Norfolk, Virginia via the ship Jolly Tan to Madeira: 27 March 1791. Unbound. This two-page stampless folded letter was carried to Madeira off the coast of northwest Africa at a privately-determined rate by the ship captain. It measures 16” x 10” unfolded and bears a manuscript annotation reading “P The / Jolly Tan / Captn Livingston”. Docketing reads “Norfolk / 27 March 1791 /Jno & Jas Reid / Recd 28 July / and ans’d Aug’t 91 / duplicate”. In nice shape; missing a small marginal piece (not affecting text) where the wax seal was broken upon opening. A transcript will be provided.
The letter reads in part:
“We are obliged to you for a quotation of prices [however,] the disadvantage with you in obtaining bills upon London for the purpose of remitting our funds . . . is an object which operates strongly against our often facing your Island with produce & . . . our Shipments will be much curtailed to what they would otherwise be. . ..”. Very good. Item #009787
The Reids were prominent exporters in Norfolk, the most important seaport in colonial Virginia, which was destroyed by fire during the Revolution. Following the war, citizens rebuilt, and by 1790, the export of corn and wheat (the “produce” mentioned in the letter) thrived at the port. No doubt that after selling their cargo, the ships would return to Norfolk fully loaded with Madeira wine, one of (if not the) most popular drinks in the United States. In the same year as this letter, the Reids joined with a select group of “Merchants, Traders and other Citizens of the Borough of Norfolk” to obtain a branch of the controversial Bank of the United States in an effort to improve trading and exchange opportunities. Competition among Virginia cities was stiff, however only Norfolk was selected.
The firm of Newton, Gordon, and Johnstone was established in Madeira in the late 1740s by expatriates who fled Scotland after fighting for Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) in the failed Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. There they soon became successful wine traders, eventually branching out into other staples such as flour, corn, rice, pork, beef, etc.
(For more information see Costa’s dissertation “Economic Development and political authority: Norfolk Virginia merchant-magistrates,” Siener’s dissertation ”Economic development in revolutionary Virginia: Fredericksburg 1750-1810,” and “The Bank of the United States: Petitions of Virginia Cities and Towns for the Establishment of Branches 1791” in The Virginia Magazine of History and Bibliography (Jan. 1901).
The University of Michigan holds a collection of 105 incoming letters sent by the Newton, Gordon, and Johnstone firm to American merchants, and Penn State holds an archive of 39 outgoing letters to the company, mostly from Philadelphia traders. Outside of the Penn State collection, examples of correspondence from the United States to Madeira is quite scarce. No auction records for similar letters are found at the Rare Book Hub, and the Stamp Auction Network reports only nine between the United States and Madeira have appeared at auction in the last 21 years.