January 22

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Jan 22 - 1:20:1766 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (January 20, 1766)

“Said FOX continues his Business in drawing Deeds of Conveyance, Leases, Mortgages, Charter-parties, Bills of Bottomry, Bills of Sale, Letters of Attorney, and all other Writings.”

Joseph Fox appears to have been an attorney.  (Who other than an attorney would have devised such convoluted directions to his place of business?!)  Many of the services he offered look quite familiar:  leases, mortgages, bills of sale, and letters of attorney.  One of the others grabbed my attention.  What are bills of bottomry?!

West’s Encyclopedia of American Law (2008) offers this definition:  “A contract, in maritime law, by which money is borrowed for a specified term by the owner of a ship for its use, equipment, or repair for which the ship is pledged as collateral.  If the ship is lost in the specified voyage or during the limited time, the lender will lose his or her money according to the provisions of the contract.  A contract by which a ship or its freight is pledged as security for a loan, which is to be repaid only in the event the ship survives a specific risk, voyage, or period.”

Given the risks associated with transporting goods throughout the network of commerce that crisscrossed the Atlantic in the eighteenth century, it’s easy to see why some owners of vessels might find this arrangement attractive.

Apparently bottomry declined significantly during the nineteenth century, to the point that it remains mainly of interest to maritime, economic, and legal historians today.  In the eighteenth century in a busy port city like Newport, however, “Bills of Bottomry” would likely have been a relatively common mechanism well known to much of the seafaring populace, especially owners and masters of vessels.

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