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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Old China Trade

Foster Rhea Dulles

published by
The Riverside Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p1  Chapter I
The Empress of China

The ink was hardly dry on the treaty which marked England's acceptance of American independence when the merchant seamen of the young republic were scouring the seven seas in search of trade. At home all was confusion. The ineffectual Congress established under the Articles of Confederation was trying in vain to bring some order out of the chaos resulting from the rivalries and jealousies of thirteen independent governments; industry, trade, and farming were almost at a standstill; depreciated currency was bringing in its train both wild extravagance and bitter poverty, and in Massachusetts the agrarian revolt which was to culminate in Shay's Rebellion was raising its ugly head. Yet out of this turmoil and disunity the American merchant marine was born.

One of the markets first sought in the spectacular expansion of our commerce after 1783 was that of Canton. With the old trade routes which had absorbed the bulk of colonial trade now closed to them, the merchants of the Atlantic seaboard had to look far afield. They could no longer carry American products to Spain or Africa, bring back slaves to the West Indies, and from there import rum, sugar, and molasses. England had no intention of allowing an independent America to monopolize so lucrative a commerce with her still faithful colonies. New ports had to be discovered and new trade routes developed to replace those on which  p2 the colonials had been so dependent. Otherwise political independence might well prove a barren victory. This was the challenge which was met by the first long voyages to the Far East.

It mattered little to adventurous seamen, who had won their salt-water spurs in the privateers of Revolutionary days, that they knew nothing of the waters beyond the Cape of Good Hope. Without either charts or proper nautical instruments to guide them to their distant goal, in ships so small that to‑day they would scarcely venture outside a harbor, they were soon finding their way through the Indian Ocean and beating up the China coast with the southwest monsoon.

The year in which George Washington was elected the first President of the United States saw fifteen American vessels lading teas and silks from the musty godowns at Canton. Ships from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Salem, which a few years before had been preying upon English commerce in the Atlantic, were already boldly cutting into the trade hitherto monopolized by the great East India Company. Chinese merchants and American supercargoes had found a basis of mutual confidence and friendship which was to mean fortunes for them both.

Another half-dozen years and these American ships with their young and vigorous crews were not only perfectly at home at Mauritius, Batavia, Calcutta, and Bombay, but were skirting the rugged coast of Northwest America to trade with the Indians and hunting the fur seal on the barren islands about Cape Horn. All the Pacific was theirs. By the opening of the nineteenth century they were regularly freighting Eastern goods to Europe as well as to America, carrying on a contraband trade in the Spanish ports of South America with copies of the Declaration of  p3 Independence scattered in their wake, and discovering new islands in the South Seas.

This commerce with the Oriental and other ports of the Pacific cannot be fitted into neat categories and statistically analyzed. The Yankee seamen followed the fortunes of trade as an adventurer might follow the fortunes of war. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope, they perhaps would try to dispose of their cargo at Mauritius and take freight to Canton for the French merchants of that thriving island, or they might trade in cotton at Bombay and Calcutta, pepper in Sumatra, or sugar and coffee at the Dutch port of Batavia. If they had rounded Cape Horn there was smuggling on the California coast, barter with the Northwest Indians, or trade wherever they could find it in the southern Pacific. The homeward voyage might be direct; it might mean stops at any European port from Hamburg to Leghorn.

Nevertheless, it was in Canton that this early trade in the Pacific reached its peak. This distant port, where the hong merchants trafficked in Bohea, Souchong, and Hyson, sold the finest silks of the East for Spanish dollars, and exchanged their nankeens and chinaware for furs and ginseng, was the ultimate goal which most of the first traders sought. It was to gratify the rich tastes of luxury-loving mandarins that American seamen braved the perils of Nootka Sound and the Seal Islands in their hunt for furs, or felt their way through the treacherous shoals of the South Sea Islands in the quest for sandalwood and bêche de mer. The old China trade, shrouded in mystery and romance to those who remained at home, has been with good reason a symbol for the initiative and daring which characterized the commerce of its day.

But it is not only that in the voyages to the Far East there  p4 was being written a story of adventurous achievement which forms the brightest chapter in the maritime history of the United States. It is not only that they gave to American commerce the impetus which enabled it to overcome the economic stagnation of the Revolution and resulted in American ships becoming the common carriers of the world during the Napoleonic wars. These voyages were a new expression of the pioneer spirit which was to carry America's frontiers steadily westward until the way to the Pacific lay open by land as well as by sea. They revealed new horizons to a people hitherto narrowly restricted to the activities permitted them by the mother country. They helped to give to the United States a new confidence in its destiny.

The honor of dispatching the first voyage to Canton fell to New York. On the initiative of Robert Morris, financier of the Revolution, a 360‑ton privateer renamed the Empress of China sailed from this port for the Far East the year after the treaty of peace. Its owners hoped, as Morris wrote to John Jay, 'to encourage others in the adventurous pursuit of commerce.'1

Canton was chosen as the goal of this voyage because it was the world's great market for tea. In this age and generation tea may not seem an important enough commodity to be responsible for an entirely new commercial development. We think of foreign trade in terms of steel, rubber, oil, cotton, and the hundred and one products of an industrial age which may range from locomotives to electric light  p5 bulbs. But at the close of the eighteenth century there were few of these things even in existence. What this country sought, in exchange for its own exports of breadstuffs, tobacco, rice, wood, and fish, were cotton and woolen manufactures, wine and spirits, molasses, sugar, coffee and tea. If a voyage to the East meant a cargo of Hyson and Bohea free of all English duties, with some silks, nankeens, and chinaware thrown in, it was well worth whatever effort it involved.

America had always had to rely upon England for its tea. The East India Company had an absolute monopoly on English trade at Canton and its imports were reshipped from England to the Colonies. But at the close of the Revolution, tea was one product on which the people of the new nation were especially loath to pay further tribute to the British Treasury. Had there not been some years before a rather memorable tea‑party in Boston Harbor?

To exchange for the teas of China the Americans had one commodity in which they had great hopes. This was ginseng, a root used by the Chinese for its supposed miraculous healing qualities. It grew wild both in Manchuria and in the forests of the New World and was a drug so marvelous in the eyes of the Chinese that the Emperor had made its cultivation in the remote mountains of his empire an imperial monopoly. Known as the 'dose for immortality,' it was worth its weight in gold. At various times, when it threatened to become extinct in China, the Emperor had forbidden its collection except for the imperial household and as a high reward would confer the drug upon officials whose health had broken down.2

 p6  The ginseng which grew in the United States was of an inferior quality to that grown in China, but it was known that it commanded a high price in the markets of Canton. How this discovery was first made is a complete mystery. Yet, by the middle of the eighteenth century, agents of the East India Company had identified American ginseng and it was being collected for export to England, whence it was reshipped by the Company to Canton.

Whiskey and trinkets were offered to the Indians on generous terms for gathering the precious root, and throughout New England and New York the woods were searched by bands of men, women, and children. It was a traffic which occasioned that worthy divine Jonathan Edwards great distress. The Indians spent their time in the woods, to 'the neglect of public worship and their husbandry.' And even sadder, as we find him writing in 1752, they took the ginseng roots to Albany, where they invariably found themselves 'much in the way of temptation and drunkenness.'

The bulk of the cargo of the Empress of China was consequently made up of ginseng. It carried 473 piculs, or about thirty tons of the drug.​3 Other articles assembled by Robert Morris and his associates, the New York firm of Daniel Parker and Company, included 2600 fur skins, 1270 camlets, 316 piculs of cotton, 476 piculs of lead, and 26 piculs of pepper. The total investment in the voyage was $120,000.

For such a hazardous venture as a first voyage to Canton, it was natural that the care applied to assembling a suitable cargo should also be extended to the equipment of the vessel and the selection of its crew. The guns and armament of the Empress of China were not disturbed, for they might prove useful as protection against the pirates which were  p7 known to infest Eastern seas, and as captain of the vessel a man with experience in the privateers of the Revolutionary days was selected, Captain John Green. The crew itself was made up of four officers including Captain Green, a surgeon and his mate, a purser, two midshipmen, and a clerk; and before the mast thirty-four men including a gunner, two carpenters, a cooper, and several boys.

For supercargo, the man charged with the mercantile business of the voyage and protection of the owners' interests, Robert Morris had chosen Samuel Shaw, and for his assistant, Thomas Randall. Shaw was a young Bostonian who had left the counting-house to serve with distinction throughout the Revolution, becoming aide-de‑camp to General Knox. A testimonial from Washington declared that he had 'distinguished himself in every thing which could entitle him to the character of an intelligent, active and brave officer.' Beyond that the judgment and business capacity he had shown as General Knox's aide had attracted wide notice. Morris and his associates could not have chosen a better man to inaugurate their trade with China, while for Shaw it represented an opportunity to win his way back into the mercantile world. On December 24, 1783, he wrote his brother of his plans to sail to the East — 'the terms on which I go promise something clever, and I hope to shake you by the hand in two years.'

In his new rôle he was to display all those qualities for which he had been recommended by Washington and Knox. Shrewd, farsighted, and of keen judgment, he was well equipped to deal with the merchants of Canton, but even more important, his tact and understanding were the qualities most necessary to win their friendship both for himself and for the country he represented. Samuel Shaw was not destined to live long enough to give full expression  p8 to his undoubted abilities, but the service he performed in opening the China trade should serve to keep his memory alive.

[image ALT: An engraving of a man of maybe about 35, although his hair is already receding; he wears civilian dress of the late 18c: jacket, ruffled shirt, and bow tie. He is Captain Samuel Shaw, a 19c merchant sea captain who is discussed at some length in this chapter.]

One other thing was done before the vessel sailed. Daniel Parker wrote to Congress requesting a sea letter for Captain Green. This important document, duly signed by the president and secretary of Congress, was grandiloquently addressed to the 'most Serene, most Puissant, High, Illustrious, Noble, Honorable, Venerable, Wise and Prudent, Lords, Emperors, Kings, Republicks, Princes, Dukes, Earls, Barons, Lords, Burgomasters, Councillors, as also Judges, Officers, Justicians, and Regents of all the good cities and places, whether ecclesiastical or secular, who shall see these patents or hear them read.' Congress was taking no chances in its first address to the mysterious potentates of the East.

When all was at last in order the Empress of China set forth on its 13,000‑mile voyage. It was Washington's fifty-second birthday, February 22, 1784. 'In passing the grand battery,' Shaw wrote in the journal​4 he kept of the enterprise, 'we saluted with thirteen guns, and received twelve in return.'

The vessel's first stop was at the Cape Verde Islands. Here fresh water and supplies were obtained, and Shaw records that the sailors bought a 'little green monkey with a black face.' Then after everything had been made shipshape they started on the long and leisurely passage about the Cape of Good Hope and across the torrid waters of the Indian Ocean. Five months out of New York they at last sighted Java Head, which was to become such an important  p9 landmark for all voyages to the Far East, and on July 18 anchored in the Straits of Sunda.

This was for all on board the Empress of China a first experience of the Orient. The palm-fringed shores above which rose terraced rice-fields, the vivid green of thick tropical foliage, the land breeze laden with the scent of strange exotic spices, must have made Java a delight­ful apparition to seamen who knew no ports other than those of the Atlantic. Soon several canoes put off from the shore, and the sailors were buying fowls, cocoanuts, turtles, and fruit from dark-skinned Malays in batik loincloths and turbans. For half a dollar they bought as many fish as would serve both cabins for supper.

Shaw and the officers went ashore to visit the settlement at Serigny.​a They were met by a chief attended by more than a hundred of his countrymen armed with spears and knives. 'Me grandee Bantam,' this imposing official introduced himself, and cordially invited the Americans to enter his house. 'There was something noble and very pleasing in his looks,' the journal notes, 'while his behavior was altogether friendly and engaging.'

But more important, the Americans found in the Straits of Sunda two French ships also bound for Canton. These representatives of their country's former ally greeted them in the most friendly way and insisted that the Empress of China accompany them on the difficult and dangerous passage which lay ahead. This Captain Green was only too glad to do, and for a month the three vessels kept together until they reached the Portuguese port of Macao, outpost of Canton, where all foreign ships had to obtain permission from the mandarins, or Government officials, to proceed up‑river to the Chinese port.

It was August 28, after a voyage of almost half a year,  p10 when this first American ship to find its way to the Pacific reached the Canton anchorage at Whampoa. Here the Empress of China proudly saluted the foreign shipping with thirteen guns and dropped its anchors. Immediately, officers from the French, English, Dutch, and Danish vessels in port boarded the newcomer to welcome the American flag to this distant part of the world.

All of the Europeans were surprisingly cordial. If the French took it especially upon themselves to initiate the Americans into the intricacies of the Canton trade, the representatives of the other nations were no less friendly. This included the English. 'It was impossible to avoid speaking of the late war,' Shaw wrote. 'They allowed it to have been a great mistake on the part of their nation, — were happy it was over, — glad to see us in this part of the world, — hoped all prejudice would be laid aside, — and added, that, let England and America be united, they might bid defiance of all the world.'

Among the Chinese the Americans were regarded as the 'New People,' and Shaw took great pains to explain the extent of the country from which he came and the possibilities of trade which his initial venture opened up. The attitude he took toward the Chinese and the impression he made upon them were of great importance to his successors. Consequently there is more than passing significance in this conversation with a Chinese merchant as it is given in his journal:

' "You are not Englishman?" said he. "No." "But you speak English word, and when you first come, I no can tell difference; but now I understand very well. When I speak Englishman his price, he say, 'So much, — take it, — let alone.' I tell him, 'No, my friend, I give you so much.' He look at me, — 'Go to hell, you damned rascal; what!  p11 you come here, — set a price my goods?' Truly, Massa Typan, I see very well you no hap Englishman. All Chinaman very much love your country."

'Thus far, it may be supposed,' continues Shaw, 'the fellow's remarks pleased me. Justice obliges me to add his conclusion: — "All men come first time China very good gentlemen, all same you. I think two three time more you come Canton, you make all same Englishman too." '

In their four months' stay at Canton under such favorable conditions, the Americans had no difficulty in disposing of the cargo of the Empress of China. In a report of the Select Committee of the East India Company to its Court of Directors, it was stated that the American vessel's return lading consisted of 2460 piculs of black tea, 562 piculs of green tea, 24 piculs of nankeens, 962 piculs of chinaware, 490 pieces of silk, and 21 piculs of cassia. In addition to this, the assistant supercargo, Thomas Randall, remained after the Empress of China had sailed to charter a second vessel, the Pallas, and followed Shaw home with an additional cargo of tea.

The homeward voyage of the Empress of China began on December 28. After a brief stop at the Cape of Good Hope, a quick passage was made across the Atlantic, and on May 11, 1785, the vessel was brought to anchor 'in the East River at New York, when we saluted the city with thirteen guns, and finished our voyage.'

Within a few days there appeared in the New York papers among their notices of runaway slaves and of auctions of likely Negro wenches, an advertisement that Constable Rucker and Company had for sale an assortment of India goods brought direct from Canton by the Empress of China: teas, chinaware, silks, muslins, and nankeens. The 'Independent Journal' spoke proudly of this 'judicious,  p12 eminently distinguished, and very prosperous achievement.' The 'New York Packett,' in recalling that in an earlier age the arrival of a vessel after so prosperous a voyage and from so distant a part of the globe would have been announced by public thanksgiving and ringing of bells, enthusiastically demanded: 'Should not this be our practice now, since Providence is countenancing our navigation to this new world?'

The Author's Notes:

1 If this was the first mercantile voyage from the United States to the Far East it is nevertheless a curious fact that a century earlier American pirates had found their way around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1698 the Earl of Bellomont, Governor of New York, wrote in a report to the Lords of Trade and Plantations: 'I find that those Pyrates that have given the greatest disturbance in the East Indies and Red Sea have either been fitted from New York or Rhode Island, and manned from New York.'

Thayer's Note: The Governor is referring mostly to the famous Captain Kidd, who, having outfitted in New York in 1696, joined a nest of pirates at St. Mary's Island near Madagascar, from there to raid the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and convenient targets in the Indian Ocean. An informative and entertaining account is given by D. B. Chidsey in The American Privateers, pp23‑31. Characterizing Kidd as American is a stretch, but many of his crew surely were.
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2 Whatever value ginseng had for the Chinese was purely psychic. The root itself shows no evidence of any pharmacological or therapeutic properties. It was forked and in the shape of a man, and so supposed to restore virile power to the aged and infirm.

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3 A picul was the Chinese 'hundredweight,' generally equal to 133⅓ lb. avoirdupois.

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4 Shaw's journal, the first and the most extensive account of the trade at Canton, was edited with a life of the author by Joseph Quincy, under the title 'The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw, the first American Consul at Canton,' Boston, 1847.

Thayer's Note:

a The old European name for Serang and its nearby port of Banten.

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Page updated: 19 Aug 16