A Tale of Transnational Trade: How the Dabney Family of Fayal Overcame Global Conflicts from 1767 to 1815

By: Nicklas Thygesen

In the summer of 1806, a struggling Bostonian merchant operating in France – John Bass Dabney – arrived on the Azorean island of Fayal with his family in search of new economic opportunities. While his previous business was located in the heart of France, European tensions – namely the Napoleonic Wars – ravaged the family’s wine business. With his trade ships forced to sail under the French flag and the French government ruthlessly seeking British sympathizers, Dabney found himself caught between warring powers. His ships were targets for British confiscation while he found no refuge within France, and was therefore forced into bankruptcy. This, however, would not defeat him. His youngest son later testified, “John Dabney was known for his industriousness and virtue, as well as for a perseverance that was to be tested more than once.”[1] Business contemporaries called him “Monsieur Project,”[2] and so, on his way back to America, John made the strategic decision to stop in the Azores for a few months.

Being a transatlantic wine exporter, it is more than likely that he was aware of the Azores as a prominent North Atlantic supply-depot. Moreover, the islands were owned by Portugal – a neutral country, safe from the clashes of Britain and France. Although his first impressions of the islands and their culture were far from positive, it is clear that “Monsieur Project” saw opportunity. Dabney was known to be “a man of vision” who “knew what he wanted” and never failed to “see the opportunities that existed within the problems of disagreeable situations.”[3] Within a year of returning to America, Dabney made plans to relocate his family to Fayal. Over the course of eighty-six years, John Bass Dabney and his family would guide what was once considered a sleepy tourist island nearly 1,000 miles off the coast of Portugal into a thriving economic powerhouse. Through three wars in three different countries, strong developments in the wine industry, off-shore whaling, and the strategic exploitation of mercantilist neutrality, the Dabney family would not only persevere, but thrive. In time, they would be known to the Azores as merely “La Familha [The Family].”[4]

            Although the literature on the Dabneys is rather limited (even expressed in the title of one of the most comprehensive accounts of the family, Joseph C. Abdo’s On the Edge of History), what does exist are largely biographical pieces. Among these are Abdo’s work, as well as sociologists Mónica Maria Filomena and Sousa Paulo Silveira’s book The Dabneys: A Bostonian Family in the Azores, 1806-1871: An Anthology Based on the Annals of the Dabney Family in Fayal. While these are undoubtedly invaluable sources  documenting much of the Dabney family’s history on Fayal, they both rely extensively on compiled biographical records regarding their contributions to the Azores. Some works place an emphasis on the Dabneys, but specifically pertain to the Dabney’s European and British connections – not their ties to commerce or the United States.[5] Other scholars argue that the Azores were a rapidly growing and powerful economic landmark in the Atlantic, but fail to include the Dabney’s fundamental roles in those developments.[6]

In contrast to the current literature, I explore the Dabney’s critical role in Azorean developments, arguing that not only were they a prominent force, but the guiding force of developments. Moreover, and more importantly, I use the story of the Dabney family to highlight global political tensions from the late 18th century to the early 19th century. To best highlight these tensions, I analyze the fall-and-rise of patriarch John Bass Dabney who was raised in the midst of global turmoil, experienced the full brunt of European tensions, and felt first hand their dire consequences on the American merchant class. Unlike his fellows and merchant counterparts, he ingeniously managed to circumvent financial ruin by exploiting the neutrality of the Azores during a time of diplomatic, economic, and military conflicts. I begin by explaining John Bass Dabney’s earliest upbringings with merchant families in America, then explore his first successful business that ended in ruin, and finally dissect his astute decision to relocate to the Azores which ultimately created a lifetime of prosperity.

Before Fayal

John Bass’s Early Years and Ventures

            Before Fayal, and what would become known as the family’s “Mecca” was established, patriarch John Bass Dabney would experience what appeared to be a never-ending string of struggles, despite almost always coming out on top.[7] Born in Boston, 1767, to Dr. Charles Dabney and Mary Bass, both educated and in the merchant class, his first challenge came at ten years old. At such a young age, little John received his first glimpse of an international conflict that would stick with him for the rest of his life.

            The Siege of Boston began on April 19, 1775, and marked the opening phase of the Revolutionary War. Although the American militia would successfully contain British troops within the city, merchants (the Dabney family among them) did not fare as well as the army.[8] Prior to the war, Bostonian merchants – like all other American merchants – relied extensively on trade with the British. For a time, that trade would all but cease, forcing Dr. Dabney and his family to move to Oxford, Massachusetts. The family remained in Oxford for the majority of the war, living off Dr. Dabney’s savings. In 1782, near the end of the war, the family was again forced to relocate, this time to Providence, Rhode Island. It was in Rhode Island at the age of 15 that John Dabney voluntarily bound himself as an apprentice to Edward Kinnicut Thompson and Lewis Debloid of the “Merchants in Company.”[9] Not much is known about Dabney’s time as a merchant’s apprentice, but there was certainly a good reason that within ten years Dabney would elect to establish his business in France and not America.

Although the end of the Revolutionary War brought peace to the nation, the same could not be said about trade. In the words of historian John D. Forbes, “like other seaports in the new American states, Boston found itself in 1783 no longer a part of the British colonial system, enjoying its protected markets and scale of bounties, but out in the cold.”[10] The phrasing Forbes employed, “out in the cold” succinctly summarizes the plight many merchants found themselves in. To be more specific, New England was wholly excluded from trade with the British West Indies, then a primary source of income for the colonies. This served as a stark contrast with the Bostonian trade throughout most of the 18th century. The State Street Trust Company of Boston, in 1918, published a hefty pamphlet on early operators and proponents of Bostonian trade. In their work titled “Old Shipping Days in Boston,” it was noted that at the turn of the century “Boston increased so rapidly as a shipping centre as to bring forth… the Colonial Governer [sic], the remark ‘I may venture to say that there are more good vessels belonging to the town of Boston than all Scotland and Ireland, unless one should reckon the small craft such as herring boats.’”[11] When merchants could no longer enjoy unrestricted trade with the West Indies at the end of the 18th century, they were forced either to venture elsewhere or cut their losses until restrictions loosened.

Even as restrictions lessened thanks to the incessant gripes of both Bostonian and English merchants to their respective governments, trade between the West Indies and America was opened solely to “British bottoms and by British subjects,” leaving American merchants to fend for themselves or seek new opportunities.[12] Many merchants found themselves in dire straits.[13] Writing on the volatile postwar period, historian Richard Buel Jr. notes, “the lingering economic effects of the war, however, inhibited many from taking immediate advantage of the new opportunities that were evident for all to see.”[14] As an apprentice it is unlikely that Dabney experienced the full brunt of the halted trade, but when it came time to start his own business, the pressures of limited trade were clearly too much to bear.[15]

To be sure, other merchants felt the same pressures. “Meanwhile,” highlights Forbes, “American merchants were slowly building up foreign business connections and struggling to expand their trade abroad. A few ships from Boston sailed for the British Isles, France, the Iberian Peninsula, and the countries on the Baltic and North Seas.”[16] Although these new ventures were successful and trade was on the upswing in Boston, Dabney made the decision to establish himself in France in an effort to avoid the tumults at home. Abdo makes note that, “why he went was never explicitly stated,” however, between his experience watching the Revolutionary War damage his father’s business and his time as an apprentice under a severely restricted American merchant family, it is likely he moved to France to avoid similar problems. Additionally, in 1793, the British government issued a law that “authorized the capture of all vessels of any nationality found trading with the French colonies.” It is possible that Dabney felt he could maneuver around this barricade by basing himself in France.[17] It is also possible that, as a keen businessman, he felt he could turn the internal tensions growing within France and their external tensions with Britain into opportunity.[18] This opinion is enhanced by other historians, who note that:

Then appeared the deus ex machina which was to rescue American commerce from its

plight. War broke out between republican France and a coalition of her royalist

neighbors… Simultaneously… arose a far-reaching economic struggle between the

opposing groups of powers… The immediate effect of the outbreak of the war on

American shipping… was to stimulate it by throwing open to neutral vessels the West

Indian ports of the French and Spanish possessions.[19]

Regardless of whether Dabney believed he could leverage Europe’s tensions in his favor, it is clear his maneuvering was met with initial success.

Although there is a gap in the chronicle of John Bass Dabney between 1782 and 1792, it appears his three years as a merchant’s apprentice were formative, as were his excursions in France. By 1794, at the age of 25, he was firmly established in France with a wine exportation business.[20] His ventures too must not have been without success, as in 1792 he believed himself to be stable enough to marry Roxa Lewis, described as “a young Massachusetts woman known for her beauty and regal bearing.”[21] Moreover, in 1795 a letter to his newlywed can be found regarding the purchase of ships: “I have been here [France][22] three weeks and have bought in that time ten exceedingly fine ships, the smallest 300 tons burthen[23] and from that up to 850 tons.”[24] These ten ships were in addition to at least eleven previously purchased in either Boston or France. Owning (or having shares in) nearly 22 ships – and ones of substantial size – was no small ordeal. By word of mouth from her family, Roxana Lewis Dabney suggested that he perhaps “owned or had shares in as many as thirty vessels” around this time, and that “he was ever so enterprising and full of plans.”[25] A 1795 letter from one of his primary business associates, a certain Mr. R.B. Forbes, wrote to congratulate him for all his success: “Dear Dabney, – I am here favored with your letter of 24. May and am happy to see you en grand chemin, go on and prosper!”[26] With the ability to fly under neutral American colors, Dabney (along with Bostonian traders at home) was indeed prospering, and in his Sketch of the Dabney Family, William Henry Dabney noted that “during these years was the golden opportunity for Americans and American vessels which J.B. Dabney improved and by it acquired a fortune.”[27] Put simply, business was thriving.

Financial Ruin to Fayal

The Collapse of John’s Business

Unfortunately, Dabney would not remain “en grand chemin” [on the big way] for long. While his ships were originally able to fly American colors and thus remain neutral – distanced from warring Britain and France – new edicts and laws soon confiscated the privileges granted by neutrality. Among those laws was a 1796 decree issued by the Committee of Commerce in Paris. The rules of the decree were expressed by Dabney in a letter to his wife, in which he stated “the Committee of Commerce at Paris decreed last week that the Ships we had bought should not sail under American Colours.”[28] This meant that all of Dabney’s ships were forced to sail under French colors, making them prime targets for British vessels. At the time, the English Royal Navy was relentlessly patrolling the seas and confiscating everything sailing under the French flag, regardless of destination. Attempts to register his ships as purely American failed, providing him with no choice but to see his ships sail as French vessels.[29] To make matters worse, even his American ships became targets, although this time targets by the French. “Ever since the outbreak of war,” Forbes notes, “commercial relations with France had been uncertain and capricious because of the succession of unstable governments in office in that country.”[30]

There were two primary consequences of those conflicts that impacted Dabney. One of them is again mentioned by Forbes, in which the historian states “on July 2, 1796, the French Directory announced to neutral nations that they might expect from France precisely the same sort of treatment that they received from England in corresponding situations.”[31] In other words, neutral merchant vessels (American included), would become targets for French ships and susceptible to seizure. France even passed a law that “declared the nationality of a vessel to be determined by that of its cargo,” which saw France embark “upon a policy of unrestricted privateering.”[32] The second consequence of those relations largely came into play after the United States refused to join France in the war against England. Specifically, France had asked the United States to capture and stop British merchant ships profiting from American neutrality. Of course, the newly founded states were in dire need of coin, and their neutrality had helped Bostonian trade boom. Therefore the U.S. declined, and were so disgruntled by the proposition they briefly confiscated French vessels as a result. The French – angered – began to indiscriminately capture (or even sink) American ships, creating “a period of undeclared war between France and the United States.”[33]

It was during this tumultuous period that Dabney decided to move his entire family to reside in France, where he would have four more children with his wife. It was clear he intended to weather the storm; however, caught between warring powers, he was forced out of business within a few years. In her Annals, Roxana recounted this period: “J.B. Dabney suffered such heavy losses by his ships being confiscated, sometimes by the British cruisers, then by the French, that he finally returned to his own country.”[34] His business failed, spiraling towards bankruptcy, and without a vessel to his name, John Bass Dabney and family planned a return to America.

Arrival at the Azores

John’s Gamble with Fayal, and the Values of Neutrality

During his ventures in France, a contemporary wrote to Dabney, claiming he had “a head that will repel a bullet.”[35] That is to say, Dabney was headstrong, stubborn, and proud. Despite the collapse of his business, he refused to give in. In fact, in an act quite the opposite of giving in, Dabney decided to briefly stop in the Azores before returning home to Boston. Roxana Dabney suggested that he was possibly in the Azores due to the death of his wife’s sister (who had drowned in an incident about six years prior in Horta), but it is more likely that he was there in search of economic opportunity.

To fully understand the significance of Dabney’s decision to relocate to the Azores, it is crucial to understand the importance of the Azores in the 19th century. The Azores are a mid-Atlantic archipelago consisting of nine volcanic islands. Combined, all nine only make up a measly 906 square miles; however, they are known for their fabulously fertile soil (perfect for both wine and tea), picturesque lake-filled calderas, and comfortable, sleepy coastal fishing towns.[36] The islands were first colonized by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century and have remained an autonomous region of Portugal since. Beginning in the 17th century, but predominantly in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Azores were a prominent transatlantic resupply point (most often for whaling vessels). Throughout most of Portugal’s history, local Azoreans seldom got involved with the quarrels of the mainland. Portugal typically remained neutral during the seemingly ceaseless European wars, though when Portugal did get involved (especially in wars against Spain), the Azores never closed their ports to trade. To what extent Bostonian merchants knew of the Azores as a pristine geographic and economic landmark is unknown; however, considering Dabney was the only 19th century Bostonian merchant to relocate there permanently and establish a business poignantly expresses the ingenuity of his decision.

Long-familiar with the quarrels of great powers and their catastrophic effects on his trade, Portugal’s neutrality was certain to attract Dabney’s attention. Throughout almost all of Britain, France, and America’s disputes in the 18th century, Portugal’s ports had remained open to all. Moreover, for someone who had specialized in transatlantic trade, it is more than likely that Dabney knew of the Azores geographic prominence in the wine trade and whaling industry. To make things more enticing, Dabney was a specialist in the wine industry, and the rich volcanic soil certainly must have caught his eye. Despite a long letter to a friend describing how much Dabney was rather unimpressed with Fayal, going so far as to insult the food: “every thing on the table is sour… The bread, the most execrable stuff that ever was tasted, is always sour,” he would relocate his now-large family to the islands in 1806.[37] Immediately upon arrival Dabney called upon his familial connections in Virginia to make a bid for the position of first American consulate – a position that would yield no immediate monetary gain, but place him in a position for future political and henceforth economic power.[38] It is probable that his past connections with other merchants, as well as his position as United States representative, helped him set up his first business on Fayal. That business, true to his roots, was to export wine from the Azorean island of Pico throughout Europe and America.  

Despite Dabney’s strategic decision to move to Fayal, his appointment as consul, and ensuing successful business, European tensions followed him to Portugal. The French, at this time struggling to maintain a positive income and falling behind England monetarily, forcefully tramped through Spain and into neutral Portugal, occupying it. They demanded that the Portuguese close all of their ports to British ships, which would have effectively starved the English for coin while allowing the French to gain a monopoly on the water. Despite the Portuguese government’s insistence on neutrality, and a treaty that had been maintained with Britain since 1386, Napoleon’s wishes were clear: close all continental markets to his enemies.[39] With a far weaker military power than France along with England’s regrettable information that they could not defend them, Portugal – in wishing to avoid physical conflict – accepted the terms.

Napoleon was so insistent on squeezing his own merchants and choking his enemies’ mercantilist practices that he even despised the idea of “neutral” trade countries. Historian Frank Edgar Melvin, writing on Napoleon’s “Continental System” and blockade, states “[Napoleon] had just demonstrated his insistence upon a strict enforcement of his system without evasion or subterfuge. He had emphasized the intolerable position of neutrals, disregarding even their right to exist.”[40] Curious then, comes the position of the Azores during this time. In an 1807 letter addressed to then Secretary of State James Madison, Dabney wrote, “information has reached the authorities here from the Government of Portugal of the actual shutting of their Ports against the British Flag, but it is confidently asserted here, that these Islands are to enjoy a kind of Neutrality. Several English vessels are now quietly loading and unloading as in times of profound Peace.”[41] Why the Azores were spared from Napoleon’s ruthless blockade is not entirely clear (possibly their difficulty in enforcing the blockade against the Royal Navy’s supremacy); however, the situation of neutral countries, including America, were well known. “This was the situation in Europe,” Forbes writes, “which made neutral shipping such an extraordinarily profitable enterprise for New England [and in this case, Azorean] seamen.”[42] The general neutrality – and profitability – of Boston merchants would not last long after.

Embargos, War, and Peace

Jefferson’s Disastrous Embargo and the War of 1812

            As the French tried to disrupt English trade through the Berlin Decree[43] and Napoleon’s Continental System, so too did England try to disrupt French trade. In 1807, in an almost immediate response to the Berlin Decree, England gave the Order in Council.[44] The Order in Council effectively allowed the British to capture all merchant ships – regardless of origin – trading with France. America, still neutral at the time, faced the brunt of the Order. Hundreds of American vessels were captured, not only nearing French ports, but in American waters as well. Even the tranquility of Azorean waters was not spared, as was expressed in a letter from Dabney to Thomas Pinckney, at the time Envoy Extraordinary from the United States to the Court at London. “I take the liberty to lay before you,” wrote Dabney, “an account of an outrage committed in this Port by Capt. Maling of H.B.M. Frigate ‘Undaunted’ now lying at anchor in these roads.”[45] Essentially, a British vessel carrying some of Dabney’s goods left for Gibraltar, only to be immediately captured by a British Naval Frigate and returned. The goods onboard were taken by the captain of the frigate, leaving all parties involved irate.[46]

The culmination of England’s severe interference on Atlantic waters ended with the Leopard-Chesapeake affair of 1807, in which the British HMS Leopard fired three broadsides into the USS Chesapeake, an American warship.[47] President Thomas Jefferson, in both witnessing the unabated capture of American ships and seeing U.S. trade ground to a halt given the Order of Council and Milan Decree, was pushed into action. Thus far, America’s neutrality had benefited trade and commerce immensely, and thus Jefferson wished to maintain that state of neutrality. Physical war was to be avoided, so the approach taken was one of “peaceful coercion”  or rather, commercial warfare.[48] The result,  the Embargo Act of 1807, was arguably one of the worst presidential blunders in American history. The Embargo Act declared that no American ships could trade in foreign ports, specifically French or British ports, in an effort to coerce the two countries into removing their restrictions on American trade and respecting neutrality. In turn, virtually all of the United States’ trade (their primary source of income at the time), completely and utterly stopped. Moreover, the global legitimacy of American military, politics, and economics stooped to newfound lows while merchants glared at the incompetence of their government.[49]

On top of bankrupting the government’s trade industry, the Act further suffered from minimal enforcement. This meant that illegal trade was rampant, which saw to the profit of not the government, but rather individual merchants not afraid to subvert the law. The Act was so devastating to American commerce that it was partially reversed a paltry two years after it was passed, turning it into the Non-Intercourse Act. The Non-Intercourse Act reopened American trade with most foreign ports, with the exception of Britain and France. Much like the Embargo Act, it was ultimately a failure in the sense that the United States Navy could not enforce it, and trade with Britain and France continued illicitly. Despite the Non-Intercourse Act failing in its goal of coercing the two major powers into respecting American neutrality, it did see an overall revival of trade in New England. For the Dabneys in the Azores, the Non-Intercourse Act was more than a revival, but a major boon to their wealth.“The Non-Intercource Act, which was passed after the Embargo Act was repealed in 1809,” wrote Roxana Dabney in her Annals, “enabled Fayal, as having the safest port in the Azores, to reap a golden harvest; for American and British Ships came and landed cargoes for reshipment.”[50] The harvest was golden indeed. That year Dabney’s business received significantly more income than all of his previous years as a wine merchant.

In keeping with John Bass Dabney’s unfortunate lifelong story of international conflict, his golden harvest would not last forever. The Non-Intercourse Act was repealed a year after it was passed, and simultaneously Napoleon – primarily through deceit – convinced the new president James Madison to pass a new Non-Intercourse Act in 1811, albeit one that solely targeted the British.[51] This new act “made the United States virtually a part of the Continental System.”[52] Not only did this anger the British Crown, it too angered American merchants, their ships once again prime targets for the Royal Navy. Within a year hostilities between America and Britain rose to the brink and the only possible outcome was war. Madison, sick of British harassment on the Atlantic through the Order in Council and general hostilities, declared war on England in 1812. As the Royal Navy rushed to blockade all American ports, foreign trade (and virtually all ocean-going vessels), once again came to a halt. The U.S. Navy stood no chance against Britain’s Atlantic superiority, and Boston’s overseas trading collapsed once again.

Although American trade all but ceased, Dabney’s gamble to relocate to the Azores was partially paying off through Portugal’s respected neutrality.[53] Of course, Dabney was displeased with the war, and wrote to the General of the Azores at Terceira in 1812: “Sir, – I deem it my duty to apprize your Excy. in an official manner that I have received the unpleasant intelligence of war having been declared by the United States of America against Great Britain.”[54] He also mentioned, “whether this war shall be of short or long duration, I confidently hope that no circumstances may occur to disturb the Harmony that so happily subsists between H.R. Highness the Prince Regent of Portugant and the U. States.”[55] For two years, nearly no American vessels – merchant or naval – entered the port of Fayal. Trade was quiet, but Dabney accumulated immense wealth under the Non-Intercourse Act, and was able to focus on his familial and island developments. Moreover, the British respected the neutrality of the islands, and were still willing to trade. Namely, the British sought after Dabney’s goods – wine and whale-oil procured from Portuguese offshore whaling vessels. The slow and steady trade was suitable for the Dabneys.

Yet, the War of 1812 would spill over to Fayal in 1814. Arguably, this was the Dabney family’s (or at least John Dabney’s) last taste of international conflict. Early in the afternoon of September 26th, 1814, the American warship General Armstrong under the command of Captain Reid, harbored in the bay of Horta, found herself under siege by British boats sent from three of Royal Navy Captain Lloyd’s warships. Despite the port respecting both American and British warships during their time of war and allowing both to safely dock and resupply over the years, “Mad Lloyd” commenced an attack. Although Captain Reid impressively held off an attack from a regiment three times his own, the General Armstrong was eventually abandoned. This event was symbolic not only to the Dabney family, who would attempt to receive compensation for the lost American warship deep into the 1850s, but also served as the final confrontation between America and Britain at sea.

As the War of 1812 came to a close, so too did John Bass Dabney’s tumultuous business experiences. Ten years after his birth, Dabney was thrown into a world of political conflict that remained with him for the majority of his career. He would experience firsthand the consequences of the Revolutionary War, the inner turmoils of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and finally the War of 1812 on the merchant class. In contrast to his Bostonian merchant counterparts, Dabney refused to accept the constantly shifting terms of trade passed by both his own government and those of America’s enemies. After the collapse of his otherwise successful wine exportation business in France, he sought the Azores over Boston. Considering no other merchant family from America had ever settled in the Azores, his decision was both unprecedented and incredibly risky. He had to start completely anew under a different country’s rules and regulations, and attempted to build a business entirely from scratch. In spending all that was left of his coin on a house, a vineyard, and a couple of ships, Dabney truly gambled it all. Not only did he succeed, he thrived. While merchants at home were dealing with the disastrous Embargo Act and ceaseless trade barricades instituted by England, France, and America, Dabney and his family enjoyed the luxury of Azorean neutrality. Through it all, he managed to successfully maneuver alliances and neutralities, and despite his businesses nearing the brink of ruin time and time again, came out on top. Without his “head that could stop a bullet” attitude and ingenious manipulation of mercantilist practices, the Dabney family’s “Mecca” on Fayal could never have been established.

[1] William H. Dabney, Sketch of the Dabneys of Virginia: With Some of Their Family Records (Boston, MA: S.D. Childs & Co., 1887). Although he never truly knew his father all too well, William was the first to compile some family records into one piece. A man who spent his life studying genealogy, he also discovered that, despite his father and immediate family all being born in North America or Fayal, he traced their lineage to that of the Huguenots. Specifically, from the Huguenot leader of 1598, Agrippa d’Aubigne. Over 150 years later and after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, nearly 300,000 Heuguenots fled to Britain, and some to North America. Among them were John and Robert d’Aubigne, who changed their name to the less-French looking “Dabney.”

[2] Roxanna Lewis Dabney, Annals of the Dabney Family in Fayal, 8.

[3] Joseph C. Abdo, On the Edge of History: The Story of the Dabney Family on the Island of Faial in the Azores Archipelago (Lisbon, Portugal: Tenth Island Editions, 2005), 40.

[4] Manuel Borges de F. Henriques, A Trip to the Azores, or, Western Islands (Boston, MA: Lee and Shepard, 1867). Borges was both a native of Flores (one of the Azorean islands), as well as a highly successful merchant. He encountered the Dabney family numerous times throughout life on the Azores, although he spent his later years in Boston, remembering both “The Family,” and his own life on the islands.

[5] Francis Millet Rogers, St. Michael’s Hicklings, Fayal Dabneys, and Their British Connections (Ponta Delgada: University of the Azores, 1988). A powerful work, to be sure; however, Rogers almost exclusively speaks on their connections to Britain, and even more specifically their assistance in laying telephone wires along the Azores that allowed for stronger communications with England.

[6] Louis Pierre Belec, In Search of the Azores: Travels to the Azores in the 19th Century and Early 20th Century (University of Waterloo, April 25, 2020).

[7] Roxana Dabney, Annals, 1. Roxana made note that, to “any who were born there,” Fayal will forever be regarded as their “Mecca,” or rather the home of their hearts. Before that home could be established, John Bass would be tried and tried again in his business ventures.

[8] Some cities, such as Annapolis in Maryland, would actually see their profits grow during the war. Annapolis’ primary good was tobacco, and their primary consumer was France. When trade from Boston all but ceased and the British focused more on the war effort than external trade, the demand for Annapolis’ tobacco rose tenfold in France. During that rise, Annapolis became one of the only cities where planters could send their crop for shipping. The city’s merchants doubled down on their procurement of tobacco and attempted to exploit their “mini-monopoly,” charging exorbitant prices to even let tobacco into the town. For a couple of years, Annapolis saw unprecedented growth. Unfortunately, after the war ended and the British returned to the tobacco trade, Baltimore rose as a “low-cost” supplier of tobacco, and therefore planters began to send all of their crops to that port instead. Annapolis completely failed to adjust, and by 1793 had almost completely withdrawn from international commerce of all sorts. For more on Annapolis, see Edward C. Papenfuse, In Pursuit of Profit: The Annapolis Merchants in the Era of the American Revolution, 1763-1805 (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 1975).

[9] Roxana Dabney, Annals. Not much is known about the family during this time, and only through a discovered indenture did Roxana conclude of their move to Rhode Island.

[10] John D. Forbes, “European Wars and Boston Trade, 1783-1815,” The New England Quarterly, no. 4 (1938): 709.

[11] State Street Trust, “Old Shipping Days in Boston,” Old Shipping Days in Boston (Boston, MA: Walton Advertising & Printing Co., 1918).

[12] J. Forbes, “European Wars,” 709. French ports were a popular substitute for those who could no longer trade with the West Indies; however, as relations between Britain and France devolved into total war, it became increasingly more difficult for American vessels to find healthy open markets.

[13] One such merchant was a certain John Rowe. Otherwise a man with noteworthy success in the whaling industry, the volatile restrictions imposed by Britain and France seemed to yield substantial consequences on Bostonian merchants. Rowe recounts his struggles in Letters and Diary of John Rowe: Boston Merchant, 1759-1762, 1764-1779. For a full citation, see John Rowe, Letters and Diary of John Rowe: Boston Merchant, 1759-1762, 1764-1779 (Cambridge, MA: W.B. Clarke Company, 1903).

[14] Richard Buel Jr., The Peopling of New Connecticut From the Land of Steady Habits to the Western Reserve (Hartford, CT: Acorn Club, 2011), 16.

[15] Even the English were not particularly happy with the halted trade. Although recounting the full scope of Britain’s merchant-class during this period cannot be contained within this paper, one interested should seek Conrad Gill, Merchants and Mariners of the 18th Century (London, GB: London, E. Arnold, 1961).

[16] J. Forbes, “European Wars,” 710.

[17] The “November Orders” from the British would not last long; however, the destruction of
American vessels by the British caused the United States to close all shipping for nearly two months. The closing of American ports impacted Dabney’s business, as a letter from a contemporary from 1794 stated, “for these few days all business has been at a stand.” Roxana Dabney, Annals, 5.

[18] Abdo, On the Edge of History, 26. Abdo, making note of the ideology of one of Dabney’s business partners that “troubled times brought opportunities,” suggests that Dabney may have subscribed to that notion as well.

[19] J. Forbes, “European Wars,” 712.

[20] Roxana Dabney, Annals, 5.

[21] Abdo, On the Edge of History, 25. Two years after their wedding, Roxa would give birth to their first son, Charles William Dabney. Charles would ultimately become the central figure in the story of the Dabney’s on the Azores.

[22] Roxana Dabney, Annals, 7. He frequently traveled between Boston and France during his ventures, and was known to “not let the grass grow under his feet.”

[23] “Burthen” refers to what is called “Builder’s Old Measurement,” or “bm.” This was a method used in England from the 17th to the 19th century in order to measure the cargo capacity of a ship. Strictly speaking, it provided estimations of tonnage based on the overall size and shape of the hull, and was almost always measured in how many tons of wine the ship could carry. For Dabney, it is certain he was indeed providing berthen measurements in terms of tonnage of wine, as he himself was an exporter of the drink during this time.

[24] John Dabney, “Letter to Roxa” (Nantes, France, 1795), quoted in Roxana Dabney, Annals, 7. Of the ships purchased, Dabney elected to name at least one of them after his wife and child, calling it the “Roxa and Charles.”

[25] Roxana Dabney, Annals, 8.

[26] Robert Bennet Forbes, “Letter to Dabney” (Guernsey, British Isles, 1795), quoted in Roxana Dabney, Annals, 8.

[27] William Dabney, Sketch, 27., quoted in Abdo, On the Edge of History, 28.

[28] John Dabney, “Letter on the Committee of Commerce,” quoted in Abdo, On the Edge of History, 28.

[29] In 1798, America was preparing to go to war with France. This created fear among American policymakers, leading to the implementation of rather strict precautions and restrictions regarding foreign trade and overall maritime policy.

[30] J. Forbes, European Wars, 716.

[31] Ibid., 717.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Abdo, On the Edge of History, 29.

[34] Roxana Dabney, Annals, 10.

[35] James Abernethy, “Letter to Gentle Dabney,” 1795, quoted in Roxana Dabney, Annals, 9.

[36] There is a hefty collection of 19th century travel literature about the Azores, all of which boast about breathtaking landscapes and paradisal islands. For these, see Lyman Horace Weeks, Among the Azores (Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1882); Manuel Borges de F. Henriques, A Trip to the Azores, or, Western Islands (Boston, MA: Lee and Shepard, 1867); Samuel Greene Wheeler Benjamin, The Atlantic Islands as Resorts of Health and Pleasure (Manhattan, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1878); Charlotte Alice Baker, A Summer in the Azores: With a Glimpse of Madeira (Boston, MA: Lee and Shepard, 1882); Joseph Bullar and Henry Bullar, A Winter in the Azores and a Summer at the Baths of Furnas (Los Angeles: J. Van Voorst, 1841). Additionally, there are some interesting research notes on Azorean wildlife from highly popular and successful 19th century lepidopterist Frederick Du Cane Godman. Certain members of the Dabney family even assisted Godman in these studies. For these, see Frederick Du Cane Godman, Notes on the Birds of the Azores (London, United Kingdom: Ibis, 1866); and Frederick Du Cane Godman, Natural History of the Azores, or Western Islands (London, UK: John van Voorst, 1870).

[37] John Dabney, “Letter to Jesse,” 1805, as quoted in Roxana Dabney, Annals, 11. Other than the temperate climate, it appears that almost everything about Fayal was disagreeable to John. He complained of their governmental structure, their music, their language, and even the lack of cleanliness of the kitchens. With that said and despite his criticisms, the fact that he still moved to the islands is telling of his business-oriented mind and strategy.

[38] Footnote 1 tells of the Dabney family branch residing within Virginia. Although they were not particularly close, the Dabneys of Virginia were successful in the world of politics, even maintaining a friendship with then president Thomas Jefferson. It is not entirely clear, but still more than likely John Dabney’s Virginian uncles assisted him in obtaining the position. Although his application was approved, it did not go without dispute. The United States representative (although not consul) serving at the time was furious, and the Portuguese government was slow to approve his position. It took nearly a year for Dabney to battle the current representative and Portuguese government, but just like all of his other issues, he eventually succeeded. These disputes are detailed in Roxana Dabney’s Annals.

[39] Napoleon’s blockade was initiated through the “Berlin Decree,” an incredibly effective statute that instituted the “Continental System.” The Berlin Decree and ensuing blockades had in fact extended to every single port on the European continent. Of course, through forceful “negotiations” such as the one with Portugal, seapower, and even “land blockades,” European intercontinental trade virtually ceased to all but France. In 1808, Bordeaux’s American consul noted, “From the Baltic to the Archipelago nothing but despair and misery is to be seen. Grass is growing in the streets of this city. Its beautiful port is deserted except by two Marblhead fishing schooners and three or four empty vessels which still swing to the tide,” Department of State, Cons. Letters, Bordeaux, vol. II, quoted in Frank Edgar Melvin, Napoleon’s Navigation System: A Study of Trade Control during the Continental Blockade (Menasha, Wisconsin: George Banta Publishing Company, 1919), 48. For more on the Berlin Decree, the Milan Decree, and Napoleon’s Continental System, see William M. Sloane, “The Continental System of Napoleon,” Political Science Quarterly 13, no. 2 (1898).

[40] Melvin, Napoleon’s Navigation System, 48.

[41] John Dabney, “Letter to Madison,” 1807, as quoted in Roxana Dabney, Annals, 20. Although the Azores were granted a type of neutrality from the blockades and embargos set in place, it did not come without certain adverse effects. For example, when the French Army invaded Portugal, the Portuguese Royal Family was advised to flee to Brazil – advice they wisely listened to. Unfortunately, this made life for Dabney more difficult when he made attempts to appeal local governmental decisions. The appeals were incredibly slow, and oftentimes not answered at all. Dabney made several complaints to the American consul of Portugal, to no avail.

[42] J. Forbes, “European Wars,” 721.

[43] See Footnote 33.

[44] In response to the Order of Council, Napoleon issued a follow-up of the Berlin Decree, called the Milan Decree. The Milan Decree did exactly the same thing as the Order of Council, only this time targeting British trade rather than French.

[45] John Dabney, “Letter to Pinckney,” 1807, as quoted in Roxana Dabney, Annals, 20. Dabney concluded the letter by suggesting Pinckney use his governmental position to interfere, if he deemed the situation as poorly as himself.

[46] The merchant-class tumults of this time were succinctly described by a businessman living in the midst of it all. For a full recount of the ups and downs of the never-ending trade disputes between America, Britain, and France, see Thomas L.V. Wilson, The Aristocracy of Boston: Who They Are, and What They Were: Being a History of the Business and Business Men of Boston, for the Last Forty Years (Boston, MA: The Author, 1848).

[47] For more on the Leopard-Chesapeake Affair, see Spencer Tucker, Injured Honor: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, June 22, 1807 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Inst. Press, 1996). Some historians argue that the affair was the beginning of the War of 1812.

[48] J. Forbes, “European Wars,” 723.

[49] For more on the Embargo Act of 1807, see J. Van Fenstermaker and John E. Filer, “The U.S. Embargo Act of 1807: its Impact on New England Money, Banking, and Economic Activity,” Economic Inquiry 28, no. 1 (1990). On top of its devastating effects on American commerce, the Act also gave rise to a major spike in smuggling. Struggling merchants oft ignored the Act, making covert deals with foreign ports to accept their goods and keep the coin for themselves.

[50] Roxana Dabney, Annals, 29. In a cheery letter following Roxana’s comments, John Dabney listed the sheer number of ships that had stopped in Fayal since the Embargo was raised. He also mentions an increase in the overall Azorean economy.

[51] Napoleon had successfully convinced Madison that all decrees (primarily the Milan Decree) that hindered American trade would be repealed. Madison thus used the news to pass the second Non-Intercourse Act against Britain, once again with the goal of having the country remove all laws harming American trade (namely the Order in Council). It failed, and hostilities worsened. War soon followed.

[52] J. Forbes, “European Wars,” 726.

[53] Napoleon’s stationed forces in Portugal were forced out in May of 1811. Portugal was once again neutral, and trade with all foreign ports reopened immediately.

[54] John Dabney, “Letter to General of the Azores,” 1812, as quoted in Roxana Dabney, Annals, 45.

[55] Ibid.



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