Today in 1799, the merchant ship Neptune sailed into New Haven harbor after an absence of two years and eight months with the most lucrative haul of cargo Connecticut had ever seen.
Captained by New Haven native Daniel Green, the Neptune set sail in late 1797 with a crew of 45 “young, sturdy, and active” Connecticut men, each of them hoping to cash in on the lucrative trade market for Chinese goods. Sailing due south, they rounded the southernmost tip of South America and became the first New Haven-built ship to sail into the Pacific ocean. Before continuing westward, the crew lingered near Cape Horn for a prolonged period to hunt and gather as many seal skins as possible to trade with Chinese merchants.
After collecting over 80,000 seal skins, the crew of the Neptune sailed onward to China, where they were handsomely rewarded for their hunting efforts. By the time the ship returned to New Haven on July 11, 1799, its hold was stuffed with thousands of chests of coveted Chinese tea, porcelain, silk, and other exotic wares. The net worth of the Neptune’s cargo was estimated to be in the millions of dollars — in 1799 money! — and the $75,000 lump sum of taxes paid on it was $20,000 greater than the entire civil tax list for the whole state of Connecticut.
The Neptune’s voyage spurred a mini-boom of shipbuilding in the greater New Haven area, as ambitious investors jumped at the chance to duplicate the ship’s incredible financial success. A marked drop in the price of seal skins, however, ensured that none of these copycats came close to bringing in as much wealth as the Neptune’s maiden Chinese voyage. Today, pieces from the Neptune’s history-making and record-breaking voyage can be seen in New Haven’s Whitney Library and at the New Haven Museum.
Stephen Urchick, “Year of the Dog Gets a Local Throwback,” The Greater New Haven Arts Paper