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Chapter 18

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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please let me know!


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Chapter 20
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p86  Chapter 19

And a Voyage to India

One day in June, 1789, Captain Truxtun walked into Mr. Morris's countinghouse to talk over plans for his next voyage.​1 Robert Morris, statesman, banker, and probably the wealthiest merchant in Philadelphia, had been one of the first businessmen to enter the China trade. Now he was proposing a new scheme. He and some business associates would help Captain Truxtun buy out the shareholders in  p87 the Canton; then they would prepare her for a voyage to China by way of India. Furthermore, they would send out another ship with a cargo for India. In India, they would sell the extra ship, and the Canton would bring back the proceeds of the sale. Thus it was that the Canton became the property of William Constable, Isaac Hazelhurst and Company (Robert Morris was the company), and Captain Truxtun.2

Constable, a New York merchant, had for many years been dreaming of the profits he might make in the China trade.​3 He was confident that this plan, if it was carried out by the right person, could hardly lose. Judging by his reputation, Captain Truxtun was the right person. Before long, Constable ran across a bargain ship, the New York, which he promptly bought for this venture.

The command of the New York went to Robert Mercer, who had been first mate in the Canton.​4 His pay, £8 per month, and his privilege of carrying home three tons of freight, were the same as though he had continued as first mate, but his duties and responsibilities were greatly increased;​5 and his ship was not one to delight the heart of a seaman.

Captain Truxtun had hoped that the New York would sail as far as India with only minor repairs, but his hopes were dashed when he journeyed to New York to look at her. She needed two new topmasts, a new suit of sails, a new anchor and cable, and some internal repairs; and he decided it would be necessary to heave her down to repair her bottom.​6 She appeared to him to be a dull sailer, slow to answer her helm, a dangerous ship on a lee shore. Still, he hoped that she might sell for twenty thousand dollars in Johanna​a or Bombay. Accordingly, he reminded Mercer, "you know the necessity of letting all the good Qualities of the Ship be known, whenever you have an Opportunity."7

Hazelhurst arranged for the cargoes: bar iron, tar, pine lumber, porter, shrub, and Windsor chairs in the Canton, and a cargo of masts and spars in the New York.​8 The Canton would call at Cape Town, but the New York would go directly to Johanna, off the east coast of Africa. There she would wait twenty days for the Canton and then proceed to Bombay. If, after waiting fifteen days longer in Bombay, the Canton had not yet arrived, Mercer was instructed to sell his ship and cargo. It was clearly understood that whenever Captain Truxtun was present, at sea or on shore, his commands would  p88 take precedence over any written instructions that Mercer might have.9

Even before the ships sailed, there was talk of another, newer ship to replace the Canton next voyage. Messrs. Morris and Constable had one in mind, now absent on an India voyage, that they might buy; or they might build a new one. Whichever they did, Captain Truxtun wanted his next to be a copper-bottomed ship. He knew how foul a bottom could become in warm seas where, on long voyages, grass was known to grown to a length of two feet or more.​10 But coppering was outside the ken of American shipyards, so the new ship would have to be sent to England to have the job done.

On the eve of his departure from Philadelphia, Captain Truxtun walked out Market Street to call on Robert Morris at his mansion, the finest in the city.​11 He told Morris that he expected to make a most success­ful cruise, even though he was leaving later than he would have liked. He also mentioned Hazelhurst's handling of the details, which he thought had been done quite satisfactorily. He stayed but a few minutes and then walked down to spend another few minutes with Hazelhurst, to settle the accounts. But the accounts were not ready for him, so he took off his coat and sat down to help get them straightened out. The hours passed; it was almost midnight when he suddenly remembered that he had told his friend Charles Biddle that he would be home by eight o'clock.

Next morning, still mortified by his lapse of memory, he scrawled a note to Biddle; "I ask you ten thousand pardons," he wrote, "for not meeting you according to my appointment . . . I thought nothing could have prevented me, but. . . ."12

Nor did he see Charles Biddle before he left Philadelphia. He took long leave of his family, left a little money with Mary to answer her immediate needs ("for which I am to bring back the amount for the lender in India Goods, this is paying a heavy Interest but what can I do?"), and boarded the stage for New Castle, where his ship lay waiting for him.13

While he waited for a wind to take him out to sea, he wrote a letter to Biddle, asking him to attend to some business that was still pending. He accepted Biddle's offer to keep Mary supplied with money during his absence and reminded him "that I have made no other arrangements for this purpose, relying intirely on your kind offer and promise."

 p89  He wanted Biddle to push the suit he had brought against Tench Coxe, who is remembered as a political economist and an early advocate of American manufactures. Coxe had been a shareholder in the previous voyage. Upon his recommendation, Captain Truxtun had lent £1,000 to Joseph Harrison, but soon afterwards he had heard on every hand that Harrison was not to be trusted for a shilling. Coxe had not endorsed the note, but he had visited Captain Truxtun on board his ship one day and told him he had gotten security from Harrison; however, he had never delivered it up, and no move had been made to repay the £1,000. Captain Truxtun felt that Coxe had made him look foolish, and he was determined to try to make him pay, even though he had small chance of success. "You well know," he told Biddle, "that Coxe is a very Cunning, artfull, and deceitfull general, though dam him, I do not believe him to be a brave one, but as he is a great proficient in Manuvering, he . . . without fighting, may defeat my whole army of lawyers."​14 No record has been found of this war, if indeed it ever materialized. It is likely that Charles Biddle discussed the situation with Tench Coxe, and then quietly let the issue die.

Sailing from a Philadelphia winter into a South African summer, Captain Truxtun called again at Cape Town. While talking to an old acquaintance in the India trade, he outlined his plan to carry on an indirect trade with China by way of India, Batavia, and intermediate points. He received such encouragement that he wrote to Isaac Hazelhurst at once, telling him that if he and Morris and Constable were going to build a new ship, they should make it half again as large as they had originally planned.15

He continued on to Bombay, the British East India Company's stronghold on the west coast of India. No record of the disposition of the New York has been found, but it is likely that he found her waiting for him in Bombay and that he sold her there.

Ten months out of Philadelphia, he had sailed as far as Calcutta, where the British were at war with one of the numerous native princes.​b However, the Governor General, Lord Cornwallis, whose defeat at Yorktown had marked the virtual end of the Revolutionary War, took time to be a cordial host. An amiable man, "universally esteemed," he won Captain Truxtun's instant admiration.​16 The Governor General welcomed him to Calcutta. He assured him that, in spite of the Company's rule against it, he was always glad  p90 to see an American ship arrive. He said that he wished a hundred sail a year might come out from America. The Americans had a salutary effect on British captains who, as long as they had a monopoly, charged "three to six" prices for the goods they brought from England.17

Captain Truxtun was enthusiastic about the India trade. He formulated ambitious plans for keeping one ship constantly plying between India and China with another occasionally to take the earnings back to America. This year, however, it was too late to continue on to China, so he took in a cargo of piece goods and spices and set sail for Philadelphia. He was anxious to get the Canton home; he was beginning to lose confidence in his ship "owing to her stearing so very ill that she is scarcely governable with a press of Sail when before the Wind, or going large."​18 Although he complained about many things, Captain Truxtun almost never complained about his ships; but the Canton, now six years old, had carried him more than seventy thousand miles, and her age was beginning to tell.

The passage from India was worst he had ever had. In his haste to get home, he may have omitted his usual call for refreshment at Cape Town. Whatever the reason, he was in serious trouble before he reached the northern tropic; his crew was so badly stricken by scurvy that he was scarcely able to sail his ship into a port in the West Indies, being forced to take some hands on board to help him anchor and to pull a boat ashore with the sick. He resumed the homeward passage as soon as his crew was partly recovered, but he was forced to leave five seamen in the hospital in Martinique.19

Scurvy was still likely to appear during a long voyage. The disease had yet to claim many more thousands of victims before the absence of fresh vegetables from the diet was recognized as its true cause. A specific preventive was not yet generally agreed upon. Lime juice, regular use of which was prescribed for all Royal Navy vessels a few years later, was now merely one of many antiscorbutics. Captain Truxtun was not alone in his belief that scurvy might be prevented by taking particular care to keep his crew away from the direct rays of the tropical sun, and to keep their living spaces and clothes dry, sweet, and well aired. Such things as tea and sugar, Peruvian bark, and fresh meats were thought by some to be  p91 "excellent antiscorbutics." By drawing an erroneous conclusion from the observation that a few days ashore would often revive a victim of the disease, "land air," as opposed to sea air, was considered a tonic for seamen engaged in long voyages.20

It was nearly the end of April, 1791, more than six months after the Canton departed from India, when old Benjamin Fuller wrote, "I received an account that the Ship Canton Thomas Truxtun Esqr Commander was in the River and would be up in a few Tydes — The Letters by her are in Town and I hope to see the Captain in a few hours."21

The Author's Notes:

1 NYPL: Constable-Pierrepoint Collection, William Constable Letters, Truxtun to Constable, November 9, 1789.

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2 J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1884), III, 2215.

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3 NYPL: Constable-Pierrepoint Collection, William Constable Shipping Papers, Box 2, e.g., May 10, 1784.

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4 Ibid., William Constable Letters, Truxtun to William Constable, October 18, 1789.

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5 Ibid.

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6 Ibid., Truxtun to [?], October 24, 1789.

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7 Ibid., Truxtun to William Constable, November 25, 1789.

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8 Ibid., William Constable Shipping Papers, Box 1, Canton and New York folder, Canton cargo, December, 1789.

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9 Ibid., Truxtun to William Constable, November 25, 1789; ibid., Orders to Capt. R. Mercer and Mr. John Houston, December 4, 1789.

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10 HSPa: Journal of ship United States, Capt. Thomas Bell, from Philadelphia bound toward China.

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11 Carl Van Doren, The Great Rehearsal (New York, 1948), p1; PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, December 12, 1789.

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12 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, December 12, 1789.

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13 Ibid., Truxtun to Biddle, December 16, 1789.

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14 Ibid.; NYPL: U. S. Navy Collection, Truxtun to John Barry, September 7, 1788.

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15 NYPL: Constable-Pierrepoint Collection, William Constable Letters (1774‑91), Truxtun to Isaac Hazelhurst, March 17, 1790.

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16 Josiah Quincy, ed., Journals of Major Samuel Shaw (Boston, 1847), p269.

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17 LC: Washington Papers, vol. 274, Truxtun to Edmund Randolph, July 27, 1795.

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18 NYPL: Constable-Pierrepoint Collection, William Constable Letters (1774‑91), Truxtun to Isaac Hazelhurst, March 17, 1790.

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19 Ibid., William Constable Shipping Papers, Box 1, Canton and New York folder, account of disbursements for Canton, March 31, 1791.

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20 George Dixon, A Voyage Round the World (London, 1789), pp22, 23, 28, 31, 38, 49, 231, 336.

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21 HSPa: Benjamin Fuller Letter Books, April 27, 1791.

Thayer's Notes:

a Now Anjouan (Nzwani), one of the larger islands in the Comoros.

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b The Third Mysore War, against Tippoo Sultan, which ended in a costly English victory fought and brokered by Cornwallis in 1792.

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