Thursday, March 29, 2012

CSS Florida's Jacob Bell Prizes

One of the most well-publicized captures by the cruiser CSS Florida was the giant three-masted clipper ship Jacob Bell. The cruiser sighted, chased, and overtook the New York-based ship off the coast of Puerto Rico on February 12, 1863. Owned by Abiel Abbow Low and Brothers, Jacob Bell was one of four well-designed clipper ships that Low used to import black tea (and occasionally opium) directly from the Chinese port of Foochoo.

Florida's commanding officer, John Maffitt, reported that Jacob Bell had over 17,000 cases of tea in her hold, valued at over $1.5 million (in 1863 dollars). Along with six boxes of coffee, Maffitt kept fifteen cases and had the rest burned. Via the blockade runner Robert E. Lee, he forwarded the captured tea and coffee to Richmond. He expressly requested that the tea and coffee be distributed to soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia. There are two excellent account of the captures, one from Maffitt's official report and another from Jacob Bell's vantage point in the book A Year in China, by Mrs. H. Dwight Williams.

In the museum's CSS Florida exhibit are two items from this capture, a silver soup ladle and a brass counter-balance arm used in measuring the weight of the ship's tea cargo. The soup ladle has the words "Jacob Bell" written in cursive script on the handle. The counter-balance arm has both Hindu-Arabic and Chinese numerals.

These two items have high value as mid-19th century maritime material culture artifacts about the China tea trade. In the 20th-century, some salvagers attempted to claim that the wreck in Hampton Roads next to the sloop-of-war USS Cumberland was not CSS Florida, but rather a civilian ship simply called Florida. Thus, the salavagers claimed, the U.S. Government could claim the wreck as a prize-of-war and its exclusive property. These two Jacob Bell artifacts, however, proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the wreck is indeed the famous Confederate cruiser.

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