Short URL for this page:
The successful voyage of the Empress of China quickened the energies of American merchants and awoke a new interest in the Orient. Its profits had not been great considering the risk its promoters had undertaken — Shaw reported that they were but $30,727 or some twenty-five per cent on the capital invested; but, far more important, the voyage had opened up an entirely new field of commerce and proved that American traders need not fear the monopoly of the East India Company in Chinese teas and silks. Within a year of the day the Empress of China dropped anchor at New York, five ships had set out on the trail it had ploughed through the furrows of the Eastern seas.
New York followed up its early lead in the new trade by promptly sending back the Empress of China on a second voyage; dispatching the ship Hope, Captain James Magee, and the sloop Experiment, Captain Stewart Dean. From Philadelphia sailed the Canton, Captain Truxton,a and from Salem the Grand Turk, a vessel which under the command of Captain Ebenezer West had already been as far as the Cape of Good Hope, where it had met the Empress of China on its return voyage during the previous year.
Samuel Shaw did not sail this time on his old vessel, but on the Hope. He had turned down the offer of Robert Morris to act again as his supercargo in order to take the post of first secretary of the War Department under General Knox, but the owners of the Hope had persuaded him not to give up the China trade. So we find him writing his brother that he was again sailing for the East 'under such circumstances p27 as have induced me to resign my employment in the War Office, for I am now certain that this undertaking will answer my most sanguine expectations.'
On the return of the Empress of China from its first voyage, he had made a full report on conditions in Canton to Foreign Minister Jay 'for the information of the fathers of the country.' Congress duly appreciated this service and Shaw was officially informed of 'its peculiar satisfaction in the successful issue of this first effort of the citizens of America to establish a direct trade with China, which does so much honor to its undertakers and conductors.' Consequently, when he was about to return to Canton, he was elected consul. 'Neither salary nor perquisites are annexed to it,' wrote Jay, 'yet so distinguished a mark of confidence and esteem of the United States will naturally give you a degree of weight and respectability which the highest personal merit cannot very soon obtain from a stranger in a foreign land.' Shaw accepted the post and requested the Foreign Minister to convey to Congress 'my most humble and grateful acknowledgments for the honor they have been pleased to confer upon me.'
With vessels from New York, Philadelphia, and Salem all China-bound, Boston was the only important seaport which seemed to lag in this sudden rush to tap the markets of Canton. Yet it was only by an odd mischance that it had not been the pioneer in the whole trade. Even before the Empress of China had sailed from New York, the fifty-five‑ton sloop Harriet, Captain Hallet, had set out from Hingham with a cargo of ginseng destined for Canton. Stopping at the Cape of Good Hope, however, it had met an East-Indiaman whose captain, alarmed at this Yankee threat to his company's monopoly, offered Captain Hallet double the weight of his cargo in Hyson tea. So it was that, while the Empress p28 of China was crossing the Indian Ocean, the Harriet turned homewards. Instead of Boston's papers being able to announce a successful trip to Canton, the 'Independent Chronicle' on July 29, 1784, could only carry a brief advertisement of 'fresh teas taken out of an Indiaman and brought by Captain Hallet from the Cape of Good Hope.'
A few years, however, and a Boston vessel had not only made its way to Canton but had ventured around Cape Horn to the Northwest Coast of America and then returned around the world. The Massachusetts seaport quickly made up for its delayed start in the Oriental trade, while other early competitors to New York, Philadelphia, and Salem arose in Providence and Baltimore. The former port's first vessel for Canton sailed by way of India in 1787.
Each of these cities had some special claim to glory in the opening of the China trade. If New York really initiated it, it was Philadelphia which for several years had the greatest tonnage anchored in the reaches of Whampoa. If Boston developed the trade with the Northwest Coast and sent the first American vessel around the world, Providence started its Eastern commerce with more capital and was notable for such large ships as the nine‑hundred-and‑fifty‑ton President.1 But there is no question that it is Salem which popularly has always been most closely associated with Canton.
During the Revolution, Salem had been one of the few ports not closed by war and it had equipped and sent out to harry British shipping no less than one hundred and fifty-eight privateers and letters of marque. Peace found this great fleet lying almost idle and the discovery of new commercial p29 routes was even more important to Salem's prosperity than to that of the other ports on the Atlantic seaboard. Elias Hasket Derby, the port's greatest shipowner, quickly took the initiative in expanding Salem's commerce, sending the first American ship to St. Petersburg and the Russian ports on the Baltic, and dispatching the Grand Turk first to the Cape of Good Hope and then to Mauritius and Canton.
When in 1789, fifteen American vessels were trading with China, five of them came from Salem, and all but one of these five belonged to Derby. In the fifteen years which followed the Revolution, he sent out some one hundred and twenty-five voyages which included forty-five to the Far East. Nevertheless, after the first few years comparatively little of Salem's commerce continued to be with Canton itself. Derby seems to have abandoned the China trade altogether as early as 1790, and his successor, Joseph Peabody, made Canton the goal of only seventeen of his eighty-seven Eastern voyages. Trade with Mauritius, the British ports of India, and the pepper coast of Sumatra drew Salem vessels far more than did Canton.
The explanation of why Salem still remains symbolical of the old China trade despite these facts is that no other port so carefully preserved the records of its commerce. We know more of its trade in Canton than we do of the trade of its rivals, even though Salem certainly follows New York, Boston, and even Providence in the number of its ships which reached the China coast.2 We may be thankful for that pride in the exploits of its seamen which has left to Salem such a glorious heritage in the logs and sea journals p30 of adventurous voyagers in Eastern waters, but we must recognize that other ports are fully entitled to share its fame.
Whatever the rival claims of any of these cities, however, it is enough that in the years which found the United States striving to form a centralized government and to establish its industries and commerce on a firm footing, a fleet of American vessels was annually making its way to Canton. Despite their small size, despite all the hazards of the long voyage from the Atlantic Coast, despite the inexperience of the seamen and their total ignorance of that part of the world which lay beyond the Cape of Good Hope, these ships succeeded in winning for America more than its share of China's rich trade. No longer did the people of the young republic have to rely upon England for their teas and silks and nankeens. To the consternation of British traders, who confidently had predicted that whatever direction American commerce might take, it would never infringe upon their monopoly at Canton, the products of the East were being directly imported by American merchants in American ships.
The size of these vessels is the first thing to startle our imagination in a day of mammoth ocean liners. They averaged less than three hundred tons, and many merchants unable to raise the capital to load and equip a ship of even this tonnage sent out vessels so small that their voyages seem incredible. No better example of the indomitable spirit of enterprise which made possible the development of the China trade can be found than in the story of the second trip to Canton. The Experiment, first of those to sail after the return of the Empress of China, was nothing more than a sloop of eighty tons built for trade on the Hudson River. Yet with a crew of eight men and two boys, it made the p31 direct voyage to the Chinese port without loss of a single man and returned in triumph to New York some sixteen months after it had left, warping into dock while 'martial music and the boatswain's whistle were heard on board with all the pomp and circumstance of war.'
Nor was this the only time when the amazed English sailors aboard the thousand‑ton East-Indiamen thought an American ship at Canton must be the tender for some larger vessel. Joseph Ingraham in 1792 brought in the brigantine Hope, 'being only 70 tons and slightly built'; a few years later, Edmund Fanning called at Canton with sealskins in the course of a voyage around the world in the 93‑ton Betsy, which carried a crew of 30, not one of whom was over twenty-eight; and in 1807, the Pilgrim, sixty‑two tons, was in Canton after a voyage of several years in the southern Pacific.
But perhaps the most amazing record for navigating Eastern seas in small ships was that of Captain Richard Cleveland. Born and brought up in the mercantile atmosphere of Salem, he had soon won command of one of 'King' Derby's fleet and in 1797 found himself in France with the barque Enterprise. He had intended to sail for Mocha for a cargo of coffee, but circumstances compelled the owners to cancel the voyage. Instead of returning to America with the Enterprise, Cleveland thereupon decided to purchase a vessel himself and sail for the East on his own responsibility.
It was in a tiny 38‑ton cutter that he set out from France bound for Mauritius. When he put into the Cape of Good Hope, the English were so astonished at the size of the vessel that they could not believe its purpose was legitimate trade. They concluded that the cutter was secretly carrying dispatches for the French Government and forced Cleveland to sell it and abandon his voyage. The p32 crew with which this venturesome American was prepared to round the Cape and cross the Indian Ocean was composed of a nineteen‑year‑old Nantucket lad, a gigantic Negro who had formerly been a slave, a 'great, surly, crabbed, raw‑boned, ignorant Prussian,' and a thirteen‑year‑old French boy who was 'the very image of a baboon.'
On another voyage a fifty‑ton cutter with a mutinous crew of British deserters was Cleveland's command on a daring and hazardous voyage from Canton to the Northwest Coast. When he reached Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, he found that even the Indian canoes were often larger than his own vessel. Still a third voyage found him sailing from India to Mauritius on a twenty-five‑ton pilot boat with open decks, an unheard‑of feat which created even more of a sensation at Mauritius than his previous exploits had done at the Cape or at Canton.
There were, of course, some larger vessels in marked contrast to these little brigantines, sloops, and cutters, but if the scarcity of American capital put a premium on small ships, American skill and ingenuity made their voyages highly successful. Furthermore, Samuel Shaw had an experience with a large vessel which effectively discouraged the Americans from attempting to carry on their commerce along the lines followed by the East India Company.
While in Canton on his second voyage, he ordered a ship to be built in Quincy, Massachusetts, on the model of an East-Indiaman. It was to be the largest vessel ever launched from an American shipyard, eight hundred tons burden, with length of keel •one hundred and sixteen feet, breadth of beam •thirty‑six feet, and depth of hold •thirteen feet. Specifications called for 'three Decks, and a round house with a Stern Gallery from the round house, and quarter gallery above and below, with thirty‑two ports on p33 her Second Deck, and a forecastle on her Upper Deck.' 'It is the expectation of Messrs. Shaw & Randall,' read the contract for its construction, 'that they can produce from America such a ship as will bear the Inspection of the Most Critical Eye, both as to construction and workmanship.'
It was duly built, and in September, 1789, launched amid great excitement. People from Boston and all over the countryside flocked to Quincy to see it slide from the ways. The river and harbor were thick with boats of entranced spectators, the surrounding hills covered with loyal sons of Massachusetts, who found in this vessel, to which the name of their State was given, a proof and a promise of what Massachusetts shipbuilders could do.
A few months later, March 28, 1790, the Massachusetts sailed under the command of Captain Job Prince. After a stop at Batavia, where Shaw unsuccessfully attempted to dispose of part of her cargo, she reached China on September 30. The sensation the vessel created there fully lived up to all the builders' hopes. 'It surpassed even our most sanguine expectations that she meet the approbation of all the Europeans at Canton,' Captain Prince wrote to her designer, William Hackett, 'and tho thereº eyes were open to spy defects and thereº tounges ready to find fault, they confessed they could not.' It was universally admitted that the Massachusetts was 'as perfect a model as the state of the art would then permit.'
But these tributes to his vessel did not help Shaw to dispose of her cargo. The rebuff at Batavia had first disappointed his expectations and it was found at Canton that his large assortment of goods was unsaleable. When he received an offer from the Danish East India Company to purchase the ship for sixty-five thousand dollars, a profit of some fifteen thousand dollars over its original cost, he p34 accepted it with alacrity. The Massachusetts had proved to be a triumph of shipbuilding, but impracticable for American trade because the possible loss on a single cargo was too heavy a drain on its owners. Smaller vessels and smaller cargoes were more suited to the needs of the young commerce.
If the small size of most of the American vessels excited comment at Canton, no less wonder was caused by the youthfulness of their crews. They were largely of good American stock, with an admixture of English, Dutch, and Swedes, for it was a time when the youth of the Atlantic seaboard, and especially of New England, turned inevitably to the sea. At an age when to‑day they would be in high school, they were at the close of the eighteenth century sailing before the mast; when to‑day they might be in college, they were then in command of their ships; when to‑day they might be entering business, they were then shipowners and preparing to retire from the sea as established merchants.
There was, for example, the voyage of the eighty-nine‑ton Boston sloop Union, which Samuel Eliot Morison has called 'the most remarkable youthful exploit in this bright dawn of Pacific adventure.' The captain of this little vessel, which in 1794 was the first sloop-rigged vessel to circle the globe, was John Boit, Jr. He had already been to Canton and the Northwest Coast as fifth mate of the Columbia, yet on this second voyage he was only nineteen years old. The comment of the Boston 'Centinel' on the end of his successful expedition was merely the brief notice among arrivals in port: 'Sloop Union, Boit, Canton.'
Another voyage about the same time was that of the Salem ship Benjamin, commanded by Captain Nathaniel Silsbee, later United States Senator. He had already p35 followed the sea for five years and like Boit had reached the hoary age of nineteen. His mate was but a year older and only one member of the crew was over twenty‑one. This was the second mate, a veteran of twenty-four, and he had to be discharged at Mauritius for insubordination. The voyage of these youngsters was so successful that it returned to the owners four or five times their capital investment.
Richard Cleveland, then eighteen, was Captain Silsbee's clerk on the Benjamin and it was only six years later that he was sailing his little cutters to the Northwest Coast and about the Indian Ocean. Silsbee's two brothers had their own commands like Captain Nathaniel before they were twenty. Five brothers in the Crowninshield family of Salem were all captains before they were twenty‑one.
At a somewhat later period William Sturgis, who was virtually to control the trade between Canton and the Northwest Coast, went to sea at fourteen, was a captain at nineteen, and at twenty-eight formed the firm of Bryant and Sturgis. Robert B. Forbes, one of the best-known China merchants, was a third mate at sixteen, a captain at twenty, a shipowner at twenty‑six, and a merchant at twenty-eight.
Matching the youth of these boys, who sailed the China coast so debonairly before they had attained their majority, was the inexperience in sailing Eastern waters and the ignorance of Eastern ports which they shared with older mariners. No one knows where the Americans got their first charts of the Pacific and in many cases navigation was apparently based on nothing more than crude maps. The Grand Turk was equipped with 'a few erroneous maps and charts, a sextant and a Guthrie's Grammar.' The Benjamin had neither charts nor chronometer and sailed by dead reckoning. p36 The Alliance, the famous frigate once commanded by John Paul Jones and dispatched to Canton by Robert Morris, took an entirely unknown route south of Australia and did not drop anchor until it reached China. But early reports declared that it had no charts, 'for there were none to be had, but have Guthrie's Grammar.'
What was this mystic key to Oriental traffic mentioned, among many other voyages, in the case of the Grand Turk and the Alliance? 'Guthrie's Grammar, called a New System of Modern Geography,' was first issued in this country in 1795, so that it must have been on earlier English editions the first American travelers were forced to rely. Yet, even in 1807, when it was issued with a 'correct set of maps, engraved in a very superior manner,' all it contained were large-scale charts similar to, but not as accurate as, those found to‑day in any geography book. The information they conveyed was supplemented by the thoughtful statement that 'it was in Asia, according to the sacred records that the all‑wise Creator planted the Garden of Eden, in which he formed the first man and first woman, from whom the race of mankind was to spring.' The harassed mariner threading his way through Sunda Straits or beating up along the China coasts might find this comforting to his religion, but hardly helpful to navigation.
Even if these vessels knew where they were going, however, so few and imperfect were the nautical instruments which they carried that they must often have reached their destinations by pure chance. For the Benjamin not to have a chronometer was the rule rather than the exception in the first days of the China trade. Yet Ebenezer Townsend, Jr., declared in 1797 that lunar observations, the only method of getting longitude without a chronometer, were just gaining popularity and few were the officers who knew how to p37 make them. The Massachusetts, not only the largest but the best-equipped vessel of its day, had missed Java Head and lost three weeks on its voyage in 1790 'on account of our not having any chronometer on board, nor any officer who knew anything about lunar observations.' With Nathaniel Bowditch and the publication in 1801 of the 'Practical Navigator,' all this was to be changed, but in the eighties and nineties the Canton trade was carried on without benefit of accurate charts or accurate instruments.
If the dangers of uncharted coasts and unknown reefs and shoals were somehow miraculously avoided, there was still another risk the American ships had to face in running the gauntlet of pirate craft which hovered about the southern straits and along the China shore. Fleets of swift Malay proas lay in wait for the unwary and the price of safety was constant vigilance. Should a vessel become becalmed or run upon a reef in Sunda Straits, the native craft were apt to appear suddenly from nowhere ready to board the stricken boat, plunder its cargo and massacre the crew. When American ships were later to explore the South Seas this was to happen in the Fiji Islands again and again, but against the Malays and the pirates of the China coast, who at one time could muster a fleet of hundreds of vessels, the Americans usually succeeded in defending themselves.
In 1798, the Betsy, despite rigging and painted guns which gave it the appearance of a ship of war, was attacked by a fleet of twenty-nine proas. It had left Canton in company with a Philadelphia vessel, but on the first sign of danger this fair-weather friend had deserted the slower-sailing Betsy and Captain Fanning was left in a dying wind to defend himself as best he could. His ten real guns, eight four‑pounders and two long six‑pounders, were loaded with round shot and bags of musket balls, and the crew was p38 ordered to wait with lighted matches for the Malays' approach. With hideous yelling they swept down upon the little vessel until they were within musket shot. 'At this moment,' wrote Captain Fanning, 'I clapped the helm a weather, hauled up the courses, and the ship, quickly wearing off, brought her broadside as handsomely as mortal could wish to bear directly on the proas.' The triumphant attack was abruptly halted. A second broadside and the fleet beat a frantic retreat with many of the proas well riddled with shot and one completely disabled.
This action was off Sumatra. A few years later Captain William Sturgis in the Atahualpa, loaded with three hundred thousand dollars in silver specie, beat off the attack of sixteen Ladrone pirates in Macao roads. In his account of the incident he tells of how he lit a cigar and swore he'd throw it into a powder barrel rather than yield his ship. One of his passengers, 'yellow as a sunflower' from an account of jaundice, was completely cured by the excitement.
These two vessels were not the only ones prepared to protect themselves from pirates. Every vessel of that day carried heavy armaments. Shaw speaks of storing ten of the guns of the Empress of China below decks while at Cape Verde; the Massachusetts, pierced for thirty‑six guns, carried twenty six‑pounders; the Grand Turk mounted twenty‑two guns; the sloop Union had ten carriage guns; and even the Experiment carried six cannon. In addition to this artillery, all ships carried musketry and full equipment of pikes and cutlasses. So many of the captains and crews had sailed on privateersmen that the profession of arms was no stranger to them. They were ready and eager to beat off any attack which threatened.
The route followed by vessels in the early trade was at first directly to Canton, with perhaps brief stops at the p39 Cape Verde Islands or the Cape of Good Hope to take on fresh provisions, but more circuitous voyages were soon made. The General Washington, Captain Johnathan Donnison, a three‑hundred-and‑sixty‑ton Providence vessel, as early as 1787 called at Madeira, Madras, and Pondicherry on its way to Canton and on the return voyage stopped at St. Helena, Ascension, and St. Eustatius. The Hope in the second year of the trade set a fashion generally followed thereafter of calling at Batavia. Calcutta and Bombay were often stations on the way to China and freighting Indian cotton to Canton became a profitable branch of Eastern commerce. Mauritius and Reunion, then known as Ile de France and Ile de Bourbon, were regular ports of call.
Nor was the direct route home any more common after the first few voyages. Calls were made at European ports from Genoa to St. Petersburg. Canton's teas might be sold at Hamburg or at Leghorn, its silks in Spain, or its nankeens in France. We find Samuel Shaw, who made his way to Bombay and Calcutta after his second voyage, making plans in 1791 to take his Canton merchandise to the former port, 'thence freight it to Ostend, and, accompanying it myself, to dispose of it there, and arrive in America in time to sail the ensuing season for China.' Tea was shipped to Hamburg by the Americans in 1796 according to the reports of the East India Company, and the next year to Holland and Spain. These newcomers to world trade were everywhere. Few were the ports, either of Europe or Asia, which did not have the opportunity to marvel at the efficiency with which such small vessels, manned by such young crews, carried on their thriving trade.
As for the cargoes taken to and from Canton, they may best be learned from the manifests or receipt books of those p40 ships whose papers have been preserved among their owners' files or in the sea chests of their captains and supercargoes. For the Empress of China, for the Experiment, for the Grand Turk, and for the Astrea, a Salem vessel sent out in 1789 by Elias Hasket Derby, we have records which give an intimate picture of the Canton trade before the opening of the nineteenth century.
The clerk of the Empress of China was Frederick Molineux and it is from his little cloth-covered book marked 'Receits' and dated 'Canton in China, October 8th, 1784,' that a fascinating account can be gleaned of Captain John Green's personal transactions while in the Chinese port.
'Rece'd at Canton October 9th, of F. Molineux for accot. of Capt. Green ten Dollars being in part of a contract for several Ombrellas' is the first item in this book, signed by 'Way‑fang — Ombrella maker the upper part of Hog Lane'; and it is in this form that all Captain Green's purchases from the Canton merchants are carefully recorded. They included boxes of lacquered ware, 'six hundred Ladies Silk Mitts' at a cost of $100, a box of 'Chow Chow Articles' purchased from 'Tyane, Image Maker,' for $38, several invoices of silk, tea, nankeens, and chinaware, some 'cassia and flowers,' 'two tubbs or China Bowls and One Dish,' 30 dollars' worth of fans, 'six pr. sattin shoes Ladies,' and, most carefully receipted of all, exactly one hundred and thirteen pairs of 'Sattin Breeches at 1½ Dollars p' pair' which were purchased from 'Apan, Taylor on the lower Bridge.'
Captain Green also bought certain sundries for the account of both Robert Morris and Mrs. Morris. We read that on December 2, 1784, there was paid to 'Eshing, Paper Mercht.' the sum of 'One Hundred Dollars for Paper Hangings for Robt. Morris Esq. the Borders not being p41 included,' and a few days later forty-nine dollars was receipted by 'Howqua Lacquer Man' as payment for 'a dressing Boxe & four Lacquered Fans for Mrs. Morris.' Two bundles of 'Bamboo silk Mounted Window blinds' were also purchased for the wife of the principal owner of the Empress of China.
Only one receipt in this book refers to Samuel Shaw, and that bears his own signature acknowledging payment of forty‑two dollars, 'being in full the amot. Sales of two Barrells Tarr to the ship Le Necker, Capt. Woolmore.'
In the writing of a different clerk there are also receipts for certain purchases of Captain Green made on the second voyage of the Empress of China in 1786. Here are one hundred pairs of satin breeches, certain pictures painted on glass,b a 'Table sett Nankin Blue and White China 170 pieces mark'd I W N. 1,' six jars of sweetmeats, lacquer ware, '24 Mother pearl mounted fanns & two feather brushes,' paper and silk fans, 'Pegodas & 4 Chinese images,' and 'six paint Boxes & paints in Watter Collours.' Finally, one of the last items, in which Captain Green himself signed a receipt for five dollars, records the purchase of 'a tea Sett China, for Mrs. Wilkinson, a sett Mother Pearl Counters for Mrs. Bunner & 6 tooth brushes for myself.'
The papers of Captain Dean of the Experiment — faded statements of his accounts made out for the owners with receipts for everything he bought in Canton — tell the whole story of the preparations made for the venturesome voyage of this little eighty‑ton sloop in the wake of the Empress of China. It was made possible by the subscriptions of a group of eighteen New York merchants who bought nineteen shares of stock in the enterprise at £600 each. The cost of the Experiment and its equipment was p42 £2570/10; that of its cargo, £8860. For several weeks the subscribers met every Tuesday at six at the Coffee House to work out their plans, and the final agreement was drawn up on November 17, 1785.
The most important item in the vessel's cargo was eighteen boxes of silver dollars. Fifty boxes and fifteen casks of ginseng were also loaded, a considerable quantity of furs including squirrel, fox, one bearskin, and 'three wild catts,' and several small shipments of tar, turpentine, tobacco, snuff, and Madeira. As for the stores with which a vessel of this period was equipped, Captain Dean's papers afford some interesting details. Among receipts for sailmakers' and coopers' charges, bills for wharfage and anchors, are the receipts for the Experiment's guns and gun carriages, for supplies of pork, beef, cider, bread, butter, wine, medicine, and mathematical instruments. There was a special bill of £2/7 for physic; the mathematical instruments cost £5/9/4, and for charts and directions from John Thompson and Abraham Evening there was paid the excessive sum of 16s. 6 d.
Wages of the crew — master, two mates, five seamen, and two boys — were estimated over the period from November 1, 1785, to April 25, 1787. Captain Dean received £199/13/5; his black cabin boy, Prince, £34/1/4. The owners' letter of instructions was couched in general terms. Captain Dean was to receive a five per cent commission on all transactions at Canton, was warned to watch out for Javanese pirates, and otherwise told to use his own judgment.
At Canton the cargo of £8860 was sold for £19,000, and after payment of port charges and expenses ashore, the remainder was invested in Chinese goods. Some three p43 hundred and eight chests of Hyson, a hundred chests of Souchong, eighty bales of nankeens, and thirty‑one chests of chinaware were brought to New York and there sold for £37,000. Heavy expenses at home and customs duties cut down this profit but at that the voyage netted £9294/16, a return of better than seventy‑two per cent on the original investment when the books were finally closed.
The Grand Turk, which sailed from Salem about the same time as the Experiment was leaving New York, was originally intended for Mauritius and proceeded to Canton only because the market at the French island was unusually depressed. Its cargo was consequently more general. The complete invoice shows:
10 bbls. of pitch, 10 bbls. of tar, 75 bbls. superfine flour, 6 tierces of rice, 35 hogsheads tobacco, 49 furkins New York butter, 20 Casks Claret Wine, 483 Bars Iron, 12 Hogsheads Loaf Sugar, 50 cases of oil, 20 Boxes Chocolate, 22 Boxes Prunes, 20 Crates Earthenware, 26 Casks Brandy, 163½ bbls. of Beef, 9 Casks Ginseng, 30 Puncheons Granada Rum, 42 Casks Coniac Brandy, 7 Casks Bacon and Hams, 7 Boxes English Mold Candles, 50 Boxes Spermacety Candles, 100 Boxes Mould Candles, 27 Boxes Tallow Candles, 32 Boxes Soap, 478 Furkins Butter, 579 Boxes Cheese, 123½ Bbls. Pork, 38 Kegs of Beef, 25 Baskets Aniseed, 14 Hogsheads New Eng. Rum high proof, 20½ Hogshds Fish, 42 Bbls. of Beer, 4 Tierces of Bottled Beer, 4 Tierces of Porter, 9 Kegs of Pork.
This cargo totaled £7183/5/7. Stores, wages, and outfit were put at £2000 and an item of 'light cash' brought the total investment up to £9200.
After calling at Mauritius, where it disposed of some of this cargo and took on as freight for Canton some shipments of ebony wood, ginseng, gold thread, cloth, and betel nuts, the Grand Turk reached China in September. By the end of the year it had exchanged its varied New England products p44 and sailed for home with a cargo of Chinese goods valued at £23,218. The return manifest shows:
240 Chests Bohea Tea, 175 ½ Chests Bohea Tea,c 2 Chests Hyson Tea, 52 Chests Souchong, 32 Chests Bohea Congo, 130 Chests Cassia, 10 Chests Cassia Bud, 75 Boxes China, quantity hides from Cape, 10 Casks Wine, 1 Box paper.
Four years later, in 1789, another of Elias Hasket Derby's ships, the Astrea, sailed for Canton under Captain James Magee, who had formerly commanded the Hope, with one of Boston's future merchants, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, as its supercargo. It had become Derby's custom to spend from six months to a year in assembling the cargo for an Eastern voyage. Iron, duck, and hemp were brought from the Baltic; wine and lead from France, Spain, and Madeira; rum from the West Indies; and flour, tobacco, and ship provisions from New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond. Furthermore, his own shipments were supplemented by those private adventures which were a part of New England's commercial traditions. The captain and supercargo were allowed a certain amount of free space in the vessel, while other friends and business associates of the owners could, upon payment of freight charges and commissions, place small shipments in the hands of the supercargo and empower him to trade for them at Canton on the best terms he could obtain. This system not only made it easier to raise the capital for such long voyages, but it created as nothing else could an interest in the products of the Far East. None was so poor but he could make some small speculation in the China trade. If he could not send out a bag of silver dollars which might net him several chests of tea at a tidy profit, at least he could entrust to a willing supercargo a few boxes of spermaceti candles or some barrels p45 of salmon which would bring him a fine piece of silk or a set of china dishes.
Consequently we find that the Astrea carried a cargo fully as miscellaneous as that of the Grand Turk, part of it on the owner's account and part on that of private adventurers. It was an undertaking in which almost all of Salem seems to have participated. There was a quantity of ginseng in the cargo, many ventures of bags of silver dollars on nine per cent commission, a great deal of wine and beer, fifty barrels of salmon, a hundred tons of iron, fifty barrels of tar, fifteen boxes of chocolate, five hundred and ninety-eight firkins of butter, three hundred and forty-five boxes of spermaceti candles, a hundred and fifteen tubs of steel, forty-eight barrels of beef, and three hundred and thirty‑six barrels of flour.
Magee and Perkins had in their own name one pipe of Madeira wine and one pipe of port, two hundred and fifty pounds of loaf sugar, four cases of Geneva, twenty gallons of brandy, ninety-five dozen bottles of rappee snuff, and five hundred and fifty‑two pounds of manufactured tobacco. One adventurer sent out two boxes of women's shoes; another nineteen dozen handkerchiefs. Folger Pope tried his luck with a phaëton and harness complete, while James Bott sent a box of saddlery.
Derby's instructions to his captain and supercargo were that the Astrea was first to stop at Batavia and there endeavor to pick up sugar, coffee, saltpeter, nutmeg, and pepper — the sugar to be used as a floor for the tea they were to purchase at Canton and the pepper to be stowed in the far peak where it would not injure the tea. For himself he wanted some ginger and fifteen or twenty pounds in curiosities, whatever china cups or saucers might be bought to be put in the crop of the bilge.
p46 The season in which the Astrea reached Canton found the greatest number of American vessels in port that had ever been in China. Derby himself had four ships there of his own and the market was so glutted with New England products that his representatives were forced to sell two of them to be able to buy sufficient cargo to lade the other two. The goods sent out by the Astrea sold for twenty thousand dollars less than their original cost. Nevertheless, it loaded sufficient teas, silks, chinaware, and nankeens to have to pay duty at Salem of $27,109.18.
The return manifest shows that Magee and Perkins on their joint account imported 65 chests of Hyson, 35 chests of Bohea, 10 one‑half chests of Bohea, 3 boxes of chinaware, 15 cases of nankeens, and 1 case of silk. Also in Magee's name were 10 boxes of merchandise, 6 bundles of window-frames, 2 bundles of floor mats, 7 boxes of images, 6 boxes of pictures, 2 lacquerware tea boxes, 4 small boxes, 2 small bundles of hair, 1 small box of sundries, 2 ivory boxes, paper hangings, 4 tubs of sugar candy, 1 box of ribbons, and 'one bagg farmerie.' When we read such a list it is easy to understand why the fine mansions of Salem's merchants became veritable museums of the curios of the Far East. Few were the housewives who could resist the chance to get a lacquer tea‑set, some Chinese scrolls, or at least a dozen china dishes after the return of one of Derby's ships from the lon eastward voyage.
Sometimes, as we find in later records, some Salem maid or matron, jealous of her neighbor's Oriental finery, might give such a minute commission as this one, signed by Henrietta Elkins, for the captain of the ship Messenger: 'Please to purchase if at Calcutta two net bead with draperies; if at Batavia or any spice market, nutmegs, and mace, or if at Canton, Two Canton Crape shawls of the enclosed colors at p47 $5 per shawl. Enclosed is $10.' And in the papers of the same ship is an order from Mrs. Mary Townsend for 'one Tureen •14 by 10 inches, China.' It is somewhat difficult to imagine the officers of one of our modern freighters accepting such shopping commissions from the ladies of their community!
One more quotation may give a still further idea of the miscellany of Oriental goods sometimes imported for the benefit of New England households. When the Rising Sun returned from Canton in 1793 to its home port of Providence, an advertisement in the Providence 'Gazette' announced as freshly arrived from China:
Fresh Bohea tea of the first quality, in Chests, Half, and Quarter Chests, China, a great Variety, Sattins, Lutestrings, Persians, Taffetas, of different Qualities, black and other Colours, A Variety of fashionable Silks and Silk and Cotton, for Gentlemen's Summer Wear, Nankeens, Elegant Sattin Shoe-Patterns, Pearl Buttons with Gold Figures, Superfine Lambskins, Ivory and lacquered Ware, Tea‑Caddies, A large Assortment of lacquered Tea‑Trays, Waiters, Bottle-stands, &c., &c. Silk Handkerchiefs, Hair Ribbons, Cinnamons and Cinnamon Buds, Black Pepper, 200 Boxes excellent Sugar, &c.
So it was that under these conditions of trade and with these cargoes America's commerce with the Far East had quickly assumed an importance which more than justified the optimistic reports which Samuel Shaw had made upon the return of the Empress of China from its first voyage. He himself was not destined to see its full development. He died homeward bound on the ship Washington in 1794 at the very time when the China trade was winning recognition as an expansive outlet for the energies of maritime America. But if his country did not have opportunity his services in any direct way, it at least paid him the p48 tribute of doing everything possible to further and protect the trade which he had inaugurated. Special duties were laid upon goods from the Far East not imported directly from the place of manufacture in American ships, discounts were given for the importation of tea, and we find Alexander Hamilton urging at the third session of the First Congress that the privileges of those trading in tea should be still further extended. The importance of the China trade, he declared, 'appears to lay claim to the patronage of the Government.'
What was the effect of this new commercial activity? It aroused the forebodings of the English for one thing. While the Constitutional Convention was still sitting in Philadelphia, the British agents in America, Sir John Temple in New York and Phineas Bond in Philadelphia, reported nervously on the threat to English commerce in voyages which were not only bringing tea to America, but also carrying it to European markets which the British considered their special preserves. Bond thought it was not yet too late to save the situation. 'If an early check or restraint can be thrown in their way, either by thwarting their credit, or by withholding the articles suitable for their commerce,' he wrote to Lord Carmarthen, 'I am convinced they would never rally.' And in a vain attempt to put this suggestion into effect and 'perfectly unhinge this trade,' the representatives of the East India Company in Canton were instructed 'to use every endeavor to prevent the subjects of Great Britain from assisting or encouraging in any shape the American commerce.'
It was too late, however. The few voyages we have sketched give a picture of a trade which British influence could not hope to 'unhinge' so easily. In the United States the lack of a national monetary system, the decentralization p49 of political authority, insufficient capital, and British competition had combined to hamper the recovery of domestic trade, but foreign commerce had risen above these difficulties. It was fast expanding and destined in the last decade of the eighteenth century to multiply fourfold. Thomas Jefferson had written that 'it might be better for us to abandon the ocean altogether, that being the element whereon we shall be principally exposed to jostle with other nations, to leave to others to bring what we shall want, and to carry what we can spare.' The merchants of the young republic knew better.
About 1790 it was estimated that the China trade accounted for approximately one seventh of the country's imports. It was one branch of our commerce in which English competition offered no effective threat to American activities. It brought the greatest profits of any branch of our foreign trade, founded the fortunes of a long line of merchants in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Salem, and attracted the best ships and most daring seamen of the Atlantic ports.
1 'She moved majestically from the Slips,' reads a contemporary account of the launching of this great vessel in 1791, 'amidst the Plaudits of an immense Concourse of Spectators, among whom was a brilliant assemblage of the fair Daughters of America.'
2 Kenneth Scott Latourette, who has listed five hundred and twenty American voyages to Canton between 1784 and 1844 — probably not half the actual total — gives the following figures for home ports: New York, 136; Boston, 111; Providence, 79; Salem, 71; Philadelphia, 27; miscellaneous, 42, and unknown, 48.
a His first voyage to Canton on the Canton is chronicled onsite in chapters 14 to 16 (pp60‑77) of Eugene S. Ferguson's Truxtun of the Constellation. His name is properly spelled Truxtun, but the misspelling seen here is very common.
b One such painting was reproduced as this book's frontispiece: see the homepage and my note there.
c This is not a duplication of the previous item: not chests of Bohea numbering 175½, but 175 half-chests of Bohea, as is made clear by another manifest and a newspaper advertisement quoted later in this chapter.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 19 Aug 16