William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan
Finding aid for
Finding aid created by
Charles Machin Memoir, 1807-1820
Rob S. Cox, June 1996
Charles Machin memoir
The Charles Machin memoir - in narrative form - documents the personal, financial, and business-related trials of an early 19th century trader of a variety of goods, including cotton, slaves, and mahogany.
The material is in English
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu
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The collection is open for research.
Copyright status is unknown.
Charles Machin Memoir, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan
In 1807, Charles Machin worked, with his consumptive brother, Joseph, as a merchant in the Savannah, Georgia, mercantile firm of James Hunter & Machin. In May, Joseph's health had deteriorated so much that he and Charles decided to take their servant (slave), Peter, and embark on a trip to the west. Forced to make frequent rest stops, Charles soon recognized that they lacked sufficient funds for the trip and deduced that they would need to sell their servant to afford the return. In a tearful parting, as he tells it, Charles exclaimed "'Yes Peter... I sell you to relieve the wants of an afflicted Brother.' Poor fellow, he shed many tears when I told him that I had sold him..." (p. 7).
From Augusta, the brothers crossed northward over the Blue Ridge into Tennessee, where they stopped at the warm mineral springs on the French Broad River. Joseph quickly recovered his health, but Charles was almost immediately called away to Savannah by pressing business. Once home, Joseph relapsed and died on October 28th.
Upon his return, Charles applied to the Governor to be named Notary Public to supplement his income. In this way, he cleared himself of debt and, though troubled by a severe fever in the summer, departed for the north in August, 1808, to scour up some additional business. In Philadelphia, he entered into partnership with Gaspar Adhemar for a shipment of goods to Savannah, and after returning to Savannah, went on a remarkable journey to collect a debt from a small back country farmer, John Lehr. Riding for several days inland, Machin surprised his debtor on court day at Barnwell Court House. Not one to mince words, he threatened to shoot Lehr with his pistol, and eventually collected his debt in kind after tying Lehr to a tree, whipping him, and otherwise abusing his person.
Machin's next enterprise was a personal response to the embargo of 1807-1809 -- an attempt to smuggle a large quantity of cotton from Florida. After successfully landing the cargo, he was informed on by a "negro," and was forced to bribe a customs agent with $100.00. He then whisked his cargo away by canoe only to find that it was leaky. Although he managed to secure the cargo, Machin had failed to take into account that the agent whom he had bribed was not an honorable thief. Jordan, the agent, informed on the operation and the investment in cotton turned into a total loss.
The ensuing months were tight financially, but through some fast work and successful speculation, Machin nearly worked his way clear of debt, and upon the return of Adhemar, discovered that they had expanded their enterprise into the wholesale grocery business. Adhemar, however, seems to have had other concerns. Machin heard the rumor that his partner was intending to sell out the firm at Machin's expense, and within a few days, he had evidence that the rumor was true: Adhemar had purchased a ship and cargo on the firm's credit and was headed north, leaving Machin with the bill. Stunned and well on the road to destitution, Machin wrote to Philadelphia to have his partner arrested when he landed, and in November, 1809, headed for the city to clear his name. In what would become a pattern, though, Machin was waylaid by storms at sea, and after seemingly obtaining clearance from his creditors, he was forced to seek the assistance of a friend to finance his return home. On Christmas day, he noted, he had only one cent to his name.
Adhemar's debts continued to stalk Machin, who was forced to try to clear himself by shipping 40 tierces of rice to profitable Saint Bartholomew. En route, ill winds nearly sank the ship. Forced back to Charleston, Machin arrived to find the sheriff waiting, intending to arrest him for debt, and only through the assistance of a friend was he released and able to charter another boat. Setting out again for Saint Bartholomew, Machin (of course) ran into another storm, which forced a landing in Jamaica, where he was forced to sell his rice at great loss. As resourceful and ill starred as ever, Machin boarded a ship to return, to find the drunken captain steering the wrong course and grounding the ship on rocks off the coast of Cuba. Taking control of the ship, Machin finally managed to limp home to Savannah, poorer, but surely no wiser.
Mired in a deep pit of debt and despair, Machin enlisted as supercargo on a voyage to Havana. After spending 26 days in Cuba and a lengthy return of 34 days to Charleston to sell his new cargo of coffee and sugar, at last, his fortunes seem to have improved. Over the next several months, into early 1811, he plied the trade routes between Charleston, Savannah, Kingston, and Havana. He remarked negatively on the physical abuse inflicted on the ship captain's wife by her husband.
Machin's old luck returned, however, no sooner than his return to Charleston. Following a string of misfortunes and the reappearance of Adhemar's old creditors, Machin was arrested and thrown into jail as a debtor, where he was introduced to a Mr. Finch, who offered him what appeared to be golden opportunity to escape debt. Desperate and with no other prospects, Machin secured his release with Finch's assistance, but soon fell into his usual labyrinth of difficulties. Finch's plan was to give Machin a share in an illegal slaving voyage between Africa and Brazil -- perilous (he noted), but highly profitable. Although not thrilled with the prospect of slaving, Machin signed on, but after leaving Charleston, he discovered that his "benefactor" and partner, Mr. Finch, was in fact intent on deceit in much the same manner as Adhemar.
Refusing simply to submit, Machin confronted Finch after their arrival in Havana, where they were to register the ship under Spanish colors, and came to blows with members of the crew. Leaving ship, he attempted to force an arrangement with the perfidious Finch to free himself of any debts that might be incurred in the mess by submitting to the arbitration of two local merchants. After a Spanish associate of Finch's poisoned Machin with an arsenic-laced punch drink, Machin filed suit against Finch in the Cuban courts. Although he was successful, Finch's delaying tactics and the mounting cost of legal counsel and stamped paper eventually forced him to forestall. Eventually, Machin was forced into a compromise agreement with Finch to ensure that he got something from the endeavor. He did -- a substantial loss.
Taking on a cargo of mahogany, Machin headed for Greenock, Scotland (where he sold at a loss), and then to London to visit relatives. He stayed only long enough to accept the assistance of his brother, George, in financing another trip to Havana. Thus in July, 1813, he was at sea, facing the usual adverse headwinds. Off Haiti, his luck turned from awful to wretched when his ship was boarded by Cartagenian privateers flying English colors. Their ship plundered, Machin and crew managed to wend their way to Jamaica through the assistance of a friendly English merchant. Traveling to Cartagena in hopes of recovering something of his losses, he discovered that the privateers had commissions and flags from the British, Spanish, Americans, Danes, Swedes, and the "Blacks of San Domingo," flying whichever was most beneficial at the moment. After contracting leprosy, Machin slinked back to England to collect insurance for loss of the ship. He found that he was only partially insured and suffered a great loss in the whole affair.
Resolved to work his way into good financial standing, Machin accepted a position with the Excise Office, and on March 26, 1817, married Sarah Ann Cleaver. Confident of his prospects, he entered into trade as a grocer, only to revert to the Excise Office when he discovered he could not earn a sufficient living. Following the birth of a son, Joseph Charles, in February, 1818, and a daughter a year and a half later, Machin was set scrambling to keep ahead of expenses. Falling further behind after set-backs in running a store, he signed on as a steward and clerk on a South Seas whaling voyage, departing February, 1820. The content of Machin's later life is unknown.
Collection Scope and Content Note
The Charles Machin memoir was written in an engaging, literary style, its strength lying in its ability to put the reader into the mind of an early 19th-century trans-Atlantic merchant. It is possible that Machin embellished the truth to make for better reading.
English in origin, Machin lived and traded in Savannah, Charleston, New York, Philadelphia, Jamaica, Havana, and England, moving easily among the port cities, raising capital and stores for trading voyages that inevitably went sour. Through his adventures, Machin emerges as a likable, but not always reputable man who beat and threatened the lives of his debtors and was willing to engage in smuggling cotton and slaves. At the same time, he was constantly surprised by the unethical behavior of his partners and their willingness to hurt others in the name of profit. Machin was repeatedly caught up in the machinations of other, more ruthless merchants.
The memoir provides insight into the financial wrangling, legal and extralegal, of merchants and entrepreneurs. The networks of friendships and false-friendships, the schemes to raise money, and the ideas about profit and risk are all important in situating the mind of the early American merchant. In some ways, Machin was the proverbial man without a country who either easily switched identities or whose identity changed with the context: an Englishman, a some-time resident of Savannah, and a trader in any port or enterprise that promised a good return.
Machin's memoir also includes some excellent descriptions of life in the several ports and countries he visited, most notably of Havana and other locations in Cuba, but also of Jamaica, Cartagena, and the far interior of Georgia and South Carolina.
- Adhemar, Gaspar.
- Augusta (Ga.)--Description and travel.
- Burnell, Eliza.
- Business ethics.
- Cartagena (Colombia)--Description and travel.
- Cuba--Description and travel.
- Cuba--Social life and customs.
- Debt, Imprisonment for.
- Debtor and creditor--Georgia.
- Embargo, 1807-1809.
- Funeral rites and ceremonies--Cuba.
- Haist, Sarah.
- Health resorts--Tennessee.
- Husband and wife.
- Jamaica--Description and travel.
- Jamaica--Social life and customs.
- Jaruco (Cuba)--Description and travel.
- Lehr, John.
- Machin, Joseph, c.1778-1807.
- Matanzas (Cuba)--Description and travel.
- Sailors--Drinking of alcoholic beverages.
- Scotland--Description and travel.
- Ship captains.
- Slave trade--Brazil.
- Tennessee--Description and travel.
- Wife abuse.
Additional Descriptive Data
Adhemar, GasparAdulteryAnts--CubaAugusta (Ga.)--Description and travelBrothers--DeathBurnell, ElizaBusiness ethicsBusiness ethicsCartagena (Colombia)--Description and travelCaves--CubaCottonCourtship--GeorgiaCuba--Description and travelCuba--Social life and customsDebt, Imprisonment forDebtor and creditor--GeorgiaEmbargo, 1807-1809FriendshipFuneral rites and ceremonies--CubaGambling--CubaHaist, SarahHealth resorts--TennesseeHospitals--CubaHusband and wifeJamaica--Description and travelJamaica--Social life and customsJaruco (Cuba)--Description and travelLehr, JohnLeprosyLongevity--CubaMachin, Joseph, c.1778-1807MarriageMatanzas (Cuba)--Description and travelMerchants--Georgia--SavannahMiscegenationPlantations--CubaPoisoningPrivateers--Colombia--CartagenaSailors--Drinking of alcoholic beveragesScotland--Description and travelShip captainsSlave trade--BrazilSlaves--GeorgiaSmuggling--BrazilSmuggling--GeorgiaStormsTennessee--Description and travelTuberculosisWhalingWife abuseWomen--Cuba