The Atlantic Empire of Peter Faneuil

Cutout painting of Peter Faneuil on right overlaid over a depiction of a colonial harbor with sailing ships.
From Boston Harbor, Peter Faneuil built an empire of trade built on goods and enslavement.

View of Boston courtesy Library of Congress. Portrait of Peter Faneuil by John Smibert courtesy the National Portrait Gallery

At the time of his death in 1743, Peter Faneuil possessed one of the largest fortunes in Boston. Like the majority of Boston's colonial elite, Faneuil made his money through trade in the Atlantic world.

This network of Transatlantic trade proved extremely lucrative in part because of the institution of slavery. Merchants like Faneuil built their financial empires by trafficking enslaved individuals and trading goods consumed and produced by enslaved labor.

Using surviving ledgers, letters, customs records, court records, and other primary sources, staff and volunteers with the National Parks of Boston reconstructed the vast financial empire that Faneuil built throughout his lifetime. Though Faneuil cannot be characterized as a major slave trader, this map illustrates his complicity in this system, and offers a window into the Transatlantic economy of 1700s Boston.

The Atlantic Empire of Peter Faneuil

Peter Faneuil connected Boston to every corner of the Atlantic by trading with any business that could draw a profit. Explore this map that shows Faneuil’s immense trading empire of sugar, salt cod, manufactured goods, grain, and enslaved people.

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The Atlantic Empire of Peter Faneuil

Peter Faneuil connected Boston to every corner of the Atlantic by trading with any business that could draw a profit. Explore this map that shows Faneuil’s immense trading empire of sugar, salt cod, manufactured goods, grain, and enslaved people.

Colored engraving print of a wide harbor with many different ships sailing. Some are firing cannon as evidenced by a plume of smoke. In background is a large harbor town with many steeples pointing above the low houses. In center a long wharf protrudes from town toward viewer into the harbor.By 1740, Boston possessed the largest and most important harbor in North America. Hundreds of ships sailed in and out of the harbor every year. Boston's success came largely through the role of being a middleman: Merchants such as Peter Faneuil connected the many smaller ports of North America to the wider world. (Image Courtesy Library of Congress)

New England

At the time of his death in 1743, Peter Faneuil stood at the head of one of the most powerful families of New England's merchant royalty. Centered around the largest and most significant port of Boston, merchants based out of all New England harbors connected with every corner of the Atlantic world through seagoing trade.

The most successful families engaged in complex business enterprises that traded goods on multiple routes that spanned thousands of miles between North America, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. The Faneuils exemplified this practice.

But the fortunes did not come out of nothing. Peter Faneuil mastered his Atlantic trade empire in large part because of his inheritances: the maritime resources of New England, the seizure of native lands conquered and colonized by Europeans over the past 200 years, the connections of his extended and far-flung family, and an immense fortune of cash, estate, and lucrative business accounts from his uncle.

From his desk in Boston, Peter Faneuil orchestrated his business through handwritten letters, invoices, and account ledgers. He relied upon a network of trusted family members and close business associates from all corners of the Atlantic to coordinate transactions and make the right decisions. From an order for silks in London and an update on a ship being built in Boston for a contact in Jamaica, to an invoice for French molasses smuggled by way of modern-day Canada and a stake in a ship going to Africa to purchase human beings, these documents record Faneuil’s many business deals.

Peter Faneuil had a drive to seek increasing profits at every turn. He believed in no boundaries to trade. He willingly dealt in anything that could be profitable, including fabric, sugar, or even human beings. He also smuggled when convenient. Faneuil constantly worked to uphold his ends of deals to keep his good name intact. In return, he demanded full faith from his business partners and nothing less. Failing to do so was unforgivable. Yet, hidden behind that sterling professional name and his privileged private life, lay a gross indifference to the people and resources exploited in this quest for profit.

Faneuil business dealings with region:

Goods Purchased in New England

Goods Sent to New England

North American Colonies:

Wine Islands:


Boston's significance originated from several important factors:

First, by being one of the oldest English settlements in North America, Boston possessed more docks, ships, shipbuilding yards, and warehouses. This investment in trade was by design. Shortly after settlement in the 1630s, Boston began to engage in trade with England, Europe, and the Caribbean. These earliest voyages even included American Indians of the Pequot tribe, captured and enslaved by the English, in exchange for enslaved Africans from the Caribbean.

Second, Boston's settlement took place under the leadership of many White men who possessed enough wealth and privilege to engage in trade. When the town attracted French Huguenot refugees such as Peter Faneuil's uncle, Andrew, at the beginning of the 1700s, even more privileged wealth flowed into the port town.

Lastly, the location of Boston harbor made it an ideal location as a final port of call for ships before making the long crossing eastward to Europe. It is here Peter Faneuil inherited his family fortunes and commanded the wealth to investments in trade.

Marblehead, along with Salem and several other smaller ports in Essex County, Massachusetts, distributed immense quantities of codfish to settlements throughout the Atlantic. Though Boston merchants dominated the codfish trade overall in the 1700s, ports in Essex County gained an increasingly independent identity in the codfish market. These Marblehead merchants, in turn, used their profits to reinvest in other local industries, primarily shipbuilding.

By the 1740s, these merchants became known as the “Marblehead gentry.” Faneuil’s numerous dealings reflect the emergence of this strong mercantile community in Marblehead. Faneuil relied on ship masters based in Marblehead, such as David LeGallais, to build ships for Faneuil's Atlantic trade. At other times, Faneuil hinted at a very competitive nature with the Marblehead gentry, commenting to his agent Thomas Kilby in 1737 that the

“M’head Gentry wants much to [hear] of [Nova Scotian cod] spoiling[,] were it in their power they would Greatly Imbrace Any Opportunity of distroying [sic] of it...”

  • Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 82-88.
  • Lydon, “Fish for Gold: The Massachusetts Fish Trade with Iberia, 1700-1773,” The New England Quarterly 54, no. 4 (1981) 556-557, 582.
  • Quote: Peter Faneuil to Thomas Kilby, 15 July 1737. Sequence 13 in Peter Faneuil papers, 1716-1739. Letterbook (business), 1737-1739. Mss:766 1712-1854 H234, Volume F-4, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

By the early eighteenth century, the lowlands of Connecticut and western Massachusetts, particularly those along the Connecticut River, served as the base of agricultural goods for New England. This region produced wheat, rye, corn, potatoes, tobacco, and livestock as well as forest products such as timber and animal fur. In return, New London and other coastal centers received other foodstuffs and manufactured goods. Similar to port towns of northern New England, the export of these products from New London stimulated growth in local industries, including those for cloth, shoes, furniture, and other handicrafts. The city also engaged in trade with Boston for products originating from throughout the British Atlantic. Faneuil, for example, financed a shipment of deerskins to New London in December of 1738.

Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 138-139.

Beginning in the 1720s, Newport engaged directly in the slave trade. The profitability of this human cargo led to an explosion in Newport's significance. Newport captains sailed to Africa on smaller vessels with rum, fabrics, and other manufactures to purchase anywhere from 75 to 150 kidnapped and enslaved Africans. Then the ships sailed the "middle passage" of their triangular route to the Caribbean. There, the captains sold their human cargo in exchange for molasses and sugar, before returning to Rhode Island to feed the rum distilleries for the next round of trade. Newport captains continued this practice for generations until at least the legal end of the Transatlantic slave trade in 1807.

Personally, Faneuil's mother came from Newport, and Faneuil had regular passing ties with other prominent men in Newport. Yet perhaps the most significant connection for Faneuil came after his own death. His ship the Jolly Batchelor sailed to Africa in 1742 to acquire some 80 enslaved Africans. Portuguese speaking Africans attacked and raided the ship and left it adrift in the Sierra Leone river. A Newport captain named Charles Wickham and an English slaver working in Sierra Leone named George Burchill "rescued" the Jolly Batchelor and 34 of the enslaved Africans. Wickham landed at Newport and entered the ship and the human cargo as salvage in the Court of Vice Admiralty. The court auctioned the ship and the 20 enslaved Africans who survived prior sale or death to local slaveowners. Peter Faneuil's brother and executor, Benjamin, and their brother-in-law, John Jones, received two thirds the proceeds of these sales of humans, which totaled £2970.

Coughtry, Jay, The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade 1700-1807. Philadelphia: Temple University Press (1981). 3-22.
Black and white print from an engraving plate depicting a large number of fishermen on a forested coastline working on cleaning and salting many processed codfish. Prominent in center are cod laid out on a table to dry. In background is a structured with a thatched roof. The artist cut away at a portion of the roof to show men working inside to clean and salt fish in barrels. In background are men fishing on a three masted boat as well as on a rowboat.Plate from the book Traité Général Des Pesches, or, General Treatise on Fish, by Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau. It depictings fishermen unloading, cleaning, salting, and drying their catch of Atlantic Cod. The table front and center depicts a “flake” used for the final drying in the curing process before the fish are packed and shipped to Europe or the West Indies. (Image Courtesy University of British Columbia)

Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and Newfoundland

The North Atlantic maritime region of Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and Newfoundland became significant to Europeans because of one singular item: cod. European fishermen believed the stocks of cod in this area to be an endless resource they could exploit for profit. The trade in cod became possible with the development of salting and drying the cod fish. The process preserved the flesh of the fish for months without spoiling. This was a major breakthrough in a world without modern refrigeration. But to cure the fish successfully, fishermen needed to land their catch on nearby shores for processing.

Spanish, Portuguese, and French crews all dominated the fishing in the region at various points in the 1500s and early 1600s. By the start of the 1700s, though, Great Britain became the leading force of this cod fishing region as a result of seizing claims over Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. New England merchants happily became the middlemen for these fishing ports. They purchased, shipped, and then sold the salted catch to every corner of the Atlantic.

By the late 1730s, the cod trade became a significant element of Peter Faneuil’s trading empire. He installed his own agent, Thomas Kilby, to manage his affairs at the fishing port of Canso, Nova Scotia. Merchants and their agents sourced good quality, or “market” grade cod for markets primarily in Southern Europe. Any catch considered too small, over salted, under salted, or damaged from mishandling would not be marketable in Europe. Merchants labelled this product “refuse” or “West Indies” grade cod and shipped it south to the Caribbean. These shipments specifically fed the hundreds of thousands of enslaved people working on island sugar plantations. Though thousands of miles away from Africa and the Caribbean, the cod caught here and traded by men, including Peter Faneuil, directly—and literally—fed the vast economy of slavery in the Atlantic.

Faneuil business dealings with region:

Goods Purchased in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and Newfoundland

Goods Sent to Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and Newfoundland

North American Colonies:


Great Britain seized claim to today's peninsula of Nova Scotia from France during Queen Anne's War (1702–1713). Local hostilities continued for decades between the Indigenous Mi'kmaq, the French Acadians settled in the area, and the newly arriving British. Nonetheless, New Englanders rapidly settled coastal towns such as Canso to ply the cod fishing, salting, and export trade.

Peter’s uncle, Andrew, began his connection with Canso early following British claims of Nova Scotia. Peter Faneuil himself only expanded the family’s role in the trade with every passing year. Unfortunately, only one year of port records survive from Canso, and none indicate the owners of ships leaving port. Nonetheless, the amount of cod New Englanders packed on to a single ship is dizzying. A Boston ship named “Minerva,” for example, sailed in August of 1730 for Bilboa with 2025 quintals of cod—over 226,000 pounds. The schooner “King's Fisher,” about a third the size of the “Minerva,” made the voyage the same year to Bilbao with 700 quintals, or well over 78,000 pounds of salt cod.

  • Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (New York: Walker and Company, 1997), Part I.
  • Donald F. Chard, "The Price and Profits of Accommodation: Massachusetts—Louisbourg Trade, 1713–1744" Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts Volume 52: Seafaring in Colonial Massachusetts (Portland, ME: Anthoensen Press, 1980).

Though French policy mandated that Louisbourg rely entirely on France for goods, British North America had the timber, beef, pork, and flour the colonists on Cape Breton needed, but at much better prices. Likewise, the Faneuils needed access to French Caribbean molasses and sugar, as well as French goods such as brandy. British laws, however, typically put import duties on such goods. Avoiding these tariffs led to an advantage that the Faneuils happily built upon.

The key lay in the proximity of Louisbourg to Canso. Ships heading north from the French Caribbean sailed first to Louisbourg. They then changed the master of the ship to a British subject, turned a few miles south to the fishing port of Canso, and then “naturalized” the French goods onto British soil. Thus, when ships finally arrived in New England ports, including Boston, the molasses appeared to be British and exempt from taxation. Faneuil orchestrated these maneuvers from Boston, sending timber and food north and relying on agents and trusted sea captains to return with “British” Caribbean goods.

B.A. Balcom, The Cod Fishery of Isle Royale, 1713 - 58 (National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada: 1984).
Color print showing a busy river with smaller craft sailing. A bridge with buildings is on right. In background is a densely packed city with dozens of steeples pointing up into the sky. In the center is a large domed cathedral. In center top on a ribbon reads "London".As the center of European trade, London served as an integral port in the vast web of the Atlantic world, as well as the vast network east, which included India, Southeast Asia, and China. (Image Courtesy Boston Public Library/Norman Leventhal Map Center)

Great Britain

The epicenter of the British Empire, England not only anchored one corner of the Atlantic world by providing quality manufactured goods, but it also served as a connection to the Far East. Spices, cotton and silk fabrics, tea, and other goods from India, Southeast Asia, and China came to England through government monopolies, such as the East India Company. Small workshops across the country loomed fabric, forged metals, crafted shoes, built carriages, and produced many other goods that American colonies needed or desired.

This system of dependence of the colonies upon the “mother” country for many goods—called mercantilism—was by design. In fact, Britain's Navigation Acts stipulated that any goods coming from one British colony to any other destination had to go through England first. While completely impractical and never truly enforced, these Acts indicated the desires of the British government. Colonists both rich and poor desperately sought the finest porcelain, glassware, fabrics, tea, and spices that they could (or could not) afford. To buy these items from London merchants, one needed either hard currency or enough credit.

For the Faneuils and many other merchants, the challenge in Atlantic trade always lay in finding other markets that either paid in hard currency or traded in exchange for enough reliable credit to pay off purchases of English goods. Peter Faneuil relied heavily on his trade with Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, and Southern Europe to balance his books with London merchants and bankers.

Faneuil business dealings with region:

Goods Purchased in Great Britain

Goods Sent to Great Britain

North American Colonies:


In 1740, London had a population 21 times that of Boston. It had banks, manufacturers, and trade connections that stretched across the globe. Even if ships stopped in more convenient Atlantic ports such as Bristol, Plymouth, or Liverpool, the money and transactions largely originated through the banks and merchant firms of London.

London banks held the fortunes that Peter Faneuil and his siblings inherited from their uncle, Andrew. The Faneuils relied on their bankers, William and Samuel Baker, to make and receive payments with business associates. In surviving correspondence, Peter Faneuil also regularly corresponded with the merchant firm Lane and Smethurst in London to procure all kinds of fine fabric, high-end household items, and even a chariot. To pay off his debts to Lane and Smethurst, Faneuil built them ships in Boston that traded in slave-produced Caribbean sugar goods. He also coordinated huge shipments of salt cod to Spain and Portugal to obtain new credit with them.

By 1700, Bristol engaged in frequent trade relations with settlements in North America and the Caribbean. The city outpaced Liverpool, Glasgow, and other British ports in the volume of trade conducted with the British Atlantic during the 1720s and 1730s. Similar to other urban centers in England, Bristol relied heavily on imports of large bulk staple goods, mainly sugar and tobacco, from the West Indies. This port also received provisions and foodstuffs from the mainland colonies in exchange for various manufactured items throughout England.

Kenneth Morgan, “Bristol and the Atlantic Trade in the Eighteenth Century,” The English Historical Review 107, no. 424 (1992): 628-634.

Norwich, one of several urban centers in East Anglia, served as one of the principal sites for the production of wool and textiles in England during the eighteenth century. Small-scale manufacturers based in the city produced a wide variety of fabrics that they sold to merchants in London. These London merchants then distributed these products to export markets throughout Europe and British America. In the 1730s, Faneuil purchased and sold many shipments of fabrics produced in Norwich through merchants he formed business relationships within London.

John Smail, Merchants, Markets, and Manufacture: the English Wool Textile Industry in the Eighteenth Century (London: MacMillan Press, 1999), 21-22.

In the early 1600s, merchants based in Plymouth and other cities in the West Country of England invested heavily in the cod fisheries of Newfoundland and the Gulf of Maine. Similar in structure to the triangular trade between London, New England, and southern Europe that developed later, these merchants provided credit, supplies, and provisions to fishermen who then traded cargoes of cod fish to southern Europe. The West Country fisheries later declined, leading fishermen to migrate to locations on the coasts of southern Maine and Massachusetts. During the 1700s, the port still traded with colonies throughout British America for a variety of foodstuffs and provisions.

Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 75-77.
Black and white print from an engraving depicting a number of differently rigged sailing ships in a river. In background is a town with many small buildings and a few steeples pointing into the sky. In center is one larger cathedral with a square gothic style bell tower rather than a steeple. on a ribbon in the sky at the center reads "Rotterdam".Northern European ports such as Rotterdam and Hamburg challenged London’s trading status. Artisans, craftsmen, and weavers on the continent competed with British manufactured goods, and wines from France have always been a prized, valued import. (Image Courtesy Harvard University Library)

France and Northern Europe

The Faneuil family came from La Rochelle, France. In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes—an edict that tolerated Protestants in the Kingdom of France—and many French Protestants, or “Huguenots,” fled to other Protestant states and colonies. Benjamin Faneuil, Peter Faneuil's father, ultimately settled in New York. Peter's uncle, Andrew, settled in Boston. Another relative, Jean, ended up in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Some of the Faneuils, however, remained in La Rochelle.

This diaspora, though forged in exile, proved to be an asset in business. With family connections—and wealth—settled on both sides of the Atlantic, the Faneuils built a family network that tapped into French, Dutch, and British markets. With the French connection, Peter Faneuil and his family gained access into the French mainland as well as the sugar rich colonies in the French Caribbean and the French outpost of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. In the Netherlands, Faneuil could access goods from the Dutch East India Company, which offered the same teas and spices found in England, but at competitive tax-free prices. Craftsmen, artisans, and fabric weavers in France and Germany offered the Faneuil empire quality goods that competed with the offerings in Britain. With these reliable contacts, the Faneuils had a distinct advantage over many peers.

Faneuil business dealings with region:

Goods Purchased in France and Northern Europe

Goods Sent to France and Northern Europe

North American Colonies:


Beginning in the early 1700s, port cities such as Bordeaux played a significant role in boosting French economic activity in the Atlantic. Merchants in the city imported increasing quantities of sugar, coffee, and indigo from the French colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean, as well as other provisions from New France in today's Canada. Merchants reexported many of these enumerated goods exchanged between French colonies to different markets in Europe.

Silvia Marzagalli, “Atlantic Trade and Sephardim Merchants in Eighteenth-Century France: The Case of Bordeaux,” in The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West, 1450-1800, ed. by Bernardini Paolo and Fiering Norman (New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2001), 268-270.

Beginning in the 1660s, German merchant houses based in Hamburg created commercial links with Britain by sending young men from these mercantile families to apprenticeships in English port cities. Through these apprenticeships, young Germans became naturalized as British subjects. This naturalization allowed German merchants to export British goods from London and, in turn, construct strong ties between Hamburg and England.

Due to the Navigation Acts and other commercial restrictions imposed by Imperial Britain, Hamburg acquired goods from Atlantic port cities primarily as re-exports via London. In return, Hamburg's location at the mouth of the River Elbe put it in reach of manufacturers and workshops from German states deep in Western Europe.

In 1737, Faneuil organized several shipments of goods through this multilateral route that ultimately went to Hamburg. Because it involved doing business through secondary connections, it is difficult to truly decipher how far Faneuil’s money went into continental Europe for goods and profits.

Margrit Schulte Beerbühl, “Promoting Anglo-German Trade in the Seventeenth Century,” in The Forgotten Majority: German Merchants in London, Naturalization, and Global Trade 1660-1815 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2005), 34-36.

Throughout his life, Peter Faneuil remained in regular contact with his relatives in La Rochelle—the ancestral home of the Faneuils. These family connections gave the Faneuils a leg up over other New England competitors who sought European goods in general, but items such as French wines, brandy, and fabrics in particular.

The ancestral connection to La Rochelle worked out well for the Faneuils in North America, too. If a ship sailed west from La Rochelle and never wavered from that course, the ship would first reach the settlement of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. In this era of sailing, all navigation relied on the position of the stars. Unfortunately, seafarers could only track latitude, or their distance north of the equator, with this method. They could not reliably estimate longitude, and by extension, their distance west of Europe. Because of this geographic reality, La Rochelle historically became the primary entry point for French-caught North American salt cod in exchange for French exports.

Faneuil's surviving correspondence from 1737–1739 illustrates how the family kept this tradition alive to their own advantage. Faneuil coordinated from Boston, writing in French, extensive trade arrangements among merchants and agents in La Rochelle, the French Caribbean, and in Louisbourg. With such connections and coordination, goods could make it to Boston with fewer troublesome customs men and middlemen claiming their fees and commissions out of the profits.

Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (New York: Walker and Company, 1997), Part I Donald F. Chard, "The Price and Profits of Accommodation: Massachusetts—Louisbourg Trade, 1713–1744" Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts Volume 52: Seafaring in Colonial Massachusetts (Portland, ME: Anthoensen Press, 1980).

Peter Faneuil had close mercantile connections with Rotterdam through his family. His cousin Jean Faneuil, for example, ran an extensive shipping business in the city from 1669 to his death in 1710, often making business arrangements with other family members in La Rochelle during the 1670s. Faneuil’s documented shipments of goods from Rotterdam to Boston included an assortment of manufactured goods.

J.F. Bosher, “Huguenot Merchants and the Protestant International in the Seventeenth Century,”The William and Mary Quarterly 52, no. 1 (1995): 91.
Black and white print from an engraving of a dense city on a hillside. A wall with crenellations runs at the foot of the hill at the edge of the water in foreground. Docks are visible on the left side with a number of boats docked to them. Several ships in different sail configurations are sailing in the water. At the summit of the hill in the background appear a number of round towers, a castle, and a few cathedrals with square bell towers. On top left reads a label "Lisbona".Catholic cities in Southern Europe, such as Lisbon, depended on vast quantities of Atlantic salt cod and North American grain imported by New England merchants to feed their growing population. (Image Courtesy Harvard University Library)

Southern Europe

In the 1700s, a curious relationship solidified between the British North American colonies and Southern European kingdoms of Portugal, Spain, and the Italian states. The population of Southern Europe grew steadily throughout this time period, but the wheat harvests in these regions frequently failed. Furthermore, the population in these states were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. These Catholic subjects generally followed canon law, which required abstaining from eating meat on Fridays, throughout the 40 days of Lent, and on many other Catholic holidays. In short, for more than half the days of the year, European Catholics relied on fish as an affordable protein for their meals.

This situation led to a trade advantage for British colonists: Wheat and other grain from the Middle and Southern North American colonies and salted cod from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New England all came to Southern Europe on New England ships. Perhaps most important for this cod and grain market, buyers paid in hard currency of silver and gold. For merchants regularly indebted to English trading firms, this market allowed them to balance their ledgers. Beyond money, these ports also offered many other desirable imports including fabric, wines, citrus, and specialty food products such as olives and olive oil.

Peter Faneuil relied heavily on his trade with Southern Europe to balance his books with London merchants and bankers. Any disruption in these alternate markets threatened the stability of trade networks for New England merchants. Indeed, when war broke out between Great Britain and Spain in 1739, Faneuil lost access to Spanish ports such as Bilbao and Cadiz. To adjust for this loss, Faneuil began to back slaving voyages off the coast of West Africa as an alternate market strategy.

Faneuil business dealings with region:

Goods Purchased in Southern Europe

Goods Sent to Southern Europe

North American Colonies:


Barcelona became one of the largest importers of dried cod fish from New England, receiving some 6 million pounds of fish annually by the 1770s. Between 1737 and 1739, Faneuil participated regularly in this trade network by financing a number of shipments of cod fish to a pair of agents stationed in Barcelona, Michael and Richard Harris.

James G. Lydon, “Fish for Gold: The Massachusetts Fish Trade with Iberia, 1700-1773,” The New England Quarterly 54, no. 4 (1981): 542-544.

Bilbao, along with other ports in Southern Europe, received extensive salt cod exports from Massachusetts. Peter Faneuil utilized this trade network in particular as a source of liquid assets: Spanish buyers paid hard currency for cod, and hard currency had the best purchasing power for manufactured goods in high demand from England. Faneuil often sent shipments of cod fish and other goods to Bilbao in a long-standing partnership with London merchant Miguel Pacheco da Silva.

James G. Lydon, “Fish for Gold: The Massachusetts Fish Trade with Iberia, 1700-1773,” The New England Quarterly 54, no. 4 (1981): 567.

The Spanish coastal center of Cadiz, which served as a general entry point for several other inland cities, purchased some 12 million pounds of cod fish annually from New England merchants during the 1770s. During the 1730s, Faneuil organized several shipments of fish to Cadiz in exchange for salt, wine, and other goods.

James G. Lydon, “Fish for Gold: The Massachusetts Fish Trade with Iberia, 1700-1773,” The New England Quarterly 54, no. 4 (1981): 543, 548.

By the 1670s, New England merchants developed two primary bilateral trade routes for distributing exports of the region’s cod fish: one with British settlements in the West Indies and the other with southern Europe. Lisbon, the fourth largest city in Europe with roughly two hundred thousand citizens, became one of the greatest importers of New England dried cod fish during the eighteenth century. As in other Iberian ports, British North American merchants purchased salt, wine, and additional valuable foodstuffs in exchange for fish at relatively cheap prices. Faneuil documented in his business papers several shipments of salt imported from Lisbon through London throughout the 1720s and 1730s.

Lydon, “Fish for Gold: The Massachusetts Fish Trade with Iberia, 1700-1773,” The New England Quarterly 54, no. 4 (1981) 543-546, 569-572.
Beginning in the 1620s, English merchants established firm seaborne trade connections with Italian ports, including Livorno, also known as Leghorn, the most prominent of these commercial centers. Shipments from English cities to Livorno often contained mixed cargoes of goods ranging from clothes and fabrics to lead and tin, to pepper, cod fish, and red herring. Similar to several other Italian port cities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Livorno served as a focal point of trade in the Mediterranean. This port received various grains from northern Africa, salt from Sicily and France, fabrics from Turkey, and bulk foodstuffs from England in exchange for manufactured products and raw materials.

While some traders in the North Atlantic occasionally traveled to the city to sell cod fish, they often routed shipments of goods from New England via London or other English ports. In 1737, Faneuil distributed shipments of cod fish in this fashion by selling them to his agent in London at the time, Miguel Pacheco da Silva.

Ralph Davis, “The Southern European and Mediterranean Trades,” in The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2012), 232-239.

As one of the urban centers in southern Europe, Porto imported large quantities of dried cod fish, known as bacalao, from New England merchants. Located north of the Douro River, this port distributed bacalao along with other foodstuffs and provisions purchased from British North America to interior markets throughout the Iberian Peninsula. In addition to receiving direct shipments of cod fish from Boston, Salem, and other New England port cities, merchants in Porto indirectly acquired these foodstuffs from tradesmen in London, who regularly exchanged cod fish in North America for English manufactured goods.

This pattern is exhibited in Faneuil’s mercantile activities; in October 1737, he sold 17,000 lbs. of fish to his London agent Miguel Pacheco da Silva, who later attempted to ship the cargo to Porto.

Black and white print of a high sky with clouds. At bottom is the sea with multiple sailing vessels, sailing toward the central image of a mountainous island with a deep gorge down the center.The Wine Islands off the coast of modern-day Morocco possessed a climate ideal for wine growing. The need for a longer-lasting wine resulted in the development of fortified wines known broadly as Madeira. Similar to the Caribbean, these islands’ small and distant location resulted in an economy focused almost entirely on exports in exchange for food and other material imports. (Image Courtesy Harvard University Library)

Wine Islands

In the earliest beginnings of the so-called “Age of Discovery” in the 1400s, Portuguese and Spanish seafarers sailed eastward and claimed islands off the coast of Africa. These islands had warmer climates than mainland Europe, and settlers there attempted to grow exotic crops such as sugar cane.

The location of the islands made them a critical “last stop” before a voyage west to the Americas or south around Africa and then east toward Asia. As such, wine production ultimately became the dominant export of these islands because ships needed alcohol as a safe water source. The wines, however, did not have enough alcohol content to prevent spoilage on the longest journeys. Thus, the growers on Madeira developed a “fortified wine,” strengthening the wine with additional distilled alcohol that not only prevented spoilage, but also improved in flavor and taste after rolling in barrels in the hot hold of a ship for several months.

Madeira wine grew to be a prized import among British North American colonists. In fact, over 25% of all imported Madeira went to the British North American colonies alone by the end of the 1700s. Peter Faneuil joined his American compatriots in enjoying this import. He sought fine wines, both fortified and traditional, for his household as well as for market.

Faneuil tracked the supply and demand of wines in Boston and in other colonies. In his correspondence with agents and business associates, Faneuil regularly noted what wines to ship for and where. In October 1737 he wrote to the firm Lynch and Blake in Tenerife:

“if you would send my Wines the next Year you may send about Thirty Pipes of good Mamsey [Malmsey, Madeira grape variety] of the least & I believe they will turn to a good acct for lately there has bin [sic] a demand from Surinam for those wines...and you may depend the first good Cargo of Vidone [Verdelho, another grape variety] that arrives next Spring from your Island will sell well for there is scarce a good pipe of Madeira to be had in Town & what little there is is not worth drinking...”

Faneuil business dealings with region:

Goods Purchased in Wine Islands

Goods Sent to Wine Islands

North American Colonies:


Madeira, one of the Spanish and Portuguese “Wine Islands” on the Eastern Atlantic, frequently imported cod fish, timber, grain, foodstuffs, and other provisions from New England, similar to ports in southern Europe and the West Indies.

Before the development of rum, seafarers used wine as an alternative to water. The alcohol in the wine prevented spoilage. Nonetheless, after extremely long periods at sea in the incredibly hot hold of a ship, even the wine eventually spoiled. Winemakers then experimented with fortifying the wine with stronger distilled alcohol (such as brandy) so the wine would not spoil. After aging in barrels for months, consumers discovered the fortified wine took on a unique character and flavor. Eventually the winemakers on Madeira began to simulate the aging conditions and sold their fortified wine as a final product. British North American colonists particularly prized Madeira wine. Indeed, Madeira became a common import in Boston and for Peter Faneuil’s personal use.

  • John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 1607-1789 (University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 37.
  • "Madeira" in Jancis Robinson, ed. The Oxford Companion to Wine Fourth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

In Tenerife of the Canary Islands, merchants often exchanged cod, timber, grain, and other provisions for wine and salt. In the early 1700s, this port and others located in the Wine Islands accounted for as much as 60% of fish exported from Boston. In October of 1737, Faneuil commissioned two large shipments of over 2600 gallons of “good Canary wine.” It appears this wine Faneuil purchased and traded shared similarities with what Madeira produced: wine fortified with distilled alcohol and aged inside barrels in hot climates.

  • Lydon, “Fish for Gold: The Massachusetts Fish Trade with Iberia, 1700-1773,” The New England Quarterly 54, no. 4 (1981) 551.
  • Quote above and reference here: Peter Faneuil to Lynch and Blake, October 13 1737. Sequence 31 in Peter Faneuil papers, 1716-1739. Letterbook (business), 1737-1739. Mss:766 1712-1854 H234, Volume F-4, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.
Image of black and white print with three vignettes. Top left show a mountainous shoreline with a sailing ship approaching. Top right depict presumably the same ship with African men in a canoe rowing toward it. The entire bottom panel shows a small village with huts and palm trees as villagers go about daily work or sit smoking.West Africa, while influenced by Portuguese, English, French, and other European trade relationships, did not belong to any one crown. Individuals and tribes dealt with traders from European ships and outposts at river inlets, such as the bay on the Sierra Leone River. This sketch by John Barbout comes from his published surveys of the coast. Local villages in the area fished and also farmed crops such as rice. Villagers sought quality cotton fabrics and other manufactured goods from traders in exchange for kidnapped and enslaved men, women, and children, as well as gold and ivory. (Image Courtesy Slavery Images)

West Africa

The kidnapping and enslavement of Africans along the coast of West Africa became the underlying force that drove the larger Atlantic economy—an economy that built the fortunes of men like Peter Faneuil. In exchange for manufactured goods, rum, and gold, among other items, captains such as Peter Faneuil's brother-in-law John Cutler purchased enslaved Africans off the coast of Sierra Leone. Balance sheets or shipping invoices listed these human beings as “goods” shipped for profit. Slave traders transported captured Africans for slave markets throughout the Americas: sugar plantations in the Caribbean, rice paddies in South Carolina, wheat fields in New York, or a merchant's household in Boston. Through coercion these merchants, planters, and sea captains converted

In the 1720s and 1730s, no records survive that suggest Peter Faneuil had direct dealings in West African trade. However, the economics of slavery drove Atlantic commerce—even on journeys that never touched the coast of Africa. South Carolina rice, low quality New York grain, cheap New England pine boards, and unmarketable Nova Scotian cod went to plantations to feed the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children working in bondage. In turn, these enslaved people produced sugar, rum, and molasses that merchants such as Faneuil re-exported. The entire cycle formed a critical part of Peter Faneuil's balance sheets for years.

But by 1739 surviving documents suggest a shift in some of Peter Faneuil's dealings. Faneuil owned a share of a ship named after his sister, the Mary Ann, in 1738/9. In the summer of 1739, Faneuil's brother-in-law, John Cutler, sailed to Africa from Boston. The next year, a ship positively identified as the Mary Ann, captained by Cutler, arrived in Virginia with 70 enslaved Africans. Cutler departed Boston for Africa again in 1741/2. The final destination and fate of his “cargo” for this journey remains unknown. Then in 1742/3, Cutler undertook a final, fateful journey aboard a new ship owned in part by himself and Peter Faneuil: the Jolly Batchelor. Peter Faneuil died in Boston in March, 1743. Unknown to anyone in Boston at the time, John Cutler also died. Their ship, the Jolly Batchelor, lay adrift in the harbor without a crew, cargo, or sails. Cutler’s body lay at the bottom of the Sierra Leone River. Unfortunately, other White men found the ship and sailed to Newport, Rhode Island, several months later with a cargo of enslaved Africans. The pain of Faneuil’s legacy continued long past his death.

Faneuil business dealings with region:

Goods Purchased in West Africa

Goods Sent to West Africa

North American Colonies:


After entering the slave trade in the 1650s, British slave merchants established outposts concentrated on the West African coast. Nominally, the Royal African Company had a government-granted monopoly of English slave trading in the region. In the 1700s, however, any private merchant could go to West Africa and attempt to enter the slave trade. Nonetheless, Royal African Company outposts, such as the fort on Bense, or Bunce, Island in the Sierra Leone River, forcibly exported untold thousands of men, women, and children to all corners of the Atlantic.

British merchants based in London, Bristol, and Liverpool typically went slaving with large ships that carried hundreds of human beings at one time bound for the Caribbean. New England merchants and captains, on the other hand, organized slaving voyages with smaller ships that took multiple legs in one journey. For example, Faneuil's brother-in-Law John Cutler captained the Mary Ann and then the Jolly Batchelor which transported enslaved Africans to the Americas.

Anne Ruderman, “Intra-European Trade in Atlantic Africa and the African Atlantic,” The William and Mary Quarterly 77, no. 2 (2020): 222-223; Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier, 51-53.

In the 1500s, the Cape Verde Islands became a critical connection point for the newly emerging trade between Southern Europe and West Africa. Using Cape Verde as a base of operations, Portuguese traders sold cotton fabric and other manufactured goods in West Africa in exchange for enslaved people. From here, the Portuguese exported their human cargo to Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas.

By the 1600s, however, competition from English, Dutch, and French merchants trading and slaving directly on the shores of West Africa pushed the Portuguese out of Cape Verde. By the 1700s, Cape Verde largely served as a supply port for passing maritime traffic.

Despite this diminished role, the islands at Cape Verde played a critical role to English trade in Peter Faneuil's time. While not documented, some of the vessels connected with Peter Faneuil that went slaving in Sierra Leone likely stopped for provisions in Cape Verde. In fact, the Ranger, owned by close Faneuil associate Giulian Verplanck, attacked and captured two Spanish ships near Santiago, Cape Verde, in 1740. The Ranger arrived in New Jersey several months later with 40 enslaved people, before going to New York to claim the spoils of their prizes.

Soares, Maria João. “THE BRITISH PRESENCE ON THE CAPE VERDEAN ARCHIPELAGO (SIXTEENTH TO EIGHTEENTH CENTURIES).” African Economic History, vol. 39, 2011, pp. 129–146.
Color print showing black enslaved workers cutting tall sugar cane stalks in a field.The cultivation of sugar cane is a laborious process, made even more brutal by the climate and conditions of slave plantations. After the harvest of the sugar cane, boiling and milling processes worked to drive the pure sugar out of the juice of the cane stalks. Repeated boiling left molasses behind as a byproduct either exportable to New England or available for direct distillation into rum. In Faneuil’s time, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people of African descent completed this process in plantations across the Caribbean, under many different crowns of Europe. (Image Courtesy Slavery Images)

Caribbean Islands

Native to Southeast Asia, sugar cane remained out of reach for many Europeans for centuries. But when Europeans began to seize native lands in the Caribbean, they gained total control over a new region with a climate that could sustain such exotic crops. By the late 1600s, sugar became the dominant cash crop in the Caribbean, and enslaved African labor supported virtually all aspects of its production. After planting and tending to the water hungry crop, the cane had to be harvested by hand and then refined. After boiling and extracting different grades of sugar, thick and dark syrupy molasses remained. Many people in the Atlantic used molasses as a cheap sweetener, however it primarily functioned as the key ingredient in the making of rum.

Because of different laws and government sanctioned protections, different island colonies began to specialize in different sugar products. In Britain, protections for sugar bakers prevented British Caribbean planters from extensively refining sugar. This resulted in browner, wetter sugar that also could be fermented and distilled into some of the best quality rum found in the Atlantic. In France, however, protections for distillers in the brandy industry meant French Caribbean planters could not distill their own rum. Instead, these planters focused on more extensive refining of whiter sugars but wasted huge quantities of molasses.

As the availability of Caribbean sugar expanded, Europeans' addiction to sugar only increased. This kept the profitability of sugar production very high. By focusing almost exclusively on a single crop, Caribbean plantations depended on imports for almost everything. While Europe provided luxuries, fabric, and other manufactured goods, North America supplied the grain and fish to sustain the hundreds of thousands of enslaved workers toiling in the cane fields.

The Faneuils, as with most successful Boston merchants, relied heavily on the Caribbean trade for profits. Bringing grain and "refuse" or "West Indies" grade fish south, they traded for sugar, rum, and molasses—the molasses primarily going to distilleries in Boston.

Faneuil business dealings with region:

Goods Purchased in Caribbean Islands

Goods Sent to Caribbean Islands

North American Colonies

Wine Islands

West Africa


Surviving invoices from 1725 through 1729 indicate that Faneuil regularly purchased slave-produced sugar, rum, and molasses, as well as other items, from planter-merchants on Antigua. He funded these purchases by supplying "West Indies" grade cod from Nova Scotia, grain from the Middle Colonies, and timber from New England. The fish and grain fed the enslaved populations working on the island, and the timber became the barrels for transporting sugar and molasses.

Faneuil also used his connections in Antigua for direct dealings in enslavement. In 1738/9 Faneuil oversaw the construction of a ship for a Captain Buckley. He did this at the request of his London business associates Lane and Smethurst. While Buckley waited for the completion of his new ship, Buckley captained a voyage from Boston to Antigua in February. Faneuil personally asked Buckley to carry to Antigua "6 [hogsheads] fish & 8 barrells [sic] of Alewives, amo to £ 75.9.2..." He requested that Buckley sell the cargo "for my best advantage, & with the net produce of the same, purchase for me, for the use of my house, as likely a Strait negro lad as possible you can, about the age of, from 12 to fifteen years..."

It remains unclear whether Buckley fulfilled the request, but Buckley reappeared in Boston that May. If Buckley succeeded, this unnamed enslaved boy of African descent likely arrived sometime in the spring of 1739. His spent his teenage years, at the very least, living and working in the Faneuil mansion perched on the eastern slope of Beacon Hill. If he looked out from an upper window, he would have seen all of Boston Harbor, and beyond it, the Atlantic world that enabled Peter Faneuil to enslave him.

  • R.B. Sheridan, “The Rise of a Colonial Gentry: A Case Study of Antigua, 1730-1775,” The Economic History Review 13, no. 3 (1961): 355-357.
  • Quote: Peter Faneuil to Captain Peter Buckley, February 3 1738/9. Sequence 146 in Peter Faneuil papers, 1716-1739. Letterbook (business), 1737-1739. Mss:766 1712-1854 H234, Volume F-4, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

As a fairly active member of these trade networks, Peter Faneuil purchased shipments of rum, molasses, sugar, and indigo from Cape Francois throughout his career, with invoices, accounts, and letters all indicating slave-produced sugar and molasses moving north to Boston.

Even when the 1733 Molasses Act placed tariffs on French molasses, Faneuil continued valuable trade relationships with Cape Francois until his death in 1743, using various means to skirt the law. Some correspondence written in French with contacts in the Saint Domingue still survive and provide an account of his schemes. For example, in the winter of 1742/43, a Boston customs official “libeled” one of Peter Faneuil’s ships, the Cockey in the Boston Court of Admiralty. The customs official accused Faneuil and his captain, Joshua Boutin, of smuggling most likely French molasses from Saint Domingue into Boston.

Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 43-54.

In the 1620s, the English established Barbados as one of their first colonies in the West Indies, along with the Islands of St. Kitts, Antigua, Nevis, and Montserrat. During the late 1600s, Barbados emerged as the leading sugar and rum-producing island in the West Indies. By the 1700s, Jamaica and other colonies in the Caribbean overtook Barbados as the leading sugar producers. The colony, nevertheless, maintained a sizeable slave plantation enterprise, exchanging rum, sugar, and molasses for dried fish, lumber, and provisions.

In 1726, Faneuil imported from Barbados several shipments of rum, as well as fabric items originating from Europe. In the later 1730s, letters from Faneuil mention a sale of an old horse to Barbados to presumably run a livestock-powered sugar mill. With his many business dealings, Faneuil followed up on even the smallest transaction, making sure he found a sale price in whatever currency or product (i.e. rum, sugar, or molasses) that gave him the “best advantage.”

Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 43-45.

After conquering the island from the Spanish in 1655, the English organized Jamaica as the “crown jewel” of their Caribbean sugar-producing settlements. By 1740, Jamaica overtook Barbados and the other British Caribbean islands as the leading sugar producer in British America.

The colony had a similar trading relationship to New England as other British settlements in the West Indies. Jamaican plantations exchanged slave-produced rum, sugar, and molasses for dried fish, lumber, and other provisions.

Faneuil himself traded with Jamaica throughout his career. In 1737, Faneuil received shipments from a shipmaster in Jamaica named Thomas Quay in exchange for a ship being built in Boston. Rather than pay in cash, Quay paid Faneuil for managing and organizing the construction of the ship with Jamaican goods. Because many items for outfitting the ship had to come from Europe (likely anchors, tackle, and navigational equipment, among many other items), Faneuil expected Quay to order those goods from Europe to Boston. Unsurprisingly, this three-way coordination took a lot of time and patience, and Quay's slow responsiveness frustrated Faneuil.

Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 43-50.

Despite the hostility his Huguenot family historically faced from Catholic France, Peter Faneuil engaged vigorously in numerous trade relations with French colonies throughout the Atlantic world. If anything, he used his family's French background to his advantage to trade with French colonies more efficiently. Similar to British settlements in the region, merchants in French Caribbean ports purchased a variety of foodstuffs and timber from North America, manufactured goods from Europe, and enslaved Africans through the middle passage in exchange for sugar, molasses, and other raw commodities.

Faneuil maintained many direct and indirect contacts and business engagements with these French islands throughout his career. French-crewed and captained ships regularly sailed from the French West Indies to Cape Breton Island in today's Canada with sugar and molasses. Changing over to an English captain and crew, the cargo then sailed back south to New England ports, including Boston, under the appearance of being "British" Caribbean goods. If successful, these schemes gave Faneuil a better profit margin by avoiding tariffs and getting the raw goods at a better initial price.

  • Marzagalli, “Atlantic Trade and Sephardim Merchants in Eighteenth-Century France,” 268-269.
  • John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 1607-1789 (University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 63

Saint Eustatius, a settlement under Dutch control since the mid-1600s, also relied on provisions and supplies produced in British North America to feed the enslaved workforce cultivating sugar. Despite numerous attempts by British parliament to restrict trade with foreign sugar-producing powers, merchants in the mainland colonies still managed to import these products. In the late 1720s, Faneuil purchased at least one shipment of molasses from the island. Additionally, the island's status as a “free port” suggests there may have been more interactions that remain undocumented.

John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 1607-1789 (University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 125.
Map with an orange shaded coastline with multiple river inlets flowing from the Atlantic Ocean on right into the land of Virginia. In center a long peninsula creeps down dividing the Chesapeake Bay from much of the Atlantic. On the right over the ocean is a map label with map title and an illustration depicting a dockside scene with men of African descent depicted as shirtless and enslaved laborers while White men dressed as merchants stand or sit on chairs on the pier talking and drinking.The many river inlets connecting the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean to Virginia and Maryland plantations meant instead of one large central port, many smaller docksides connected the products of enslaved labor with the wider Atlantic world. (Image Courtesy Boston Public Library/Norman Leventhal Map Center)

Southern British Colonies

When English colonists first began to claim and settle land in Virginia, they established two precedents that set the tone of the Southern British American Colonies: cash crops and enslavement. The cultivation of tobacco as a cash crop for export to Europe drove a settlement pattern of larger plantations on expropriated native lands. While White indentured servitude initially coexisted with enslaved Africans as the labor force tending the fields, enslaved people of African descent became planters’ preferred choice over time. These human beings became a financial asset alongside the land the planters claimed. Though smaller farms throughout this region—particularly in North Carolina—supplied livestock and vegetables both locally and for export, the plantation owners held most of the wealth, the assets, and the power.

Though this system became entrenched in Virginia, it had instable elements. First, tobacco crops depleted farming soil, and prices of tobacco remained volatile. Also, a new underclass emerged of freed White indentured servants. All too often, these poor Whites found themselves unable to procure desirable farmland. This led to massacres of increasingly displaced native peoples as well as rebellion against colonial authority.

Settlement spread westward toward the Appalachian Mountains and also southward into South Carolina and Georgia. South Carolina had a climate that supported other cash crops, including rice and indigo. Again, a wealthy few became planters and instituted largely the same system as the Virginia gentry to the north.

By the mid-1700s, Virginia and Maryland began shifting toward grain, primarily wheat, in response to its more stable and profitable prices. New England merchants traded with this region to connect the exportable foodstuffs and cash crops to buyers throughout the Atlantic, and in exchange they brought European goods, Caribbean sugar, and enslaved Africans. In 1741, John Cutler, Peter Faneuil's brother-in-law and captain of the ship Mary Ann, sold 70 enslaved Africans on the James River and departed with 2,000 bushels of corn and wheat, 16 hogsheads of pork, and 20 hogsheads of beef. Originally bound for Boston, Cutler ended up selling the food at a great advantage in Madeira.

Faneuil business dealings with region:

Goods Purchased in Southern British Colonies

Goods Sent to Southern British Colonies

North American Colonies

Wine Islands

West Africa


In the 1600s, English settlements in Virginia stretched from the lower James River toward other maritime thoroughfares such as the York, Rappahannock, Potomac, Patuxent, Choptank, and Chester rivers. This steady expansion into native lands came as a result of the tobacco economy.

The peak level of expansion for the tobacco trade in the Chesapeake came following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Production increased from roughly 20 million pounds in 1700 to 50 million pounds in 1730. This growth also meant an increased demand for labor. Overwhelmingly, enslaved people of African descent filled this labor gap through coercion and exploitation.

Even when planters began to shift away from unpredictable tobacco toward the cultivation of grain, the plantations still relied on enslaved labor. At least once in 1741, Peter Faneuil's brother-in-law John Cutler sailed into the James River on the Mary Ann with 70 enslaved Africans. While documents do not explicitly name Faneuil as an owner, it is extremely likely that even if he did not own the voyage, his wealth and influence made this voyage—one of several—possible.

  • Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 88, 92-93, 96-97, 100-101.
  • Slave Voyage record retrieved from Trans-Atlantic database available at, voyage number 25181.

Charleston first emerged as a colony that provided foodstuffs for both local consumption as well as for Caribbean and English markets. By the middle 1700s, however, large-scale slave plantations cultivating primarily rice and indigo provided the colony with two major commercial staple crops that could be distributed throughout the Atlantic.

While Faneuil’s surviving records do not indicate extensive trade with merchants in Charleston, letters in 1738 and 1739 indicate attempts at opening a new partnership there. In a March 10, 1738/39 letter, Faneuil consigned his brig Rochelle, captained by Robert Screech, to Robert Pringle of Charleston. He instructed Pringle to procure a cargo and send the vessel to a European port that would prove profitable. He reminded Pringle, however, to ensure that the ship returned to Canso, Nova Scotia, in time for a load of fish in the Fall. “I hope this small beginning” he wrote, “will give me farther encouragement your way, tho, I don't so much depend upon any great Profitt [sic] on the Cargo...” Faneuil also mentioned to Pringle that casks numbered 1 and 2 actually had French brandy instead of rum inside them. Perhaps as some kind of test of Pringle’s abilities as a shrewd merchant able to bend the rules when convinient, Faneuil prayed that

“you'l use the necessary caution in getting safe landed on shore, so as not to be of any Predjudice to my Vessell [sic], and advise me if at any time any quantity, may be safely imported to you and how it will answer, at Present none of the ships Crew know any thing of the matter, who had best be kept ignorant of the affair...”

  • Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 111-114.
  • Quote: Peter Faneuil to Robert Pringle, March 10, 1738/9. Sequence 153 in in Peter Faneuil papers, 1716-1739. Letterbook (business), 1737-1739. Mss:766 1712-1854 H234, Volume F-4, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

Annapolis, the capital of Maryland since 1694, mainly engaged in bilateral trade with Great Britain and the West Indies. The Chesapeake region as a whole developed a diverse agricultural economy, producing a variety of food crops (wheat, corn, beans, peas, sweet potatoes, turnips, apples), livestock, and tobacco, the principal cash product for the region.

As large tobacco planters emerged in the early 1700s, they followed several practices of sugar planters in the West Indies: they purchased and compelled enslaved labor to work the fields and process crops, and they consigned the tobacco to merchant houses in Britain to sell on their behalf. This credit on tobacco typically went to pay for imported manufactured goods the planters desired. In his own business activities, Peter Faneuil purchased goods from the region infrequently, importing occasional shipments of wheat and corn from Maryland in the late 1720s.

Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 97-101.
Black ink artistic sketch of man of African descent pouring grain into a milling apparatus inside a wooden clapboard room. A younger boy of African descent pours grain into a wooden tub in the background while a cat walks along the back wall.This cropped view of a modern sketch by New York artist Gary Zaboly depicts Piero and his son Pieter, enslaved workers at a gristmill on the Van Cortlandt estate. Today much of the estate comprises Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, New York. (Image Courtesy Gary Zaboly)

Middle Atlantic British Colonies

The Mid-Atlantic region of North America possessed a climate ideal for farming grain, vegetables, and livestock . Though the area had significant ports such as New York and Philadelphia, the New England port of Boston had a head start on shipping infrastructure. This left the middle colonies reliant on men such as Peter Faneuil to trade their surplus grain and other foodstuffs to markets around the Atlantic in the early 1700s.

Agriculture in this region did not take on the style of Virginian or Caribbean plantations. Nonetheless, enslavement existed in these colonies and grew steadily during this period. Wealthy landowners dominated politics and power. In New York, the first families of Dutch background operated vast wheat fields throughout the Hudson River valley and northern New Jersey. The Van Courtlandts provide an example of these Dutch land-owning families. To this day their house still stands in Van Courtlandt Park in the Bronx. Holding enslaved laborers on their farm, they grew and milled wheat flour that shipped out of New York Harbor. Other Dutch New York families more directly connected to Peter Faneuil were the Verplancks and the DePeysters. These families owned large wheat estates in the Hudson River Valley and operated merchant houses on Wall Street in Manhattan.

The Faneuil connection to New York proved strong, perhaps because Peter Faneuil grew up in the area and his father, Benjamin, established himself there. An associate, Guilian Verplanck, worked with Benjamin and Benjamin's brother Andrew in Boston. After Benjamin and Andrew's deaths, Verplanck continued to work as Peter Faneuil's New York agent. The relationship went beyond grain trading, though. In March 1740 Faneuil asked Verplanck about "an accot of the Negroes being sold." Just over a month later, the ship Ranger entered the port of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, from Antigua with 40 enslaved people. Abraham De Peyster, Jonathan Schuyler, and Guilian Verplanck owned the vessel.

Faneuil business dealings with region:

Goods Purchased in Middle Atlantic British Colonies

Goods Sent to Middle Atlantic British Colonies

North American Colonies

Wine Islands

West Africa


Albany first emerged as a prominent trading center due to its growth as an outpost for the fur trade. American Indian nations, primarily the Iroquois Confederation and the Huron, offered furs in exchange for English, French, or Dutch manufactured goods. By the early 1700s, however, the importance of the fur trade diminished in the regional economy of the Middle Colonies. Nonetheless, in 1738, Peter Faneuil wrote John DePeyster of Albany for "Six of the Largest Bear Skins and Two Large fine well painted Beavor[sic] coats to use in a slay [sleigh]."

In the 1700s, the area shifted primarily to agricultural exports grown on large estates. Merchants transported wheat, flour, flaxseed, grains, livestock, and lumber, from these estates down the Hudson to New York for export.

  • Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 155-158.
  • Peter Faneuil to John DePeyster, March 19 1738/9. Sequence 155 in Peter Faneuil papers, 1716-1739. Letterbook (business), 1737-1739. Mss:766 1712-1854 H234, Volume F-4, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

Seized from Dutch control by the English in 1664, New York rose to prominence as a port city by distributing the agricultural goods grown on large estates along the Hudson River. Wheat, corn, flour, and meat went to the West Indies, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, Southern Europe, and Great Britain.

In Peter Faneuil's time, merchants in New York regularly sold foodstuffs and other materials from the Middle Colonies to Boston due to Boston’s role as a major distribution center. In Boston, merchants exchanged these New York goods for manufactured commodities imported from Britain and Europe. This pattern is reflected in Faneuil’s own dealings, with constant shipments of flour, pork, bread, and wheat sent to him for export by New York merchants Guilian Verplanck and Abraham and Issac DePeyster in exchange for European imports such as "Florence Oyl" (olive oil) and Barcelona Handkerchiefs, among many other goods.

  • Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 194.
  • Quote: Peter Faneuil to Issac and Abraham DePeyster, March 19, 1738/9. Sequence 157 in in Peter Faneuil papers, 1716-1739. Letterbook (business), 1737-1739. Mss:766 1712-1854 H234, Volume F-4, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

In 1682, settlers established Perth Amboy as the capital city for the proprietary government of East Jersey. This city continued to serve as one of two designated trade centers in New Jersey after East and West Jersey merged in 1702. Similar to other colonial ports in the Mid-Atlantic, the city exported wheat and other grains, flour, vegetables, fruit, fish, and lumber. Most of the trade emanating from the Middle Colonies, however, went through New York and Philadelphia.

Nonetheless, Faneuil's New York associates Giulian Verplanck and Abraham DePeyster owned a ship that arrived in Perth Amboy on May 15, 1740. The cargo aboard the ship Ranger included 40 enslaved people, either from Antigua directly, or, more likely, from Africa following a stop at Antigua. A since-lost letter dated March 24, 1739/40 provides the connection to Peter Faneuil. In it, Faneuil asks Verplanck that he hopes he has an "acco't of the Negroes being sold." The captain and crew of the Ranger landed 38 of the enslaved people at Perth Amboy, with the last two evidently landing in New York City. If these unidentified people did not end up as domestics in households or drivers of a master's carriage, they very likely worked in the wheat fields of New York and New Jersey.

  • Maxine N. Lurie, “Colonial Period: The Complex and Contradictory Beginnings of a Mid-Atlantic Province,” in New Jersey: A History of the Garden State ed. by Maxine N. Lurie and Richard Veit (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 54-57.
  • Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), 148-156.
  • Lost letter is quoted in William B. Weeden, "Early African Slave Trade in New England" Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society December 1888, Volume 5, Part 1, 123-124
  • Slave Voyage record retrieved from Intra-American database available at, voyage number 107152.

Prior to 1750, Philadelphia merchants primarily conducted trade in foodstuffs and other provisions to settlements in the West Indies. The city received minimal direct imports of goods from Great Britain and Europe. Instead, they acquired manufactured items through New England merchants. Faneuil’s business activities with agents in this city demonstrated this pattern; Faneuil shipped fabrics and handkerchiefs, among other manufactured goods, to the port in exchange for wheat, flour, bread, and other foodstuffs.

This relationship began to shift in the decades following Peter Faneuil’s lifetime, however. As Philadelphia and New York gained more capital through transatlantic trade, both cities began to build their own shipbuilding, finance, and insurance businesses. By the 1760s, both New York and Philadelphia surpassed Boston in population and economic growth.

John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 1607-1789 (University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 74.
Cutout painting of Peter Faneuil on right overlaid over a depiction of a colonial harbor with sailing ships.

Glossary of Faneuil's Trade Goods

The product of distilling wine into a spirit, brandy typically came from France. France protected its brandy industry, essentially outlawing the distillation of other liquors, such as Caribbean rum. This led to large surpluses of molasses in French Caribbean islands and an opportunity for New England merchants and distillers. By buying the molasses, merchants could balance their trade in sugar, and use the resulting New England rum for export trade elsewhere in the Atlantic.

It is incredibly difficult to trace how many voyages trafficked human beings across the Atlantic. Estimates of the trans-Atlantic slave trade suggest that from 1500 to 1875, Europeans forcibly imported as many as 12.5 million Africans to the Americas. In the 1700s, slavers sold the vast majority of this “cargo” to the Caribbean and South America. Yet a still sizable number of slave voyages sold enslaved Africans to British North Americans in ports stretching from Charleston, South Carolina to Boston, Massachusetts. Included in this tally are at least two documented slaving voyages, and a number of several suspected voyages, financed in part by Peter Faneuil and undertaken by Faneuil's own brother-in-law, Captain John Cutler. Those two voyages alone attempted to import at least 150 African men, women and children. At least 90 of these enslaved Africans survived the passage and landed in North America. Sold the highest bidder in ports like Williamsburg, Virginia, and Newport, Rhode Isand, their fates remain unknown.

After the horrifying middle passage out of Africa—itself an incredibly deadly experience—disease and brutal working conditions on plantations meant newly kidnapped and enslaved Africans generally had a shortened life expectancy. Native-born offspring, though still enslaved and subjected to the same brutal conditions, at least gained some immunity to many of the diseases. In the 1730s and 1740s, many wealthy and middling British North Americans began to seek out these Caribbean-born enslaved Afro-creoles as household servants. The popular thinking at the time reasoned that because of their immunities and ability to learn English, they made good “investments” as well as status symbols. In 1738, Peter Faneuil himself specifically asked a contact in Antigua to find him “as likely a strait negro lad as possibly you can, about the age from twelve to fifteen years.” Though it remains unclear whether Faneuil recieved this specific request, Faneuil died in 1742 with a number of enslaved men and women in his home.

Tea, spices, silks and cotton fabrics comprise the most valued of imported Far Eastern goods that buyers sought in the Atlantic world. Generally, government sponsored companies such as the East India Company held a monopoly. They alone could import goods from India, Southeast Asia, and China and land them in London. There, auctions sold lots to local merchants who in turn re-exported the tea, spices, fabric, and other Far East items to merchants and buyers in the colonies on credit.

A catch-all category for agricultural food products. In the scope of this study, foodstuffs could refer to anything from salt beef and salt pork to fresh fruit, vegetables, and cheese. Unlike commodity foods such as sugar, salt cod, and grain, merchants who operated at the level of Peter Faneuil's generally did not prioritize trade in foodstuffs. Typically, captains or agents working for Faneuil in other ports purchased such items as they came available to round out a shipment, or to provision the ship's crew for the voyage. For the most part, farms from the North American colonies produced foodstuffs for export. Island economies that focused solely on cash crops such as the Caribbean and the Wine Islands relied on these imports for food. Other areas relied on foodstuff imports due to climate, such as Newfoundland.

The fur of trapped and skinned mammals in North America fetched a high price in Europe. Used for fashionable coats, hats, and blankets, the fur trade always remained a valuable feature in the borderlands where Indigenous People and Colonists interacted and engaged in trade. Furs, however, could not scale to the level of trade and profit fetched by sugar, grain, or even enslaved Africans. If available, merchants traded in fur, but generally did not make it a focus of business. Surviving letters of Peter Faneuil, for example, only mention the purchase of furs for his own personal use as blankets for his horse-drawn sleigh.

In the 1700s, Europe did not always produce enough food to feed its population. As a result, North American farms in the Middle Atlantic exported grain to Europe at very advantageous prices. Furthermore, all the Atlantic islands that built upon an export economy—Cape Breton and Newfoundland to the north, the Wine Islands in the east, and the Caribbean to the south—heavily depended on staple grain imports to stay fed. Wheat commanded the best prices as the most desirable grain for bread and traditional European foods. American maize, commonly known today as corn, became an alternative for poorer buyers. Rice from South Carolina also saw export, with quality rice going to higher-end markets and lesser rice going to the Caribbean to feed enslaved labor.

Though many small family farms grew and sold grain throughout the Southern and Middle British American Colonies, enslaved labor grew, harvested, and processed a significant amount of the grain exported from British North America, from New England and New York to South Carolina.

Cultivated and processed as a fabric dye, indigo production took on the role of a secondary cash crop in the Caribbean and South Carolina. Like sugar and rice, enslaved labor almost entirely supported the growth, harvest, and processing of indigo. Though many synthetic dyes exist today, the color of blue jeans originate from natural indigo dyes.

Named after the island where the wine originates, Madeira is a wine fortified with brandy or another spiritous liquor. Initially, winemakers fortified the wine to preserve against spoilage. After aging for some time under heat in barrels, however, the color and flavor changed in a way that consumers enjoyed. British American colonists favored Madeira so much, that about 25% of exports went to those colonies alone during the later 1700s.

A catch-all category for non-agricultural items made by skilled or unskilled workers. In particular, fabrics played an outsize role in Atlantic trade. English wool, European linen, Indian cotton, and Chinese silks only broadly name the kinds of fabrics traded throughout the Atlantic world: calamancoes, tammys, cambelts, satins, calicoes, duck, muslin, lulstring, and alamodes name just a few of the kinds of blends and weaves bought and sold. Beyond fabrics, manufactured goods included clothing, shoes, porcelain dishware, silverware, pewter and brass fixtures, jewelry, and even carriages.

Caribbean planters initially viewed molasses as the waste product that resulted from the refining of sugar. After boiling down the sugar cane and extracting as much sugar as possible, what remained formed a sweet syrupy sludge. Some exports of molasses found their way into food as a cheap sweetener, such as Boston style baked beans. Today molasses still finds its way in gingerbread and other traditional baked goods. But because molasses still had sugar, distillers fermented and distilled much of it into rum. For Boston merchants this served as a critical link to balance trade with the Caribbean. But like the sugar extracted from it, this product also came from the hands of enslaved labor.

Rum not only fueled revelry and social ills alike. It provided a means of survival on the high seas. The alcohol content in rum killed bacteria in drinking water stored in hogshead barrels on ships. Furthermore, while inadvisable in modern medicine, the alcohol content helped numb seafarers to some of the most brutal, bone chillingly cold seas of the Atlantic. Like most products, rum had distinct grades, with Jamaican rum considered the most desirable and most expensive. New England rum, generally, was the kind of rum that kept ships sailing throughout the Atlantic.

But like sugar and molasses—rum's sugar cane cousins—the beverage that fueled Transatlantic trade came directly from the stolen labors of enslavement. Every ship on the high seas, even if trading goods such as timber, tea, or salt cod, still carried and relied upon a product of human exploitation.

Throughout the 1700s, England experimented with many tariff and trade protection schemes. Salt, however, remained one of the few items that officials explicitly exempted from any trade restrictions. Most salt produced for export in the Atlantic world came from the coasts of Southern Europe. English officials recognized that without salt imports, the entire cod economy of New England, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland would collapse.

For the most part, when Atlantic merchants such as Peter Faneuil dealt in fish, it meant caught, salted, and dried Atlantic Cod. In an age before refrigeration and canning, salted cod proved to be a miracle food. High in protein and low in fat, it could keep for a very long time at sea. “Market&rquo; grade cod went to Europe, where Catholic states with large populations ate fish on Fridays and on many other religious holidays. This situation gave protestant merchants, including the Faneuils, a unique guaranteed market in Portugal and Spain. “Refuse” or “West Indies” grade cod went to the Caribbean to feed the hundreds of thousands of enslaved workers in the sugar cane fields. This key trade in fish helped offset the debts incurred in England for expensive manufactured goods. The Europeans paid in coveted hard currency, while the Caribbean paid in sugar—almost as good as gold.

New England shipbuilding became a valuable export to the region. Surviving documentation indicate Peter Faneuil built ships for business associates in England and Jamaica in 1738. It is likely Faneuil engaged in this activity throughout much of his life. Furthermore, if a profitable opportunity presented itself while overseas, captains or agents working for Faneuil sold off ships to European buyers after a successful voyage eastward.

With access to cheap timber, shipbuilders in New England posessed an advantage over their European counterparts. Skilled craftsmen worked in every harbor, building, launching, and equipping sea going vessels. Seafarers rated ships by their sail configuration and by the approximate carrying capacity in tons. A schooner generally rated at 30 to 50 tons burthen with rigging in a “fore-and-aft” configuration. Square rigged vessels included brigantines, snows, and ships. Snows and brigantines generally rated to around 100 tons, while ships could be as large as 300 tons burthen.

Foods unavailable in North America due to climate or other constraints provided an opportunity for Europe to sell more than just manufactured goods to colonists. Citrus fruits in particular became a prized import that added flavor to cooking and beverages. Peter Faneuil and his family also enjoyed “sweetmeats”—fine candies and confectionaries imported from Europe.

No commodity commanded more aspects of trade in the Atlantic world of the 1700s than sugar. Pleasingly addictive in food and drink, our modern addiction to sugar truly began in the 1700s. Though it remained expensive, the increasing supply of Caribbean sugar made it more widely available than ever before. But this availability came at a grave human cost. Merchants forcibly imported enslaved Africans in the 1600s and 1700s to drive up the profitability of sugar—the beginning of a forced migration that totaled over 12.5 million Africans before the end of legalized slave trading. Even in northern colonies, a significant portion of the cod caught in Nova Scotia and the food grown in New York or Pennsylvania went south on New England ships to feed the hundreds of thousands of enslaved laborers toiling in the Caribbean. This integrated Atlantic trade extracted astronomical profits at a harrowing human toll.

European colonists saw the vast old growth forests of North America as an extremely valuable resource open to unrestricted exploitation. Indeed, so much of the economics of the Atlantic world depended entirely upon this versatile material. North American timber built homes in New England, the Caribbean, and Europe. Oak formed the ribs and hull of a ship while tall pine trees formed the masts. Every commodity, from grain and sugar to rum and wine, shipped in hardwood barrels, while fabrics and citrus shipped in wooden chests and crates. Lastly, firewood fueled the sugar refineries in the Caribbean and the distilleries of New England. It heated homes and fired kitchens throughout the Atlantic world. A major export second only to cod in New England, the pine tree remains a symbol for New England generally, and the State of Maine specifically.

Because of climate and the variety of grapes available at the time, colonial North America posessed little to no winemaking capability. Colonists, paricularly those of means, therefore sought quality European wine imports. They often complained when they could not find any good wine, and Peter Faneuil was no different in his letters. Consumers generally held French wine in the highest regard, but imports also came from Portugal, Spain, Italy, and the Wine Islands.

Boston National Historical Park, Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: February 2, 2023