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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 15

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 17
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p71  Chapter 16

Trader at Canton

Like nearly all the rest of China, the old walled city of Canton, lying eighty miles up the Canton River from Macao, was forbidden territory so far as westerners were concerned. Foreign devils were forced to deal with Chinese merchants outside the city gates, and even to get that far required a tedious ritual. It was a carefully circumscribed performance that tested the patience and pocketbooks of all who came to trade.

The first act was at Macao. This town, unique in the Empire, was a Portuguese colony and had been for two hundred years. Here, some four thousand Portuguese and seven thousand Chinese lived in an uneasy state of truce.​1 Leaving his ship anchored in Macao Roads, Captain Truxtun went ashore to get the first chop — permission to proceed with his ship up river to the anchorage at Whampoa. Usually  p72 it was a day or two before the chop was issued. The Chinese explained the delay by saying that it was necessary to get permission from Canton to issue the chop, but since the round trip of 160 miles was a great deal more than a day's journey, the delay can probably be better explained by an Englishman who, after waiting two days for his chop, understated the case by observing that "The Chinese are not very expeditious in transacting their business"; and, he added, "there is no remedy for these delays but patience."2

With his patience a bit frayed but with chop in hand, Captain Truxtun returned to his ship, took a Chinese pilot on board, and after a careful look about him, weighed anchor and sailed up the river. The prospect here in the muddy estuary was anything but pleasing. The bold, rocky hills of Macao were capped by a decrepit old fort; the off‑lying islands were barren, dreary little hummocks. There was as yet no hint of the fabulous golden shores of old Cathay.3

Working his way slowly up the river, using sampans hired by the pilot to act as buoys on the various banks and shoals, tacking and reaching while the wind served, anchoring when both wind and tide were contrary, and embracing the set of the tide between ebb and flood, he came at length to Boca Tigris, "the Bogue," a narrow passage defended by a paltry fort on each bank of the river. Here he came to anchor again. The pilot from Macao was discharged, and another was engaged to take him the rest of the way to the final anchorage. He was boarded by a mandarin boat, a sort of sampan, armed with carriage guns and fitted to comport with the exalted station of the customs officials who rode in it. After they had inspected his chop and had given him permission to continue on his way, one or two of the government men remained on board. They went with him to the anchorage at Whampoa in order to make sure that he carried on no illicit trade on the way.

The countryside brightened as the Canton worked her way upstream beyond the Bogue. The river wound through gentle sloping hills and swampy fields of cane and rice, with every bend affording a new and pleasing vista. The rising ground was adorned with trees, and the hills were crowned by lofty and ancient pagodas. There were many villages and towns, bright spots on a distant landscape; but they lost much of their appeal when approached more closely. They were dirty and crowded; oppression and poverty and want were apparent on every hand.4

 p73  The impoverished state of the populace was even more evident on the river. The Canton was forced to pick her way among the shoals of river craft that clogged the stream. There were thousands upon thousands of sampans, each one occupied by a whole family, living their whole lives on the river, eking out a miserable existence by fishing and by some trivial employments they occasionally found for their boats or themselves. On the river, too, were the tall, ungainly junks, with great eyes painted on their bows to spy out evil spirits; mandarin boats, with red sashes decorating the muzzles of their cannon; flower boats, gaily decorated houses of pleasure; and passage boats, some fitted with sumptuous cabins that contained a table and eight or ten chairs for passengers, enclosed by lattices decorated with mother-of‑pearl, and covered by neat arched roofs of bamboo. All the boats on the river had a place at the stern for a lavishly ornamented joss-house; there sat the idol that the people worshiped. At night the river was eerily lighted by thousands of tiny fires, each one keeping watch over its joss and protecting him from the terrors of darkness.5

At last, after toiling northward through a string of low, flat islands that lay athwart the channel, the Canton sailed into that reach of the river known as Whampoa Anchorage. Here was an imposing array of ships of many nations. Bluff-bowed British East Indiamen, comprising well over half of those present, lay in a line with ships from Holland, Denmark, Sweden, France, Spain, and America.​6 After warping his way clear through the fleet, Captain Truxtun brought his ship to anchor near the Americans, at the very head of the line. About the first of September, 1786, the long outward passage from Philadelphia was finally at an end.

Three American ships had arrived this season ahead of the Canton. The eighty‑ton sloop Experiment was first, then the Empress of China, and finally the Hope.​7 All had sailed from New York. The Salem ship Grand Turk, arriving soon after the Canton, completed the American fleet for this trading season.8

Captain Truxtun learned that the master of the Hope was James Magee, who, nearly ten years before, had succeeded him in command of the first vessel of Isaac Sears' privateer fleet, the sloop Independence. In the Hope had come Isaac Sears himself, trying to regain in the China trade the fortune he had lost at the end of the Revolution. This early Son of Liberty, now fifty‑six years old, had completed his  p74 last voyage. He was ill of a fever when he arrived; he grew steadily worse, and here, aboard the Hope, he died. His body was taken ashore and buried on nearby French Island, some fourteen thousand miles from home.9

After long months at sea, living on salt meat, dried peas and beans, and ship's bread that was baked before the voyage began, Captain Truxtun's first duty was to arrange for a steady supply of fresh provisions during his stay in China. He had no choice but to buy all of them from a comprador, who was licensed by the government to carry on the trade. Mandarin boats, with customs officers living aboard, hovered about his ship to prevent his buying any foodstuffs from anyone else. Not satisfied with the profits from this exclusive trade, the comprador always demanded an additional cumshaw, or gratuity, of two or three hundred dollars.10

The next step of the intricate routine of trading was to engage a linguist, or interpreter, in order to be able to carry on the rest of the business. To the linguist went another cumshaw.11

The selling and buying of cargoes all had to be done in the factories outside Canton, a dozen miles up river from the anchorage. Leaving his ship in charge of the first mate, with instructions for overhauling the running and standing rigging, mending the sails, caulking, painting, and making other routine repairs, he engaged a passage boat which, for a dollar or two, took him and his supercargo up to the factories at Canton.​12 Although he lived in a factory during his stay in China, Captain Truxtun had to return frequently to his ship in order to attend to the visits of customs officers and to oversee the repairs and the stowage of cargo.

All of the factories, so named because factors, or business agents, lived in them, were located on the river bank outside the walls of old Canton. They formed "a tolerably handsome range of buildings," about a quarter of a mile in length, being disposed in several rows parallel to the river. Between the factories and the city's walls lay the "suburbs" of Canton, where foreigners could observe from the factory compound, but could not enter, the "exceedingly narrow and inconvenient, but . . . tolerably clean" streets, lined on both sides by ramshackle rows of shops and warehouses.​13 The factories were two‑story buildings, the first floor being used as a godown, or warehouse, for the teas and silks and porcelain that made up return cargoes, and the second floor for living quarters. Foreigners rented the  p75 buildings from Chinese merchants. After a lease had been signed, a factory comprador would, within a few hours' time, furnish the living quarters completely with beds, tables, chairs, and dishes, and in addition would provide a cook and two or three servants.14

Foreign trade at Canton all passed through the hands of a power­ful association of ten or a dozen Chinese merchants comprising the "Co‑hong," whose monopoly on foreign trade was absolute by virtue of a decree of the Celestial Emperor.​15 In return for their monopoly, the hong merchants, as they were called, were responsible to the government for the payment of all customs duties and port charges, and for the proper conduct of all transactions. The foreign trader had no choice but to do business with the Co‑hong; he did have his choice of hong merchants, however. He might select Shy Kinqua or Chouqua or Pinqua or one of the others to handle his business, to purchase his ginseng and lead and to arrange for the procurement and delivery of his return cargo.16

Before anything could be unloaded or any new cargo could be taken on board, a ship had to be inspected and measured for tonnage, from which the port charges might be computed. Of the total cost of doing business in Canton, the port charges amounted to an important part, so it was only fitting that an important personage be present while the charges were determined. Therefore, it was usual for the Grand Hoppo, Superintendent of the South Sea Customs, personally to visit the foreign ships as they arrived.​17 And so it was that Captain Truxtun, after hurrying back from the factories to his ship one day in order to prepare for the grand visit, was boarded by the Grand Hoppo and his large retinue.

Wearing the rich embroidered robes of a mandarin, his hair close cropped except on the top of his head, whence grew his long braided queue, the Hoppo came alongside the Canton in a fine barge, regally furnished, decorated with many flags and pennants, and propelled by ten oars.​18 With the Hoppo was the hong merchant whom Captain Truxtun had selected and a company of soldiers and musicians. As the Hoppo came on deck, his own people saluted him on bended knee, and his band of musicians, comprising two small drums and three or four pipes, provided, according to one British observer, "a harmony resembling a sow‑gelder's horn and the cackling of geese."​19 His attendants measured the ship for tonnage, taking only two dimensions, the length and the breadth. The length was established  p76 as the distance from foremast to mizzenmast, or sometimes from foremast to taffrail; the breadth was measured near the gangway.20

Considering the caprice with which a vessel's dimensions were determined, the port charges could have been as easily levied in the Hoppo's private chambers, since the total charge for every vessel was very nearly a constant sum. To the government went a few hundred dollars, but the Hoppo invariably demanded a cumshaw of about three thousand dollars, regardless of the size of the vessel.​21 The total cost to each vessel was, therefore, practically independent of tonnage. In return for this exorbitant cumshaw, the Hoppo sent on board a standard gift, variously described by those who received it. It consisted, according to one, of "two Bulls a sack of dirty Sugar and a fiewº Bottles of Samshaw";​22 and to another, "two poor buffaloes, eight jars of samshu, (a spirit so bad that we threw it overboard) and eight bags of ground rice, about forty pounds each."23

After being visited by the Hoppo, Captain Truxtun was officially admitted to do business with the Empire. He could now unload his cargo and get on with the business that he had come so far to transact. His linguist, who was also a government man, arranged for "chop boats" to carry his cargo to Canton, and kept a tally of the ginseng and lead as they were discharged, in order to insure the payment of all import duties.24

While the return cargo was being assembled by the hong merchant, Captain Truxtun had ample opportunity to make necessary repairs to his ship. In order to overhaul and restow his supplies, it was convenient to take some of them ashore. Accordingly, for about two hundred dollars, the enterprising Chinese built a banksall on a nearby island for his exclusive use. The banksall was a sizable building, framed with bamboo and covered with a roof of grass mats and straw; as soon as the owner was finished with it, the Chinese tore it down in order that they might rebuild it later for another owner for another two hundred dollars.25

All of these impositions on foreign traders, sanctioned and encouraged by government officials great and small, resulted in lower profit for those who had risked their money in the trade, but few if any adventurers were discouraged by them. Port charges, chop fees, cumshaws, and other extraordinary expenses amounted to a few thousands for each ship, while the investment represented by each ship  p77 was generally upwards of a hundred thousand dollars; and fifty per cent profits were not uncommon.

Early in December, the return cargo began to arrive in Canton;​26 but it was after Christmas when Captain Truxtun finally got all of his cargo on board and his ship ready for sea. Then there was but one more act to be performed in the elaborate ritual. The last chapter — the Grand Chop — was procured from the Grand Hoppo. An imposing document, neatly inscribed in Chinese characters and decorated with fanci­ful birds and dragons, the Grand Chop served as clearance from the port of Canton, indicating that all duties and charges had been paid; it served also as a passport through the China seas, charging all Chinese officials to "let the said vessel pass without interruption," and incidentally without carrying on any illicit trade with the vessel.​27 Captain Truxtun, making application through his linguist to the Hoppo for his Grand Chop, waited only for it and a fair wind to begin the long homeward passage. On the third of January, 1787, the Canton weighed anchor and departed for Philadelphia.

The Author's Notes:

1 C. N. Parkinson, Trade in the Eastern Seas 1793‑1813 (Cambridge, England, 1937), p57.

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2 Hepburn Collection Transcripts: Barry Papers, Memorandum relating to the trade at Canton [1789], referred to hereinafter as Barry's memorandum; George Dixon, A Voyage Round the World (London, 1789), pp288‑90.

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3 Dixon, pp305‑306.

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4 Ibid., pp291, 305‑306; Barry's memorandum.

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5 Dixon, op. cit., pp305‑14; Foster Rhea Dulles, The Old China Trade (Boston, 1930), pp15‑16.

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6 Hosea Ballou Morse, Chronicles of the East India Company Trading to China (Oxford, 1926‑29), II, 119.

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7 NYHS: Sloop Experiment Papers — Experiment arrived about June 15, 1786; Josiah Quincy, ed., Journals of Major Samuel Shaw (Boston, 1847), p113 — Hope arrived August 15, 1786; Empress of China probably arrived early August, 1786. She was spoken by Truxtun on April 5 in lat. 31°30′ S, long. 18° W (Pennsylvania Journal, Philadelphia, August 2, 1786), and she did not call at Cape Town. Truxtun in Canton departed from Cape Town early in May, 1786. Grand Turk did not leave Isle de France until July 1, 1786.

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8 Robert E. Peabody, Log of the Grand Turk (Boston, 1926), p233. Grand Turk arrived Canton in September, 1786.

Thayer's Note: A famous painting of the Grand Turk, if at Marseille rather than Canton, illustrates D. B. Chidsey's The American Privateers.
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9 B. J. Lossing, Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution (New York, 1860), II, 591; Quincy, op. cit., p227.

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10 Barry's memorandum; Dixon, op. cit., p292.

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11 Barry's memorandum; Quincy, op. cit., p176.

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12 Dixon, op. cit., p309.

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13 Ibid., p308.

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14 Peabody, op. cit., p80; Barry's memorandum.

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15 Quincy, op. cit., p174.

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16 Barry's memorandum.

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17 C. P. Fitzgerald, China, A Short Cultural History (New York, 1938).

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18 Peabody, op. cit., pp82‑84.

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19 Dixon, op. cit., pp296, 313.

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20 Ibid., p296; Barry's memorandum.

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21 Barry's memorandum; Peabody, op. cit., p85.

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22 Barry's memorandum.

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23 Dixon, op. cit., p296.

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24 Ibid., pp296‑297; Barry's memorandum.

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25 Quincy, op. cit., p175.

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26 NYHS: Sloop Experiment Papers (1785‑87).

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27 Peabody, op. cit., pp94‑96.

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Page updated: 29 Jul 16