Nowhere else on earth is the ocean more superfluous to a port city’s tourism industry than in Salem, Massachusetts. Some visitors don’t even realize it’s on the coast until they arrive. In the movies, the town is always shrouded in some misty forest. Somehow beaches and sea breezes don’t make for as ominous an atmosphere.
But long before Salem became the land of perpetual Halloween, it was known as New England’s golden city of trade. If Boston was the Athens of America, then Salem was its Phoenicia—a city of seafarers who measured their empire not in territory conquered but in tonnage and sails at sea.
In 1786, Salem resident Elias Hasket Derby became the first New Englander to successfully send a ship to China. His contemporaries followed suit, and soon Salem merchants could be found throughout the Caribbean, India, and the Pacific islands. The city so cornered the market on pepper imports from Java that the spice was commonly known as “Salem dust” throughout the country. When Derby died in 1799, he was the richest man on the planet. Some sources estimate that in today’s money, his fortune might have exceeded $31 billion, placing him on the list of the 75 wealthiest human beings of all time.
Derby’s Georgian mansion and a few other stately buildings along the waterfront survive as testaments to the largesse of that era. When tourists walk by the old Custom House near Derby Wharf (both dutifully preserved by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site), they pass under the watchful eyes of the same golden eagle perched upon its roof that greeted merchants and captains returning from far-off ports. It was an apt mascot. At a time when most Americans lived their lives within 20 miles of where they were born, Salem merchants spread their wings and scoured the globe, ready to swoop down on any port with something worth buying. In the 18th century, the ocean was the frontier, and seafarers knew few boundaries. An average teenager working on a ship in the 1790s was better traveled than most kids today, and he saw the world when it was still vast and mysterious.
Many of the trinkets and treasures these Argonauts brought home wound up in the museum of the East India Marine Society, a social club for captains who had rounded either Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. That collection has since ballooned into the Peabody Essex Museum. Today it houses one of the finest collections of contemporary and classical Asian and Oceanic art on the East Coast, including Yin Yu Tang, a Chinese family home transported and meticulously reconstructed on the grounds.
The captains’ old hall of curiosities survives at the center of the museum, and visitors are free to peruse their trophies. In one case you’ll find a suit of armor from Tuscany; in another a decorative Indonesian dagger and paddles from the South Seas. There’s even the dried husk of a 200-year-old penguin from the Falkland Islands, the first ever displayed in the United States.
Compared with the wonders found elsewhere in the museum, this collection is somewhat underwhelming, until you stop to think of what it meant to the early Americans who first saw it. Here was a window on faraway lands, off-limits to all but those few adventurous seamen who dared to roam a wider world.