Coleridge's Captain Derkheim

By Paley, Morton D. | Wordsworth Circle, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Coleridge's Captain Derkheim


Paley, Morton D., Wordsworth Circle


When Coleridge returned to England from Italy in 1806, he landed at Stagate Creek, the quarantine station for ships with clean bills of health, on August 17, and was in London by the following day. (1) On August 19, he wrote to Robert Southey of the horrors of the sea journey and of how his life was saved by the ship's captain:

  Very, very ill I was at my setting off from Leghorn / not one meal in
  ten, little as I eat, could I retain on my stomach / and we had 55
  days aboard ship / & what I suffered even to the last day, may the
  worst of men only ever feel. Had not the Captain loved me as he often
  said better than a Brother, & performed all the offices of a Nurse, I
  could not have survived--so obstinate was my costiveness, & so
  alarming the effect of purgative medicines / No doubt, my silly
  horror of Inning an Enema performed on me, greatly increased the sum
  of my sufferings; perhaps, if I had consented to have had one or even
  two every day, I might have suffered but little /' whereas, I own
  with shame, but in part this was owing 10 the exceeding despondency
  of my mind, I had if not above a dozen times

The captain's surname was Derkheim, as we know from a letter Coleridge wrote to his wife on September 29 (CI. 2: 1185), and from a letter that he wrote to the captain on September 30 (CL 2: 1184), a letter that was never received Our knowledge of Captain Derkheim stops with these three letters. Up to now, not even his last name has been published. A friend who played such an important, if short, role in Coleridge's life deserves more recognition.

Moses Myers Derkheim was born into a Jewish family in Norfolk, Virginia, to Meyer and Sarah Derkheim on February 22, 1774, in Norfolk, Virginia, the third of eight children. (2) His father (1748-1816) was a mohel (ritual circumciser), and he also for some time kept, a shop, molding candles and selling turpentine and soap. Before moving to Norfolk, Meyer Derkheim was one of the founders of the Jewish cemetery in Charleston, S.C. In 1788, and perhaps in other years he was paid by the city of Norfolk to light the lamps on one of its bridges. In 1798, he is recorded as being a Freemason, but whether he was one earlier is unknown. He is called "the learned Myer Moses Durkhum [sic]. Esq," in a newspaper report of his daughter Rachel's wedding in I799.4 (The spelling probably shows how the family's last name was pronounced.) Meyer and Sarah later moved to Philadelphia, the city of Sarah's birth, and died there in 1818 and 1828 respectively. Moses Derkheim appears to have remained a resident of Norfolk all his life; at least that is named as his city of residence in a legal notice published after his death in 1817. (5)

No information as to Moses Derkheim's upbringing has emerged. As his father, practiced as a moyl, and as his sister was married in a Jewish ceremony in Charleston, one may assume that Moses was brought up in the Jewish religion. I have no knowledge, however, of his education or- his early life. The earliest record I have been able to find of him after his birth is dated November, 1799, when he was twenty-five years old. In that year, or possibly a year or so earlier, Derkheim enlisted in the U. S. Navy to fight the French in what, is known as the Quasi War-. This conflict began as a result of the French government's exercise of what it regarded as its right to seize any ship carrying British goods. The United States was neutral, but nevertheless over 300 American merchant, ships were seized in the year 1797 alone. (6) Art American mission sent to Paris to negotiate was first, presented with the demand for a bribe of $220,000. Known as the XYZ affair, news of it, along with the confiscation of ships and fear of invasion, inflamed public opinion in the United States. In 1798, the U.S. government began launching frigates and purchasing commercial vessels to be converted to warships. President John Adams did not seek a declaration of war, and neither did the French government, but there ensued a series of naval actions that went on until December, 1800, when France agreed to stop its operations against American shipping.

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