“Regardless of what was to be a Maine boy’s occupation or profession, an indispensable part of his upbringing was a voyage or two in the West India trade. In the days when the privateers of France and England, not to mention the piratical craft swarming the Caribbean, might be sighted at any time in almost any latitude, this opened up endless vistas of adventure before the young sailor.”

– William Hutchinson Rowe, in “The Maritime History of Maine” 

Fishing shacks at Willard Beach mark the location of Simonton’s Wharf. Woodbury Collection/South Portland Historical Society

Rowe penned the above quote in 1948. His book devotes an entire chapter to what had become known as the “West Indies trade.” In essence, this trade was an economic exchange between Maine and the plantations of the Caribbean. Maine supplied a variety of goods in exchange for luxury commodities such as molasses, rum, chocolate, coffee, and sugar. The author never once mentions that these products were grown by enslaved Africans, who had been kidnapped from their homeland and forced to work in horrendous conditions.

By the 19th century, the West Indies trade would dominate the economy of Maine. The trade finds its origins here in South Portland.

“The History of Portland,” written by William Willis in 1831, states that, “As early as 1745 there were owned at that precinct [Cape Elizabeth] five schooners and five sloops, and at a subsequent period the West India business was carried on there to a considerable extent, principally by William Simonton and Ezekiel Cushing. Mr. Simonton had a large and valuable wharf in the cove which bears his name, where not only his own but other vessels were found pursuing a profitable traffic.”

The remnants of Simonton’s cribwork wharf are still visible today at low tide below the fishing shacks at Willard Beach.

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Salted fish curing outside a fishing shack on the waterfront in Ferry Village. Walter Johnson is pictured. Etta Gregory Watts Collection/South Portland Historical Society

In the earlier years of the West Indies trade, Maine ships docked in the ports of Hispaniola [modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic], Barbados, and Suriname. By the 19th century, the Spanish colony of Cuba had become Maine’s primary trade partner. The island had become the largest producer of molasses in the world. Enslaved Africans worked in horrifying conditions on the Cuban sugar plantations.

Much of that molasses was refined into white sugar in Portland. In fact, by the mid-1800s, Portland was processing 20 percent of the nation’s molasses, more than any other city in the United States.

The work was done primarily at the J.B. Brown sugar refinery on the Portland waterfront. By the 1860s, the seven-story building employed 1,000 individuals, many of whom were Irish immigrants. J.B. Brown and his family generated enormous wealth from this endeavor. The profits allowed the Brown family to purchase much of the land on Portland’s Western Promenade where they built a palatial mansion known as “Bramhall.”

Codfish South Portland Historical Society image

Other well-known Portlanders were also invested in this economic exchange.

For example, the Saffords (whose mansion, built in 1858, still stands on High Street in Portland) owned “integraded means of production.” This meant that they owned a sugar plantation in Cuba, the enslaved Africans who grew the sugarcane, the boats on which the molasses was shipped, and the means to refine that molasses once it reached Portland.

Some Portlanders grew rich on another byproduct of sugar: rum. By the late 1700s, Portland boasted at least seven rum distilleries along its waterfront. Much of this rum went to Maine’s interior where lumberjacks and farmers eagerly consumed it. Some of the rum produced in Portland was shipped to Africa where it was one of the most desired commodities exchanged for enslaved Africans.

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One of Maine’s primary commodities in the West Indies trade was salt cod. Due to its lean flesh, cod fish takes the salting process better than any other protein. This meant that salt cod was the most affordable protein available before refrigeration. Large volumes of cod were caught in the Gulf of Maine, then salted and left to cure in the sun on wooden tables called “flakes” or “stages.”

The better-quality cured fish was sent to countries along the north shore of the Mediterranean where it was consumed during the many meatless days on the Catholic calendar. Lesser-quality salt cod was shipped to the West Indies where it fed the enslaved Africans growing sugarcane and other luxury products.

Casks by size. South Portland Historical Society image

In addition to salt cod, Maine provisioned the West Indies with a large variety of produce to feed the African slaves “farm produce such as parsnips, potatoes, onions, grain, beef, mutton, pork, pickled fish …” wrote Rowe.

Lumber was another important trade good in the exchange between the West Indies and Maine. Some of this lumber was in the form of boards. The port of Matanzas, Cuba, for example, was built almost entirely from Maine lumber.

Casks, or barrels, were also an important item of trade. The casks would be produced by Maine coopers and then broken down to conserve space while shipping (the broken-down casks were called shooks). Rowe wrote that whole houses, broken down to conserve space, were shipped from Maine to Cuba.

This is just a brief summary of the West Indies trade. Please join me at the South Portland Community Center Wednesday, Jan. 18th, at 6:30 p.m. for a more in-depth examination of this history. The lecture is free for current members of the South Portland Historical Society and $15 for non-members. The South Portland Community Center is located at 21 Nelson Road and is accessible for those with mobility challenges.

Seth Goldstein is the development director for the South Portland Historical Society and also serves as the director of the society’s Cushing’s Point Museum at Bug Light Park. The South Portland Historical Society can be reached at 207-767-7299, email at [email protected], or mail, 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.

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