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Derby Wharf

Derby Wharf c. 1879 (Constructed 1764-1771 by Richard Derby and Elias Haskett Derby; extended in 1806-1808) Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

View of Derby Wharf in 2000. Photo by Aaron Toleos.

View of Derby Wharf from second floor window of Custom House. Photo by Aaron Toleos.

K. David Goss, executive director of the Beverly Historical Society and former museum director of the House of the Seven Gables Historic Site, on Elias Haskett Derby:

The exiled loyalist Samuel Curwen tersely wrote the following about his hometown at the end of the Revolution: 'Those who five years ago were the meaner people, are now, by a strange revolution become almost the only men of power, riches and influence. The Cabots of Beverly, who, you know, had but five years ago a very moderate share of property, are now said to be by far the most wealthy in New England; Haskett Derby claims the second place in that list.'

These two great merchants, John Cabot and Elias Haskett Derby, pulled Salem out of its brief postwar depression and launched Salem's 'Golden Age.' In 1783, Cabot was already testing new European markets. In that year, his ship Buccannier touched at several Baltic ports and finally reached the Russian port of St. Petersburg. His was the first American vessel to trade there. Following almost immediately in his wake, Elias Haskett Derby sent his ship Light Horse in 1784 and reached St. Petersburg in August with a cargo of sugar. These voyages marked the beginning of the lucrative Russian trade whereby American and West Indian produce was exchanged for iron, furs, and hemp sailcloth known as 'Russian duck.'

...By 1787 Derby had decided to establish a base for his Far Eastern operations at Isle de France (modern-day Mauritius[island in the Indian Ocean off Madagascar]). To that end he sent his son, Elias H. Derby, Jr., then about twenty years of age, in command of the Grand Turk. Derby intended to settle his son at Isle de France to serve as company agent. As was his custom, E.H. Derby, Sr., gave his son instructions to sell the ship if it was financially advantageous--an opportunity that arose when a French merchant offered $13,000 for the Grand Turk. Since this was nearly twice the amount of the vessel's assessed value, the famous Salem merchantman was sold into French service.

At home in Salem, Derby's fleet continued to grow, and he continued to send vessels to his new base of operations at Isle de France. Each voyage earned the House of Derby amazing profits. In the meantime, E.H.Derby, Jr., began to purchase vessels as well and initiated a brisk and profitable freighting business with nearby India. He began in 1788 by trading for cotton goods with the port of Bombay. His vessels, the Peggy and the Sultana, were the first American ships to visit that port. Soon E.H. Derby, Jr., controlled American trade with the ports of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta.

Derby activity in the Far East at this time was tremendous. For example, in February 1789, E.H. Derby, Sr., sent his ship Astrea to the Dutch colony of Batavia in the East Indies. She arrived at Java Head on July 13, 1789, to discover the Derby ship Three Sisters already there. Batavia was an excellent source at this time for tin, sugar, spices, bird's nests (made into bird's nest soup--a delicacy in China), sandalwood, beeswax, coffee, and, most valuable of all, pepper. Soon, the Astrea and the Three Sisters reached the port of Canton and were still loading cargo when two more Derby vessels, the Atlantic and the Light Horse, also arrived. They had been sent from Isle de France by E. H. Derby, Jr.

...The Astrea arrived in Salem on June 1, 1790, and the Light Horse on June 15. The night of her arrival witnessed a fierce storm, causing her to drag her anchor and come within yards of the rocks of Marblehead Harbor. Fortunately for Derby, both vessels landed safely at Derby Wharf and off-loaded the largest cargo of tea up to that time.

(From "The Maritime History of Salem" by K. David Goss, pp. 26-29 in Salem Cornerstones of a Historic City)