Browse Month: March 2016

Schooner Rajah & How America Entered the Spice Trade

American sailors from Salem Massachussets made history in 1795 when they set sail on “secret voyage for ports unknown”.  This true story opens a small window on the fascinating spice trade, schooners, and their colourful place in history..

A schooner at anchor in the Far East

The first known recorded sailing voyage from American shores to what is now known as Indonesia, was made aboard a Massachusetts schooner named “Rajah” in 1795.  There are no drawings and very few descriptions of the Rajah, but it was likely a schooner typical of the US East Coast, with a foremast shorter than the main, 120 tons, approximately 100ft in length and 20ft wide, and in the style of its day the sails would have been gaff-rigged.

In 1795,  before internal combustion engines, satellite navigation and communications what were the chances of survival if undertaking a voyage from the United States to the far east in search of spices?  It is difficult to know exactly, as much depended on the skill of the captain and the accuracy of the maps available to him, but it may have been no better than a 50% chance of making it home.  In today’s connected world it is very difficult to imagine how daunting such a voyage might have been, and how much courage and daring was required.

A schooner on the Westport River, US East Coast

So the question is – what would motivate people to take such risks? For the merchants of Salem Massachusetts, the first from America to enter the spice trade, there were plenty of incentives: especially the idea of trading peppercorn with 700% profits.

Of all the distinctively flavoured seeds pepper is the most widely used, and for centuries it was the most valuable. In ancient times, pepper was so valuable that in Greece and Rome it was used as currency and during the middle ages, peppercorns were accepted in lieu of money for dowries, rent and taxes.

By the late 1700s pepper was ubiquitous and known as “king of the spices”, however it was only produced in the far east, and before pepper crossed the ocean to America, it made its way first through the hands of many middle-men making it a very high priced commodity. The Dutch East India company controlled much the trade of pepper in the 18th and 19th Centuries, which was being sourced from what is now known as Indonesia.

Pepper, “The King of Spices”

However, in 1795 this was about to change when Captain Carnes, a nephew of a Salem Merchant, commandeered a 120-ton schooner named “Rajah” and sailed on a “secret voyage for ports unknown”. In fact, Captain Carnes would sail a dangerous 26,000-mile round trip to reach Benkoelen, in Sumatra (Indonesia), and traded directly with the local rulers on the coastal areas to avoid the higher prices charged by Dutch merchants in Batavia.

By circumventing the monopoly on pepper then held by the Dutch he returned in 1797 loaded in bulk with a cargo of pepper which returned a 700 per cent profit.   The owners of the schooner Rajah couldn’t wait to repeat the venture, and by 1805 the schooner Rajah had completed five trips to Sumatra, bringing back over 1200 tons of pepper.

Antique Map of Sumatra

The success of the Rajah stimulated other Salem merchants, to go into the pepper trade.  Those who followed suit included George Crowninshield & Sons, Joseph Peabody, Abel Lawrence & Co., Nathaniel West, and Stephen Phillips making pepper a major source of income for Salem.

From that moment on it is said that almost 1000 ships from America would sail around the world working the spice trade for nearly one hundred years, and today the pioneers of the original historic voyages are commemorated at the Salem Spice Festival.


(Based on excerpts originally appearing in “F. Rosengarten, Jr. 1969. The Book Of Spices, p. 23–96, Jove Publ., Inc., New York”, and New York Times & New Yorker).