Josiah, the male lead of my historical work-in-progress, is not only first mate on a merchant ship, but a small-time merchant himself. His captain allows him a share of cargo space in exchange for a cut of his profits. Josiah has made a small fortune off of his investments, which he squirrels away in boxes hidden beneath his kitchen floorboards. He is saving to build his own ship.

When I first wrote this scenario, I merely assumed it was possible. Would an 18th century merchant-captain share cargo space with his ambitious young officer? Sure! Why not?

Fortunately, as I found out later, this scenario has historical precedent. Elias Hasket Derby, the wealthiest shipowner in Salem, Massachusetts, made it his policy to encourage and facilitate his young employees’ small-time investments in foreign trade:

He allowed his apprentices to put their savings into small ‘adventures’ in foreign trade, for which he gave them space in his vessels. Even his seamen were allowed 800 pounds of freight apiece, to exchange for foreign products.

Alexander Laing, Seafaring America, pg. 69

One of Derby’s young ship masters, Nathaniel Silsbee, was so successful in his investments that

…he retired from water, wealthy, at the age of twenty-eight, to manage his [own] ships from on shore. He made it a family enterprise by bringing in his brothers, William and Zacariah, when they, too, duly swallowed their anchors at the proper age of twenty-eight. Both had become shipmasters at nineteen.

ibid. 69-70

Not only did Silsbee become a wealthy shipowner, but he eventually entered politics, serving as a U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and member of both the Massachusetts House and Senate.

Nathaniel Silsbee. (Public Domain)

Josiah’s fictional and Nathaniel Silsbee’s real-life stories are very similar. Both their fathers experienced financial failure. Both went to sea at a young age in order to support their families (Josiah leaves home at fifteen; Silsbee at fourteen). And both are determined young men with enough business savvy to take advantage of the financial opportunities that came of working on a merchant ship.

The scenario works. And the novelist wipes her brow with a, “Whew!”


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