Elias Derby

Elias Derby

American trader
Date of Birth: 16.08.1739
Country: USA

Biography of Elias Derby

Elias Derby was an American businessman and one of the wealthiest and most respected merchants of the post-revolutionary era from Salem, Massachusetts. He was born on August 16, 1739, to the family of Captain and merchant Richard Derby, but Elias himself never went to sea. At a very young age, he began working for his father's company and was responsible for accounting from 1760 until the start of the revolution.

Elias Derby

By 1760, Richard Derby owned a fleet of at least thirteen ships and conducted extensive trade in multiple directions. Like many other Salem merchants, Derby supported the revolution and profited from it. It appears that Elias actively participated in financing privateering operations and had stakes in their ventures.

Elias Derby

The ship 'Grand Turk', launched in May 1781, became the largest and most successful privateering vessel in Salem, capturing loot from 17 ships between 1781 and 1782. The ship had a capacity of 300 tons, a copper-bottomed hull, and 28 cannons. By the time America gained independence, Derby was considered the second wealthiest man in New England, second only to the Cabot family from Beverly, Massachusetts.

After the end of the War of Independence, coastal and international trade faced challenges. The privateering ships built during the war were larger and faster, presenting a valuable resource that would be criminal not to employ in peacetime. Derby played a crucial role in establishing new trade connections, including those with Russia, Baltic countries, Europe, and the East Indies. The East Indies trade brought unprecedented prosperity to the Salem merchants.

In November 1784, Derby sent the 'Grand Turk' under the command of Captain Jonathan Ingersoll to the Cape of Good Hope. The voyage was successful, and in December 1785, the ship set sail on the same route again. The journey took 82 days, but the trade this time was not as profitable as expected. The 'Grand Turk' then proceeded to Mauritius, which was under French control at the time, becoming the first American ship to visit the island as a "transshipment" station. Demand for American cargo in Mauritius was also limited, but French merchants contracted the 'Grand Turk' to deliver goods to Canton (Guangzhou) and then back to Boston. Captain and supercargo informed Derby about the plan, but he only learned the details after the voyage had taken place. Despite some challenges in China, such as expenses for local officials and various fees, the captain and supercargo purchased a cargo on behalf of Derby in Canton. 'Grand Turk' became one of the five American ships, and the first from Salem, to visit China in 1786. On May 22, 1787, it returned home, gaining fame as the first New England ship to engage in direct trade with China.

Initially, Derby, like most American merchants, was optimistic about trade with China. In 1789, at least 16 American ships sailed to Canton, and Derby owned four of them. However, there was an eight-year hiatus, as the American market became oversaturated with Chinese tea within three years, and the greed of Cantonese officials and the length of the voyages significantly affected profits. Derby then focused on trade with Mauritius, Batavia, Sumatra, and India, while maintaining connections with Europe.

Derby is often mentioned in literature as the "King of Derby" or the first American millionaire. However, these nicknames were actually bestowed upon the merchant by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel 'The Scarlet Letter', and Derby's fortune at the time of his death amounted to around $800,000. Adjusted for inflation, this would be equivalent to millions today. Derby passed away on September 8, 1799, and his estate and property were passed on to his children.