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Martin Van Buren

Multi-language Sea Letter
Issued on June 8, 1839

Martin Van Buren Multi-language Sea Letter Issued on June 8, 1839

This document was issued in New Bedford to the ship Amazon, which was under the command of Robert G. Smith and had a carrying capacity of 318 65/95 tons, also known as “burden.” The vessel was heading from New Bedford bound for the Pacific Ocean, with provisions and stores with utensils for a whaling voyage. Robert G. Smith, as a youth was apprenticed for five years and was the subject of a lawsuit after a creditor of his father tried to claim his earning from a whaling voyage he took while an apprentice. Only eight years after his apprenticeship, Smith was in command of Amazon. On this voyage, Smith took Thomas Wilson Melville aboard as a ship keeper. Thomas was the cousin of Herman Melville, and he inspired Herman to also go to sea as a whaler. The result was Melville’s Moby Dick.

This sea letter is in four languages: French; Spanish; English; and Dutch. It is signed by President Martin Van Buren who served one term from March 4,1837 until March 4, 1841. He had been the most loyal of members of Andrew Jackson’s fractious cabinet and became Vice-President after the resignation of John C. Calhoun. He came into office during a wave of prosperity, but within months the Panic of 1837 ushered in the worst depression the country had seen. His entire Presidency was devoted to the struggle to retain the solvency of the Federal government. Van Buren’s then Secretary of State, John Forsyth, a holdover from the Jackson era, also signed this sea letter. Forsyth served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S Senate, was Governor of Georgia and had been Minister to Spain before being appointed Secretary of State. With Jackson, he resolved a long-standing dispute with France over reparations due to the U.S. for the damage inflicted on U.S. commerce during the Napoleonic Wars. Ultimately, France paid $5 million to settle the claim and the U.S. lowered the import duty on French wines! Forsyth, who was a supporter of slavery and a slave owner, argued the government case against the slaves who had over-taken the Amistad on which they were being transported. Before the Supreme Court, Forsyth argued that the ship, its cargo and the slaves should be returned to the Spanish owners. Former President John Quincy Adams argued that the former slaves should be free to return to Africa. The court decided in favor of the Adams argument.  The Collector of Customs was another Robert Smith, Robert S. Smith, who left office due to issues involving his personal finances. Another signer was the Notary, Henry H. Crapo, from a prominent whaling family. His relative, Captain Thomas Crapo, made history in 1877 when he and his wife sailed a twenty-foot whaleboat from New England to old England.

This sea letter is printed on rag paper and bears the Great Seal of the United States in the center.

[Description provided by J. Revell Carr, former President and Director, Mystic Seaport: The Museum of American and the Sea]