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Chapter 17

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 19
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p81  Chapter 18

Second Voyage to Canton

Veering southward before he reached the Cape Verde Islands, Captain Truxtun carefully avoided the tract of sea near the Equator where, last voyage, he had lived through a fortnight of thoroughly wretched weather.

Entirely unknown to him until years later, another ship, about the same size as his, crossed his wake not far from the Equator, sailing just a few days astern of the Canton. His Majesty's ship Bounty, Captain William Bligh, was outward bound for the South Seas. The mutiny on the Bounty, that well-known epic of the sea, occurred before Captain Truxtun had returned home from this voyage.

After calling again at Cape Town for refreshment, Captain Truxtun sailed toward the Sunda Strait. Being certain of its position this time, he made a perfect landfall. Two months after leaving Cape Town, the Canton was working her way up through the Strait; past bold Java Head; between the mainland of Java and the lofty cone of volcanic Krakatau Island, whose rumblings occasionally shook the waters in the Strait;​1 past Fourth Point, where lay the town of  p82 Anjer; and at last into the Java Sea. On the eleventh of June, 1788, Captain Truxtun spoke the Asia, which had departed from Philadelphia a week, and from Cape Town two days, after the Canton.​2 The Asia continued northward toward Canton, but Captain Truxtun bore away eastward for Batavia, on the north coast of Java.

On this second voyage he was making use of information about indirect trade with China that he had obtained in Cape Town and Canton. By trading at intermediate ports of call, he hoped to enter the Canton market with more trade goods and fewer hard dollars. Tin, pepper, shark's fins, edible bird's nests, and sandalwood were in demand at Canton; he was calling at Batavia to trade his cargo of tar, iron, and spirits for the tin, pepper, and other items that would yield a handsome profit at Canton.3

Batavia, a Dutch stronghold in the bitter early struggle for monopoly in the Spice Islands, was the principal outpost of the Dutch East India Company. It was well fortified, but its location, on the swampy shore of a bay, was abominable. Captain Truxtun heard that the unhealthful location had "cost the lives of at least a million of the innocent natives."​4 Nevertheless, the houses were built of brick, the streets were straight and wide, and beyond the city were the elegant country seats of government and Company officials. Balls and concerts were held often and were attended by the Europeans and their ladies. Some of the ladies had succumbed to the native habit of chewing the betel nut, and a lady when chewing was accompanied by a little female slave who carried a gilt or silver jar into which the lady might spit when necessary.5

While visiting one day at the home of an old and respectable Dutch resident in Batavia, Captain Truxtun saw a funeral procession passing by. He observed to his host that this city seemed to be the most sickly place he had ever seen.

"Yes, it is," the old gentleman agreed, "a sickly place indeed; but, I have had my seasoning, and now I do not mind it."

Pressing him for ways to avoid the fever, Captain Truxtun learned a little more of the white man's ways in the East. His host told him that during the sickly season he ate "soups, an abundance of vegetables, and but little flesh, . . . drank moderately of weak Holland gin and water, of porter, and other things well diluted, and seldom exceeded two or three glasses of wine after dinner." He made it "a rule always to let in his appartments the pure fresh air of the day, and  p83 never expose himself improperly to the effects of sun or moon, dews or night vapours."​6 Like much of the incidental information he chanced upon, he filed the old man's wisdom in his mind for future reference.

When, a few weeks later, he brought the Canton into Whampoa Anchorage, he found there only one other American ship, the Asia. The Alliance had already departed for home. She had, in spite of a six months' voyage during which nearly half of her crew was disabled by scurvy, indeed stolen a season.​7 Two more American ships were expected. When one of them, the Jenny, arrived, she bore a letter for Captain Truxtun.

Benjamin Fuller had written to him. He had changed his mind. Would Captain Truxtun please buy none of the blue and white porcelain he had ordered, but buy the same pieces in enameled ware instead? He had decided that a year hence the enameled ware would suit the market better than the other variety. Considerately, he had added, "Your Family and all your Friends within my Knowledge are well — Mrs. Fuller Desires to be remember'd to you."8

Captain Truxtun and his supercargoes moved into a factory at Canton, where they arranged to do their trading with Equa, one of the hong merchants. A contract was prepared in English, written "in full hand on a Large Sheet of paper," to impress the Chinese, and was, following the usual tea‑drinking ceremony, witnessed, signed, and sealed. "When you have the name of a Chinese man to his agreement," one trader wrote, "he is much more observant of it."​9 Besides Equa, they had some business with Lysingsang, better known as the Black Doctor. He was not a hong merchant, but he operated under Equa's chop; that is, he had Equa's permission to deal with the barbarians.

After arrangements for the return cargo had been completed, the inevitable wait of several months began. The American captains and supercargoes and the American consul, Samuel Shaw (serving "without being entitled to receive any salary, fees, or emoluments whatsoever"), went occasionally to French Island for refreshment and recreation, the island being in "a delight­ful situation, and the resort of the gentlemen generally, of all nations." The crew of the Canton also could go ashore on French Island, a privilege accorded to the "common sailors" of only American and French vessels.10

While ships were overhauled and gentlemen drank and talked the  p84 evenings away, return cargoes for their vessels were collected in the back country, from whence they eventually began to trickle into the factory godowns outside Canton, preparatory to being taken in chop boats down to Whampoa Anchorage.

All of the various grades of tea, packed in chest, half chests, and quarter chests, were brought to the godowns. The quality ranged from cheap Bohea black, grown in the mountains of Wu Yi, to the very best Hyson skin. Besides the naturally grown tea, the Chinese "made a vast deal of counterfeit tea" of such things as the leaves of the sweet potato, sometimes mixing it with genuine tea and sometimes simply preparing it with "such colour and taste as they judged proper."11

Much of the chinaware was made by farmers during their spare time, each farmer making only a single article such as cups or saucers or bowls. Merchants then went about the countryside, collecting the individual lots and sending them on to Canton, where they were combined to form complete sets.12

Some of the goods were carried into Canton on the backs of coolies, some came in boats down canals that slashed across hundreds of miles of open plains, and some were brought in wheelbarrows aided by the wind. The wheelbarrow porters, spreading a light sail on a bamboo mast, sailed across the open country at a pattering clip. Sometimes they traveled in fleets; it was said that one might see as many as three hundred sail of wheelbarrows a hundred miles from the nearest water.13

When he was almost at the point of sailing from Canton, early in January, 1789, Captain Truxtun did what was common in his day, when a mariner was ever conscious of the uncertainty of a sea voyage: he wrote a long letter to his wife. No doubt he delivered it into the care of his friend Captain Barry, who also was ready to sail. If the Canton should not survive the long passage home, he wanted Mary to have this last remembrance, something to help fill the emptiness that follows the disappearance of a ship at sea. In addition, he wrote for the first time to one of his children.

Addressing this letter to Sarah, now ten years old, he told her that he was writing to her first only because she was the eldest, "for I love you all and all alike." He advised her and counseled her on matters that must have been strange and incomprehensible to her; but then  p85 he was consciously writing what might well be his last letter to his children as well as his first.

"As mental and personal accomplishments depend in a great measure on example," he wrote, "you must carefully observe all the dictates of your good Mama, impress on your mind all her minute actions, take notice of every step as she walks and let her will (in all cases) be your criterion, for it is impossible for you to have a better pattern." A year's absence will color in any mind the picture of domestic felicity; but he voiced the same sentiments in Philadelphia as in Canton.

He charged Sarah with the "duty incumbent on the elder branch of a family, to interest themselves in the instruction of the younger." Referring to Sarah's brother and two sisters — he had not yet heard of Evelina, born four months after his departure from home — he continued, "You should instruct them all you can and inspire them with a proper sense of the excellence of a superior education, the duty they owe their affectionate Mama, for her care in nursing and bringing them up and of the many anxious moments she has had for your and their happiness."

Knowing that she was attending Schoolmaster Andrew Brown's academy a block or two from home, he admonished her to "take especial care and not lose a single moment, in improving yourself in every useful branch of female education and knowledge . . . you are now arrived at a period which will not admit of idleness and inattention to books, for by and by it will be too late to regain what you may now let slip." On the sort of books to be read, he said, "the Spectator I have, and will give you out of my collection, when I come home."

"In your general deportment," he wrote, "you should be easy and affable but not over volatile. . . . let me always see and hear, that you are, in the eyes of everybody truly amiable." All of this, he assured her, was "the advice, and early desire, of an affectionate father who from unforeseen and unexpected misfortune, is obliged, to his heart felt pain, to be so great a proportion of his time absent from you and your dear Mama, your brother and sisters as he is."

"Kiss your Mama heartily for me and your brother and sisters."14

Within a day or two after writing this letter, Captain Truxtun had his cargo completed and his ship ready for sea. Since Captain  p86 Barry's Asia was also ready to depart, the two captains decided to sail in company through the China seas, as far as the Strait of Sunda, for mutual protection from the pirates that ranged the China coast.

The two ships watered at an island in the Sunda Strait, and then, because each found it easy to regulate her sailing to the other, they kept company as far as Cape Town, where they watered again and stood out on the last leg of the long voyage home. From Cape Town to the Delaware capes, the Canton steered a direct course, sailing steadily northwestward for ten weeks. The ships parted company in a storm soon after leaving Cape Town, but they arrived in Philadelphia only a day apart, in June, 1789.15

This was the second and, as it turned out, the last of Captain Truxtun's voyages to Canton. The trade in tea and silk was becoming less and less attractive as the limited American market became satiated. He believed that the really lucrative trade was between the coasts of India and China, with calls at the intermediate islands. He decided at length that his next voyage would take him to new lands.

He was still working for his creditors of the house of Collins and Truxtun when he went about the business of getting the Canton out for her third Eastern voyage. Slowly he was whittling down the debts he had assumed, but at the same time he was putting into his next adventure every dollar he could command. This time he intended to take out two ships instead of one.

The Author's Notes:

1 Josiah Quincy, ed., Journals of Major Samuel Shaw (Boston, 1847), p319. The geography of the strait was changed and the town of Anjer was wiped out when Krakatau erupted in 1883. With the possible exception of the Siberian meteor of 1908, this still remains the greatest explosion known to modern man.

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2 Hepburn Collection Transcripts: Barry Papers, Patrick Hayes' Journal of the China Voyage; HSPa: Benjamin Fuller Letter Books, April 18, 1788; William Bell Clark, Gallant John Barry (New York, 1938), p341.

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3 LC: Washington Papers, vol. 274. Truxtun to Edmund Randolph, July 27, 1795; Quincy, op. cit., p169; NYPL: Constable-Pierrepont Collection, William Constable Letters (1774‑91), Truxtun to Isaac Hazelhurst, July 2, 1789.

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4 Quincy, op. cit., pp221‑26; see also "Batavia," Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed.

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5 Ibid.

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6 Pennsylvania Gazette, October 5, 1797, Letter of Truxtun to "A Physician" in Philadelphia, October 1, 1797, regarding yellow fever.

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7 NDA: Alliance, Indiaman, Log of Richard Dale, November 27, 1787, Apr. 4, 1788.

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8 HSPa: Benjamin Fuller Letter Books, February 20, 1788.

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9 Quincy, op. cit., p303; Hepburn Collection Transcripts: Barry Papers, memorandum relating to the trade at Canton [1789]. A photograph of a typical agreement is shown in Robert E. Peabody, Log of the Grand Turk (Boston, 1926), facing p88; William Bell Clark, Gallant John Barry (New York, 1938), p346.

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10 Quincy, op. cit., pp113, 175.

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11 Benjamin Franklin, Writings, A. H. Smyth, ed. (New York, 1905‑1907), IX, 206.

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12 Ibid., IX, 207.

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13 Ibid.

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14 John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1927), I, 290; Tippecanoe Historical Soc. Museum, Lafayette, Ind.: Truxtun to Sarah Truxtun, January 5, 1789 [transcript].

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15 William Bell Clark, Gallant John Barry (New York, 1938), pp349‑50.

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Page updated: 9 Aug 13