The Blanchard’s of Searsport commissioning of the bark CUBA in 1841 and brig DEMERARA in 1842 give insight into the importance of the West Indian sugar trade for New Englanders at that time. Demerara is a raw cane sugar and a region of Guyana, and Cuba was the port of call for the Blanchard ships. In a series of letters between John Clifford Blanchard and his wife Caroline Houston Blanchard at home in Searsport, we learn more about the trade. A note that prior to 1845, Searsport proper was part of two different towns: Belfast and Prospect, as was known as East Belfast and West Prospect in early letters.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, in the 1840s, when these letters were written, 400,000 enslaved Africans, fully 1/3 of Cuba’s population, worked on the sugar plantations. Slave traders forcibly brought these enslaved Africans to Cuba after 1820, when Spain and Great Britain agreed to end the slave trade. Beginning in 1838, the Cuban sugar industry was the most mechanized industry in the world, using steam-powered mills and narrow-gauge railroads to process and move the product to sea ports. Expanding sugar mills expelled small farmers and destroyed the island’s extensive hardwood forests. Although the letters do not mention the cargo being loaded, by 1850 the sugar industry accounted for ⅘ of all Cuban exports, so it is safe to assume the Blanchard ships were carrying sugar and its byproducts. By 1860, Cuba produced nearly ⅓ of the world’s sugar.
In the first letter, we learn of other Searsport captains in the West Indies markets and the lack of other business opportunities in town:
Caroline Blanchard in West Prospect, Maine to John C. Blanchard in Charleston, SC care of Smith Moury Jr., December 23, 1843
“Brother Benjamin Houston has gone south to the state of Tennisee [sic] in company with a gentleman from Boston who owned two townships of land in that state to survey and sell what he can of it he expects to be absent two or three months. There seems to be but little doing here in regard to business. Capt. Sweetser sailed about a fortnight since in the new brig BALTIC freighted with shooks for some port in the West Indies. Capt. Ross is now loading a barque for some of the West Indies Islands.”
Caroline’s uncle, Robert Houston, surveyed most mid-coast Maine for General Henry Knox in the late 18th century. It would seem her brother Benjamin followed in his footsteps to explore new territory in Tennessee as business opportunities in Maine were lacking. She also notes other Searsport ships and captains in the West Indies trade: the brig BALTIC built by Henry Matthews in 1843 for Captain Jeremiah Sweetser, who is loaded up with shooks: Maine milled-lumber for assembling fruit and cargo boxes, and Captain Andrew Jackson Ross loading Maine goods, perhaps fish to feed West Indian slaves or timber for construction. Caroline writes to her husband in care of Smith Moury Jr., a Rhode Island-born merchant operating on Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina who enslaved two women as household labor according to the 1830 census. More information about Caroline’s family can be found in Charlene Knox Farris’ Searsport’s Sam Houston and more information about ships built in Penobscot Bay can be found in George Wasson and Lincoln Colcord’s Sailing Days on the Penobscot.
The next letter provides more family ties to the West Indies Trade:
Caroline Blanchard in West Prospect, Maine to John C. Blanchard in New York, care of Messrs. Buck & Peters., February 5, 1844.
“The last account received from Alfred, he was still at New Orleans had had an offer to go to Rio but did not know whether he should accept or not…You may have heard before this of the misfortunes of Capt. Park of the CALCUTTA on his outward passage from Wilmington to the W. Indies in the sickness of his crew and loss of two of them the persons who died were Robert Crary and a Woodman formerly of Prospect, For thirty days, as I was informed, no persons were able to go on deck except himself and the cook. He has since returned to Boston repaired and gone again to the West Indies.”
Alfred was John Clifford Blanchard’s oldest brother. The brig CUBA was built for him, and owned by their father Shepard Blanchard, Sr. Captain Benjamin Bentley Park commissioned the brig CALCUTTA from Henry Matthews in 1840 and was its captain until 1844; the brig was eventually condemned in West Indies. As noted in the letter, tropical diseases and other shipboard ailments could wipe out a crew, including Benjamin Bentley Park’s cousin Robert Crary, according to Frederick Frasier Black’s Searsport Sea Captains. Robert’s mother, Elizabeth Houston may have been related to Caroline, but I cannot confirm so in ancestry.com. Captain Park continued in the merchant marine business until 1873.
In a letter written over multiple days, John Clifford Blanchard updates his wife on the trials and tribulations of loading cargo in Cuba:
John C. Blanchard in Nuevitas, Cuba to Caroline Blanchard in West Prospect, September 20, 1844.
“I am very anxious for to leave here for the mosketoes (mosquitos) and the hot sun has made me look more like a native of Cuba than one from the North. My health is tolerable good although I have no appetite to eat and the clothes that used to fit me now set like a ship on a handspike as the saying is…Laying in port so long especially a port like this is very hard work for me…the mosquitos would make you look more like a person with the small pox than otherways… I am now lying at Baya. Shall finish taking in here today and go to Gintoo tomorrow to finish if nothing unknown to me prevents. I have only ¼ of a cargo on board as yet. There is plenty of cargo in the country but there has been so much rain that they could not haul it in. Give yourself no uneasiness about my getting sick here for I think it is as healthy here now as it ever was…the climate seems to me just as healthy in New York in heat of summer.
Sept. 22, 1844: I expect to be ready to leave here the next Sabbath and it will be a joyful day to me if I do for it seems as if the mosketoes was determined on having the last drop of my blood. They were so plenty last night that we could but just breathe without swallowing them and as hungry as wolves. They make nothing of getting my blood right through my shirt and pants and now while I am writing they are doing their best…
Tuesday 24. We are getting in our cargo as fast as we can. I have a contrary set of men to deal with on board although we get along without much trouble. I expect to leave here next Sunday and if I get my demurrage [a charge payable to the owner of a chartered ship in respect of failure to load or discharge the ship within the time agreed.] I shall make a little to myself providing I have a fair passage to New York. I had the American consul and two other Gentlemen from New York that are here mining with Captain Mayhew of the Barque California on board to dine with me yesterday and a long string of Spanish ladies and gentlemen made me a call in the evening. I tell you what it is Dear C, you don’t know what a knack these Spanish ladies have of casting sheeps’ eyes but the Gentlemen don’t like us Americans to even wink but dear Wife all the Ladies in Cuba is no object to me. It is very warm today and the mosketoes are as plenty as ever.”
Nuevitas is located on the northern coast of Cuba. It was, and still is, a major shipping point for sugar and other agricultural products from the region. I believe the Baya referred to in the letter is the Bahia de Nuevitas. I have not been able to find out where “Gintoo” or “Gintou” is located. Tropical diseases seem to be of a concern to Captain Blanchard and his wife, as is his flirting with the Spanish ladies.
The last letter has Captain Blanchard back in Cuba four years later:
John C. Blanchard in Cardenas, Cuba to Caroline Blanchard in Searsport, Maine, January 29, 1848
“I have such discouraging news respecting my business to send you that I don’t know as I feel as though I wanted to let you know how bad it is but I supposed I must… I left Havana last Wednesday night for this place and arrived here yesterday morning. I am to load molasses for New York at two dollars and twenty-five cents per Hogshead (Hhds) the best freight I could find in the Market. If I have quick dispatch and a quick passage I don’t expect I can get through this voyage without losing one hundred dollars and perhaps more besides my time. Is not that encouraging…I find aplenty here doing as poorly as myself. If I have good luck I shall expect to be in New York in twenty-five or thirty days. I hope you will write as soon as you receive this…direct to the care of RP Buck Esq. New York.”
Cardenas is another sugar-exporting town in Cuba, whose streets are modeled on the perpendicular plan of Charleston, South Carolina, as opposed to the traditional Spanish central plaza. As Captain Blanchard relates, the sugar business was a slow and money-losing proposition at times. He asks Caroline to write him care of Richard Pike Buck, a Bucksport, Maine native who owned a shipping firm in at 29 South Street in New York City from 1828-1868 and managed many Searsport-owned ships according to In Remembrance of Richard Pike Buck, written at the time of his death. His cousins William and Henry Buck founded Bucksville, South Carolina, which provided lumber for the shipbuilding industry after Maine exhausted its timber reserves.
Do you know more about the people, places, or exports mentioned in these letters? Please contact me, Cipperly Good, Penobscot Marine Museum curator at email@example.com.