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HE letters and papers printed in these volumes
formed a part of the commercial correspondence
of four generations of a Newport mercantile house. The last of the principals was Christopher Grant Champlin, who died in 1840 or 1841, leaving his home on Spring Street, Newport, to Christopher Grant Perry. The house, on his death, passed to Hon. Duncan C. Pell, and, known as the Pell House, remained standing until it was demolished a few years ago, to make way for the building of the Young Men's Christian Association.
On tearing down the old house the contractor, Manuel, found in the attic some five boxes of manuscripts, the records of mercantile activity from the early part of the eighteenth century. Manuel claimed ownership of the papers, and his claim appears to have been allowed. Attempts were later made to buy the entire collection by Dr. Horatio R. Storer and Mr. George Champlin Mason, but without success; and the papers, apparently with little selection or judgment, entered upon a process of dispersal. A part of the collection went to the Newport Historical Society; another selection found its' way to the Rhode Island Historical Society; but the larger part appeared in the auction room and was secured by our colleague, Hon. George Peabody Wetmore. What is in existence constitutes but a small part of the original accumulation, and the loss is regrettable, because so few great collections of commercial correspondence for the colonial period remain. The Stephen Collins Papers, and the Ellis and Allen Papers in the Library of Congress are the more notable, but they are of later date and no part of them has as yet been printed. Through the generous interest of Mr. Wetmore these two volumes of the Rhode Island Papers are published, the first important contribution in print to the history of the commerce of a British American colony. The more interesting letters in the private collections of Mr. Mason and Dr. Storer and in the collections of the Newport and Rhode Island Historical Societies are, through the courtesy of the owners, included in these volumes. .
Neither the connection nor the limits of each division of the papers are clearly marked. The earlier letters were of the Redwood family, originally of Antigua, but later of Newport. The house of Ayrault of Newport entered about the middle of the eighteenth century, as also that of Lopez. To the second half of the century, the firms of Lopez and Champlin contribute the larger part.
The historical value of the collection lies in the detailed statement at first hand of commercial routes, usages and development. The markets of the West Indies, Europe and the British colonies of North America, prices, currencies, conditions of credit, insurance and hiring and sailing of vessels; nature of the cargo and manner of disposing of it; the initiative and responsibility of captains charged with the disposal of one cargo and the obtaining of another, whether for cash or by barter; port charges and customs, smuggling and bribery of officials, these are some of the many matters dealt with, and not in general terms, but by specific examples. The range of dealings is wide; the sugars and rum of the West Indies; logwood from Honduras; salt from Spain and the West Indies; whale oil and spermaceti, in the crude form or in candles; lumber, staves and casks; live stock, flour and rice, the catalogue would be a long one, and the groups will indicate the importance and direction of the trade. The names of ships and of their captains supply material for the history of commercial and industrial enterprise.
Two branches deserve mention, the purchase and manufacture of spermaceti, which were controlled by agreements among the large manufacturers in New England as closely as by any trust agreement of later times; and the African slave trade, of the greatest importance to Newport, in the decline of which that place lost its commercial position. The cargo of a slave ship from Newport, the manner of dealing with the slave stations on the African coast, and the prices of slaves, quoted in rum in Africa, and in pounds sterling in the West Indies, are here to be found. The action of the first Continental Congress in checking this trade affronted the Rhode Island merchants; but this action and the War of Independence put an end to the traffic, and other lines of trade relation were exploited.
The changes in the nature and direction of colonial commerce are indicated. Sugars, whale oil, lumber and ships constituted the leading articles until the trade acts of Great Britain fostered an illegal trade with the foreign West Indies and Holland. As sugars declined in importance flour and flaxseed took their place, the flour going to Spanish ports, the flaxseed to Ireland. The war from 1775 to 1783 compelled the merchants to change their commerce; for English markets, the principal outlet in the past, were now closed to American ships, and no small risk attended a direct trade with Europe. The Dutch and Spaniards offered some market, and the French went through the form of attempting to draw to themselves the trade lost to Great Britain. Concessions were made on whale oil and tobacco; but the opposition of French interests to real concessions, such as would enable the American shipper to compete successfully, was too great to be overcome, and the French markets remained protected and closed markets. Russian ports on the Baltic offered fairer prospects, besides offering materials, like canvas and cordage, wanted in America. India and China tempted the enterprising.
A few of the more interesting and unusual pieces are reproduced, as well as some of the more representative signatures.
CHARLES FRANCIS ADAMS
BOSTON, September 15, 1914