What happened in Surinam during the 18th century stayed in Surinam, until a painting called Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam surfaced in 1948. It drew back the curtain from the decadent, debauched goings-on in Paramaribo, the trading capital of the Dutch colony. The painting also exposed some of Rhode Island’s most respected citizens as having, well, a more playful side.
The colony of Surinam served as an important entrepot for merchant sea captains from New England. They came in vessels loaded with flour, fish, meat and horses — often Narragansett Pacers. In exchange, they bought molasses, cotton duck, coffee, cacao – and people.
In 1761, for example, the Brown brothers of Rhode Island sent a letter to one of their ship captains in Surinam. It told him to use the proceeds of the sale of his cargo to buy molasses, cotton duck, bills of exchange and six “Young male Slaves from twelve years and upwards.”
Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam included some of the Brown brothers’ ship captains partaking in a bacchanala. The artist, John Greenwood, painted them in a scene of drunken abandon that included card-rigging, dancing, smoking and passing out. As a sea captain identified as a future Rhode Island governor slept, one prankster poured rum over his head while another vomited into his pocket – even as his pants caught on fire.
Greenwood may also have intended a sly comment on the price some people paid for the sea captains’ fun and prosperity. He painted into the scene four dark-skinned servants, in all likelihood enslaved.
Sea Captains Carousing
Culturally, Surinam was a Caribbean colony, and like other Caribbean colonies, it generated great wealth mostly from its sugar plantations. The planters depended on the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of Africans. Slavers competed in the Surinam market to buy and sell men, women and children.
Of the 4,478 ships that arrived in the capital, Paramaribo, in the 18th century, 90 percent sailed from New England. The average layover for a New England ship lasted 10 weeks. Perhaps it took the sea captains that long to get sober.
While laying over in Paramaribo, the sea captains could enjoy the city’s exuberant luxury. Wealthy merchants and planters lived in elegantly furnished houses, ate from silver and china plates and wore magnificent clothing of imported silk and velvet accented with diamonds and gold. They also had plenty of slaves.
John Greenwood arrived in Surinam in December 1752 at the age of 25. He was born in Boston on Dec. 7, 1727, the son of a prosperous sea captain, in Boston. John Singleton Copley, the most famous American painter of his era, was a boyhood friend. Much later in life, while living in Europe, Greenwood commissioned Copley to paint a portrait of his mother because he wanted to see ‘the good lady’s face.’ Copley sent it to him, but he never saw his mother alive again.
Greenwood’s father died insolvent in 1747, and his son worked as an apprentice for a while. Then he left his apprenticeship to pursue portraiture.
Like the itinerant folk artists who roamed Connecticut and western Massachusetts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Greenwood traveled along trade routes painting portraits of sea captains and wealthy merchants. They could afford to buy portraits and wanted to show off their wealth, just as the bourgeois farmers and tradesmen inland did.
Greenwood spent five years in Paramaribo. While there, he observed shipping networks and local events while painting 113 portraits along with Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam.
In October 1757 he described two Dutch sea captains up all night drinking.[I] “saw ’em at 1 o’clock as I came from the watch. Dinker was very Drunk & told me that a very holy & Religious dispute had kept ’em together all night & that was not yet settled–that is they were to Have another drinking match.”
Between 1755 and 1758, he painted Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, believed commissioned by John Jenckes, a Providence sea captain. The painting remained in the Jenckes family until they sold it to the St. Louis Art Museum.
According to a note penned by a family member and dated June 6, 1878, 10 sea captains could be identified in “The Old Jenckes Picture.” Though engaged in slaving and privateering in the 1750s, many went on to political or military prominence in the American Revolution.
In 1977, historian Robert W. Kenny tried to figure out who really attended that drunken night of revelry in Surinam.
Kenny, for example, finds it plausible that John Jenckes stands in the background to the right holding a candle while John Greenwood vomits. Greenwood, of course, was in Surinam. Jenckes and his father Daniel may well have laid over in Surinam, possibly after a voyage to Antigua. The man with his back to the table is Daniel Jenckes.
In the right foreground, Nicholas Power supposedly gives a dancing lesson to young Godfrey Malbone. Both the Powers and the Malbones were prominent seafaring families from Rhode Island. But Malbone, a privateer and slaver, had many years on Power, then only around 16. Kenny concludes Malbone gives the dancing lesson to Power.
Esek Hopkins and Nicholas Cooke
The man at the back of the table wearing a black hat is Esek Hopkins, the first commander-in-chief of the U.S. Navy. Appointed to command the navy’s eight ships in the American Revolution, he didn’t last long in the job.
Hopkins had made a fortune as a privateer and as a merchant. In In 1764, the Brown brothers — Nicholas, John, Joseph and Moses — sent Esek Hopkins in the brigantine Sally to Africa to buy slaves. Hopkins acquired 196, but during the ignominious voyage home, 109 died by suicide, starvation, disease or in a failed mutiny.
Hopkins sits next to Nicholas Cooke, in a gray Quaker hat smoking a long pipe. In 1766, when Cooke was near 50 and well-established as a leading Providence merchant, the board of Rhode Island College (now Brown University) chose him to join them. Some board members objected, saying he wasn’t a good enough Baptist. Cooke protested, presented his bona fides and got the seat.
Clearly the board hadn’t seen the painting of Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam. Or maybe they had, and that was the real reason they thought he had shortcomings as a Baptist.
Cooke won election as deputy governor of Rhode Island under Joseph Wanton, Jr. The General Assembly in 1775 deposed Wanton for his alleged Loyalist sympathies, and Cooke assumed the governorship.
Sea Captains Carousing – Not
Some people think the passed-out middle-aged target of vomit and punch is Joseph Wanton, Jr.—treated much the same way the General Assembly treated the then-governor.
However, Kenny believes the figure in the painting too old for the governor. Instead, he surmises it’s his father, a prosperous West Indies merchant. The sea captain vomiting into his pocket, Ambrose Page, later won election to the General Assembly. He was also John Jenckes’ brother-in-law.
History treated Stephen Hopkins with more kindness than it did his brother, Esek. In 1776, with a palsied hand, Stephen Hopkins signed the Declaration of Independence by holding his right hand with his left. As he signed, he said, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.”
That noble sentiment is missing from Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, if, as people believe, the man passed out next to Esek Hopkins is indeed Stephen Hopkins.
However, Kenny pointed out that Stephen Hopkins probably wasn’t in Surinam when Greenwood was there. He believes it more likely that Greenwood depicted another Hopkins brother, William.
With thanks to The Eighteenth Centuries Global Networks of Enlightenment by Cynthia Wall and Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam by Robert Kenny in Rhode Island History, published by the Rhode Island Historical Society in November 1977.
This story last updated in 2022.