At 26, Elijah Cobb had risen from cabin boy to ship’s master. The year was 1794, and Cobb, of Brewster, Mass., had made his money moving goods up and down the Atlantic Coast and hauling spices and other goods from the West Indies to America.
But Europe, France especially, offered far greater profits. The country was starving as its revolutionary government, now firmly in its reign of Terror, lurched toward its final dissolution in 1799. The iconoclastic lawyer Maximilien Robespierre was leading the country as a member of its Committee of Public Safety.
Robespierre was a central figure in France’s revolution, and he embodied its contradictions. He had urged the beheading of the king and an end to the monarchy. In the name of civil liberties he advocated the end of slavery in French colonies, and said all men should have a vote in choosing the government. Yet, paranoid over perceived and real threats from both the left and right, he ordered more than 15,000 of his fellow citizens guillotined in 1793 and 1794 merely on suspicion that they did not support the revolution.
Cobb sailed his ship Jane Into the midst of this chaos headed from Boston to Cadiz. His ship was stopped and his supplies of rice and flour were seized. They were desperately needed by the starving French. At Brest, Cobb negotiated the sale of his cargo, but getting an agreement was one thing. Getting the money was another.
After waiting a month for payment, Cobb sent the Jane back to Boston under the command of his first mate, the ship loaded with nothing but ballast. He engaged a guard and travelled to Paris to plead his case. Traveling day and night for three days, Cobb described the horrors of passing the corpses of dead men who had been guillotined for their anti-revolutionary sympathies. Meanwhile, monarchists hid at every turn waiting to rob anyone they could.
Cobb made it to Paris, obtained an interview with Robespierre and pleaded his case. The French commander cursed the American sailor, but signed papers directing that he be paid for his cargo. Before Cobb could collect, however, Robespierre was, himself, put to the guillotine. His fellow revolutionaries had decided he was too tyrannical in his ways. After spending the night in the same chamber used to jail Marie Antoinette, Robespierre was taken to the guillotine to be included among a score of French citizens who would die that day.
With all possible speed, Cobb made his way to Hamburg where he could collect his funds; he knew that with each passing moment Robespierre’s orders held less authority.
With a little bribery and fast talking, the Cape Cod sea captain persuaded the French officials to pay the debts and he transferred the funds to England. He had managed a 200 percent profit on his voyage. Elijah Cobb’s backers who owned the Jane knew of the turmoil in France and the risky nature of their trade. Many doubted whether Cobb would actually make it back to America, and when the young captain returned to Boston they made him into a hero.
Elijah Cobb would have many more adventures, which he recorded in his memoir, Elijah Cobb: A Cape Cod Skipper 1768-1848, but none quite so daring as his first visit to Europe and his firsthand look at the French reign of terror and its horrible guillotine.