Home > History of Wine > Madeira in Early America, Part 4

Madeira in Early America, Part 4


This is the final of four posts based on my talk presented to The Stanford Wine Society in April of this year.

India Madeira in America

During the Revolutionary War, the British blockaded the major ports of Boston and Charleston. In response the Continental Congress economically boycotted Great Britain which included a ban on the import of Madeira wine. Madeira shipments to America plummeted so the Madeira houses sought to make up this deficit in part by expanding trade to India and China. The share of Madeira sent to this eastern market rose to nearly half of the entire trade. During the ocean voyages the holds of these ships, with the pipes of Madeira inside of them, could reach temperatures as high as 120F. It was soon found that this India Madeira was favorably improved.

The American India trade began in 1783, when the ship United States of Philadelphia set sail for China but first stopped at Madeira. Pintard boarded the ship within half an hour of it weighing anchor. He invited the Captain, Supercargo, and Surgeon to stay at the house of Searle where he resided. He was also a relative and employed at the house. The director of the house convinced the captain that a better price would be obtained for any Madeira sold in India rather than China. Some two weeks later the United States left Madeira for India with a cargo of 125 pipes of Madeira from John Searle & Co.

The journey of the United States to Pondicherry and back to Philadelphia took an extraordinary long time with many lives lost to scurvy. The majority owner was in financial difficulties as a result, causing the ship and cargo to be auctioned off just to pay the wages. There was then the question of the debt to John Searle & Co. With only one-fifth of the Madeira bill paid the matter was turned over to attorneys, the results of which are unknown. This was not the last issue for the Searles.

Pintard wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1784 that the house of John Searle & Co. had “Vast connections in the India trade”. In 1786, when the British East India Company looked for a Madeira supplier for their colonies in India, the house of John Searle & Co won the very first bid. The Searle’s were soon extensively involved in the India Madeira trade.

The trade with India and China could yield immense profits but the early Madeira trade was not without its risks both for the owners of the ships with their cargoes and the Madeira shippers. Across several documents we learn the fate of the John Jay and General Washington, two ships, under different owners, which both set sail for the Far East in December 1788. The General Washington was to carry a cargo valued between of £10,000 to £12,000 worth of which 1/8 would be Madeira taken on board en route. Both ships loaded up with Madeira from John Searle & Co of which more than 120 casks of various sizes were on the General Washington alone.

Upon arriving in India, the supercargo of the General Washington found that they had “the misfortune to find a great imposition in the quality of our wines which has proved a ruinous affair to the whole Voyage”. There was a series of small and unexceptional vintages from 1785-1788 which appear to have caused the Searle’s to overextend themselves. The General Washington was forced to sell the first portion at “a very low cost” for goods instead of money then the rest were sold off in China. It did not help that the market was glutted with wine. The cargo of the John Jay was mostly Madeira which they were forced to sell off in Madras, Batavia, and Bombay. Both ships wrote letters of protest to support their legal cases against Searle whose failure was announced in American newspapers in 1793 and 1794.

Pintard had left Madeira in 1786 only to return in 1790 as Consul. Experienced in the India Madeira trade under the Searle’s, he created his own business and it is he who shipped four pipes of Knox’s Madeira via India. There were accompanied by two pipes for Washington. This was in fact the second order of India wine being sent to Washington. Both of which arrived within months of each other. This new type of Madeira was no doubt rare. Neither Thomas Jefferson nor James Madison ever received India wine. Pintard acknowledged this unusual order suggesting “Should you not think proper to take the pipe that is gone to India” then it could be sold to someone else.

The timing of these orders is not by accident for in 1793, France declared war against Great Britain. The British tolerated this American trade because they did not want the Americans to reactivate their alliance with France. The Jay Treaty avoided war between Great Britain and America by recognizing American neutrality in the wars with France. It also allowed formalized American trade to both the West and East Indies. The treaty was passed in 1795, the same year that the new ship Ganges picked up the pipes of Madeira destined for Washington and Knox.

The cost of the London Particular Madeira was the same but it is the freight which made these wines expensive. The freight charges for the first India pipe was £15 compared to the £3 3s direct from Madeira. That made one pipe of India wine £55 compared to £39 13s for London Particular direct. The freight for the second two pipes came to just over £33 each. These pipes of India Madeira cost a staggering £71 each, not regarding duties and drayage.

The freight for Knox’s pipes was £20 each compared to £33 each for Washington. The former were simply “cased” whereas the later were in “dble cases”. In order to prevent the theft of such expensive wine, the pipes or casks themselves were often placed inside a larger wooden case. Washington once had a pipe of Madeira entirely replaced with water so he subsequently cased his wines. For this shipment he was exceedingly cautious as he placed his Madeira inside two increasingly larger cases. Madeira typically shipped in 110 gallon pipes. Knox’s single case raised the volume to approximately 196 gallons each. Washington’s double cases would have occupied over 320 gallons each.

George Washington was willing to pay such extraordinary prices not only because Madeira “one of the most expensive liquors” but that old Madeira “is not to be had upon any terms”. Keenly aware of the scarcity of his India wine he instructed that the duties be paid “for the whole quantity” of the double cases rather “than have them uncased for the purpose of measuring the” present contents. He did not want to risk the wines stolen or adulterated.

The India Madeira for Knox and Washington arrived during the summer of 1796. Knox was notified of the arrival of his wine and that it would be stored until directed otherwise. Seven months later he received another letter explaining that the bill remained unpaid. He was given just five days to pay the outstanding $922, a huge bill given that he made $3000 per year as Secretary of War. We do not know what happened with the wine. Knox had moved back to Maine, where several of children passed away and he had engaged in failing business enterprises.

George Washington wanted his old India Madeira “reserved..for my own use when I get home” as it was “not easy to be replaced”. It was in March of 1797 that George Washington retired from his Presidency and returned to Mount Vernon. According to his Household Account books, that very same month he paid the duties on the two pipes of Madeira as well as the drayage. George Washington’s personal goods were shipped from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon so there is a bill of lading. It is noted in the margin, ”No. 21.22. Two pipes Meda. Wine not mentioned in the No. of Casks-“. George Washington brought his rare India wine back home to Mount Vernon where he drank the last glass just months before passing away in 1799. Pintard became disgraced by consular affairs that year and departed the Island. In doing so he closed this early trade in India Madeira with America.


[1] Arrowsmith, Aaron. Composite: Map of India. 1804. David Rumsey Map Collection.  URL: https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~233589~5514095:Composite–Map-of-India-?sort=Pub_List_No_InitialSort%2CPub_Date%2CPub_List_No%2CSeries_No#

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