By David Moffat and Ryan W. Conary
The accounting room of the House of the Seven Gables is both a means and a product of empire. The New World’s seemingly inexhaustible forests and fishing grounds had brought the interests of European powers along with their merchants looking to secure for themselves some benefit in the forward motion of world history. The Turners and the fictional Pyncheons of Hawthorne’s novel were two such families whose fortunes were based on the movement of goods from colonies to capitals and back. It was in their accounting rooms, the place in the house where the business of the sea was conducted, that their fortunes were solidified. They were the board rooms of the merchant venturers.
Today, above the mantel in the accounting room is a portrait of Sir Charles Wager (1666-1743). Wager was the First Lord of the Admiralty, the man in charge of the British Royal Navy, which guaranteed the reaches of British power in their colonies. In this portrait, he is finely dressed in a velvet coat and breastplate, the background is the sea, and though blotched with age, his flagship. We tend today to view the colonial era of trade like the Wild West, a free for all of exploitation and freedom, but we must remember it was the era of mercantilism, the system which emphasized closely regulating economic activities from the 1500s to the 1700s to create a balance of trade in favor of the colonial power.
Wager personified the glory and adventurous nature of the age, born into a prominent English naval family and raised by New England merchants. His grandfather was Vice-Admiral William Goodson, a well-known naval officer. When Charles II was brought triumphantly back to England in 1660, Wager’s father commanded one of the ships in the fleet. Referring to the elder Wager, diarist Samuel Pepys wrote on the 2nd of November, 1665, “A brave, stout fellow this Captain is and I think very honest”, traits that the younger Wager would ultimately inherit.
After the death of Wager’s father in 1666, his mother Prudence remarried a Quaker merchant, Alexander Parker. Wager would spend much of his youth around Quakers at one point being apprenticed to a Quaker merchant from Barnstable, Massachusetts, John Hull (1624-1683), who was involved in overseas trade. Hull would marry the daughter of Edmund Quincy, Judith Quincy, of the well-known New England Quincy family. Wager’s connection to New England ran deep early in his life, but his rapid rise through the Royal naval ranks would be what Wager is best remembered for.
Wager’s tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty coincided with the final decade of Salem merchant and Turner-Ingersoll Mansion owner, John Turner II’s career at sea, from 1733 until 1742. Wager and Turner were almost exact contemporaries, and would have been part of the same economic machine. Wager’s image, regal as it is, is a projection of power, a reminder to those who would skirt the regulations of empire the seriousness of the whole endeavor.
The accounting room portrait is a copy, an imitation of a much richer and more detailed original by Thomas Gibson now in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, arguably the preeminent institution relating to maritime activity in the world. It is one more reach of capital in colony, an example of the mercantilist system that three centuries ago intertwined the lives of men of opposite ends of the world.
This post was written by MKirkpatrick