We welcome to the blog a guest post by Tamara Plakins Thornton, author of Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life. In this engagingly written biography, Thornton delves into the life and work of Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838), a man Thomas Jefferson once called a “meteor in the hemisphere.” Bowditch was a mathematician, astronomer, navigator, seafarer, and business executive whose Enlightenment-inspired perspectives shaped nineteenth-century capitalism while transforming American life more broadly. By examining Bowditch’s pathbreaking approaches to institutions, as well as the political and social controversies they provoked, Thornton’s biography sheds new light on the rise of capitalism, American science, and social elites in the early republic.
In today’s post, Thornton describes Nathaniel Bowditch’s observations of the Indian Ocean island known as Ile de Bourbon, or Réunion today—a popular destination for U.S. merchants following the American Revolution.
Last July, when wreckage from Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 washed ashore on Réunion, a typical response was something like “where?” The New York Times described the Indian Ocean island as “a French department about 4,000 miles from Europe,” adding that “if people had heard about it before, it was most likely because of bad publicity surrounding shark attacks or an epidemic of chikungunya.” So much for the world getting ever smaller. Over two centuries earlier, in the seaport town of Salem, Massachusetts, the island was well known. Many was the Salem vessel that set sail for this isolated speck round the Cape of Good Hope.
With national independence, American merchants were shut out of the British Caribbean, the bread-and-butter of their prerevolutionary commerce, and were forced to seek other markets. Some went to Russia, India, or China. Others found their opportunities in this remote French colony. What tea was to China, coffee was to Réunion. So single-minded were the island’s French colonial planters on producing coffee—with enslaved African laborers—that they soon came to rely on American vessels for life’s necessities. No surprise, then, that when the Salem ship Henry dropped anchor off St. Denis in 1795, it soon found a ready market for its cargo of everything from butter to boots.
As a native of a globally engaged seaport, Nathaniel Bowditch, the Henry’s clerk, did not need to ask where Réunion was. But that did not make the island any less exotic to him, a twenty-two-year-old Yankee who had never before ventured outside New England. It was all novel, the island’s customs as much as its physical environment, and Bowditch observed both with keen interest, the strange practice of waxing floors no less than the eruption of a volcano.
Most often, his curiosity ended in shock and disgust. Of Puritan stock, he dismissed a Roman Catholic mass as “superstitious worship.” Though Salem’s enslaved population had been emancipated only a few years earlier, he was sickened by the plight of the island’s enslaved laborers, “unhappy wretches” so “unjustly deprived of” their freedom. But it was the French colonial population that provoked his greatest interest—and censure.
The French Revolution had finally made its way to the far-flung colony, and the island’s Frenchmen were calling each other “Citoyen” instead of “Monsieur.” But did they think to extend liberté, egalité, et fraternité to their slaves? “Tho’ they were fond of liberty themselves,” Bowditch wrote in his journal, “they would not suffer others to have it when it clash[e]d with their interest.” How ironic to hear the strains of the Marseillaise emerging from the prison, sung by captured runaway slaves! Even worse than the colonials’ hypocrisy, in Bowditch’s view, was their immorality, especially appalling among the women. Wives socialized with their husband’s mistresses, carried on their own affairs, and spoke openly about their pregnancies. “They laugh at us for our primness,” wrote Bowditch of the French bemusement at the Yankee visitors, and “we blush for their indelicacy.”
So were Americans like Bowditch cosmopolitans or provincials? Well, they were both. In the postrevolutionary era, the nation’s ports were towns of a few thousand people woven together in dense networks of kinship and patronage. Salemites conducted most of life’s business among themselves, in the three hundred acres and fifty streets that was their world. But in these same streets, they could pay a quarter to see an elephant or even catch a free glimpse of a native of Madras. And many among their male population would see such curiosities—and more—firsthand, as sailors on international trading voyages. Seaboard dwellers were growing used to toggling back and forth between the local and the global. If anything, in the wake of independence, it may have been the national perspective that proved hardest for these globetrotting villagers to acquire.
Tamara Plakins Thornton is professor of history at the State University of New York, Buffalo. Her book Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life is now available.