In December 1844, USS Constitution was crossing the Indian Ocean from Zanzibar to Sumatra as part of the ship’s two-year voyage around the world. Even before the ship had left the United States, its crew represented nations from around the world. Halfway through the ship’s circumnavigation, the crew was growing even more diverse.
A crew census conducted by the officers during the Indian Ocean crossing found that 200 of the ship’s 415 enlisted crew were born in the United States and 175 had come from other countries, with the remaining undetermined. Eighty-six of the foreign-born came from the British Isles—35 English, 34 Irish, a dozen Scots, and five Welsh. The next-largest group were 24 Germans, though these were broken down further, with 16 hailing from Germany, four from Hamburg, two Prussian, and one from Bremen. Fourteen were Swedish, six were Danish, and three Norwegians. Of the remaining crew, there were 11 Dutch, eight Canadians, six French, five Chinese, two Italians, two Portuguese, one each from Mahon (Menorca), Peru, the West Indies, Australia, and Switzerland.1
Places of Birth: Enlisted Crew
United States: 200
West Indies: 1
Those were just the sailors. The officers estimated that half of the 40 Marines were also foreign-born, making 195 foreigners and 220 native-born Americans among the entire enlisted crew.
Languages and Landings
The diverse makeup points to the global nature of Constitution’s crew at a time when the ship was being sent around the globe, and contributed to a cosmopolitan polyglot on board. German, Dutch, Chinese, French, Portuguese, and Italian were all spoken on board in addition to English.
The diversity of languages was put to use when Constitution encountered ships from other nations, and visited ports in South America, Asia, and Africa. In Rio, for example, there were warships from Sardinia, France, and the Netherlands, in addition to American and Brazilian ships. In Singapore, Constitution encountered warships from Britain, the Netherlands, and Vietnam as well as British, Dutch, and American merchant vessels. The ship supplier who restocked Constitution’s stores was a Chinese agent named Whampoa.
While the ship’s muster rolls provide a complete list of the sailors on board, it is difficult to identify the foreign-born and multilingual. The Navy did not note sailors’ ethnicity or nationality when they enlisted. Foreign nationals were commonly enlisted as members of U.S. Navy crew through the first half of the 19th century, often joining a ship in one foreign port and departing in another. In this way, Constitution and other Navy ships served as a means of global migration for some members of their crews.
John Ahong signed on in New York on May 15, 1844, and signed off in Macao on September 1, 1845. Wang Appo, Wong Ayoung, and John Aheap also signed on the same week in New York and also left the ship in China. During their 15 months aboard they all did different jobs. Ahong, a landsman, earned $9 a month. Ayoung, an ordinary seaman, earned $10. Aheap and Appo, serving as officers’ cook and steward, each earned $18. All of these men left the ship in China, as did John Aon, who had come aboard in Singapore in February 1845 as an officer’s cook. Antonio Decaria also came aboard in Singapore and left the ship in China. It is uncertain which, if any, of these men were using the ship to return home to China. Or perhaps they were globetrotting mariners taking advantage of other opportunities in the bustling ports of Macao and Hong Kong.
While Ahong, Ayoung, Appo, Aheap, and Aon left Constitution in Macao, John Archo and John Arcut came aboard there and stayed on as officers’ steward or officers’ cook for the rest of the cruise. They left the ship upon its return to Boston, but it’s unclear whether they signed on to voyages on other ships, or began lives ashore in the United States.
Opportunity and Adventure
Domingo Borges signed on in August 1844 as a second class boy in Rio, earning six dollars a month. Nearly a year later he was promoted to first class boy, with a two-dollar raise. He was still earning that income a year later when Constitution returned to Rio, where Borges was discharged. He may have been one of the “Portuguese” identified in the officers’ census, though more likely he would have called himself Brazilian.
In the journals of midshipmen and officers, glimpses of these individuals and their backgrounds do emerge. One of the best is the journal kept by Frederick C. Fischer, a teenager from Saxe-Weimar, who had only immigrated to America the year before Constitution sailed. His father, Christian Fischer, had brought the family to Baltimore, but found little work for a German musician. In February 1844, father and son took the Stimmpath to Norfolk to enlist aboard Constitution. Frederick Zimmerman was the band-leader, and the Fischers signed on, along with John Mohr, who had accompanied them from Baltimore, and Mohr’s brother-in-law Daniel Kraft. The younger Fischer had heard that all Navy ships carried a band of 15, “and are all Germans,” a fact so important he underlined it in his journal.2 But not all Constitution’s musicians were German—Antonio Boledaras was Spanish, and William Cook was apparently an American. For more on the international nature of the ship’s musicians over time, see Musicians on Board.
A World Traveller’s Demise
Among the British-born was an older man, Marine Private Charles G. Clyde. Noted for “his quiet and respectable manners,” he also served as school-master for Constitution’s boys during the voyage. Clyde died on board on November 7, 1845, and was buried at sea about 400 miles north of Oahu. Among his papers the officers found his remarkable story, which further epitomized the global nature of seafarers in the era.
The son of a British Royal Navy purser, Clyde had been first mate on an East India ship, then second master of HMS Thunder. Challenging a superior officer ended his British naval career. He then shipped out as first lieutenant in the naval forces of Egypt’s Ibrahim Pasha, fighting on the Ottoman’s behalf against a Greek insurgency in the 1820s. Clyde left the Egyptian service at his own father’s “urgent solicitation,” signing on for five years in the United States Army before joining the U.S. Marines. “Who can tell the changes, the scenes, the sufferings which this man has encountered in the course of his eventful pilgrimage,” Constitution‘s Lieutenant John Dale wrote upon Clyde’s death. “What bright aspirations he may have set out on the journey of life, to die, at last, as a private soldier in a foreign service!”3
1 In Thomas, Around the World in Old Ironsides, 61.
2 Frederick Fischer, Experienced and Conquered, Annabelle F. Fischer, Editor, Noah Good, Translator. (Westminster, MD: Peach Originals, 1996) 1-2;
3 John B. Dale “A Wilderness of Waters,” Journal. Typescript by Margaret Hindle Hazen, 249.
Robert J. Allison
Professor & Chair, Suffolk University
Robert J. Allison is an historian, author, professor, and chair of History, Language & Global Culture at Suffolk University.