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Chapter 13

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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please let me know!


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Chapter 15
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p60  Chapter 14

The New China Trade

In John Dunlap's printing office on Market Street, the type dropped into the stick with a monotonous click, click, click as the compositor set up another advertisement for Friday's newspaper. It was a routine notice announcing the proposed sailing of another ship. The ship was the London Packet and the destination was again London; "will positively sail on the 8th day of October next."1

October 8, 1785, positively! Captain Truxtun was preparing to sail for London again. With reasonable luck, this voyage would pay him more than enough to meet the current expenses of his growing family; perhaps he could even pay off some of the debts that he had assumed voluntarily when he quit his partner­ship with Collins. But how many years of sailing to London it would take to discharge these responsibilities was an unanswerable question. A little item in  p61 the newspaper that carried his advertisement caught his attention. "The United States, Indiaman, captain Bell, is arrived at Reedy Island."

The United States! He had passed her in the river a year and a half before, when she was outward bound for the Far East and he was returning home from London.​2 He had been to London three times since then. A year and a half was a long time for a single voyage, but if one voyage to the East could pay him more than three or four to London then he could not afford to ignore the possibilities of the trade.

As long as the thirteen American colonies were a part of the British Empire, their vessels were free to trade with the mother country and with the islands of the West Indies; but India and China were closed to them because of the British East India Company's monopoly in the Far East. Privately-owned ships of the British Empire were not permitted to share in that lucrative trade.

However, when the colonies became the United States of America, the situation was reversed. British ports in the West Indies were closed to them, but they were free to trade, if they could, with the distant countries of India and China.

The Empress of China was the first American ship to embark on the sea route to the Far East. She sailed from New York on February 22, 1784 — General Washington's fifty-second birthday.​3 She displayed the American flag in the Chinese port of Canton, and in May of the following year returned to New York with a cargo of teas, silks, and chinaware. The Empress had opened new vistas to American traders. It was reliably reported that her voyage had earned a clear profit of twenty-five per cent on the investment, which included the cost of the ship; and the profit might have been greater if the agent for the owners had not stolen over two thousand dollars in cash, which should have been used to purchase China goods.4

The United States, of Philadelphia, followed soon after, departing from the Delaware capes in March, 1784. Plagued by scurvy and a drunken chief mate, she changed her destination from China to Coromandel, the eastern coast of the Indian peninsula. This voyage, which ended in Philadelphia in September, 1785, was not particularly profitable, but it helped to demonstrate that the Eastern seas were not beyond the reach of American mariners.5

When the eighth of October came, Captain Truxtun did not sail  p62 for London. Nor did the London Packet, under that name, ever leave the port of Philadelphia.

The Captain succumbed to the lure of the distant Indies. Perhaps he could, in a voyage or two, pay off his debts and repair his personal fortune. If that were so, then the long absence from home and his family would be amply compensated. Regardless of the fortune involved, the distant seas held a power­ful attraction for an adventurous spirit. He would see for himself what lay beyond the far horizon; he would command an expedition that would take him to the outer ends of the earth. The preparations that had to be made before he could sail involved numberless details, but if he hurried he might be able to get his ship out in time to reach the China seas in proper season, before the arrival of the unfavorable monsoon. At any rate, he would try.

As a result, his ship became one of the very earliest China traders to sail from America. There were only four other American vessels preparing to go out to China this season, and one of these was the Empress of China, undertaking her second voyage.

Donnaldson and Coxe, who had had the London Packet built the year before, were unwilling or unable to underwrite the whole adventure; so they shared the risk with the Captain, who scraped together a little more money on credit, and with two other business houses. Thus the general arrangements for financing the voyage were settled; many of the details could be attended to by John Frazier, who was appointed supercargo.​6 As supercargo he would act throughout the voyage as the owners' business agent. On a voyage as long as this, the supercargo was necessary in order to relieve the Captain of the manifold duties of buying, trading, and selling cargoes and to give him freedom to attend to the management of his ship.

Captain Truxtun took his ship, still called the London Packet, to Joshua Humphreys' shipyard, where she was to be prepared for the long voyage. At Humphreys' wharf, long tackles were fastened to the ship's masts and anchored firmly ashore, and the ship was hove down to expose first one half of her bottom and then the other. Her seams were caulked and paid with tar and her bottom was sheathed over, probably as a result of Franklin's suggestion that double sheathing a ship's bottom would make her tighter and stronger. Finally, her quickwork was caulked in order to keep her dry throughout the long stormy months that lay ahead.7

 p63  After her overhaul in the shipyard, the question of a name arose. London Packet was hardly a proper name for a China trader. Perhaps the inscrutable Orientals, to whose shores she was sailing, would be impressed by a more appropriate one. Accordingly, and without any great display of imagination, she was renamed the Canton.8

In sailing out to the Eastern seas, his ship might be attacked by pirates or by the warships of hostile powers, so Captain Truxtun decided that she would need some armament. The Algerines, of the Barbary coast, already had sent their raiders beyond the Pillars of Hercules and had captured two American vessels in the Atlantic.​9 While he was yet bringing Franklin home, during the last voyage, it was rumored in London that Captain Truxtun's ship had been captured by the Barbary corsairs and that all aboard, including the great Franklin, were consigned to slavery in Algiers.​10 Even if the danger of attack in the Atlantic were ignored, the passage through the China seas would be made under the constant threat of an encounter with proas and junks of roving pirate bands.

The Captain looked about for cannon and ammunition, but there were none to be bought. In less than three years, the sinews of war had shriveled up. He asked the State of Pennsylvania to lend him "Four brass nine Pound Cannon one hundred round nine Pound Shot and Fifty double head Nine Pound Shot"; but the state had no nine-pounders; he had to be content with sixes instead.11

As additional protection, to be used in case he was accosted by a vessel he could not subdue with his four small cannon, he applied for a "sea‑letter," a sort of official passport. The Confederation Congress still governed the United States in form, but it was by this time merely a frayed remnant of the wartime Congress. It granted him a sea‑letter with the seal of the United States affixed, but a document from such a debilitated body could insure little protection. It could only pray that the Captain be received with kindness and treated in a becoming manner. The United States had no Navy to stand back of any claim it might make to equal rights with other nations on the waters of the deep or in the ports of the world. A generation later, when the Navy was firmly established, a passport could say peremptorily, "Suffer [this vessel] to pass." But in these feeble years after the Revolution, while the Confederation fell quietly asunder and before the Constitution had yet been fashioned, the Congress  p64 spoke more softly. Its aim was to offend no one, but the result was not likely to enhance the reputation of the new nation.

In part, the sea‑letter read: "Most serene, serene, most puissant, puissant, high, illustrious, noble, honourable, venerable, wise and prudent emperors, kings, republicks, princes, dukes, earls, barons, lords, burgomasters, counselors, as also judges, officers, justiciaries, and regents, of all the good cities and places, whether ecclesiastical or secular, who shall see these presents, or hear them read. . . . our prayer is to all . . . where the said Thomas Truxtun shall arrive with his vessel and cargo, that they may please to receive him with goodness, and treat him in a becoming manner, . . . whereof we shall be willingly indebted."​12 This was meager protection against arrogant despots whom he might find in the far lands.

With the Canton overhauled and insured by guns and paper against unknown hazards, the question of cargo was next to be considered. The usual goods of American commerce — tobacco and timber, liquor, candles, corn, and chairs — found no market in China. It was about this time that the Chinese told a foreign ambassador: "The Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own products."​13 On this note of contempt was all foreign trade carried on by the Chinese. There was only one port — Canton — open to foreigners, and all trade was carefully supervised by the Celestial Government. What, then, could Captain Truxtun take that might titillate the tastes of these celestial people?

There was only one American product that the Chinese wanted, and that was ginseng. Sometimes it sold for its weight in gold. Ginseng was grown in the northern part of China, where its harvesting was carefully regulated in order to prevent its extinction. It grew wild in America, there to be transferred to the ships of the East India Company and carried out to the market in Canton. The root was used to make a syrupy bitter-sweet tea, a stimulant of a kind, "chiefly used by weakened men and youths." It was an aromatic root that grew in the shape of a man; therefore it was supposed to increase or restore sexual vigor. The appearance of the ginseng was very important to the Chinese. It must be gathered during the month of September, at a time when the juice of the plant was all in the root;  p65 otherwise the skin of the root might wrinkle. It must be garbled, or picked over, to remove the stringy root ends. Next, it must be "well rounced in Hair Bags — it gives a fine face to the parcel." In a hair bag some two feet wide and six feet long, with a black man holding onto each end, the ginseng was rounced — thrown and jostled — back and forth for several minutes to impart a good polish to its surface. Finally, it had to be packed in perfectly dry barrels to keep it firm and healthy looking.14

On board the Canton were loaded 41 hogsheads and 226 barrels of ginseng.​15 The only other items of cargo were a few rolls of lead, which sometimes brought a good price in Canton, and a few chests of silver dollars, the only money acceptable to the Chinese.

The return cargo was specified by those who provided the money for its purchase. Benjamin Fuller, an elderly dry goods merchant, gave Captain Truxtun and his supercargo fifteen hundred Spanish milled dollars. He wanted half of them spent for chinaware, a third for tea, and the balance for silks and nankeens. The owners of the ship were entitled to twenty per cent of the Chinese goods to pay for the freight of the rest; the Captain and supercargo were to have two per cent in addition to the twenty for their trouble in purchasing the goods.

Mrs. Fuller gave the Captain eighty Spanish milled dollars on her own account; she wanted "two pieces of Black Satin of the first Quality, Two Fanns & Two Green Silk Umbrellas, & two genteel Rich China Punch Bowls." If there should be any money left over, he might buy her anything "suitable for the use of a Lady, upwards of Sixty." The freight for this consignment was paid in best wishes for a "happy and prosperous Voyage, and a safe return to the Embraces of his Good Family & Friends."16

As though the fitting out, loading, and provisioning of his ship and the recruiting of a crew were not trouble enough for Captain Truxtun, he was beset by another Oriental worry in the person of Sick Keesar.

Sick Keesar, leading a band of thirty lascars, natives of Bengal and China, descended on him when Keesar learned that the Canton was bound for the Orient. Would he please take them home? They would gladly work for their passage and would expect no wages. They were so persistent that they soon became a nuisance.

 p66  Captain Truxtun learned that they had come from Canton by way of Batavia in a ship just lately arrived in Baltimore. They had expected to sail only as far as Batavia, but they had been forced at gun point to stay on board their ship when she sailed for America. When they heard that the Canton was about to sail for China, they trooped from Baltimore up to Philadelphia. They were destitute. Only because of the charity of Levi Hollingsworth, a local merchant, did they have a roof over their heads and food to eat.

Captain Truxtun wanted no part of the lascars as crew members. They might be fair enough sailors and he might have no trouble with his crew on the outward voyage, but he knew that there were no American or European sailors to be recruited in China and that his ship would be quite useless in China without a crew. He told Sick that we would take them only if he had an order from the Supreme Executive Council, governing body of Pennsylvania, and that for the passage he would have to charge forty guineas per man. Sick Keesar and company promptly flung themselves upon the mercy and charity of the Council.

Hollingsworth, who had opened one of his vacant houses for the lascars, talked to Captain Truxtun to see whether he might not reduce the fare below the forty guineas he had fixed; but the Captain had received twelve guineas for a steerage passenger crossing the Atlantic, and it was four or five time as far to China.​17 Apparently he could not see his way clear to reduce his price. The only thing left for Levi Hollingsworth to do was to add his voice to those imploring help from the Council.

Benjamin Franklin, who was by this time President of the Supreme Executive Council, thought it a matter of national concern. Neither he, nor many of his fellow citizens, had yet developed fully the conviction of natural American superiority, so he was anxious lest these people carry home with them "any well-founded prejudice" against the United States. But the Council did not care to pay for their passage home. When Captain Truxtun departed from Philadelphia, the lascars were still an unsolved problem; and so they remained for the better part of a year; until the shipmaster who brought them to America in the first place finally took them home on his next outward passage.18

The year 1785 was ebbing fast; it was November and time to be gone if the favorable monsoon was to be met. This parting from  p67 home, family, and friends for at least a year and a half was — according to a letter Captain Truxtun wrote a few days later — the most difficult part of the whole business; but at length he tore himself away from Mary and the four children, leaving them at home in Third Street, just north of Market. As he rode overland to join his ship at New Castle his thoughts were of the five "sympathetick objects of affection, constantly before me, to rouse the tender sensations of the heart; and employ the mind with pain and Constant distress, for at least two days before I left sweet Philadelphia."19

As the year ended, the Canton, with some thirty men on board, dropped down the river from New Castle, past the wharves off Reedy Island, through the widening bay and out to sea. As the new year dawned, the Captain turned his eyes to the sunrise; and beyond, to the golden shores of ageless Cathay.

The Author's Notes:

1 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, September 16, 1785.

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2 HSPa: Philadelphia Customs House Record Books, Inward entries, March 22, 1784; Outward entries, March 22, 1784.

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3 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, March 2, 1784.

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4 Hosea Ballou Morse, Chronicles of the East India Company Trading to China (Oxford, 1926‑29), II, 95; HSPa: Misc. Coll., Samuel Shaw to Winthrop Sargent, November 10, 1785.

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5 Samuel W. Woodhouse, "Log and Journal of the Ship United States," Pennsylvania Mag. of Hist. and Biog., LV (1931), 225‑58; William Bell Clark, "Postscripts to the Voyage of the Merchant Ship United States," ibid., LXXVI (July, 1952), 294‑310; Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, September 16, October 7, 1785.

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6 HSPa: Benjamin Fuller Letter Books, III, December 31, 1785.

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7 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Account Books (1784‑1813), V, October 19, 1785.

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8 That the London Packet became Canton was a conclusion I reached after a thorough study of Customs House Record Books at HSPa, and Captains' Reports, April 20, 1785–June 8, 1786, and Tonnage Book of Entries, 1785‑1786, at the Navigation Commission Office, Philadelphia Bourse Bldg. Nowhere does Canton appear inward nor London Packet outward.

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9 Ray W. Irwin, Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers 1776‑1816 (Chapel Hill, 1931), p37.

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10 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, November 22, 1785.

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11 HSPa: Gratz Collection, Box 2, Petition of Donnaldson & Coxe and others, n. d.; LC: Continental Congress Papers, Memorial of Coxe & Frazier, Donnaldson & Coxe, and others, December 22, 1785.

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12 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, January 17, 1786.

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13 C. P. Fitzgerald, China, A Short Cultural History (New York, 1938), pp551‑52.

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14 Pharmaceutical Journal, London, 2nd ser., III, 197, 333; IX, 77; 3rd ser., I, 665; "Ginseng," Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed.; NYPL: Constable-Pierrepont Collection, William Constable Shipping Papers, Box 2 — two notes on ginseng, n. d. [c. 1787].

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15 HSPa: Philadelphia Customs House Record Books, Outward entries, December 30, 1785.

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16 HSPa: Benjamin Fuller Letter Books, III, December 31, 1785.

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17 HSPa: Society Collections, Delaware ship Papers (1793‑97), Ship's account book.

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18 R. L. Brunhouse, "Lascars in Pennsylvania, a Sidelight on the China Trade," Pennsylvania HistoryVII (January, 1940), 20 ff.; Samuel Hazard, et al., eds., Pennsylvania Archives (Harrisburg, 1852‑1949), 4th ser., IV, 7‑8; Pennsylvania State Library, Harrisburg: Post-Revolutionary Papers, XXII, no. 25; XXIV, no. 8. It was Capt. John O'Donnell who built a house called "Canton" in Baltimore; for description of house, see Thomas Twining, Travels in America One Hundred Years Ago (New York, 1894).

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19 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, December 16, 1789.

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