June 3, 2000


In 1794, as the French Revolution began devouring its parents and Robespierre went to his date with the guillotine, a new governing body, the Directory, was formed. It would rule for the next four years, becoming more corrupt and unpopular with each passing month. Needing to project an image as protector of French financial interests, the they called for a ban on the importation of British goods. It was decreed in 1798 that all neutral vessels carrying cargo from Great Britain or her possessions were fair game for French privateers. This of course lead to a shortage of British goods, which in turn made them all the more valuable to other nations, a point not lost on the Yankee merchants from across the sea. Captains like 25-year-old Nathaniel Silsbee of Salem, Massachusetts.

Silsbee. a future U. S. Senator, had gone off to sea as a young man, quickly becoming a captain, ship owner and merchant. Toward the end of a previous voyage in 1795, as he neared the Massachusetts coast he discovered his vessel was being shadowed by an unidentified schooner, apparently waiting for an opportunity to attack. While readying his ship's six guns he was informed by one of his officers that a number of his crew declared they had not signed on to fight and would not help in the ship's defense. Silsbee sealed the hatches and informed the recalcitrant sailors that they had been engaged to maintain the ship and would oblige him if they would head aloft and perform some preventative maintenance on the rigging. As they were heading for their assigned posts it suddenly occurred to them that they would make excellent targets; proverbial fish in a barrel. They returned to the deck faster than they'd left it, found safe positions behind the guns and helped discharge a broadside in the direction of the mystery vessel, driving it off.

Now Yankees are known for shrewdness and stubbornness and Silsbee was no exception, as he proved when matching wits against agents of the Directory in 1798. On a trading voyage to India in the ship Portland he had stopped in England to pick up a cargo of coal. Sailing around the Iberian peninsula he put in at Cadiz and there learned of the French decree against British goods. Part of his cargo had suddenly become both more valuable and too dangerous to carry. He immediately sold half to agents from Leghorn and Genoa, making them liable for its delivery. Further precautions were taken. The coal was hidden at a deserted spot along the coast where it could be picked up on the return voyage. The crew was paid off with the knowledge they'd have no trouble finding another ship, and a new crew was hired, one that could truthfully say they didn't know what the Portland's cargo was. Silsbee went so far as to erase the maker's names off his English navigational instruments. Then, with his "story" in place, he sailed on. When he reached Malaga he was detained and taken to the French consulate to be interviewed. He was told he might have to wait months before the consul could see him. He wasn't about to put up with that. He informed the secretary he would wait right where he was until the official, who was undoubtedly waiting to have his palm "greased", could see his way clear to an interview. 24 hours later he was still in his seat, not having eaten or slept, and showing no sign of leaving any time soon. Suddenly he was granted his interview and cleared to sail. He later learned that a colleague of the consul's asked him why he granted the interview in just one day. The official replied, "I found that I must either dismiss him or bury him...I preferred the former."

OUTRO For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor


© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte