The Voyage of the Frolic
New England Merchants and the Opium Trade
by Thomas N. Layton
[Clothbound, $24.95, Stanford University Press]
Review by Bill Meyers
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The clipper ship Frolic was abandoned by its captain and crew in 1850 after it smashed into a large rock near the coast of what is now Mendocino County. The Pomo Native Americans who were camping at the coast at that time swam out to the ship and salvaged a variety of items imported fresh from China. Over a century later the discovery of broken bits of pottery and glass from the Frolic during an excavation of a native American village would lead anthropologist Thomas Layton on an anthropological odyssey. Layton now has given us a book, The Voyage of the Frolic. It has something for just about everyone. For police and drug aficionados alike it has detailed descriptions of the growth and production of opium in India, down to how the raw opium was adulterated and in turn tested for purity. For populists it shows how our leading families' ancestors gained their riches through black markets. For timber buffs it describes the single event that led directly to the establishment of Mendocino County's first mills. For antique collectors it has a wealth of historical knowledge about the artifacts of that era. For those who love ships, there is much about the Baltimore clippers and the shipping industry in the mid 1800's. And for the literary set it is more than a good yarn.
Either the story of the Frolic or the story of the anthropological digging would have been entertaining; woven together they are wonderful. The book begins at Point Cabrillo in 1850, with Pomo Native Americans watching the Frolic flounder on a rock and giving some aid to the strange men who had abandoned the boat. Every beachcomber appreciates the thrill of such discoveries. When the strange men left even the broken green bottles and blue and white porcelain jars were of value, for making arrow tips and fashioning into bead money. From the ship came silks and other Chinese goods that had been meant for sale in San Francisco to the newly rich gold miners, the 49'ers. What a wonderful web of interconnections history is. There was little or no opium on the Frolic when she wrecked, but only a few months earlier that had been her sole cargo. She was built in Baltimore by a firm that specialized in fast cargo ships meant to elude the authorities. In the first half of the 19th century slavery was legal in a majority of the United States, but importing slaves and trading in them was illegal. The same New England merchants who had traded in slaves before the Revolution, however, were not about to pass up a profit to be made from human misery. The shipyard of William Gardner in Baltimore built slave ships (they were certified as ordinary merchant ships by authorities, then sent abroad to change ownership and be fitted with bunks and chains) and other fast cargo ships.
The New England firm of Augustine Heard & Co., who had been conducting legitimate trade with China for decades, had decided to enter the opium trade and commissioned the Frolic from William Gardner. China had outlawed opium. The British grew it in Indian, and were not about to give up their profits because of some ridiculous law. The Americans were not about to let the British hog the whole show. And in payment, vast quantities of tea and silk flowed to the United States. A century and a half later we suffer from our own opium (heroin) epidemic. The Forbes family can use its vast fortune, originally acquired in black markets, to run a presidential candidate. In Columbia and Mexico and new generation of entrepreneurs make their money in drugs; in two generations perhaps their heirs will be able to buy high offices. But eras always come to an end. The invention of the steamship did not end the opium trade, but it did make the Frolic obsolete for that purpose. The Frolic was only a few years old, and the gold rush created a sudden demand for Chinese luxury goods in California. Unfortunately the Frolic sank on her first voyage to San Francisco, the victim of bad maps, fog, and careless sailors.
Naturally you'll have to read the book to get the wealth of detail that makes history come alive. I have not even touched upon the divers of our era who salvaged the wreck, Frederick Douglass's life at the Baltimore shipyards, or light shed on the early history of Mendocino County. If you live on the Coast, or like visiting the Coast, or just like well-written history, you'll love this book.
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