Monday, July 22, 2019

An Empire of Free Ports

Almost immediately after English men and women began to inhabit pockets of the Americas in the early seventeenth century, Parliament debated how best to control the trade that would flow from England to these newly-established colonies. Beginning with the stipulations of the first “Navigation Act” of 1651, English overseas commerce was to be tightly-regulated to benefit the “metropole’s” (England) interests over colonial concerns. All trade to and from English America had to be conducted on English ships; English colonists had to send certain “enumerated” goods (such as tobacco and sugar) directly to England; and foreign ships were forbidden to enter English colonial harbors to trade in foreign goods. These regulations, later British politicians would remark, were meant to benefit “British Shipping, the employment of British sailors, and the exportation of British manufactures.”[1]

In 1766, however, the British Parliament passed the lesser-known Free Port Act. This legislation decreed that colonial merchants could exchange certain, regulated goods as well as slaves with foreign merchants in specified British colonial ports in the West Indies (four in Jamaica and two in Dominica) after paying a small tax.[2] The policy marked an important divergence from the “letter” of British commercial regulations—now foreigners could conduct trade with British colonists, albeit in certain ports and under specific restrictions.

West Indies, 1767. (London, 1767) Clements Library Image Bank.
I came to the William L. Clements Library, with the generous support of the Richard & Mary Jo Marsh Fellowship, to better understand why British policy-makers opted to enact this commercial reform at this particular moment. To my welcome surprise, I found that the Clements Library holds perhaps as many or more relevant documents to answer this research question than did the archives I had visited in Britain. I found a wealth of correspondence from colonial officials to members of the British government in London, petitions by merchants to King George II regarding free ports, and letters between British policy-makers discussing trade. The majority of these sources are housed in the Charles Townshend Papers since Townshend was a prominent member of Parliament at the time and an outspoken free-port advocate. After combing through these resources, I confirmed my theory that the Free Port Act, unlike many scholars have posited, was not a conciliatory, magnanimous reform meant to help British colonists increase their wealth by trading with foreigners. Far from it. Parliament may have diverged from the “letter” of the Navigation Acts, but they established free ports while keeping in mind the same “spirit” and goals of long-standing commercial regulations—promoting British shipping/ merchants, sailors, and exportation of British manufactured goods (especially textiles).

Charles Townshend (1725-1767) by J. Cook, after Sir Joshua Reynolds. Frontispiece: Percy Fitzgerald, Charles Townshend, Wit and Statesman (London, 1866).
The British policy-makers who crafted the Free Port Act succumbed to British merchant and manufacturing lobby pressure. These special interests believed that strategically opening up foreign trade could increase British mercantile activity and create further markets for British manufactures. Such inter-imperial trade thus would serve as a means of extending Britain’s “commercial empire” to foreign realms. Foreign colonies could become sources of raw materials as well as markets for British finished goods, much of which British merchants would carry on British ships. For instance, the member of Parliament Rose Fuller welcomed the possibility of regaining not only dependent foreign export markets of the Spanish colonies and French sugar islands, but also a source for reliable imports of foreign raw materials such as cotton, indigo, and dyewoods.[3] Another member of Parliament, John Huske argued that a multitude of British free ports would increase Britain’s beneficial commercial interactions with especially French and Spanish domains and make them commercial (and less expensive) “colonies.” Huske asked the rhetorical question, “does not the supplying foreign Colonies with what they want, and taking from them what they produce, so far as this extends, make them the Colonies of Gr. Britain, and this too without the expence [sic] of supporting or defending them?”[4] 

John Huske, “Observations on the Trade of Great Britain to her American Colonies . . .” delivered to Secretary Conway. November 1, 1765. Charles Townshend Papers.
And finally, one anonymous piece in the Charles Townshend papers argued that before restrictions on inter-imperial trade were enforced, “the Danish Islands of Saint Croix and Saint Thomas . . . have been almost as usefull [sic] to the British Commerce as if they actually belonged to the British Government” especially since they purchased “great Quantities of English manufactures,” for high-quality rum which merchants could exchange for slaves on the West African coast.[5] Extending Britain’s manufactures, mercantile activity, and imperial control lay at the heart of the Free Port Act. 

The Townshend Papers and the other relevant collections I employed at the Clements Library make evident that British free ports are not as they first may appear. Far from a “liberal,” “progressive” movement of freeing trade to benefit all, the Free Port Act favored a small group of influential mercantile and manufacturing interests in Britain and sought to augment Britain’s commercial dominion over foreign realms. What was once thought of as a unique conciliatory measure to appease Anglo-North American merchants in the wake of controversial legislation such as the Stamp Act was yet another method by which Parliamentary members and special interests hoped to address their concerns. From 1763 to 1775, London never really prioritized colonial interests. The Clements Library and the Charles Townshend Papers are a fantastic source to observe this reality and will enrich my forthcoming article as well as my future dissertation.  


Grant Kleiser
Doctoral Student, Department of History, Columbia University
Clements Library 2019 Marsh Fellow

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[1] “Proposals to Board of the Treasury,” 1765, British Library (BL), Add. Ms. 33,030, ff. 311-316. 

[2] See Frances Armytage, The Free Port System in the British West Indies; A Study in Commercial Policy, 1766-1822 (New York, 1953), 36-40.

[3] “Considerations on Manchester manufactures,” ca. 1765, Charles Townshend Papers (CTP)/8/34/2a, fol. 4, William L. Clements Library (WLCL); Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London), 21 April 1766, issue 11, 578, in Newspaper Archive https://access-newspaperarchive-com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/uk/middlesex/london/gazetteer-and-new-daily-advertiser/1766/04-21 (accessed 21 June 2019). 

[4] “(John Huske’s) Scheme for Free Ports in America” to Secretary Conway, in CTP/8/34/21, WLCL. 

[5] “Answers to Questions About America,” CTP/8/34/34, fol. 1, WLCL. 


Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Recent Acquisition: The Wilson Globes, ca. 1811

That look of surprise and joy on a map curator’s face can only mean one thing: something fine has just landed in his division. And what better acquisition for the Clements Library than a pair–and not just any pair–of Wilson globes.
The Wilson Globes and Map Curator Brian Leigh Dunnigan at his retirement celebration, June 11, 2019. Eric Bronson Photo.
And what, we hear you ask, are Wilson globes? These two globes–terrestrial and celestial–were produced by Vermont farmer and blacksmith turned globemaker, James Wilson (1763-1855) in the first half of the nineteenth century, giving him the (exaggerated) moniker of “America’s first globemaker.”[1]
Austin Thomason Photo.
As they are dated 1811 (terrestrial) and 1812 (celestial), they are among the earliest globes that Wilson produced; his earliest are dated 1810. The 1811 globe is particularly noteworthy in that it bears the amended title: “A new American terrestrial globe.”
Austin Thomason Photo.
By calling them “American” Wilson insured that his globes were in a category different from all others on the market. American made and meant for American consumption, they were available in three handy sizes–13, 9, and 3 inches in diameter–at affordable prices (a broadsheet from 1832 advertises them at $55 for the most expensive stand to $3 for the 3-inch globe on fancy mounting. See a mini at the Library of Congress). The fact that he did not produce large globes of 24 or 36 or 48 inches, more typical for a gentleman’s library or an institution, demonstrates his awareness of his clientele’s pocketbook and available space for storage and display. Wilson’s goal was to allow the many, rather than the few, to have access to a beautiful piece of furniture that encompasses a world of knowledge.

Like many a map and globe maker before him, Wilson did not train to become a globemaker. He followed a fancy that turned into a dream that became a reality after intensive self-education, sweat application, and market "perspication." Wilson was born in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and farmed 100 acres nearby, living in the log cabin he had built, until moving north to Bradford on the Connecticut River in 1796. As Bradford was only a mile north of Hanover, he took the opportunity to visit a friend at Dartmouth College where he saw (perhaps for the first time?) two globes. Fascinated by these three dimensional models of the earth and sky, he was determined to create a pair himself. Lacking much formal education, but possessing a prodigious appetite for reading, he bought the 18-volume third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica with savings of $130 (perhaps around $2600 in buying power today) and by reading carefully the articles on "Geography" and "Globe," taught himself the rudiments of globe production.[2]

The article on “Globe” showed him how to smooth and shape the ball of papier-mâché layers and plaster overcoat on which globe gores would be pasted. But to make globes to sell required learning how to engrave and print from copperplates, the best means of graphic reproduction available in the early years of the nineteenth century. To acquire this skill, he walked the 200 miles from Bradford, down the Connecticut River valley to New Haven, Connecticut, where another self-taught engraver and mapmaker, Amos Doolittle, had established a far-reaching reputation. Doolittle had engraved the maps in Jedediah Morse’s Geography Made Easy (1784), the first geography book published in the United States and a significant contribution in weaning American culture from British dominance.

After much trial and error (family lore claims it took him nearly a year), Wilson succeeded in engraving his globe gores on a large copperplate, although he had difficulty getting his meridian (longitude) lines proportional enough to fit the round ball of the sphere. To resolve this, he set out to visit the Reverend Morse in Charlestown, Massachusetts, whose disappointing advice was to start over again. Wilson persevered, and by January 1810 he had not only created a terrestrial globe but had even had sold two of them. Later in the year he recorded the sale of seventeen more. At least one of the pairs had sold for fifty dollars, helping to recoup his expense for buying the Encyclopedia Britannica.

By 1811, Wilson had renamed his globes “A new American Terrestrial/Celestial Globe,” and soon opened a shop to manufacture globes on a commercial basis, aided by his sons Samuel, John, and David. Benefitting from the absence of European competition during the War of 1812, Wilson and his sons expanded their line to three sizes and several styles of stands. They built another factory in Albany, New York, in 1815 and by 1817 had opened another shop to meet the increasing demand for their globes, “equal, and in many respects, superior, to those manufactured in Europe.”

Wilson had not only found a niche market for quality globes at affordable prices, he also capitalized on the need for globes in the burgeoning number of classrooms filling the growing American educational system. Academies and schools, whether public or private, required books, maps, and globes for teaching geography and history. Jedidiah Morse declared independence from British geographies by writing Geography Made Easy and American Geography, which integrated the history of the fledgling United States with its geography. Morse, along with Noah Webster, the creator of spellers and grammars that trained school children in “American” English, were both convinced that teaching with American-authored texts was “a precondition to loyalty and civic identity.”[3] Using the economical Wilson globes in the classroom meant that no child would be deprived of an opportunity of “seeing the world.” Pioneer educator Emma Willard described one of the essentials of the Female Seminary or boarding school as “A library, containing books on the various subjects in which the pupils were to receive instruction; musical instruments, some good paintings, to form the taste and serve as models for the execution of those who were to be instructed in that art; maps, globes, and a small collection of philosophical [i.e., scientific] apparatus.”[4]

The Wilson globes are fitting additions to the Clements Library collections, which can already boast the 18-volume Encyclopedia Britannica of 1797, the texts of Morse and Webster, as well as the seminal American history atlases by Emma Willard. Taken together, they represent both the democratization of education and the access to knowledge that marked the society and culture of the early United States. Not made for the elite, Wilson globes were meant to be used, studied, and appreciated by all. In the Clements Library, they certainly will be!

The Wilson Globes, to remain on display in the Avenir Foundation Room, were acquired through the generous support of John C. Dann, Charles R. Eisendrath, J. Kevin Graffagnino, George M. Jones III, Donald F. Melhorn, Jr., Drew Peslar, Richard A. Pohrt, Jr., Bradley L. Thompson II, and J. Thomas Touchton.   

The Wilson globes were acquired with the help of several donors whose contributions allowed their purchase and installation in a specially built case. Their acquisition was made in honor of the retiring map curator, Brian Leigh Dunnigan, who completed 23 years of service to the Clements and to the map history profession, in June 2019. It is fervently hoped that Brian will return as a researcher to the library to have a closer look and study of these two fine globes.


Mary Pedley
Adjunct Assistant Curator of Maps

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[1] The honor of being “first” American globemaker probably belongs to another resourceful craftsman: the shoemaker and tanner Samuel Lane (1718-1806), from Stratham, Massachusetts, whose pine terrestrial globe from the mid-1700s is now in the New Hampshire Historical Society collection.

[2] The Bennington (Vermont) History Museum houses Wilson’s desk built especially for his copy of the EB. See David Jaffee’s blog post in the American Antiquarian Society’s Commonplace.

[3] Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth Century America, Chicago, 2012, 17.

[4] Emma Willard, An Address to the Public…A Plan for Improving Female Education, Middlebury, 1819, 17. Emphasis added.