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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Dudley Saltonstall’s checkered career

    I dislike the expression “No good deed goes unpunished,” but in Dudley Saltonstall’s case, it may be true. As far as I can discern, one of the few good things he ever did professionally was responsible, in part, for the British attack on New London.

    Dudley (1738-1796) was from a distinguished family. Sir Richard Saltonstall came to America in 1630 on the Arbella, the flagship of the first wave of the Puritans’ Great Migration. Richard founded the settlement that’s now Watertown, Massachusetts, but hated his first New England winter and returned to England the following year; two of his sons decided to stay behind. Another ancestor, Nathaniel, was a judge on a Salem witch trial. Noted for being highly principled, he served one month before quitting in disgust.

    Here in New London, Dudley’s grandfather, Gurdon, Sr., was a minister at the New London Congregational Church before becoming governor of the Connecticut colony. Dudley’s father, Gurdon, Jr., was a brigadier general during the Revolution; letters between him and George Washington are held by the Library of Congress. Saltonstall Street in New London commemorates the family, and the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) building on Truman Street was formerly the Saltonstall School.

    In July 1781, Dudley was working as a privateer out of New London, commanding the vessel Minerva, when he captured the British merchant ship Hannah, bound from London to New York laden with luxury goods and gunpowder, the latter sorely needed by the Patriots. The Hannah was the richest prize taken by the Americans during the entire Revolution. Her capture was a feather in Dudley’s cap and a source of American pride, but it so infuriated the British that it became a factor in their decision to raid New London two months later. The retaliatory attack burned most of the city to the ground, including two Saltonstall homes on Main Street (now Eugene O'Neill Drive).

    Dudley had turned to privateering after the Continental Navy court-martialed and dismissed him from service. Why? In 1779, he’d commanded a flotilla to rout the British out of mid-coastal Maine; the expedition was such a debacle that it’s considered by some to be the worst American naval disaster before Pearl Harbor. Dudley was charged with ineptitude and failure of leadership, and held responsible for about 400 American casualties and the loss of the entire fleet (44 ships, including the General Putnam, built here in New London by Nathaniel Shaw, Jr.). Angry critics thought Dudley should be executed; others felt he was being unfairly blamed for a naval campaign conducted without effective land support. Extenuating circumstances or not, the affair must have been humiliating.

    Debate about his culpability aside, another chapter in Dudley’s maritime career is unambiguously terrible: his participation in the Atlantic slave trade. It began in 1757 when, at age 18, he sailed to Africa aboard his father Gurdon’s slave ship to pick up human cargo for delivery to the Caribbean. Apparently, this was a family business because Gurdon owned at least two slave ships, and a 1760 edition of the New London Weekly Summary announced that Gurdon was offering two recently imported African men for sale. Dudley resumed slaving after the Revolution, and continued until he died in Haiti in 1796 from tropical disease.

    Some of his logbooks, detailing two voyages in 1757 and one in 1758, were discovered at the Connecticut State Library by author and journalist Anne Farrow. Her resulting book, “The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory,” paints a devastating picture. Farrow, with colleagues Joel Lang and Jennifer Frank, also authored another book, “How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery: Complicity,” which shows how the North enabled what New Englanders would rather remember as a Southern institution.

    One online source says that Dudley “dabbled” in the slave trade. To me, dabbling connotes a hobby, like taking up oil painting or raising orchids. This wasn’t a hobby; this was business. I know we’re supposed to judge people by the light of their times, but I don’t think any century is so devoid of light that kidnapping and selling people to be used as farm equipment can seem like a nice idea. Despite his father’s example, Dudley must have known that what he was doing was vile. Still, it was profitable, so he did it anyway. In that, he was far from alone.

    Sincere thanks to Steve Manual, executive director of the New London County Historical Society, and to Tom Schuch, retired social services director and local historian, who’s rescued much local Black history from obscurity or oblivion.

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