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History Time: Philip English, perhaps the greatest Salem merchant

Posted by Amanda Stonely  August 3, 2011 10:00 AM

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From Ralph Delahaye Paine, The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: The Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement (1912)

“...he built him a mansion house on Essex Street, a solid, square-sided structure with many projecting porches and with upper stories overhanging the street. It stood for a hundred and fifty years, long known as "English's Great House..."

Philippe L’Anglois (1651-1735) was the greatest entrepreneur Salem ever saw, a cutthroat, hustling, hyperactive shipmaster and merchant who came to Salem in the 1670s as a young shipmaster from the Isle of Jersey, in the English Channel. Anglicizing his name to Philip English, he proceeded to open new markets for Salem’s maritime trade and to make enemies as he swashbuckled his way forward in the 1680s.

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The Anglo Puritan ruling class liked his money but not his style, and he remained on the outs. Not that it mattered: for many years he stayed at sea, cheating storms and fevers and pirates and dodging death in a dozen tight spots; but it was at home in Salem in 1692 that he would face execution, at the hands of his neighbors.

English amassed his first fortune in the 1670s by marrying Mary Hollingworth, a much-courted local heiress who brought him property and credibility. The foreigner was deeply resented by the many suitors whom he had trumped, but Philip and Mary cared not: theirs was a love-match, and he was happy at home—but only for a while, for he had come to Salem for the same reason that he had to keep leaving it: the seaport was located at the junction of great currents of supply and demand, strategically placed to take advantage of the commerce of the Atlantic world, available just over the horizon.
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For many years, Salem’s merchant ship-owners had profited from the unregulated trade uniquely possible from their side of the ocean. Great quantities of the cod fished up by Marbleheaders from the depths off Maine and the Maritimes were cured locally and shipped from Salem to the West Indies to be exchanged for sugar, molasses, and luxury items brought from Europe and the Orient, of great value when landed at Boston, England, or Salem.

Or the sleek merchants might ship the tons of cured fish directly to Spain for salt and wine, or have their ships carry cargoes of barrel staves to Wine Islands off Portugal.

It was one thing for rich men to sit in their counting houses, awaiting the returns of their shipmasters’ trading efforts; it was quite another thing for one man to do it all—navigate his own vessel, acquire the cargoes, and go from market to market, connecting the lucrative dots thousands of miles apart, sniffing out the best opportunities and making the on-site deals and long-lasting friendships in ports from Canada to the Caribbean and over to France.

None of the merchants of Spain and Antigua and Barbados had ever met William Browne or Timothy Lindall, but all of them knew Philip English, the fearless Salem Frenchman—the self-made American, the proud man apart, self-reliant, unwilling to be judged by others, certain of his own worth, singled out as the one who would survive, thrive, and triumph.

Philip English came ashore about 1690 to set up as a great Salem merchant, perhaps the greatest. The Puritan aristocrats, bound together by blood ties and decades of joint ventures and self-interest, resented the presumption of the former L’Anglois, a lucky sailor who somehow had never gone down in a shipwreck like so many of their hirelings. He built a grand mansion in the lower end of town, and a fine wharf and warehouse; but his wealth did not make him their equal; and to many, like Sheriff Corwin, it only made him a target.

When the cries of witchcraft in Salem Village (earlier known simply as “the Farms”), began to echo in the courtrooms of Salem Town itself, there was hope that the plague might not affect the people of the seaport. Certainly no one in the Salem Town ruling class had anything to fear from witch accusers. It was, after all, the aristocrats who conducted the legal and religious proceedings under which the witchcraft outbreak was being managed, and so far the rustic working-class accusers seemed not to have been tortured by evil spirits emanating from the wealthy and powerful.

But Philip English was perhaps not so wealthy or powerful as to overcome an exotic background and a controversial reputation. To lay him low—a rich merchant and a newly elected selectman of Salem Town—would be to establish the irresistible power of the accusers and to satisfy the long-held desires of the likes of Sheriff George Corwin.
Author's note: Part one of two on Philip English

Robert Booth, a founding board member of the Salem History Society, is executive director of the Center for Clinical Social Work. Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, will publish his book, “Death of an Empire,” about Salem in the 1820s, in August, 2011. Reach him at For information on joining the Salem History Society,

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