The master navigator: Capt. Thomas Arnold


A stone marking the resting place of Capt. Thomas Arnold and his second wife, Rhoda (Church) Arnold, lie in the Gloria Dei churchyard close to the graves of Rhoda’s ancestors.

Thomas died at age 60 in 1828, after a long career at sea that started during the American Revolution. Late in life, he opened a school in navigation. About six years before his death, he wrote an important handbook on seamanship that was based largely on his own experiences.

Arnold’s book, “The American Practical Lunarian and Seaman’s Guide,” steers the aspiring mariner through numerous practical tasks, such as maneuvering through storms, eluding pirates, or dealing with customs agents and insurance brokers. The book shows that he had a broad interest in natural science and a profound aptitude for mathematics. He wrote in his introduction to the book that it was “the result of forty years of experience of a seafaring life, during twenty-eight of which the author has been actively employed as a master of vessels.”

Rhoda Arnold outlived her husband by 30 years, dying in 1858 at age 76. Rhoda’s father, Samuel Church, was a merchant and an elected Philadelphia Commissioner for the Poor; he earlier served as a soldier in the American Revolution. Rhoda’s mother, Amy Church, was born into the Justice family—originally Giöstason—whose members were among the original settlers of New Sweden in the middle of the 17th century. Amy’s father and grandfather, both named John Justice, were trustees of Gloria Dei and owned farmland in the riverside meadows southwest of Philadelphia—today near the airport. Her three brothers (Rhoda’s uncles) fought in the American Revolution.

An illustration in Thomas Arnold’s book.

Thomas Arnold’s family origins are more obscure. Although the lettering on the Arnolds’ tombstone is now worn away and illegible, it used to state that he was born in Genoa, Italy, according to Park McFarnham Jr., who transcribed the engravings on the stones in the Gloria Dei churchyard in 1877. So far, however, I have not been able to verify that Italy was his birthplace.

A boy in the American Revolution

“The American Practical Lunarian and Seaman’s Guide” gives information suggesting that Arnold may have spent time in New England as a boy. He writes that toward the end of the American Revolution, in 1782, he served on the privateer ship Rambler, from Salem/Beverly, Mass. He was 13 years old at the time.

Records show that the Rambler began her operations as a merchant vessel around 1777 or perhaps slightly earlier. She was owned by the Beverly-based shipping company of John and Andrew Cabot and made a number of voyages to Bilbao and other Spanish ports to bring back goods such as salt, woolens, and naval stores. Her master was Benjamin Lovett, a sea captain from Beverly, who had also put money into the vessel. In 1779, the Rambler was overhauled and recommissioned as a privateer, with 14 guns and a crew of 50 men. On a 1781 voyage to Bilbao, the Rambler captured several prize vessels and sent them back to Beverly. In November 1781, she was overhauled again, and was sent out on another cruise early the next year—which is apparently when Thomas Arnold signed on as a deck boy.

On Feb. 12, 1782, Andrew Cabot wrote a letter of instructions to Capt. Lovett as he was about to undertake the voyage.* Cabot wrote that the Rambler should sail first to Havana, and then proceed to Cadiz, Spain—or to any other European port, according to his discretion. If Lovett believed that he could sell the Rambler in Europe, at the price of $40,000, he should do so. Otherwise, when he returned home, he was to make port in Martha’s Vineyard and wait there until he could obtain information as to whether there were any British cruisers in the bay.

As it turned out, the Rambler arrived in Cadiz on July 13, 1782, loaded cargo for Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, and then sailed again for Havana, where she arrived on Oct. 20, 1782. Arnold reports in his book that the Rambler was knocked off her keel after encountering a white squall off the coast of Cuba. Fortunately, they were able to right the ship once again. Arnold remarks that white squalls “blow with great violence, but of short duration. They are nevertheless very dangerous, as they happen when the weather is clear, without any appearance in the atmosphere to indicate their approach. The only mark that accompanies them is the white water on the surface of the sea, which is thrown up by the force of the wind.”

In his book, Arnold mentions other voyages that he took as a boy. On page 358, he employs one of his experiences as an illustration of the technique in wartime of paying out the cable in order to bring the vessel “broadside to the tide, so as to bear the guns on the enemy.” He saw this method in operation, he writes, when he was “on board the brig Revolution, of fourteen guns, Captain Stansberry, in the revolutionary war, lying in Wilmington river, North Carolina, when two row gallies from Charleston, then in possession of the British arms, stood up the river, for the purpose of attacking our vessel. As soon as they came within gun-shot they commenced firing; but we adopted this expedient, by which we succeeded in beating them off.”

“The gallies were small,” Arnold remarks, “and, of course, their bow guns were short. If they had been large, with long heavy bow guns, they might have sunk our vessel, by keeping out of reach of our guns, which were short six-pounders.”

Arnold writes on page 183 that on the same voyage, en route from North Carolina to Havana in 1782, the Revolution encountered a waterspout off its stern, which spilled onto the quarterdeck: “It appeared like a body of water pouring down from above, and striking upon the surface of the sea, it rebounded to the height of six or eight feet, which occasioned a roaring noise. We all tasted the water which fell, and it was quite fresh. We fired a six-pound shot at it and some musket balls, but without affecting it in any degree.” Elsewhere in the book (page 182), he notes that waterspouts can be dangerous, and have been known to wash crew members overboard.

The “Capt. Stansberry” that Arnold mentions was undoubtedly Richard Stanbury, who, while master of the Boston-based brig Recovery in June 1778, was captured by the British Hornet on a return voyage to Boston from Cape François, Haiti. For some years after the close of the Revolution, Stanbury operated a packet between Wilmington, N.C., and Charleston, S.C., often carrying lumber and cedar shingles.

Arnold voyaged halfway around the world while still quite young. He relates that as a boy he sailed to Madeira—the Portuguese-owned archipelago west of Morocco—and uses the experience to show the intricacies of maneuvering within the strong coastal winds. Later, in 1785, when sailing off the coast of Ghana with Capt. James Thompson on the British ship Commerce, they saw a tornado. “On its first appearance,” he recalls (page 180), we had a fine breeze from the westward, which, where we then were (between Cape Three Points and Cape Coast)** was the usual trade wind. All sail was immediately handed [taken in], which was kept out to veer under. The tornado blows furiously for about twenty or thirty minutes, with thunder, lightning, and torrents of rain.”

Arnold mentions Capt. Thompson in other sections of his book as well, including an incident in which his vessel, the Mary, was boarded by pirates near Leghorn (Livorno), Italy. He writes that the pirates took away six of the Mary’s large guns, two anchors, a compass, and other material. But it is unclear whether Arnold sailed with Thompson on that voyage. In later years, Thompson and the Mary maintained a regular packet run between Falmouth, England, and New York City, and on several occasions he sailed other vessels to Philadelphia. And so, Arnold probably had the opportunity to speak with Thompson in later years in order to record the British captain’s adventures in his book.

After sailing with Thompson, Arnold writes that he was “on board the brig Edward Hammond, in the harbor of St. John’s, Antigua, in 1786, when she was struck by lightning; which split her main mast and main top masts, and running down the partners of the mast, tore three planks of the starboard side, abreast of the mainmast.” He adds that “providentially, however, only one of the crew, who was near the main mast, was injured, and but slightly.” As a lesson, he points out that, in a thunderstorm, it is important to maintain a distance from the masts in order to find the place of greatest safety.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find mention of a brig Edward Hammond in maritime records. Capt. Edward Hammond was a well-known mariner from Plymouth, Mass., during that period, though I cannot place him in St. John in 1786. Also, around the same time, the sloop St. John sailed for St. Eustatia under Capt. H. Hammond, leaving Baltimore on March 11, 1786 and returning in late May. So, writing 40 years later, Thomas Arnold might have mixed up some of the details of the event he witnessed at age 18.

Nevertheless, the incident might have been the same as described in newspaper reports from 1786: “ST. JOHN’S in ANTIGUA, AUG. 16: Saturday morning last, the 12th instant, exhibited in this island one of the most dreadful scenes of thunder and lightning that has happened in the memory of the oldest man living. It began about a quarter past six, and continued with very little intermission for near an hour and a quarter. Two vessels in the harbour were struck, the brigantine Hazard a good deal damaged; also some buildings in the town of St. John’s were slightly shattered. We have not heard of any lives being lost” (Pennsylvania Packet, Oct. 19, 1786). Records show that the brig Hazard, Capt. Muir, had left Philadelphia on June 30 of that year, and returned to port on Sept. 9. Did Arnold, searching his memory, mistake the Hazard for the Hammond?

Marriage; cast away on the “Hog-sties”

On Feb. 20, 1788, Arnold married Catherine “Mophet” at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’ Church), according to church records. (There is no one named “Mophet” in Philadelphia street directories of the period, but “Moffet,” “Moffat,” and similar variations of the name are listed. Several mariners are named Moffat and Moffet, which could provide a clue to how Thomas and Catherine were introduced.) Both of the newlyweds were 19 years old. The Arnolds’ first child, Mary, was born a little over a year later, on March 21, 1789. She was the first of at least eight children.

During the next few years, Thomas Arnold traveled the world while working on a number of different vessels, improving his skills at seamanship. He rapidly moved his way up from deck hand to able-bodied seaman to mate.

On March 24, 1794, Thomas Arnold was a mate on the brig Active from Philadelphia, under Capt. Nathaniel Gardner, when the vessel became stranded on the reefs that extend to the east of the Cayman Islands that are nicknamed the Hog-Sties. Capt. Gardner might have been unaware that a little over a month earlier, nine merchantmen within a convoy of 58 vessels under the protection of British naval ships had been grounded on the Hog-Sties. The Royal Navy ship HMS Convert (formerly the frigate L’Inconstante, which had been captured from France months earlier) had led the convoy, and she was wrecked too; five crewmen lost their lives. Capt. Daniel Martin of HMS Britannia also perished in the disaster. Stores from the wreck of the Convert—everything from masts and cables to weapons to beef, bread, and rum—had been salvaged only a few days before the Active struck ground not far away.

In fact, while the Active lay on the reef, the court-martial of the Convert’s captain, John Lawford, who was charged with negligence, was taking place in Kingston, Jamaica. The magistrates determined on April 1 that Capt. Lawford and other officers of the Convert were not guilty, reasoning, according to the court records, that “the Misfortune was occasioned by a strong Current setting the Ships very considerably to the Northward of their Reckoning.”

Perhaps the brig Active was caught by the same current before she was beached. In his book, however, Arnold cites his own failure in navigation as the immediate cause of the shipwreck. He states (page 318) that he had relied on the charts in an outdated epitome, written by Hamilton Moore, in which the declination of the sun was one day advanced. He went on to explain: “It was Captain Gardner’s intention to run for and make the island of Mayaguana; but by the sun’s declination being erroneously laid down in the aforesaid epitome, and the daily difference of the sun’s declination being twenty-three miles, and being on the 23rd of March, 1794, we ran down the latitude too far north; and in the place of making Mayaguana, we made the French Keys, which lay to the northward and westward of the former island, and mistook them for Mayaguana; so that we were fifty miles farther to the westward than we reckoned ourselves, and by that means we ran on the aforesaid reef at 2 A.M. on the 24th of March, 1794.”

The Active languished on the reef for six days; the crew and 26 passengers—including women and children—were running low on provisions. At that point, according to contemporary newspaper reports, “the mate (Thomas Arnold) and two of the brig’s hands took to the long board to see relief for their fellow sufferers—and in about 27 hours fell in with the privateer schooner Grouper, Captain Clarke, belonging to New Providence, who immediately went to their relief, and carried them all (except one seaman who was in the yawl alongside which drifted from the wreck, and was not heard of after, and one passenger who fell overboard on the passage) safe to St. Marks, where our informant (Mr. Arnold) left them on the 20th of April” (Gazette of the United States, May 17, 1794). Arnold then sailed from St. Marks on the schooner Voluptuous, arriving at Baltimore around May 12, 1794, where he related the story to a newspaper correspondent.

Three decades later, Arnold told the tale again in his book (page 316): “After remaining on the key six days, our provisions and water becoming very short, Captain Gardner permitted me to rig the long boat with a sail, and go in search of some vessel, or endeavour to get to Cape Nichola Mole, in the island of St. Domingo. On the 30th March, 1794, at 3 P.M. with the wind at S.E. I set sail, with two men, and a passenger, Mr. Granier. The weather was fine; the wind scant. In about an hour we lost sight of the keys, and at 6 P.M. a squall blew from the N.W. accompanied by rain. I saw a frigate to the N.W.; but as she was to the windward, I saw no prospect of getting to her. I therefore kept the boat before the wind.”

Arnold writes that by 10 p.m. the sea was so high that he knew it would be dangerous to continue running forward. He remembered a technique from when he was a boy on board the brig Lively in 1783, with Captain Rich, when she lost her rudder when bound from New Orleans to Port au Prince. Accordingly, he had the boat’s mainmast taken down and put overboard to float, attached to the boat by about eight fathoms of rope. This helped to stabilize the boat until the gale subsided.

“The next morning at daylight,” he writes, “the weather was pleasant; the wind at S.E., and we had got so far to the eastward in the gale, that it gave us an advantage. At sunrise saw Great Heneaga [a small island at the mouth of the strait between Cuba and Haiti], bearing from S.E. to S.W. distant about three leagues. The wind light, made sail close by the wind, and at 3 P.M. discovered a schooner’s masts over the N.W. point of the island. At 5 P.M. got on board of her. She proved to be the Grouper, of East Caycas, Captain Clark.

“On the third day after we left the Hogsties, we anchored there in the Grouper, when the provisions on the key would not have sufficed for more than four days. All hands embarked on board the Grouper, and were landed safely in St. Marks.”

Arnold becomes a sea captain

The following year, 1795, marked a milestone for Thomas Arnold—he was appointed master of a sea vessel, the schooner Eliza. His display of clever seamanship in saving the crew and passengers on the brig Active the previous year quite likely helped to recommend him for the job. Nevertheless, Arnold’s accomplishment—rising from 13-year-old deck boy to sea captain—was very rare. Most sea captains were relatively educated men from the upper classes, who began their careers at a higher station—for example, as an ensign in the navy or as an apprentice to a relative who was a sea captain. Moreover, the fact that Arnold rose to become a captain in little more than a dozen years was a marvel!

In early 1795, Arnold was appointed to take the schooner Eliza from Baltimore to Malaga. On May 6, the Eliza arrived in Philadelphia following a 44-day voyage from Malaga, where her cargo of raisins, lemons, almonds, figs, and wine was unloaded at Stamper’s Wharf in Southwark.

Soon afterward, Catherine Arnold gave birth to a son, Thomas Jr. The infant was baptized at St. Peter’s Church on Aug. 18, 1795. Unfortunately, Thomas Arnold was not present for that memorable event, since he had left port on the Eliza for Lisbon and Bilbao in mid-June, returning to Philadelphia at the beginning of November. Arnold continued his journeys to Malaga on the Eliza for the next couple years, bringing back the usual kegs of wine, anchovies, almonds, and dried fruits.

In June 1796, Arnold and the Eliza brought a letter to Philadelphia from a “respectable house” in Malaga, dated April 28, reporting that “about the Algerines, we are sorry to inform you, that they are actually cruising near our coast.” In that period, indeed, a number of American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean were boarded by pirates or the crews of ships flying the flags of various warring powers, though the schooner Eliza managed to elude such dangers. On the next voyage, however, in December 1796, the Eliza was caught in a severe storm in the Atlantic and lost both her masts. The schooner was forced to rig a jury mast and sails and limp into New York harbor, since the distance to Philadelphia was too great.

After being rebuilt following the storm, the Eliza was transformed into a brig instead of a schooner (generally, a brig is square rigged, unlike a schooner). She resumed the voyage from Philadelphia to Malaga, but added stops in New York City, both outward and inward bound. Arnold refers to that voyage in his book as an educational experience. He writes (page 142) that when proceeding from New York down to Philadelphia, the heat from a hot metal stove had attracted the needle on his compass, causing it to move four points askew. “If I had not discovered this in time,” he points out, “I should have run the vessel on Barnegat shoals.”

In March 1797, the Eliza embarked on a new course, sailing for Charleston, S.C., and arriving on April 14. The Eliza was described as “a fine staunch vessel, nearly new, with good accommodations for passengers and sails remarkably fast” (Gazette of the United States, May 2, 1797). One of the passengers on the Eliza was South Carolina Senator Jacob Read, a former Continental Army officer during the Revolution, prisoner of the British, delegate to the Continental Congress, and slaveholder. Read presumably dined with Arnold at the captain’s table. On May 12, Arnold and the Eliza once again were bound for Charleston, arriving there on May 20, and returning to Philadelphia on June 10. Perhaps engaging in the coastal trade was a welcomed change for Thomas Arnold—at least for a while. It allowed him to return home once a month and to spend more time with his family, rather than spending most of the year away on trans-Atlantic voyages.

Within a couple of years, however, he was voyaging to the Caribbean. In 1799, Arnold was working for a different importer, Joseph Coulter on S. Water Street, as master of the brig Ruth and Mary, plying between Philadelphia and Havana. Molasses and sugar were the chief cargo. Arnold’s voyage in July of that year, and again the following February, enabled him to carefully note the varying course of the Gulf Stream, which he was able to plot with a thermometer since the water of the Gulf Stream is often cooler than that of the surrounding ocean. But he noted in his book that, because the temperatures can fluctuate under different circumstances, such readings must be taken with caution.

In 1800, he took the brig Tryphena to Amsterdam, and the next year took her on several voyages to Havana, in which he continued his investigations of the variations of the Gulf Stream. By 1802, Arnold was captain of the ship Orion, and during the next four years, he made a number of voyages to the Caribbean and to Europe on the vessel. He writes in his book about how the Orion was struck by a whirlwind off Cape Finisterre, on the west coast of Spain. “It hove the mizen and mizen staysail aback,” he writes, although “its duration was not more than two or three seconds.”

One night in a fog, Arnold and the Orion encountered the infamous Five Fathom Bank, the long shoal at the entrance to Delaware Bay, about 15 miles from Cape May. “Nearly on the middle of the bank,” he notes, “there is only 12 feet at low water.” Numerous vessels of the era were lost or damaged on the shoal. The ship China, for example, coming home to Philadelphia from Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), sank there on the night of April 21, 1805. Philadelphia merchants lost over $400,000 in the shipwreck, according to newspapers of the day—one of the greatest commercial disasters for the city ever recorded. The China, built in Kensington in 1794, was over 1000 tons burden and drew 22 feet; she grounded in 18 feet of water. The Orion, in contrast, was of a very light draft, only 12 feet, 2 inches. Arnold says that although it was foggy, they passed right over the shoal in 14 feet of water. (In 1826, a light ship was stationed at Five Fathom Bank to warn vessels of the danger; the last light ship was retired in 1966, and today a lighted horn buoy marks the shoal.)

The records of the Philadelphia Customs House show that some seamen on the Orion continued to work under Capt. Arnold on subsequent voyages over the years. The 1803 voyage of the Orion to Rochelle, France, for example, had three Black men in the crew who sailed often with Capt. Arnold. The three were in the positions—cook, steward, and cabin boy—that were traditionally the lowest paying on sea vessels. The cook, John Lewis, 40 years old, was described as being small, with smallpox pits on his face, and born in Africa. John Williams, the steward, was 26 and said that he had been born on an American vessel at sea. The cabin boy, Bufaloe LeFleur, was 15 years old, 4 feet & six inches in height, pockmarked, with a “flat nose.” Like Capt. Arnold, LeFleur had first gone to sea at age 13.

Opium trade to China

In those years, a number of children were born to Catherine and Thomas. All were christened at St. Peter’s Church, on Pine Street in Society Hill. Anna Maria was christened in April 1797, Margarett in July 1798, Ann in March 1799, Catherine Elizabeth in December 1800, Sarah in September 1801, Isabella in March 1803, John in March 1805, Charles in August 1805 (he died after six months and was buried at St. Peter’s), and Frances in October 1806.

Around 1805, after living for years in a succession of rented houses, the Arnolds moved to a large three-story house at the corner of Front and Shippen (now Bainbridge) Streets in the Southwark district. It was an area in which a number of other ship captains and wealthy merchants resided. Front Street runs along a bluff above the Delaware River, and the top floors of many of the houses yielded a spyglass view of the vessels coming and going from the wharves. The first owners of the Arnolds’ house were the sea captain William Spafford and his wife Rebecca, who had it built in about 1762.*** The building was noted for its central hall that led to a distinctive oval staircase, with a spiraling mahogany banister. The house, which I toured on a couple of occasions, is still standing—although empty. Unfortunately, the current owners, in an aborted attempt to rehabilitate the structure, have gutted the interior, demolished the rear addition, removed what remained of the central staircase, and left the remainder of the house in a severely deteriorating condition. Currently, it is for sale.

Later in that decade, Arnold became master of the brig Sylph, in which capacity he undertook voyages to Europe and to Canton, China. At the end of June 1809, the Sylph embarked from Philadelphia for various European ports; she would not return to her homeport for three years. In August, she was reported to be lying off the Downs, in southeast England. Arnold points out in his book (page 323) that the area, where many vessels congregated, frequently presented the danger that some vessels might break their cables and collide with each other. This was particularly true of “those from the East and West Indies, with their cables dry rotten, which are liable to break with the least blow.” He writes that “in 1809, I laid six weeks in the Downs, in the brig Sylph, during which time we had several blows; and all the damage which was done was occasioned by vessels, having bad cables, drifting foul of others.”

On Sept. 6, the Sylph sailed to the area of the Nore sandbank at the mouth of the Thames, where she joined a convoy of other vessels for the journey across the Channel. With little doubt, this was to ward off attacks by cruisers loyal to Napoleonic France, which was at war with Britain. The United States had attempted to remain neutral toward both European powers. But the French saw vessels that had visited British ports as enemies, and the British decreed in response that ships had to obtain licenses at British ports in order to trade with France or its colonies. Thus, American vessels that had gained the British licenses were subject to capture by the French; without licenses, they could be captured by the British. Earlier in the year, outgoing President Jefferson had issued the Non-Intercourse Act, which attempted to ban trade with both Britain and France. However, the Act was virtually impossible to enforce.

Arnold mentions in his book that while still under convoy they had to weather a gale while negotiating the Great Belt—the strait between the Danish islands of Zealand and Funen, which connects the North Sea to the Baltic. By Oct. 10, 1809, the Sylph had arrived in Gothenburg, Sweden. Subsequently, she crossed the Baltic to visit Kiel, the port in northern Germany that was ruled at the time by the king of Denmark through his position as Duke of Holstein. The following February, the brig again traversed the Atlantic; after a voyage lasting 91 days, she arrived in Havana in late May 1810—almost a year after she had left Philadelphia.

But Arnold and the Sylph did not entirely escape the British-French war; it caught up with them in Cuba. A Havana newspaper dated July 8, 1810, reported: “Among the articles landed from the American brig Sylph, Capt. Arnold, were found six papers of money stamped with the bust of the tyrant Napoleon Bonaparte. The vessel was, in consequence, seized, till, on enquiry, it was found the captain was ignorant of the shipment, when she was released. The money was destroyed by the common hangman, in the presence of a large concourse of citizens” (New England Palladium, Boston, Aug. 27, 1810).

Shipping accounts in the newspapers that summer reported that the brig Sylph was due to sail for Philadelphia in 20 days, then 30 days, and then was “awaiting orders.” Finally, her destination was settled. Instead of returning to Philadelphia, on Sept. 2, 1810, the Sylph set sail for Smyrna (now Izmir), Turkey, en route to China.

At the same time that the Sylph was in the mid-Atlantic, Joseph Henry Arnold, purported to be Capt. Arnold’s infant son, died in Philadelphia. According to a handwritten note attached to the city death record, the baby died on Sept. 23, 1810, of peri-pneumonia; he was about 11 weeks old at the time. The infant was buried at St. Peter’s churchyard several days later.

It is curious that Capt. Arnold does not seem to have been present at Joseph’s birth, baptism (on Aug. 8, 1810), death, or conception. Shipping notices indicate that around the time that Joseph was conceived (October 1809), Thomas Arnold and the brig Sylph were at Gothenburg, Sweden, or perhaps en route to Kiel. So, if all the sources are correct, Joseph was another man’s son. It is also interesting that the address given for the deceased baby was the corner of Penn and South Streets (near the waterfront) rather than the large house that the Arnolds owned at Front and Shippen. Perhaps Catherine was staying with a relative or friend while nursing her sick baby?

After 60 days at sea, in early November 1810, the brig Sylph passed Gibraltar. She apparently stopped off at Malta, and then proceeded to Smyrna, the largely Greek-speaking city on the Adriatic Sea that served as the major port in Turkey. Arnold indicates the types of stratagems that shipmasters resorted to at the time: “In the year 1811, a double duty at Smyrna was exacted on cargoes in vessels under American colours; but those American vessels trading to Smyrna at that time saved six per cent by hoisting British colours, and claim the protection of the British consul at the place” (page 457).

Robert Wilkinson, an agent of the British Levant Company, carried out consular duties for the United States in Smyrna. Wilkinson noted in a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State in Washington that the Sylph had arrived in port on Dec. 29, 1810: “The brig Sylph, Thomas Arnold master, of Philadelphia, came in this morning from Havana, with a cargo of coffee and sugars” (“Public Documents Printed by Order of the Senate of the United States,” Washington, D.C., 1839).

But the ruse that Arnold wrote about was soon halted. On May 20, 1811, Wilkinson wrote to Washington, “I now beg to inform your excellency that the British consul here received a dispatch a few days ago from the Levant Company, in London, directing him not to permit, in future, American vessels to come into this port under British colors, but to protect them under their national flag.” The ruling had come, he explained, because London was “apprehensive that the British embassy at Constantinople might by such a conduct be exposed to some serious contestations with the Sublime Porte.”

Smyrna was the source of many goods for export, such as olive oil, wines, dried fruits, goat wool, and spices. But there is little doubt that Arnold was interested in trading for one product in particular—opium, which could then be exchanged in China for tea, silk, nankeens, and other products. Poppies were cultivated in the hill country about five days journey from Smyrna. At this point, the trade that rode on forcing opium on the people of China was still in its infancy and would trickle off during the War of 1812. But it would reach a torrent in the following decades.

Indian opium was considered to be of the best quality as well as being plentiful, but the British East India Company held a monopoly on it until 1831. For that reason, around 1804 or 1805, American merchants, chiefly from Philadelphia and Baltimore, who were trying to get a bigger share of the China market, began shipping cheaper Turkish opium from Smyrna.

“Opium at Smyrna in 1811 was 2 dollars 74 cents the pound,” Arnold remarks in his book. After being “put into wooden boxes and put on board, including all charges, cost 433 dollars the picul [a Chinese unit of measure equaling 133.33 lbs.] The price of opium at Canton is very fluctuating, from 600 to 1000 dollars the picul.” So a trader might have reasonable expectations to make a profit of from 50% to 150% over his costs in selling the opium in China.

The brig Sylph departed from Smyrna in February 1811, and on March 30, she passed Gibraltar, outward bound for Canton. By June, Arnold writes in his book, the Sylph was in the straits of Banca, Indonesia. They arrived at Macao on July 22, 1811.

Trade with China was picking up momentum at that time. Some two-dozen American vessels had visited the vicinity of Canton the previous year (1809). Canton (today Guangzhou) was the only port open to Western shipping until the 1840s. Foreign colonialists, especially the British, had staked out their interests at the mouth of the Pearl River (the city of Canton was about 80 miles upriver) and patrolled the area with their warships. The British had an enclave at Hong Kong, while the Portuguese had their station across the estuary at Macao. A number of Western nations also had commercial posts along the river, and European and American factors and consular officials lived there in luxurious accommodations year round.

Of course, with opium in the cargo, bribes would have to be paid to smooth the way. “The importation of opium into China is prohibited by the emperor,” Arnold points out (page 457), “but is connived at by the Mandarins [aristocrats], who receive 10 dollars per picul as gratification money, for allowing it to be bought and sold there.” Generally, opium-laden vessels would pay off the officials at Macao or a nearby location on the river delta to look the other way. They would then often proceed some 70 miles upriver to Whampoa Reach, where smugglers in their junks could approach them.

At the same time, foreign shipping faced dangers from anti-government pirates and bandits called “Ladrones” (“thieves”). Thomas Arnold cautioned other shipmasters (page 462): “A ship while lying to off Macoa [Macao] should be on her guard for fear of pirates, and keep watch the same as at sea. The pilots of Canton river should not be trusted at night. They scarcely ever run at night without running the ship on shore [there to be plundered], even the best of them.”

Capt. Daniels of the brig Sylph (from New York City; a different vessel from the Sylph that Thomas Arnold commanded) reported that in the summer of 1809, several American and European vessels had been attacked by armed junks under control of the Ladrones. “The Ladrones,” Daniels explained to the newspapers, “are disaffected to the Chinese Government, and are daily increasing in power, are very daring, making frequent excursions up the rivers, burning and plundering the villages, and massacring all that attempt to resist them. Their force by sea is estimated from 900 to 1000 Junks, of from 3 to 28 guns, and powerfully manned—their connexions and abettors on shore are much more numerous and widely disseminated through the maritime provinces, who amply supply the rebels with provisions and ammunition.

“The efforts to suppress them by the Vice-Roy of Canton is feeble and of no effect, he having no confidence in those he sends against them; as they are often inclined to act with the Ladrones, as against them. So wide is the disaffection spread that the lower order of the Mandarins are not to be trusted with the executing the orders of government” (Commercial Advertiser, New York, Jan. 25, 1810).

A later report stated that [on Aug. 23, 1809] the Boston ship Atahualpa had been attacked by a force of about 20 armed junks in Macao Roads, which were manned by about 2000 pirates. After a prolonged battle, in which the ship was able to take shelter under the guns of Macao, she escaped. The article estimated that the Ladrones had grown to a force of about 50,000 men, with perhaps 600 vessels (The True American and Commercial Advertiser, Philadelphia, Feb. 5, 1810).

Arnold and the brig Sylph remained in the vicinity of Canton for four months—until late November 1811. The brig returned to Philadelphia in March 1812; soon afterward, she was put up for sale. Tensions were high between the United States and Britain due in part to British restrictions on U.S. trade; three months later, war would break out. American merchant shipping became increasingly unsafe and would soon fall in volume. Thomas Arnold, in the meantime, had the opportunity to reunite with his wife Catherine and their children, whom he had not seen in three years. Their son Thomas Jr. was now almost 17 years old and was soon to embark on a career as a physician.

The Mount Vernon mystery

In 1816-1817, Thomas Arnold was master of the ship Mount Vernon. So far in my research, what happened to this ship remains mysterious; she appears to have vanished off the coast of Cuba.

The Mount Vernon was quite likely the 464-ton ship of that name that was built in Plymouth, Mass., in 1815. She then apparently was sold or leased to the merchant Robert Adams in Philadelphia. On her maiden voyage, she left Philadelphia on Feb 17, 1786, bound to Bordeaux, France, under Capt. Charles King. For some reason, however, the business end of the voyage failed to work out; she returned to Philadelphia empty of cargo on June 25.

By the following October, Adams was ready to try again with a new captain. An announcement in the Philadelphia Gazette on Oct. 1, 1816, declared: “For Trieste, the ship Mount Vernon, Captain Arnold—a first-rate coppered vessel, has made but one voyage—now loading at Sims’s Wharf and will be dispatched in ten days.”

A week later, the advertisements show that Adams had obtained contracts in Marseilles as well: “For Marseilles and Trieste, the coppered Ship Mount Vernon, Capt. Arnold; now two-thirds loaded and expected to sail in all the week. Some freight can yet be taken, and a few more passengers accommodated. For terms of either, apply on board at Sim’s Wharf, or to Robert Adams, No. 129 Walnut-street” (Philadelphia Gazette, Oct. 7, 1816).

The Mount Vernon left port on schedule. Unfortunately, after she had passed the Delaware Capes, on Oct. 17, she headed directly into a gale. The storm was so powerful, reported the newspapers, that it caused two vessels anchored in Delaware Bay to part their cables and drift out to sea. It seems, however, that Arnold was able to guide the Mount Vernon through the gale unscathed.

After crossing the Atlantic, the ship barely avoided another danger. Arnold reports in his book (page 328) that he attempted to cast anchor in Gibraltar Roads, just to the western side of the great rock. He points out that the area of the bay where ships can anchor is narrow; on one side it is very shoal, whereas not far away the ocean floor becomes too deep. On this occasion, the mate (probably Edward Brooks) heaved the lead into seven fathoms of water, but by mistake, yelled out that it was seventeen fathoms. Luckily, Arnold was able to discover the error in time to avoid becoming grounded, although tacking the ship amidst an accumulation of other vessels that had lined up outside the Roads was not easy.

By Jan. 1, 1817, the ship Mount Vernon was reported to have arrived at Marseilles—but she was held in quarantine, probably indicating that there was disease on board. Arnold notes in his book that Marseilles was extremely strict in its quarantine laws due to having suffered a catastrophe a century earlier. In 1720, he writes, a vessel from Constantinople introduced the plague into the city, and some 80,000 out of a population of 120,000 were killed.

Some time after being released from quarantine, at the end of March, the Mount Vernon sailed for Cuba. She arrived in Havana harbor after a two-month voyage, on May 22. Then, events become murky. Newspaper reports from early June 1817 stated that the Mount Vernon had left Havana—yet with “the time and destination of sailing unknown.” That is the last reference to the Mount Vernon in the press that I have seen. The ship does not appear to have sailed back to Philadelphia; nor is she recorded as entering any other harbor.

On Aug. 6, Thomas Arnold returned to Philadelphia. However, he arrived not as captain of his own ship but as a passenger on the Marseilles Packet, under Capt. John Bockius. The Marseilles Packet was returning to her homeport after a voyage to South America, with a stop in Havana, where Arnold booked passage on her. Arnold brought some baggage with him, according to Custom House records—three trunks, two cases of liquor, a bed, and bedding. He also brought in half a box of cigars and 12 boxes of white sugar, with might have been an investment for sales.

Two weeks later, Arnold appeared before a judge in his capacity as the administrator or the estate of Edward Brooks, the first mate on the ship Mount Vernon. Apparently Brooks died during the voyage, but where and when is not readily apparent. Did his death have something to do with the disappearance of the ship in Havana? The administration documents state that Brooks was the mate for the entire voyage from Oct. 14, 1816 until June 10, 1817. That would place him in the vicinity of Cuba at his death. The documents also record that Brooks would have earned $221.20, for eight months at the rate of $28 per month. That sum, plus $73.50 received from his friends went into the estate (perhaps for a widow?).

Who was Edward Brooks? It is very likely that he is the same Philadelphia-based seaman who was profiled in naval protection papers affirming his citizenship some years earlier. In July 1806, he was said to have been 25 years old, 5’6” in height, with a dark complexion, blue eyes, black hair, and a scar on the right side of his forehead close to his eyebrow. Moreover, the middle finger of his left hand was lame. A local couple, Martin and Sarah Leckers, swore to a notary at the 1806 hearing that they had been acquainted with Brooks’ mother and father for 30 years, and that they knew their son was born 25 years earlier (i.e., around 1781) in a house at the corner of Meade Alley and Swanson Street. And so, Edward Brooks would have been about 36 when he died at sea.

The Brooks family had a long history as parishioners at Gloria Dei Church. There is an Edward Brooks listed in the annals of the church as early as 1721, and numerous members of the Brooks family were married at the church throughout the 18th century. The parents of the Mount Vernon mate were quite possibly the Edward Brooks and Mary Mackey who were married at Gloria Dei on March 11, 1789.

Family tragedies

A couple of months after carrying out his work as administrator for the deceased Edward Brooks, on Oct. 31, 1817, Thomas Arnold again went to sea, as master of the Rampart, a 107-ton schooner that he had purchased. The Rampart was almost new, having been built in St. Marys, Georgia, in 1816. Arnold made two voyages on the vessel to Cape Henry, Haiti (now Cape Haitien). The Rampart returned to Philadelphia from its second voyage on March 6, 1818 with a cargo of sugar, coffee, oranges, pineapples, and sweetmeats. However, only three days after arriving in port, Arnold put the schooner Rampart up for sale. Perhaps he had to raise money in order to satisfy some financial difficulty? Arnold advertised that the schooner was moored at Cuthbert’s Wharf, the first pier above South Street, where perspective purchasers could view her. If she were not sold by March 17, he noted, the schooner would be offered in public auction at the Merchant’s Coffee House, at 2nd and Walnut Streets.

Several days later, on March 24, Capt. Arnold took the brig Susan on a voyage to Amsterdam and other European ports. The brig had a small crew, seven men, including the cook John Lewis. It proved to be a long voyage, and the Susan did not return to Philadelphia until Sept. 2, 1818.

We can imagine that when he sailed in March, Capt. Arnold had some concerns about the deteriorating health of his son, Thomas Jr., who had been suffering with consumption. The younger man was now 22 years old and already had established himself as a physician. He lived with his parents in the house at Front and Shippen, and probably conducted his medical practice there. Capt. Arnold might have preferred to have taken a shorter voyage so that he could spend more time with his ailing son. And yet, on the other hand, the captain had spent most of his married life away from his family, sometimes remaining at sea for several years at a time. Although it seems obvious that Thomas Jr. took after his father to some degree—having inherited the captain’s curiosity about scientific phenomena—it could be that the older man believed that the wellbeing of his son, wife, and other children did not require him to remain in Philadelphia.

And so it turned out that Thomas Arnold was not present on June 30, 1818, when Thomas Jr. passed away. Indeed, at the time of the funeral, Capt. Arnold had just set sail from Hamburg, Germany, arriving back in Philadelphia 58 days later.

The bereaved parents ordered a tombstone to be set at Thomas Jr.’s grave in St. Peter’s churchyard. It read: “Beneath this humble stone repose the remains of Doctor Thomas Arnold, Son of Capt. Thomas and Catherine Arnold.

“His heart, open as day was ennobled by sentiments the most valuable in man. It embraced love for the virtuous, sympathy for the unfortunate, and generosity for the afflicted. Distinguished by extraordinary genius and a mind expanded by literature and science, his talents held forth a promise of great benefit to society. But the hand of Providence arrested his career, in the bud of eminence.

“He departed this life on the 30th day of June, A.D. 1818, aged 22 years, 10 months, and 12 days. This inscription may teach the stranger to respect his ashes. The record of those who knew him, is in their hearts.”

It was probably little consolation to the family when Thomas Arnold received plaudits in the newspapers for his conduct during the voyage on the brig Susan, which had carried a number of German immigrants to Philadelphia. One of the passengers, Frederick Schwickard, sent a letter to Paulson’s Daily Advertiser (published Sept. 17, 1818) in which he commended “T. Arnold of the Susan, along with Capt. Jones Vary of Boston” for “the extreme attention which these worthy gentlemen have paid to the accommodation and comfort of their passengers,” as contrasted with the “barbarous” treatment that other captains commonly gave to passengers from Germany.

But Arnold now had more pressing matters on his mind. The death of her son had sent Catherine Arnold into decline; sadly, she died less than two months after her husband had returned from sea. For Thomas Arnold, it was a double blow, probably made worse when the realization set in that he had not been at home earlier to console his wife and help settle young Thomas’ affairs.

Some time later (Dec. 2, 1818), the Aurora General Advertiser ran an obituary for Catherine Arnold: “The death of Mrs. Catherine Arnold, consort of captain Thomas Arnold, was announced in this gazette of the 28th of October last, and the same day her remains were attended to the place of internment by a large and respectable concourse of friends and acquaintances.

“The regret occasioned by the decease of this amiable woman is justified by her worth as a member of society. Endowed with a discerning mind, whose operations resulted in a contained equanimity of disposition rarely excelled, she obtained the warm esteem of all who had the pleasure of her acquaintance. The amiable affability of deportment for which she was distinguished, fixed the attention, and found its way to the heart. In their intercourse with Mrs. Arnold, strangers became friends, and the reserve of a visitor gave way to the conscience [?] of an inmate [intimate?].

“From her early years, she was a strict observer of the duties of Christianity: she viewed them with an eye unbiased by fanaticism—uninitiated [?] by superstition. A rational exercise … cheerfulness she justly considered a legitimate right of the virtuous and the good.

“From obedience to the feelings of her heart, and the dictates of her conscience, her hand was ever open for the relief of the needy and afflicted; and the means which Providence had … at her disposal, were invariably applied to this purpose, to their fullest extent.

“As a wife she was faithful and affectionate; as a mother, maternal solicitude, and the exemplary discipline of her family … evinced equally the tenderness of her nature, and the importance which she attached to parental duties.

… a too delicate sensibility may, in a great measure, be … the unhappy catastrophe which is the subject of this communication. Scarce four months are passed since she … to the tomb, a son, who inherited the tender and generous feelings of his mother—a man loved for his virtues, and revered [?] for his genius. Debilitated by previous indisposition, this … blow, the anguish of which philosophy could not soften nor religion subdue—the image of her departed son was ever before her; her wasting form betrayed the ravages of grief …

“She died—but death, we trust, was not a victor: her soul, we have reason to hope, was fixed on the blissful eternity which was approaching, and that she regarded the close of her … existence as the precursor of everlasting happiness.”

The last voyage

Following Catherine’s death, Thomas Arnold remained in Philadelphia for three more months before embarking on his final sea voyage. At the end of the year, he was assigned to the ship William Savery, which had sustained some damage along with a number of other vessels that were moored in port when Philadelphia was hit by a strong gale in December 1818. After the Savery had been made seaworthy again, on Jan. 18, 1819, she was cleared for Savannah, Ga. That was to be the first leg of an ambitious voyage to the other side of the world. It would be a year and a half before Arnold and his crew returned to their homeport.

The ship arrived in Savannah on Feb. 5 and spent over a months there, departing on March 15 on a course back up the coast of the United States and past Newfoundland, bound for England. Arnold writes on page 123 of his book that the weather in the far northern Atlantic was unsettled, with “hard gales and squalls from the westward.” On page 179, he again discusses that voyage: “I once experienced the effects of electricity in the air, in the ship William Savery, on a passage from Savannah to Liverpool, in lat. 47˚ north, between the Banks of Newfoundland and the coast of Europe. For several days the air was so much charged with electric matter, that no person could touch the lightning chain without receiving an electrical shock; and the compasses would frequently flutter and turn round. At the same time, the mercury in the barometer stood very low, and we had hard gales, heavy gusts, small rain, flashes of lightning, but no thunder.”

They arrived in Liverpool in early June. The Savery was put into dry dock for repairs and to prepare her for the most grueling portion of the journey. While in port, John Williams, the Black seaman who had first sailed with Arnold many years earlier, deserted. Likewise, the cook, John Lewis, now about 62 years old, was discharged. Perhaps they balked at undertaking the arduous journey that lay ahead.

On June 10, the William Savery left Liverpool, bound for Canton. She sailed along the coast of Africa and around the Cape. He notes in his book that on Oct. 6, 1819, he passed the extremity of Agulhas Bank, off the Cape of Good Hope. He comments that he had crossed the bank on several earlier voyages, and had always found a current that was warmer than the surrounding ocean flowing toward the westward—i.e., from the warm Indian Ocean toward the much cooler Atlantic. He notes, however, that the strength of the current was apt to fluctuate.

Arnold writes in his book (page 263) that the William Savery passed within a mile and a half of Angoure, the southwestern extension of the Pelew (today Palau) Islands chain, about 600 miles east of the southern Philippines. “We had several of the natives along side in canoes,” he writes, “some of which came on board the Savery with as much innocence as a child would into its mother’s lap, they are, as I am informed, a harmless and hospitable people. They had nothing to barter but cocoa nuts and fish.”

They arrived at the Pearl River Delta by February or early March 1820, and proceeded upriver to Whampoa. This time, there is no indication that Arnold’s ship was carrying opium.

On the return voyage, in early 1820, the Savery passed Sandlewood Island (now Vanua Levu), in the Fiji chain. He writes on page 175 that the ship was struck by lightning while off the coast of Sandlewood Island, but “it was the opinion of everyone on board the ship William Savery (then under my command) that her lightning chain preserved her from damage.”

Since Arnold mentions in his book that they returned via the Cape of Good Hope, and the Fijis are very far to the east of Australia, they would seem to have been on a wayward course. But nevertheless, the return to Philadelphia was fairly speedy, and they arrived at the homeport on Aug. 7, 1820. The cargo, which belonged to various merchants, was immediately put on sale. It contained 39 cases of silken goods, hundreds of chests of Hyson (green) tea and black tea, 500 bags of sugar, and other products such as gunpowder and bamboo.

Capt. Arnold never returned to the sea. Seafaring remained his life’s work, but as a teacher. In 1822, Arnold had 1000 copies of the “American Practical Lunarian and Seaman’s Guide” printed and put on sale for $6.50 a copy. Some 600 subscriptions to the book were obtained before it went to press. Advertisements for the book featured endorsements by several sea captains. Former U.S. Navy Commander Richard Dale said, “I think there is must credit due to the author for his labours. I also think it a valuable books for commanders of vessels to have with them.” And W. Jones, the late secretary of the U.S. Navy said that he had “no hesitation in recommending your work to the patronage and use of the youthful mariner as a guide, and to the experienced navigator as a convenient and useful manual of reference” (The National Gazette and Literary Register, Sept. 16, 1822).

The following year, Arnold established a Nautical Academy. A portion of his house at 295 S. Front Street, “six doors below South Street“) was converted into classrooms for the school. Newspaper ads stated that Arnold “continues to instruct gentlemen designed for and engaged in a seafaring life, in Navigation and Lunar Observations, ascertaining the Longitude by Chronometers and rating them, &c., the Mode of determining the Errors of the Sextant, and its Use, with actual practice, the same as at sea, on very reasonable terms.

“T.A. confidently trusts that the experience of thirty years, twenty of which in the practical use of Lunar Observations, has rendered him fully competent to teach the above.”

At some point during this period, Thomas Arnold wed Rhoda Church. We have not yet discovered the date and location of the wedding. It does not appear that Rhoda had been married earlier, although she was about 40 years old. Her father, Samuel Church, lived on Shippen Street, about a block away from Thomas Arnold. He died in 1818, about the same time that Thomas’ wife and son died, and so, Rhoda was also in bereavement during that period.

Perhaps settling down with a second marriage, founding his school, and writing his book gave Thomas Arnold a measure of contentment. However, within a few years, he became ill. For some time, he suffered with a partial paralysis, termed a “palsy” by the attending physician. On Sunday night, Oct. 19, 1828, Thomas Arnold passed away at age 60. The funeral was held at his home on Front Street on Tuesday afternoon, and members of the Ship Masters Society were particularly invited to attend. The coffin was then conducted to Gloria Dei churchyard for burial. Three months later, Rhoda cleared out from the house what remained of the Nautical Academy. She advertised in The American Sentinel (Jan. 20, 1829) that paraphernalia from the academy was for sale—including school desks and stools, a sextant, a compass, a transit instrument, a number of charts, a globe and celestial map, and two model rudders.

Top illustration: A plate in Thomas Arnold’s book, “The American Practical Lunarian and Seaman’s Guide” (printed by Robert DeSilver, Philadelphia 1822) shows the technique of using empty casks to construct a life raft.


* Andrew Cabot’s letter was cited in a paper by Dr. Octavius Howe, “Beverly Privateers in the American Revolution,” which was read aloud to the Jan. 26, 1922, meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston, Mass. The paper is reproduced on the website of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts,

** Cape Coast is a town in Ghana, located about 63 miles south of Cape Three Points.

*** For more information on the house, see my article:

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