can agree with the coldness of the country they would be excellent but I believe I could frame an argument against the lawfulness of taking them from theyr own country & soe have them & theyrs.”10

    Further, the port of Dover, New Hampshire sent vessels “not only along the coast and over to England, but also to Africa for slaves (Dover imported them early) and especially to Barbados...Barbados rum and molasses was especially popular in Dover [and] several Dover people moved to the Island and invested in the sugar industry.”11

    By 1660, the New England economy had evolved from one of barter to a complex exchange of cargoes and bills of credit which would be honored in England.  The triangle route most commonly made a first stop at Barbados, not only the largest of the British Islands but the farthest to the windward, which allowed a run before the trade winds instead of an upwind beat.12  New Englanders played a major role in the West Indies trade by providing livestock, fish and processed meats to these islands, whose arable land13 was mostly used by sugar plantation. The symbiotic relationship which developed at that time between New England and the West Indies was “dramatically demonstrated in 1688 when the island of Nevis faced famine because Yankee captains, fined for abuses and illegal activities, had refused to trade there."14  The Madeira Islands, a port of call off the coast of Portugal, were a ready market for New England pipe staves and wine casks, and in return offered wine, one of the few items New Englanders could sell in England.15  From there, the vessel sailed south to the West African coast, and boarded captured Africans to be sold as slaves to the West Indian sugar plantations on the return voyage.  In return for the cargo of slaves, the Yankee captain might receive tobacco, cotton, sugar, molasses or bills of exchange which could be honored in London.  In 1659, a hogshead of rum was valued at £12.12s., a hogshead of sugar in 1660 at £6.10s, and a Negro boy in 1657 at £20.16

    Although it has already been noted that New Englanders were early involved in the transportation of slaves to the Indies, it has been said that “historians of early New England have been slow to recognize how much of the region’s prosperity depended upon the institution of slavery. Tobacco, rice and sugar plantations of the southern and West Indian colonies constituted the major market for New England produce such as fish and timber.  Those Yankee merchants who prospered in the plantation trade were as much dependent on the institution of slavery for their riches as were the planters themselves.”17  Therefore the importance of the captain of their vessels cannot be underestimated.  He was responsible for determining which port would be most advantageous in selling his cargo at the highest price and then buying a cargo of saleable items at the lowest price.  An error in judgment meant the difference between profit and loss for the merchants who invested in the venture.

    The interest in this court case originally evolved from our descent from Thomas1 Barnard, then a resident of Amesbury in Essex County, who was usually designated a “husbandman” (see our article ‘Thomas Barnard of Amesbury and Salisbury,” in The Essex Genealogist 8[1988](1)29-38).  It seemed logical to assume that New Englanders undertaking a financially speculative venture would be well acquainted with the captain — and at this time there were only two Thomas Barnards within the jurisdiction of the Essex County Courts: Thomas1 mentioned above, and his son, Thomas2.  However, a comparison of autographs of Captain Thomas Barnard, preserved in the original court record of 1661 at the Essex Institute Library, and of Thomas Barnard, Sr. from a lot-layers plan of 1667 preserved at the Massachusetts State Archives19 are so dissimilar that we must conclude that they were two different people.  Thomas Barnard, Jr. was not considered as he signed with a mark in 1677, assenting to the division of his father’s property.19

    The more probable identity of Captain Thomas Barnard is deduced from that of Samuel Venner. Venner, identified in court testimony as a "merchant” was perhaps that same Samuel Venner of London described as a merchant in a deposition of Robert Aslin made there 15 January 1658.20 This presents the possibility that Captain Thomas Barnard was the same Thomas Barnard, “shipper of goods in the Mayflower...bound from London to New England with passengers and planters 10 April-10 May 1639.21

    The identity of Alexander Jones presented a different problem.  In fact, there was one Alexander Jones, described as a “seaman,” who resided at Kittery, Maine, and later at Great Island [a part of Portsmouth later set off as Newcastle, New Hampshire] in the mid-1600’s.22  He did reside within the jurisdiction of the Essex County Courts, as New Hampshire was under the authority of Massachusetts from 1642 to [148] 1679.23  What is puzzling, if these were one and the same man, was Jones’ unfamiliarity with the area in which he lived: “Mr. Jones was not acquainted to the northward...they came between the Iles of Shoales and Passcattaway toward night, and Mr. Jones bore in, supposing that the iland to the southward was Passcattaway, but the company knew otherwise."24  It is also unclear why he would not have returned home when “being turned ashore” instead of remaining at Salem.

    An attempt to identify the known crew members — Thomas Bomar, John Howard, Henry Watson and William Liddell — has been speculative or fruitless.  The name of William Haskell is familiar in Gloucester and it is possible that he or his son of the same name was the crew member. William Haskell, Sr. was described as a seaman, although the autograph of William Haskell on the court document cannot be compared, as William Haskell, Sr. of Gloucester signed his will, dated 3 July 1662, with his mark.25  The name of John Johnson is seen at Charlestown and Haverhill, and William King might be the same of that name who was briefly involved with the Quakers of Salem.  That at least some of the crew were New Englanders is implied by the testimony that, although Jones did not know where he was coming into Piscataqua, “the company knew otherwise.”

    An effort was made to learn more about the Ann; unfortunately, ship records from that period no longer seem to exist.  But for an errant pilot, no account of this voyage would probably survive.


    1.  Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts (hereafter EQCR), vol. 2 (1912), p. 391.
    2.  Ibid., p. 392.
    3.  Ibid.
    4.  Ibid.
    5.  Webster’s Third International Dictionary, vol.2(1976), p. 1489.
    6.  EQCR, vol. 2 (1912), pp. 392-93.
    7.  Ibid.
    8. Ibid., pp. 393-94.
    9. Ibid.
    10.  R.E. Moody, ed., The Letters of Thomas Gorges, Deputy Governor of the Province of Maine, 1640-1645 (1978) p. 95.
    11.  W.G. Saltonstall, Ports of Piscataqua (1941), pp. 12-13.
    12.  R.G. Albion, WA. Baker and B.W. Labaree, New England and the Sea (1972), pp. 33-34.
    13.  D.R. MacManis, Colonial New England (1975), pp. 108-109.
    14.  Ibid.
    15. Ibid., p.110.
    16.  W.B. Weeden, Economic and Social History of New England, 1620-1789, vol. 1(1963), p. 882.
    17.  Albion et al., op. cit., p. 37.
    18.  Massachusetts State Archives (MSA) 112:170.
    19.  Essex Probate #1785.
    20.  P.W. Coldham, The Complete Book of Emigrants 1607-1660 (1987), p. 408.
    21.  Ibid.
    22.  S. Noyes, CT. Libby and W.G. Davis, Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire (1928-39, repr. 1972), P. 385.
    23.  MW. Lindberg, ed., Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research (NEHGS, 1985), p. 88.
    24.  EQCR, op. cit., pp. 393-94.
    25.  Essex Probate #12804.

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