John Bertram

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John Bertram 1796-1882

John Bertram

When he emigrated to Baltimore with his parents John Bertram and Mary Perchard, and five siblings, in 1807, John Bertram was the only member of the family who could speak English, having learned it at school.

Early years

At the age of 11 he served behind the counter of the Salem grocer's shop which his father opened on arriving in America, but the business failed and John went to sea at the age of 16, first as a cabin boy, and then on two privateers, Monkey and Herald. The latter, a ship of 17 guns with a crew of 100, was captured by HMS Endymion and HMS Armide in August 5 1814. The young Bertram escaped from a prison ship and joined another privateer, but this was also captured and he was sent to England as a prisoner of war.

HMS Endymion, one of the two naval vessels which captured the privateer Herald with John Bertram on board

After the peace of 1815 he returned to Salem and then went back to sea, attaining the rank of mate and making several voyages to Java. A call at St Helena on his last return voyage sparked Bertram's entrepreneurial spirit. Noticing that the local shops were sold out of what he called 'nick-nacks' he returned home, chartered a schooner, loaded it with timber and the type of goods he knew would sell in St Helena and set off for the South Atlantic.

He had allowed his destination and purpose to leak out and some rival merchants loaded a faster vessel with similar goods and set off after him. Both boats became becalmed off the African coast and the captains dined and drank together on Bertram's ship. In the morning when a breeze blew up he jettisoned his deck cargo and managed to reach St Helena first, selling all his goods before his rival arrived.

Trade with Indians

Bertram soon became an established trader, transporting hides and horns bought from the Indians, from the coast of Patagonia back to Salem, and then trading as far afield as Zanzibar, before settling on shore as merchant and ship owner in 1832. Most of his trade in later life was with Zanzibar, but his brig Eliza was the first vessel to reach California in the 1848 gold rush.

He returned briefly to Jersey in 1841 and was then elected to the Massachusette Legislature later that year, and again in 1857 and 1863. In his old age he was a well-respected benefactor in Salem, foudning the Bertram Home for Aged Men, a fuel fund for the city, and also making donations to Salem's hospital.

He married Mary Smith, who died in 1837, and he then married Clarissa Millett. In 1848 he married for the third time to Mary Ann Ropes, who died a few months after him in 1882, and the family home became the city's public library.


Bertram's brig Eliza

American account

Bertram's story from Ships of Old Salem by Ralph Delayahe Paine:

"It is a coincidence worth noting that the first commanding figure in the maritime history of Salem, Philip English, was born in the Isle of Jersey, and that John Bertram, the last of the race of great shipping merchants of the port hailed from the same island. Two centuries intervened between their careers, John Bertram living until 1882, and witnessing the passing of the foreign commerce of Salem and the coming of the age of steam upon the high seas. As a young man he saw an average of a hundred square-rigged ships a year come home to Salem from the Orient, Africa, South America, Europe and the South Sea Islands. In his latter years he saw this noble commerce dwindle and American seamen vanish until in 1870 the bark Glide from Zanzibar recorded the last entry in the Salem Custom House of a vessel from beyond the Cape of Good Hope, and, in 1877, the Schooner Mattie F. crept in from South America as the last vessel to fetch home a cargo from anywhere overseas. The Manila trade had become a memory in 1858, the farewell voyage to Sumatra was made in 1860.
The Black Warrior, in which Bertram sailed to Zanzibar in 1830
"John Bertram deserved to be classed with the older generation of Elias Hasket Derby and Joseph Peabody, because he possessed the same high qualities of foresight, daring and sagacity, a type of the militant leader of commerce on the firing line of civilization. Like theirs, his was a splendid American spirit which created, builded, and won its rewards by virtue of native ability inspired and impelled by the genius of its time and place. He was in a privateer in the War of 1812, and lived to see his country's flag almost vanish from blue water, its superb merchant marine dwindle to almost nothing, but while it was in its glory he played well his part in carrying the stars and stripes, over his own ships, wherever the mariners of other nations went to seek commerce. This John Bertram came to Salem in his boyhood and in 1813 was sailing out of Boston as a cabin boy in the schooner Monkey. A little later shipping out of Charleston in a privateer, he was taken prisoner and confined in British prison ships at Bermuda and Barbadoes. Having learned to speak French in his early years on the Isle of Jersey he persuaded his captors that he was a French subject and was released but was again captured and carried off to England while homeward bound to Salem. His was the usual story of lads with brains and ambition in that era, at first a sailor and shipmaster, then an owner of vessels and a merchant on shore.
"John Bertram served a long apprenticeship before he forsook the quarterdeck. In 1824 he sailed for St Helena in the chartered schooner General Brewer, and when a few days at sea overhauled the Salem brig Elizabeth, Captain Story, also headed for St Helena. Commerce was a picturesque speculation then, and each of these skippers was eager to make port first with his cargo and snatch the market away from his rival. The weather was calm, the wind was light, and Captain Bertram invited Captain Story to come on board and have a cup of tea, or something stronger. The skippers twain sat on deck and eyed each other while they yarned, each assuring the other that he was bound to Pernambuco. St Helena? Nonsense! Captain Story was rowed back to his brig, the two vessels made sail and jogged on their course. When nightfall came, however, John Bertram threw his whole deck load of lumber overboard in order to lighten his schooner and put her in her best trim for sailing, cracked on all the canvas he could carry, and let her drive for St Helena as if the devil were after him. He beat the Elizabeth to port so handsomely that his cargo had been sold at fancy prices and he was standing out of the harbor, homeward bound when the brig came creeping in with a very long-faced Captain Story striding her poop.
The clipper John Bertram, named after the illustrious Jersey adventurer, merchant and philantrophist
"Soon after this Captain Bertram determined to go after a share of the South American trade, and after a voyage to the Cape of Good Hope in the Velocity, he carried her to the Rio Grande and the Coast of Patagonia to trade in hides. He went ashore, leaving Captain W B Smith to pick up hides during short coastwise voyages, and finding the adventures prosperous, bought a Salem brig at Pernambuco and kept both vessels busy. For three years Captain Bertram lived on the coast of Patagonia directing the operations of his little fleet and taking this exile as a routine part of the education of an American shipping merchant.
"After his return to Salem his activities were shifted to Zanzibar where the American flag was almost unknown. Madagascar had been opened to American trade in 1821 by the Salem brig Beulah on her way home from Mocha. Zanzibar was a small settlement with no foreign trade, gum-copal, the principal staple product, being carried to India in the Sultan's vessels. In 1826 the Salem brig Ann called at Zanzibar and showed the natives the first American flag they had ever seen, but no attempt was made to establish commerce with the port until John Bertram set sail in the Black Warrior in 1830. He scented a pioneering voyage with gum-copal as the prize, an import in great demand by makers of varnish and up to that time imported by way of India at great cost. When the Black Warrior arrived at Zanzibar the Sultan was on the point of dispatching a vessel loaded with the coveted gum-copal to India, but this typical Salem navigator would not let such a chance slip through his fingers. He boarded the Sultan and made him an offer in shining silver dollars for the cargo, and the dazzled potentate set his slaves at work to transfer the cargo to the hold of the Black Warrior.
The Elizabeth of Salem
"Thence John Bertram sailed home, and sold his gum-copal for a handsome profit. Other ships followed in his wake and for many years the Zanzibar trade in gum-copal was chiefly carried on in ships out of Salem which controlled the supply of this commodity as it had won and held the pepper trade with Sumatra and the coffee trade with Mocha during an earlier generation.
"When the news of the California gold discoveries swept the East like wildfire in 1848, John Bertram was one of the first shipowners to grasp the possibilities of the trade around Cape Horn to San Francisco. Before the end of 1848 he had sent out a ship to carry the advance guards of the argonauts. This bark Eliza cleared from Derby Wharf in December with assorted cargo and passengers, and was cheered by an excited crowd which swarmed among the East India warehouses and listened to the departing gold-seekers sing in lusty chorus the "California Song" which later became the favorite ditty of many a ship's company bound round the Horn.
"For this roaring California trade John Bertram and his partners built a famous American clipper, the John Bertram, of eleven hundred tons, at East Boston. The remarkable feature of this undertaking was that the ship was launched sixty days after the laying of her keel and ninety days from the time the workmen first laid tools to the timbers she was sailing out of Boston harbor with a full cargo, bound to San Francisco. The John Bertram was a staunch, able, and splendidly built ship, notwithstanding this feat of record-breaking construction. Thirty years after her maiden voyage she was still afloat in the deep-water trade, although under a foreign flag, a fine memorial of the skill and honesty of New England shipbuilders.
"After winning a handsome fortune in his shipping enterprises John Bertram had foresight and wisdom to perceive that American ships in foreign trade were doomed to make a losing fight. Their day was past. He turned his energies into other and more profitable channels, and keeping pace with the march of the times, engaged in railroad development and manufacturing enterprises, a shipping merchant of the old school who adapted himself to new conditions with a large measure of success.
"Much of his fortune he gave to benefit his town of Salem in which his extensive philanthropies keep his memory green.
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