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