Summer 2023 / Time Travel

The Bitter Taste of Fortune

by Robin Catalano

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The water was warm, but still felt cool against Titus’s throat as he gulped from the pigskin flask he’d stashed between the barrels on Turner Wharf. Even at this early hour, the rising humidity of the July day left his skin slick as he packed casks of herring, each weighing 300 pounds when full, at the warehouse — one of dozens clustered along the wharves of the port of Salem, Massachusetts.

He glanced up to where Captain Turner was speaking with a customs inspector. One of the city’s wealthiest men, Turner counted among his possessions a beautiful seven-gabled house, a farm, extensive vegetable and flower gardens, fine china and furniture from overseas — and three kidnapped people from Africa: Phillis, Lewis, and Titus.

Titus had been up since before sunrise, had already fed the livestock and pounded a new shipment of sugarcane to extract its juice before the captain and his missus had even doffed their night shifts. Tucking the flask back into its hiding place, Titus dragged a shirtsleeve across his forehead. Little good it did, when the muslin was already soaked with sweat. He bent to his work, then stopped, nose in the air. The breeze smelled warm, earthy, with a sharp bite that made his nostrils tingle.

“Ahoy!” rang the shout from Derby Wharf, which reached like a long, skeletal finger into the bay. Through the spaces between warehouses, Titus caught sight of a black-hulled schooner slicing through the waters of Salem Sound. It carried the kind of cargo that, in the first few decades of U.S. independence, would give rise to some of the nation’s first millionaires.

A sailing ship docked in a narrow canal.

The original Friendship of Salem was constructed in 1796-1797, but was captured by the British in the War of 1812 and sold the next year in London. Today, the replica is docked at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Photo: Tom Stack/Alamy.


A rivulet of perspiration crept down the back of my neck as I paused beside the squat, blocky lighthouse at the end of Derby Wharf, imagining Salem’s bustling 18th-century wharves and warehouses. More than two centuries had done little to dull the searing heat and energy-sapping humidity of summer in New England. A twine-handled paper bag from Salem Spice, my favorite seasonings shop, dangling from my hand, I walked the coast, my feet instinctively tracing its rocky contours, its soft sand and loamy grass. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth. I know the taste of the wind. I drank it in.

I’d grown up in the region, assumed its Puritan-influenced dropped-rs accent, as well as its overinflated sense of pride in the liberal spirit of the North. Much of my youth had been spent underfoot in my mother’s and grandfather’s restaurants, where I was drawn to the choreographed dance of the kitchen, to its evocative smells. The pinch of nutmeg that gives a bechamel its earthy warmth. The lemon-anise flavor of a gumbo, courtesy of sassafras, one of North America’s native spices. The tang of black pepper, freshly cracked over a fileted snapper.

Salem was a powerhouse importer of spices — that much I’d known. Its streets, populated by historic brick and clapboard buildings, still bear the names of famous merchants: Forrester, Webster, English, Blaney, Turner, and Derby; the latter is lined in squared-off historic shops decked out in colonial colors like claret, straw, Prussian blue, and pine. 

I’d bought into the romanticized idea of these brave captains conquering exotic ports and returning to a hero’s welcome and fistfuls of cash. But while their accomplishments were many and often ingenious, they came at the utmost human cost.


In 1637, the Desire, under the command of Captain William Peirce, left Salem for the islands of the Caribbean. Seven months later, according to the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, the ship returned with “some cotton, and tobacco, and negroes, etc., from thence, and salt from Tertugos [Haiti].” It’s Salem’s first documentation of the importation of a seasoning — and people abducted from their native lands.

It carried the kind of cargo that, in the first few decades of U.S. independence, would give rise to some of the nation’s first millionaires.

Sailing for trade was a dangerous business, requiring years at sea under the constant threat of wild weather, piracy, and other perils. Most early American merchants were opportunistic, and loaded their ships with whatever they could sell or trade, from textiles to fish, lumber, and porcelain. The formula was so successful that in 1651, England passed the first in a series of Navigation Acts to force all colonial trade to go through the mother country, which resulted in prohibiting American trade beyond the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn.

Resentment brewed, reaching its apex with the Revolutionary War. After the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, Colonial captains, unfettered by regulations, sailed for the Far East. Salem, which had not been occupied during the Revolution like Boston or Philadelphia, “came out of the war with the men, the ships, and the money to do these long-distance trades,” says Emily Murphy, curator for Salem Maritime National Historic Site and Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site. The city was at the heart of an extraordinary reversal of the former colonies’ fortunes.

Elias Hasket Derby was in the thick of the new feeding frenzy. He and his son, Elias Hasket Derby, Jr., spent years building relationships with the leading merchants of Madras, Bombay, Calcutta, and the Malabar Coast, trading for a taste of the exotic, like pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and cardamom, each so featherlight that a ship’s hull could be packed practically floor to ceiling.

Spice-trading voyages like Derby’s netted profits as high as 700 percent, kicking off a cutthroat, “Wild East” trading mentality, according to Dane Morrison, professor of history at Salem State University and author of Eastward of Good Hope: Early America in a Dangerous World. “There were virtually no rules, and certainly no rules that could be enforced,” he says.

Salem expanded rapidly, developing 50 wharves crowded with counting houses and warehouses, some two and three stories high. Merchant families built stately mansions in familiar European architectural styles, their spotless windows like great, unblinking eyes observing the city’s transformation into America’s wealthiest per capita. 

Remnants of this prosperity are visible today, especially along Chestnut Street, a favorite spot of mine for watching the setting sun cast a golden glow over its historic homes. The homes bear small white plaques etched with the names of their owners: Built 1808 for Nathan Robinson, merchant, and wife Eunice Beckford. Built for Thomas Saunders, merchant 1810. Built for Pickering Dodge, merchant circa 1828. Built ca 1850 for Francis Cox Commission Merchant.

Built for, never built by. The names of those who built monuments to other men’s wealth, whose daily toil was critical to the success of the colonies, are largely lost to history. The names that remain will probably never be etched into commemorative plaques, let alone history books. Most of their stories will never be fully told — because most of their stories have not fully survived.


Just because a bunch of men in wigs and ruffled collars signed a piece of paper saying you were free didn’t mean anyone came knocking on those mansion doors to let you out.

The scent of rising yeast had permeated the kitchen by the time Joan strained the broth and hefted the cast-iron kettle into the beehive. The logs she’d set ablaze a couple of hours earlier, before the first light of dawn had cracked the winter sky, had burned down to red-hot coals. She’d have to be efficient to get the day’s cooking done, completing the most heat-intensive dishes first, while the coals were at their hottest. The corn cakes were already prepared for the children’s breakfast. She’d save the custard, Mrs. Turner’s favorite dessert, till last.

Joan brushed the hair away from her fever-hot face and blinked against the perpetual haze of the kitchen of the Turners’ house. It would be a while before the pot got to boiling again. She should have enough time to scale, trim, and gut the haddock, a task she’d neglected the night before. She’d been writing a letter home to her parents in County Cork, in the Kingdom of Ireland. Even after six years here in the colonies, she missed her family bitterly. There was much she wanted to tell them about working in the grand gray mansion, its sharp gables pointing skyward, the family’s fine silk garments, and their abundance of sugar pots.

Joan’s heavy woolen skirts rustled against the table legs as she whacked a cleaver through the center of the nutmeg. Turning the two halves sideways, she cut again, making neat quarters. With the edge of the blade, she pushed the nutmeg toward the flakes of mace and spikes of cloves she’d already set aside for the stew. She inhaled the scent, the spices a welcome counterpoint to the ever-present smell of smoke.


More than 100 years after the last cooking fire was extinguished, the claustrophobically small kitchen of the House of the Seven Gables, built by merchant John Turner I in 1668, still seemed to smolder. Although the real house — a hulking three-winged structure painted charcoal gray, its austerity offset by rectangular beds of flowers and shrubs in front — bears only a physical resemblance to the accursed one in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name, as I walked its creaking floorboards, I could feel ghosts of a different sort.

Black and white portrait of a large, wooden house.

The House of the Seven Gables was built in 1668 by merchant and shipowner John Turner I and his wife Elizabeth Robinson Turner. Today, the house is best known as the setting for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name. Photo: Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress.

Joan Sullivan, an Irish immigrant, became indentured to the Turners around 1670 and remained in their employ for several years. A certificate of indenture, much like the one she signed, hangs on one wall of the dim attic space where Sullivan spent most of her downtime. Turner sold her certificate to a tailor, Thomas Maule, for 9 pence — about as much as a pound of bacon. She would later become one of the first household workers to bring a legal suit against her new employer for domestic abuse.

Servants, enslaved and indentured, in colonial America performed no shortage of tasks. Women in particular tended small farms, sewed, laundered, kept house, and cared for children. Many were forced into sex labor. Others were midwives or nursed the sick, including their employers and enslavers, gathering a wealth of knowledge about human health and early medicines. Contemporaneous ads, such as one for a “likely strong and remarkably healthy Negro girl between 11 and 12 years of age” who was “well acquainted with the ‘business of family’” — the ability to knit, spin, and sew — show that many were engaged in trades.

Cooking, often for large families, was a key component of female servants’ work. They spent long hours on their feet, exposed to fluctuating heat and open flames, using flavorings from half a world away that were assigned more value than the hands that prepared them. (By 1794, for instance, cinnamon cost 11 cents per ounce, and allspice and nutmeg sold for about 30 cents per ounce.)

Most colonial households expressed their status through recipes made fashionable in early cookbooks, including Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1732), Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple (1747), and Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796). All made liberal use of spices. Smith’s recipe for marrow pudding, for example, calls for a stick of cinnamon, a quartered nutmeg, an entire large mace, plus salt, sugar, orange flower water, sliced citron, and lemon peel. While certain spices, like pepper, were thought to preserve meat, a heavy hand with flavorings was likely a reflection of their status as “necessary luxuries,” says Murphy. 

By the late 18th and early 19th century, she says, spices were “common enough that if you had some extra cash, you could afford it. It’s fascinating how early these plants, which are literally growing on the other side of the world, become an integral part of our food identity.”


I’d bought into the romanticized idea of these brave captains conquering exotic ports and returning to a hero’s welcome and fistfuls of cash.

As the ship rolled, so did Will’s gut. They’d been on the water a fortnight, and still he hadn’t developed his sea legs. He’d assumed he’d take to the water the same as his father, who’d been on five voyages, and brother, who left for his second trip only one month before Will. It had been almost six months since they’d heard from Father, but he was made of harder stuff than the biscuits aboard the Belisarius, where Will now clung to a rope ladder, trying to keep down his breakfast. Food was too precious on a voyage to waste it by tossing your meals.

At five-foot-five and barely nineteen, William Johnson was the smallest and youngest of the merchantman’s sailors. He’d been brought aboard as a cook. Even lighting the cookfire was a chore on days like today, with high winds that flapped the sails, tossed the hull, whistled about the ears, and sent saltwater sloshing over the deck.

His friend John, one of three Black Jacks among the crew of fourteen, gave him a friendly thump on the back as he bustled past, burlap sacks of cinnamon balanced on one shoulder. Will tried to muster a smile in response. At least there’d be no tarring today. The smell of the mixture was almost as nauseating as the rolling sea itself.

A wave pitched Will forward, and he crashed hip first against a barrel. Clearing skies to the west told him that if he could make it through the day, the evening would be quieter. Then he could ask John to give him another Bible reading lesson. Knowing God had a bigger plan for him made it easier to accept present circumstances, even if it meant struggling to keep his breakfast down every day for the year, give or take, they’d be at sea.


My boots found purchase against the rain-slicked floorboards of the Friendship, a three-masted, 342-ton replica of a 1797 merchant vessel that made 15 post-Revolution voyages to the East Indies and Europe. I gazed into Salem Sound, feeling the rocking of the deck underneath my feet. The original ship was from the same era as the Belisarius, which in 1806 included William Johnson, John Hambleton, and William Brown — three African American seamen, or Black Jacks — in its crew manifest. For balance, I grasped a rope beside me, thick and coarse against my palm, and felt the weight of the rigging that controlled the ship’s enormous sails.

By the late 1700s, mercantile activities, including the spice trade, made up the lion’s share of the American economy and provided the greatest opportunity for economic self-sufficiency. Merchant life wasn’t easy, but jobs were plentiful, both because of the explosion of trade and because of high mortality rates. It was heavy work, made dismal by the lack of protection from the elements and the close quarters.

Eighteen percent of sailors were Black, says Jeffrey Bolster, a retired history professor from the University of New Hampshire and author of Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. They often chose life at sea to escape enslavement or its aftermath, namely poverty. “On a per capita basis in New England, in the colonial and early national periods, Black men were much more likely to go to sea than white men,” he says.

Vessels were led by a captain and his mates. Able-bodied seamen — the more experienced sailors — were next on the ladder. Below them were ordinary seamen, and finally green hands, or new sailors. Black men typically maxed out as able-bodied seamen, and were often hired as cooks or stewards, both service roles. Little documentation of their lives survives.

As I wrapped my rain jacket tighter to ward off the cold drizzle, I thought about the documents that do remain: the contemporaneous ship’s logs and journals that describe the grimness of a sailor’s day-to-day. Because ships were “constantly falling apart and needing attention,” according to Bolster, sailors scraped, painted, and repaired the wood, and pumped out the hold and washed the decks. Those of lesser status cleaned the pens of animals kept aboard for food. Exposure to danger was continuous, from piracy to toxic compounds like pine tar, used for waterproofing, to climbing the rigging or the mast to check for abnormalities or pass a halyard.

The mariner’s diet was even more dreary. Hardtack biscuits — as tasty and tooth-shattering as they sound — were a mainstay, as well as unleavened bread, salted beef or pork, dried mackerel, raisins, and oatmeal.

Sailors had only about two hours’ worth of leisure per day, and a day off from maintenance work, but not navigation, on Sundays. The unrelenting need to be on their toes meant most were continually sleep-deprived. Illness was common. Rare were the voyages that returned to port with all of their crew.


They spent long hours on their feet, exposed to fluctuating heat and open flames, using flavorings from half a world away that were assigned more value than the hands that prepared them.

Rose’s mood was as dark as the ink-colored silk skirt whose hem she embroidered for Mrs. Pickman. She’d convinced Sabe not to go to sea, at least for now. It had been just one month since they’d married, and barely three since they’d finally left the Derbys for good, in 1799, after almost three decades under their constant gaze. Rose and Sabe’s departure had been a long time in coming, given that 16 years had passed since the Quock Walker case abolished slavery in Massachusetts. Just because a bunch of men in wigs and ruffled collars signed a piece of paper saying you were free didn’t mean anyone came knocking on those mansion doors to let you out.

Now Sabe had gotten into his head that he’d open a shop using the $500 he and Rose had been given in back wages when Mr. Derby passed. He’d found a partner in John Simmons, a free Black man, and the two had purchased a piece of land on the southwest end of the city. 

On the table lay a dog-eared copy of American Cookery, given to Rose by Mrs. Derby. Rose had read it all the way through in a day. Even if the woman had hovered over Rose like she was a fire that needed tending, at least she’d gotten schooled. It was more than Rose could say for a lot of her friends in Salem.

She looked down at the basket brimming with fine clothes that lay at her feet from four Salem families. If she could finish them by tomorrow, she might have enough to buy all the spices she’d need to make a proper chowder.


In Howard Street Cemetery, where assorted sea captains and Revolutionary War soldiers are buried, I knelt on a square of land in the southwest corner — the eternal resting place of some of Salem’s Black residents. I touched the etched letters of the headstones of four who died in the mid-1800s. Prince Farmer, plus his wife, Mary Ann Black Farmer, whose name isn’t recorded on the marker. Venus Chew. Samuel Payne. There are likely many more Black residents buried here, their legacies as poorly understood as Rose Derby’s.

The names that remain will probably never be etched into commemorative plaques, let alone history books.

Rose’s life is something we’re forced to imagine. Her existence is documented through a handwritten page in the Derby family bible from the late 1700s; a few receipts, over a six-month period, for her education; and Elias Hasket Derby’s 1799 last will and testament, which left Rose and Sabe $250 apiece.

Rose and Sabe married a few months after Derby died. Legal and newspaper notices point to the purchase of Sabe Derby and John Simmons’s business, and its closure the following year. A 1974 study of the contents of Derby House, including legal documents, notes that in 1807, executors of the Derby estate paid $400 “on account of the house built for the use of Saba [sic] and Rose Derby.”

Rose died, at about 31 years old, two years later. We don’t know the cause.

Amidst the headstones, my shoulders bowed, I squinted against the early-morning sun and imagined her memorial. The only account that remains is an infantilizing journal entry from the white pastor William Bentley: “Upon my return I saw the funeral procession of young Rose, wife of Saib [sic], both lately servants of E. H. Derby deceased. It was an honour to Salem to see such a length of procession of decently clad and orderly Blacks. 80 Blacks capable of dressing themselves in good fashion & conducting with great solemnity, without the ignorant state & awkward manner of a new situation, is favourable to the hopes of civil society.”

We don’t know how Rose became such an important part of Salem’s Black community. Artifacts of her life don’t exist in Derby House. Her and Sabe’s home no longer stands. Although researchers are trying to reconstruct such histories, the archival silence is deafening.

The emancipation of Rose and Sabe, like that of most African Americans in the North, could be described as painfully gradual. Yet the North, which had depended on the slave economy nearly from its outset, “could more easily disentangle itself from slavery because they had made so much money having been directly involved with it,” says Kabria Baumgartner, associate professor of History and Africana Studies at Northeastern University. “The money made off of slave labor could now support other industries.”

By 1840, Salem’s seafaring golden age had been supplanted by the movement of goods across the country on its shiny new railroads. Still, the merchants’ wealth, influence, and ingenuity are lauded even today. But, says Morrison, “These men had the luxury of time. They had time to read, they had time to think and plan and design. The enslaved liberated their enslavers. Servants and women liberated men from the tyranny of routine tasks. Without them, none of this would’ve happened.”


On Baker’s Island, a bramble-lined 60-acre Atlantic parcel five miles off Salem’s shores, and once leased by the Turners, I sat on a rocky outcrop near the lighthouse, listening to the rhythmic chiming of a bell buoy. My eyes stung with tears as I considered how the place where I grew up, the place I loved, where I started a career, married, and divorced, the place I left and came back to, wasn’t the bastion of freedom that had shaped my philosophy.  

Bolster puts it this way: “At this moment in our nation’s history, what a lot of people are ignoring or choosing to forget is that the two most central stories in American history are freedom and slavery. That story of freedom, which has been the American story, which still attracts all these immigrants to our shores every year, can’t be told without the story of slavery” — and its enduring legacy of racism, suppression, and generational poverty. 

Herring gulls barked and swooped overhead, startled by the appearance of an interloper, or perhaps excited by the breeze-rustled bag of spices beside me. As I wrapped my arms around my knees, I thought of all the ingredients that made this place: the injustice alongside the power, the toil beneath the opulence, the vanished as well as the memorialized.

Digital artwork of layered images, including a ship, a lighthouse, a wooden house, grave stones, and silhouettes.

Salem’s historical sites including the House of the Seven Gables, The Friendship of Salem, and Derby Wharf overlay silhouettes of unidentifiable figures. Illustration by Emily Larsen.

Emily Larsen is a designer and illustrator who lives and works in Salem, Massachusetts. Her passion for public art is found in the colorful commissioned murals she has created throughout the community.

Robin Catalano

A specialist in coastal travel, the Northeastern U.S., animal conservation, food and craft beverages, and Spain, Robin Catalano is a travel journalist and the creator of the travel blog Once More to the Shore.

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