Historical Curiosities

Commentary on the hard-to-believe assertions that weren’t fudged in If Two Are Dead



With regard to estimating the purchasing power of money—a constant challenge in a story about a merchant—we can only reiterate the peculiarities noted with respect to the previous novels. Virtually all transactions required tedious computation. At the best, exchanges regularly required translating a less familiar physical currency into a more familiar one; very often, barter was necessary. Even the value of “pound” varied, because the various colonies each had their own currencies in circulation, using the same units—but varying widely in value from—the British “pound sterling.”

After considerable—but hardly exhaustive—research, I came up with rough rules of thumb to translate 1760 currencies into 2012 US dollars (themselves inflating at a horrific rate):

·        A 1760 New York pound, “£1,” would be equivalent to US$71 in 2012 A.D.

·        A 1760 British pound sterling, “£1,” would be equivalent to US$127 today

·        Sterling thus commanded a 79% premium over New York money, and New York money was discounted to 56% of sterling.


Chapter 1 – New York City’s “constabulary” was a very recent addition in 1762. The provincial militia, in which all adult males were required to participate, was the primary keeper of the peace. I have imagined a rough headquarters for them, shared with the “morgue,” on the fringes of today’s City Hall Park, then the fringe of town. It would be proximate to the barracks for British soldiery which were grudgingly constructed in 1758. Once Canada was conquered and the war shifted to the Caribbean, the new, expensive barracks were rapidly depopulated.


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Part of a modern continental European playing card deck including a joker, 21 tarot cards, and 16 face cards. (Click to expand.)

Playing cards have never been as standardized as most Americans (or your author, at least) have imagined.  The idea of four suits, with numbers and face cards, seems to be universal outside the orient since the late medieval period, but there the standardization ends. The nations of continental Europe and the Near-East vary greatly, both historically and today, in what the suits represent, how many numbers are used, and how many face cards are in each suit.  While the King and Queen are near-universal, the Jack is not.  Often there is a Cavalier (on horseback), who is attended by a Varlet. Tarot cards acquired a fortune-telling capability only two hundred years ago. Often they were simply part of the card game, an integrated part of the deck.  There were decks printed with seventy-eight cards:  four suits of ten numerals and four faces, plus twenty-one tarots and a fool.  The cards that were not needed for any specific game were temporarily removed before play began.  It would be unusual, actually, for cards to have a printed reverse side in the 18th Century; more likely, the backs were blank.  (But of course, it would be far more difficult for identify such cards as members of the same set—so that much is fudged.)


Chapter 3 – The last full year of the Seven Years’ War saw a new war altogether when hitherto neutral Spain was pulled into it.  The folly of this for exhausted, bankrupt Europe (and its respective American colonies, which were also exhausted and bankrupt) capped the insanity of the entire conflict. 


The “drowning cell” is described by Simon Schama (in The Embarrassment of Riches) as a horrifically torturous medieval form of execution that particularly haunted the Dutch—a lowland folk subject to periodic flooding.


Chapter 4 – We’re used to thinking of New York’s harbor as one of the world’s greatest, but our view is partly dependent on the mechanized channel dredging that has been done over the past 150 years.  While the upper bay and the Hudson River are fairly deep, the lower bay is naturally rather shallow, with several dangerous ledges that brought many un-piloted ships to grief.  Even in the 18th Century, larger commercial or military vessels had sufficient draft—depth below the water-line—that getting in and out was a touchy and time-consuming process. If winds were contrary, it was also very dangerous.


Fifteen British Navy ships have borne the name HMS Enterprise. The one that figures in our story was built in 1693, refitted in 1744 with 44 guns, and eventually broken up in 1771. She in fact arrived in Sandy Hook on March 31, 1762, after a difficult winter crossing from England, and promptly began to impress colonial seamen in the harbor.  Its formal mission, however, was to deliver the news that Britain had officially declared war against Spain.  In the ensuing months, she remained in the area, rigidly enforcing the decrees against trading with the enemy, to the considerable shock and indignation of the New York merchant community.


Description: Description: Description: snow.jpgThere was a sailing ship design common in the 18th and 19th Centuries, actually called a snow. Nobody seems to know why, but the fact that it was alternatively called “snaw” suggests that frozen rain had nothing to do with it. Snows were swift, middling-size vessels with two masts, with a spanker sail and boom attached to the mizzen.  The design would have been appropriate for a commercial vessel such as the fictional Dorothy C.


Chapter 5 – During the Seven Years’ War, the vagaries of hostilities created a temporary situation where an enormous amount of commerce was conducted in a barely-protected anchorage (now a sleepy bay on the northwest coast of the Dominican Republic) not connected with any shoreside facilities. It was (and still is) known as Monte Cristi, after the promontory that provided minimal shelter for shipping.  Trading was almost entirely directly between ships.  The reason was that Monte Cristi—“the Mount”—was on the Spanish side of Hispaniola island, but very near the French port of Cap François (now renamed Cap Haitien), thus enabling North Americans (especially) to evade British rules prohibiting direct trade with the French. What is now Haiti was then the wealthiest (for some) European colony in the Caribbean; but it was so completely preoccupied with sugar, it was mortally dependent on imported foodstuffs … that came primarily from the middle Atlantic colonies of France’s archenemy.  When the commander of the fort at Monte Cristi learned that Spain and Britain were at war (weeks before New York learned of it), he abruptly commenced firing at the shipping in his harbor, scattering the lot and instantly bringing the entire episode to a close. 


St. Eustatius island, nearly impossible to locate on most maps, was in a similar, but not identical situation.  The Dutch managed—it wasn’t easy—to stay out of the Seven Years’ War, and boldly provided shoreside facilities for the dozens of ships that were constantly to be found in its anchorage.  The island’s population today is around 3,000; in 1762, it was approximately 15,000—at a time when New York City’s population was only 20,000!  Through its policies of neutrality and free trade, St. Eustatius made itself into the Hong Kong of the western hemisphere for the latter half of the 18th Century. Only when those policies were rescinded during the Napoleonic wars did the island slip into insignificance.


The status of slaves on St. Eustatius was anomalous. The island served as a major slave mart, of course, in addition to its function as an emporium of all other goods. Thus the vast majority of captured Africans who touched down there were only there for a brief interlude, in order to be sold and consigned elsewhere (mostly in the Caribbean). Those who were purchased by the European permanent residents of the island, however, suffered an arguably more benign fate. Whereas the majority of all African slaves were taken for rote gang-labor on plantations with a single cash-crop, in proportion as the economies using them were more variegated, greater independence was required of slaves and greater freedom was necessarily tolerated. The relatively small multi-crop farms of the middle North American colonies therefore tacitly accepted behaviors that large monocultural plantations would not. Cities such as New York, where the division of labor was widespread, used their slaves in so many ways that their knowledge and capability of independent action necessarily became valued; and consequently their economic value and relative fate was greater than that of others. St. Eustatius, effectively a purely commercial urban hub in the Antilles, permitted an unusual degree of liberty of action, de-stigmatized the mulatto results of interracial couplings, and permitted self-purchase and manumission. It was still slavery, still morally indefensible—but the alternative fate of the vast majority of African slaves in the Caribbean … was to be worked literally to death within five years.


Chapter 9 – Your author is in well over his head in even attempting to limn the controversies that wracked the American Dutch Reformed Church of the period.  Like many of the great religious controversies, it was a question not of theological doctrine, but of church governance.  There were two main factions, the coetus and the conferentie, and the big question appeared to be whether newly minted divines could be ordained locally—or had to travel back to the Netherlands. Another major issue was conducting services in English rather than Dutch. The split was particularly intense in northern New Jersey, where, during the Revolution, longstanding antipathies over these disagreements were conflated with the conflicts of Whigs and Tories, often with violent results.


Shellfish, particularly oysters, were plentiful in New York harbor, from long before European contact well into the 19th Century. Famous for ’em! They provided many with respectable, if low-status, employment. Oysters were regarded as staple food for poor people!


Chapter 12 – Yes, if you were traveling the ninety miles from New York City to Philadelphia or back in 1762, you would be happy to accomplish the feat in forty-eight hours.  A horseman or runner alone might make it faster, at extra expense and inconvenience, but two days was apparently a given.  The country was still so new that bridges were a rarity, thus making every creek, pond, and river a matter of immense difficulty. The roads were actually not the horror we perceive from hindsight; from the perspective of European contemporaries, American roads were actually rated highly!  That doesn’t mean you and I would care for them, however!


Chapter 13 – The Society of Friends—the “Quakers”—were still controversial among their fellow American Protestants in 1762.  Their willingness to look and sound different, their toleration for heretical notions disdaining slavery and militarism, did not endear them to their doctrinaire contemporaries.  Even in Pennsylvania, the legacy of William Penn had soured, and the Quaker elite was regularly being out-voted. 


Chapter 15 – In 1750, Havana, Cuba, the capital of the Spanish West Indies, had a population of 70,000—smaller than Lima, Peru, and Mexico City, but much larger than either Philadelphia or New York. When Spain was finally dragged into the Seven Years’ War in 1762, Britain was ready to attack it. Thirty thousand men (including 3,000 American colonials) began the siege on June 6. By the time of the capitulation on August 14, yellow fever had rendered more than half of the British forces not “effectives.”  Thousands died on both sides. Notwithstanding this colossal carnage, the Treaty of Paris (1763) returned the city to Spain.





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