Elijah Cobb 1768-1848. A Cape Cod Skipper. Elijah Cobb, with a foreword by Ralph D. Paine. 1925. Yale University Press, New Haven

"At the beginning of the Revolution, there were more sailors than farmers in the coastwise settlements of Maine and New Hampshire. Shipping was the chief industry of Boston. On Cape Cod, where Elijah Cobb was born and raised, the boys followed the sea instead of the plow, and the dry land was merely a roosting place until they were old enough to sign on in a forecastle. The proverbial Yankee traits of canny business dealings, handiness, and resourceful hardihood were bred in those clumsy, home-made vessels. The skipper was also a merchant who bought and sold and bartered the cargoes that filled his holds. His crews risked their own "adventures" in cash or merchandise, while his neighbors ashore owned shares in the vessel and her enterprises. And every voyage was a hazard that might make or break them.

"Elijah Cobb is well worth bringing to light because he was so completely typical, from his piety and his eccentric spelling to his mastery of difficulties. The romance of the sea meant nothing to him, although he sailed in constant peril of pirate and privateer and of foundering in a gale of wind. … What he called a good ship was not much larger than a canal boat, with a few men and boys to handle it.

"And how does Captain Cobb describe this gigantic episode [the execution of Robespierre]? As if he were making an entry in a ship's log. 'Before I left the country; I saw Robertspeirs head taken off, by the same Machine-- But to return to my induvidual, and embarised affairs…' This was characteristic of the New England breed of seafarers. They are exasperating at times. They saw so much and told so little. The wonders of the world left them unmoved. The pen was an awkward tool to handle and they were as thrifty with words as with pence. --from the foreword


I suspect the foreword exaggerates the importance of the nautical tradition in forming the Yankee character, but it certainly is consistent with it. And to call Cobb "typical" is just a bit silly, because he was unusually successful and because he left this memoir.

Elijah Cobb, from Frederick Freeman, 1862Elijah Cobb was born in Harwich Massachusetts in 1768. His father was master of a brig, who died at sea at the age of 32, leaving a widow with 6 young children and no money. The widow had no choice but to put out some of her children with neighbors, including 5 year-old Elijah. The children were clothed and fed in exchange for their work. Schooling is not mentioned, but obviously Elijah learned to read and write at some point, but that could have been in his teens. Elijah was placed out for 7 years, until he was seriously injured at 12, trying to lift too much. His mother nursed him slowly back to health, and a doctor advised that going to sea would help the recovery.

At 13 Elijah took the packet schooner Creture to Boston from Skaket: fare 2 bushels of corn. His wardrobe was all in a gin case, plus he had a tow bedsack and 2 homemade blankets. As he admired a ship, its captain asked him to be a cabin-boy and cook for a voyage to Surinam, for $3.50 per month (half a man's wages). Shipping was depressed and many sailors were unemployed, yet he also managed to have his uncle hired as mate. The trip was successful, and he made what was for the circumstances a good bit of money for his mother, by investing his wages and officers' gifts in a barrel of molasses, sold in Boston. He made several more voyages in the American and European trade, working his way up to mate. At 23 he was hired as master, and made several voyages to the West Indies and southern American colonies. In one sentence he mentions going home to Cape Cod and marrying before returning to sea. There are no details of his bride, not even her name, although as this was a memoir to his grandchildren, they would have known such details.

On his first voyage as master to Europe, his ship was seized by a French privateer. The ship's papers were stolen by the privateer, and the cargo looted by the starving French. A court at Brest finally allowed compensation, but there was no money there (exporting specie was a capital offense anyway). Cobb sent his ship home in ballast, but stayed to pursue his claim. Officials in Paris might pay the claim, but the country was in the midst of the Terror, all horses were expropriated by the government, and Royalist bands robbed and murdered travelers. Cobb persevered, finagling permission to travel with an official courier in the armored carriage with an armed escort for the non-stop 74 hour trip to Paris - with horrible roads, passing murdered couriers, without sleep. Cobb was given the French runaround by officials, until he was advised to talk directly to Robespierre. This was quickly arranged, Robespierre was helpful, and the threat of his name caused the officials to find the missing paperwork and process it immediately. A few days later Cobb witnessed Robespierre's guillotining, noting it laconically as among the 1000 he saw. (Why would any normal person watch 1000 guillotinings? It isn't something that one just ran across by chance.) Cobb then made his way to Hamburg, where actual payment was promised, but highly uncertain. A combination of talent, advice and luck resulted in him receiving the money from the French financial agent there. The ship's owners knew of the turmoil in France, of course, and Cobb had kept them informed of his dealings, so they were delighted when he was successful, and this also made him a celebrity back in Boston. A second trip to revolutionary France also took several months ashore to resolve payment for goods landed.

"On my return home, I found that my perntner, in lifes voyage, had run me in debt, for a cape Cod farm; and as the place was distitute of a suitable building, for the accommodation of our little family, it was thought advisable to proceed to errect one, the following season; I consequently, felt myself under the necesity of declining business in the sea-faring line, and attend to that of a more domestic nature, for a while-- I remained at home, from August 1798-untill Sept. 1799…"

Cobb then sailed the brig Mary from Boston to Savannah, to Lisbon, London, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, and back to Boston in 8 months, 4 days. His next adventure, after a short home stay, was in the new ship Monsoon. Part of his cargo was American rum, and he was advised to try landing it in Ireland. This story confuses me at the British end - Cobb tries to honestly land his cargo at Cork, but finds his ship seized anyway, to be sold at auction. It is explained to him privately that this is a shem (sham), and he buys back ship and cargo for 5 shillings. (So what was the purpose of the seizure, from anyone's point of view?) He can't land the rum, but the port collector advises him and apparently arranges for smuggling it-- between Cork and the Scilly Islands he has 8 hogsheads of rum hove overboard, and coincidentally a pilot boat came alongside and hove aboard a bag containing 264 English guineas.

The Napoleonic Wars kept him on the lookout for the next several years as he traded in Europe, steering clear of naval vessels when possible, bribing his way out of trouble when necessary. Jefferson's Embargo nearly caught him with a crew-less ship at the docks in Alexandria VA, but in a remarkable show of organization he was able to enlist a crew, unload ballast, and load a cargo and provisions overnight as a storm was ending. He cleared customs, with everyone knowing the Embargo was going into effect in an hour, and finally out-sailed the customs agents when it did go into effect. His cargo of flour was sold for a good price in Cadiz, but on the return voyage his ship was seized by disguised British warships and sent into St. Johns, Newfoundland as war officially broke out between the US and Britain in 1812. At this early stage, or at this location, the Americans were treated very well (except for the loss of their ships). (This contrasts with the murderous conditions for sailors on the prison hulks). An exchange of prisoners allowed Cobb to sail home, where he apparently sat out the rest of the war.

That story ends Elijah Cobb's autobiography, but not his career.

Beginning in 1815 or 1816, Cobb made several voyages to Europe in the ship Paragon, then 2 voyages to Princes Island, Africa in the ship Ten Brothers. The European community there was devastated by a fever during the second trip, and the ship was sunk at the dock in Boston when it returned, to prevent contagion. Cobb left the sea for good in 1820, and served in several Brewster town offices, as Justice of the Peace, as state Representative and Senator, and somehow had a military rank of Brigadier General.

This is a both a fascinating and frustrating little book. It is fascinating as a personal history, a real rags to riches story from a time we see as quaint and exciting. He may easily have been one of my in-laws, too. The spelling is phonetic, the phrasing and vocabulary antique. If only he'd applied his writing skills to other matters we would like to read about! We learn from him virtually nothing about his childhood, his family, the farm, the crews, Cape Cod, the foreign ports, or even the ships.

Captain Cobb's adventures during the French Revolution were the framework for The Private Adventure of Captain Shaw, 1945, by Edith Shay and Katherine Smith. I found it light on history and heavy on romance, but it was a good choice to include Tom Paine in the story.

David Kew 2001

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