President George Washington Signs a Passport For the Brig Neptune, Which Was Seized By French Pirates in 1800 and Which Seizure Became a Diplomatic Incident

The vessel carried Cotton, Sugar, and Coffee for one of the great merchant families of Salem, MA.

The incident is featured in the book “The French Assault on American Shipping.”

The Barrs were a prominent merchant and shipping family in Salem, Mass., during its heyday in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. John and James had ships plying the Pacific and trading with Indonesia, then often referred to...

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President George Washington Signs a Passport For the Brig Neptune, Which Was Seized By French Pirates in 1800 and Which Seizure Became a Diplomatic Incident

The vessel carried Cotton, Sugar, and Coffee for one of the great merchant families of Salem, MA.

The incident is featured in the book “The French Assault on American Shipping.”

The Barrs were a prominent merchant and shipping family in Salem, Mass., during its heyday in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. John and James had ships plying the Pacific and trading with Indonesia, then often referred to as the Spice Islands, where they obtained pepper (which was a necessary spice in the days before refrigeration). Other Barr ships went to Europe, particularly Russia and Germany. Robert Barr was a master (captain) on many of these international voyages, and other family members served as officers and mates. The Barr ships bound for Europe would sail to the American South, the Caribbean Sea and South America, obtain precious cargoes at those locales (such as sugar, cotton, and the blue dye indigo), then take them back to Massachusetts (from which some would be used domestically and some shipped to Europe). These ships brought back from Europe a wide variety of finished goods not available in America, such as cloths, satins, and velvets. There was a strong market for those goods in the U.S.

In the early years of the Republic, when American vessels engaged in foreign trade left the United States, they carried passports with them. These were large, impressive documents and contained their text written in four languages – English, Spanish, French and Dutch. The president and secretary of state both signed them. Document signed, Philadelphia, February 25, 1796, being the ship’s passport for the Brig Neptune, Robert Barr, Master, “of the burthen of 97 tons or thereabouts”, laden with “sugar, coffee, cotton, indigo”, and bound for Hamburg, Germany. The Great Seal of the United States is intact, and the document is countersigned by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. The Port Collector of Salem, Mass., Joseph Hiller has also added his authorization.

This vessel, under the command of Barr, was seized in 1800 by the French as part of the growing hostilities between France and United States.  All the money was taken and divided among the pirates and the Brig was taken to Puerto Rico where the vessel and cargo were sold without trial.  The owners demanded restitution but it was not until 1819 and the Treaty with Spain that restitution was finally made.  The incident is featured in the book “The French Assault on American Shipping.”

Documents like this have become uncommon of late, as their availability dwindles.

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