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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

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 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p65  Chapter V
Hawaii and Spanish America

Two thousand miles off the Northwest Coast, in mid‑Pacific, a group of islands rises majestically out of the sea. Their glistening beaches are lined with cocoanut palms and banana trees and thick tropical foliage grows far up their wooded mountain-sides. To the American seamen of the Nor'westmen no contrast to the dour and forbidding coast they had left could have been more striking or more pleasing. Here was a friendly haven where 'refreshment' could be obtained under conditions almost idyllic, and sailors stricken with scurvy or worn from an exacting trade with treacherous Indians could be soothed by the warm breezes of the south.

The Columbia had stopped at what were then known as the Sandwich Islands and anchored off the white shores of 'Owhyhee' on its first voyage. Thereafter almost every vessel on the coast followed its example en route to Canton, and many of them, unable in a single season to secure their full cargo of sea‑otter furs, would spend the winter at Hawaii and return to their trading in furs the next spring. It was an ideal place to obtain those fresh supplies of hogs, fowl, fruit, vegetables, cocoanut, and sugar cane which were so welcome to weary seamen after months of salt pork washed down by spruce beer. Furthermore, the islands could supply a useful product to supplement a cargo of skins. The merchants of Canton were always ready to pay a high price for a few piculs of the fragrant sandalwood which Captain Kendrick about 1790 discovered growing wild on the island of Kauai.

 p66  With some few exceptions the relations between the Americans and the Hawaiians were extremely friendly. The naturalness of the islanders, and that effervescent spirit which led their first visitors enthusiastically to call them the happiest people in the world, were as welcome a change from the somberness of the Northwest Indians as were the inviting beaches of the islands after America's rocky coast-line. 'The characteristics of these islanders,' wrote Cleveland, 'are activity, gayety, volatility, and irritability; those of the Northwest Indians, heaviness, melancholy, austerity, ferocity, and treachery.'

Unless a taboo should happen to be in effect — one of those periodic verbotens by which the native priests exerted their authority and forbade any Hawaiian to go upon the water — the arrival of an American vessel invariably was the signal for an excited descent upon the newcomers. The islanders were ready to barter their fresh supplies for almost anything made of iron, and in the early days of the trade nothing more was needed to replenish a ship's larder than a good supply of knives, hatchets, or even nails.

The most cordial welcome was also extended to the Americans by the islands' ruler, King Tamaamaah.​1 This ambitious potentate was actively extending his power over the whole archipelago during this period and he quickly learned from the visitors certain of the ways of the West which proved helpful in his campaigns in the outlying islands. Their trade brought him firearms and ammunition and no vessel could long remain at anchor before he paid it an official visit and sounded out the prospects of an exchange of sandalwood for weapons of war.

A 'large athletic man, nearly naked,' is one of the first  p67 descriptions of this remarkable personage, but he soon paid his visits in greater style. An impressive costume made up of a blue broadcloth coat, a red waistcoat, and velveteen breeches trimmed with red, became his state uniform when he called upon the American captains, stalking proudly about their decks with a long sword clanking at his side. Often he would be accompanied by one or more of his favorite wives, ladies, we are told, who were very beautiful, but of 'unmeasured size.' Sometimes the festivities on shipboard during these visits were quite unrestrained. We read of royal swimming races and of the queens getting very drunk.

After such ceremonies the American sailors hurried ashore, and there is no question that not least among the Hawaiian attractions were the ladies of the realm, however enormous they might be. Knowing none of the conventions of the West, the natives were as glad to lend their wives to the Americans as to each other, and the first mark of Hawaiian hospitality was to offer the travelers their choice among the native women. The 'females were quite amorous,' wrote John Boit, Jr., on one occasion, and in his description of the second visit of Americans to the Sandwich Islands he declared that 'not many of the Columbia's Crew prov'd to be Josephs.'

Under such conditions it is little wonder that only special vigilance on the part of captain and officers could keep most of a ship's crew from deserting the hard life of a sailor for a taste of Hawaiian freedom. Some of them did take up permanent residence ashore, the nucleus of the American colony of later years, and lived there under Tamaamaah's friendly protection. Two of them, John Young and Isaac Davis, became the King's trusted advisers and influential middlemen in the sandalwood trade. Another, Samuel  p68 Patterson, was granted land, servants, and the choice of any women whom he favored except the wives of the chiefs. A friendly haven and a selection of women were also offered one Archibald Campbell, an English sailor from an American ship which had been wrecked on the Northwest Coast.

Unfortunately, the natives beyond the influence of Tamaamaah were not always as friendly as this, and in the early days of the trade precautions sometimes had to be taken more reminiscent of the coast than of the courteous hospitality of 'Owhyhee' itself. Captain Ingraham had a first experience of this sort when the Hope was once surrounded by seven hundred canoes with twenty thousand fighting men, and only the quick seizure of hostages averted an attack by these 'very Trecherous and Deceitfull' people.

Another story is told by John Bartlett, who had sailed to Canton on the Massachusetts in 1790, and, after its sale by Samuel Shaw, reshipped on a coast voyage on the snow Gustavus. When this vessel reached the islands, it followed the custom of the day in entertaining friendly visitors, and one night 'every man in the ship took a girl and sent the remainder ashore.' Suddenly a signal was given, and while 'every Girl in the Ship Clung fast to her Man in a very Loving Maner,' their lawful spouses cut the vessel's anchor ropes. But the seamen acted promptly to prevent their ship from drifting ashore. Breaking away from the affectionate embraces of their companions, they drove the women into the cabin and got the Gustavus under sail. The next morning they returned to the scene of the plot, and, after a little skirmishing with the natives, allowed the women to jump overboard and make the best of their way ashore.

Far more serious was the experience of Captain Metcalf and the ill‑fated brig Eleonora. This New York vessel was one of the first to engage in the Northwest trade — Samuel  p69 Shaw reported her off Macao on his second voyage and in 1789 she was in Nootka Sound — and on one of its voyages Captain Metcalf arranged a rendezvous at the islands with a smaller vessel, the Fair American, which he had bought in Macao and placed under the command of his son. No sooner had the Eleonora reached the appointed place than one of her crew was murdered by the natives, and, as the story is told, his bones brought back to the ship and offered for sale.

Incensed at this insult and treachery, Captain Metcalf determined on a bloody revenge. He went on peacefully trading and threw handfuls of beads over the side of his ship to draw in as close as possible all the native canoes which were swarming about his vessel. Then without warning he fired a sudden broadside into their midst. Some three hundred Hawaiians were said to have been killed.

But this was not all. All unknown to Captain Metcalf at the time he was carrying out this wholesale execution of the innocent and the guilty, his son's command, the Fair American, had been ambushed on another side of the island. Its entire crew, with the exception of one man, was massacred.

How much this bloody stain upon the early relations between the Americans and the Hawaiians may have been due to the way in which Captain Metcalf treated the natives is not known. There is evidence that both in Hawaii and on the Northwest Coast he recognized no scruples in obtaining his fresh supplies or his furs. At all events, he paid the final penalty for his possible mistreatment of the natives, for a few years later the Eleonora met much the same fate on the Northwest Coast as that which had overtaken the Fair American in Hawaii. Somewhere among  p70 the Queen Charlotte Islands the vessel was seized by Indians and Captain Metcalf and all but one of the crew were killed.

This incident was not in any way typical of the growing intercourse between Americans and Hawaiians. The only real check upon their early trade was due not to treachery on the part of the natives but to their increasing sophistication. After Captain Kendrick had taken the first cargo of sandalwood to Canton on the Lady Washington, this adjunct to the fur trade continued to grow and prosper until it, too, was interrupted by the War of 1812. One contract which the Winship brothers of Boston had made with King Tamaamaah for the entire monopoly on all the sandalwood grown in his territories was repudiated, and after the war both the King and his people were more exacting in their demands upon the American traders. The knives and hatchets and nails of the first days of barter were no longer good currency.

When Captain Hill arrived in the Ophelia in 1816, he found that all the King wanted was American-made schooners; his chiefs such products of the West as carriages,​2 damask tablecloths, and rum. From the account books of William French, who came out to Hawaii in the brig Neo two years later, we find that the demand then was for European clothing, arms, and ammunition. On one day Tamaamaah bought two shirts for a canoe-load of vegetables and a week later sixteen kegs of rum, a box of tea, and eight thousand dollars' worth of guns, powder and shot, paying for this transaction with eight hundred and fifty piculs of sandalwood. The next year his son bought thirty-four  p71 cakes of gunpowder, eighty muskets, and a $4160 sloop, for four hundred and sixteen piculs of sandalwood, four hogs, and his note for an unstated sum.

Soon after this the character of the Hawaiian trade changed still more. King Tamaamaah was succeeded in 1820 by King Liholiho and the precautions which had been taken by Tamaamaah to preserve the sandalwood forests were abandoned. The wood was cut down in such careless haste that it had the double effect of drugging the Canton market with an annual importation of twenty‑one thousand piculs and quickly denuding the islands of all sandalwood trees. The Hawaiian Islands were now to become a port for direct trade with the United States, due both to the large numbers of American vessels calling there for supplies​3 and to the growing needs of the Hawaiians themselves, but its days as a way station on the route to Canton were over.

If the islands thus outgrew their part in the China trade, it was nevertheless this trade which first led to American interest in Hawaii, then to the missionary movement which brought the islanders within the pale of Western civilization, and ultimately to annexation.

American seamen rounding Cape Horn and making their way up to the Northwest Coast and then across the Pacific to Hawaii and Canton were not ignorant of the fact that there was a vast intervening coast-line which was part of Spanish America. When sea‑otter furs became scarce about Nootka Sound and the mouth of the Columbia, their vessels inevitably crept farther south to California; when weather  p72 or scarcity of provisions made some intermediate halt between the Cape and the Northwest desirable, they did not hesitate to put into one of the Spanish ports of South America. But along this entire coast trade with any foreign vessel was generally forbidden by the Spanish authorities. Until the establishment of the independence of Mexico and of the South American Republics, what commerce there was had to be furtive and contraband. The Americans traded either with the connivance of the customs guards, or, should they prove incorruptible, in spite of them.

Along the California coast there were in the days of the Northwest trade only a few scattered mission stations. Richard H. Dana was later to paint an unforgettable picture of the country in 'Two Years Before the Mast,' but before the trade in hides commenced, California was little known and American vessels skirting its shore-line were pioneering new territory. There were several variations to the trade they attempted to carry on. The Nor'westmen might try their luck at such ports as San Diego, San Blas, or Monterey, hoping to find officials willing to place furs in the category of 'necessary supplies.' They might seek out Indians on isolated spots along the coast. They might get in touch with the padres of the mission stations who were always glad to ignore Spanish regulations and trade for American goods whatever furs they could obtain from their Indian converts.

The ship Otter of Boston, Captain Ebenezer Dorr, Jr., which put into Monterey for 'provisions' in 1796, is believed to be the first American vessel to have anchored in the waters of California. Four years later another Boston vessel, the brigantine Betsy, Captain Charles Winship, was ignoring Spanish regulations by trading directly with the Indians. By 1804 the Americans were annually leaving  p73 some twenty-five thousand dollars in goods and specie along the forbidden coast.

One novel scheme first carried on in this same year was that of Captain Joseph O'Cain in a ship named after himself. By an arrangement with the Russian authorities at New Archangel, he borrowed seventy-five canoes and one hundred and twenty Indians, bringing them with him on a cruise to California. The Indians put off from the ship in their canoes to hunt the sea otter and were so success­ful that in a single season Captain O'Cain loaded eleven thousand skins.

But the voyage which best gives us a picture of the California trade was that made a few years earlier by Captain Cleveland, soon after those adventures on the Northwest Coast in his fifty‑ton cutter. He had returned to Europe in 1801 and there chartered, together with William Shaler, formerly United States Consul-General at Algiers, the brig Lelia Byrd. Sailing from Hamburg late that year, they stopped first at Valparaiso, where their relations with the Spanish authorities, suspicious with good reason that their cargo was not directly destined for Canton, soon forced them to proceed farther north. They did not dare enter any other port of Chile or Peru, but at San Blas finally succeeded after considerable intrigue in obtaining permission from the Viceroy of Mexico to exchange a part of their cargo for furs.

They next put into San Diego, but found the commandant of this port unwilling to let them trade on any pretense. Nevertheless, it was arranged to purchase some sea‑otter skins from the customs guards without his knowledge. A longboat was sent ashore to collect them and preparations made to put out to sea before such duplicity could be discovered. But the longboat did not return. It had been  p74 seized by the commandant. 'The choice presented us,' Captain Cleveland wrote, 'was that of submission, indignant treatment and plunder; or resistance and hazarding the consequences.'

Naturally it did not take a Yankee seaman long to make up his mind what he should do under such circumstances. Cleveland promptly went to the rescue of his men, seized the Spanish soldiers who were holding them prisoners, and put out to sea. As he passed the fort guarding the entrance to the harbor, it opened fire. But Cleveland was ready for the attack. 'As soon as we were abreast the fort,' he wrote, 'we opened upon them, and in ten minutes silenced their battery and drove everybody out of it. They fired only two guns after we began, and only six of their shots counted, one of which went through between wind and water; the others cutting the rigging and sails. As soon as we were clear we landed the guard, who had been in great tribulation lest we should carry them off.'

It was outright, unashamed smuggling, and if the 'battle of San Diego' does not reflect too highly upon the methods of American traders on the California coast, it affords a striking example of their relations with the Spanish. They had no hesitation in defying constituted authority as long as they could get away with it.​4 They had no compunctions about employing all the trickery or force at their command to make off with the coveted furs which priests, soldiers, or traders were only too glad to sell them if the arm of the law could be avoided. Cleveland excused his smuggling on the ground that the people welcomed it and were oppressed by  p75 their rulers. To add insult to injury he lost no opportunity wherever he was along the coast of South America to urge the people to follow the example of the United States and throw off the Spanish yoke. Behind him from Valparaiso to San Diego, he left a trail of copies of the American Declaration of Independence.

Another aspect of Cleveland's activities in California is to be found in his experiences upon his next stop in Bay of San Quintin. Here the Lelia Byrd was visited by the padres of the missions of San Vincente, San Domingo, San Rosario, and San Fernando, who arrived on horseback with large retinues of Indian servants. They were a 'jolly set of fellows,' Cleveland wrote. 'Their object seemed to be principally recreation, though they brought a few sea‑otters' skins, which they bartered with us for European manufactures.'

Apparently neither race nor religion set up any barriers to the mutual enjoyment these two different sets of men — Yankee seamen and Spanish priests — found in each other's company. The padres had come prepared to stay far longer than their trade could possibly have demanded, and after pitching their tents near the Lelia Byrd's anchorage they insisted upon Cleveland's accepting their hospitality. The American sea captain declared that 'never was there an equal number of men more disposed to promote harmony and good fellow­ship, and we dined together alternately on shore and on board, during the week that they remained with us.'

Thanks to his defiance of the Spanish port authorities and his friendship with the mission fathers, Cleveland was able to secure a full cargo of furs before he left California for Hawaii and Canton. He had made a success­ful voyage, and by the time he reached Boston and sold his return cargo of  p76 tea and silks, his profits were tremendous. He had first sailed to the East in 1797 in a cutter which he bought, together with its cargo, for seven thousand dollars. When eight years later he at last returned home, this original investment had swollen to seventy thousand dollars, for those days a comfortable fortune.

Trade at the ports of Spanish America south of those in California has been described in the remarkable sea journals of Captain Samuel Hill.​a This New England sailor had a stormy career, sailing first to the Pacific on the John Jay in 1795, and in subsequent years voyaging to Japan, in the employ of the Dutch, and to the Northwest Coast, where he was once captured by the Indians. While in Canton on one of these voyages, he came under the influence of the famous missionary, Dr. Robert Morrison, and was persuaded to live a more sober and religious life than that to which he was accustomed as a hard-driving sea captain. It is to this we owe his careful record of his later voyages. It summons up a pleasant picture to imagine Captain Hill forswearing his daily grog and retiring quietly to his cabin to write out in his beautifully clear hand a journal, half nautical observations, and half sad regrets for the follies of his earlier days.

[image ALT: A photograph of a handwritten three-column ledger in a neat 19c script. It is a page of the manuscript sea journal of Captain Samuel Hill; the text is pretty much readable by clicking on the link provided below.]

It was in 1815 that he sailed for South America in command of the ship Ophelia, three hundred and sixty tons, owned by Perkins and Company of Boston. His cargo was seventy thousand dollars in Spanish silver, which was to be exchanged at Valparaiso for pig copper, this commodity to be taken in turn to Canton and traded for tea and silk.

Captain Hill was accorded a wide discretion by the vessel's owners as to what he should do if it proved impossible to trade at Valparaiso. There were whales' teeth at the Galapagos Islands, sandalwood at Ingraham's Islands, or sea‑otter skins at Norfolk Sound. If necessary, he was to  p77 stop at Hawaii for sandalwood. Should all these markets fail, he was to try at Batavia for freight to Japan or for a cargo of coffee for Boston. In all events he was to be careful of the Spanish guardacostas and to speak no ships which he could avoid.

The Ophelia was armed with eight six‑pounders, fifteen muskets, two blunderbusses, twelve cutlasses, fifteen boarding pikes, two pairs of pistols, and four hundred rounds of powder and shot. It was estimated that the voyage would take eighteen months, and supplies of bread, beef, and pork for this period were taken aboard. There were twenty‑two in the crew, the wages of the able seamen being seventeen dollars a month, and those of green hands and boys from six dollars to ten dollars. Captain Hill had the privilege of ten tons on the home cargo and various commissions on what he bought and sold from five to seven per cent.

He was a strict disciplinarian, the journal shows us. For sleeping on their watch his seamen were sent to the masthead for two hours and deprived of their grog for two days. There was to be no swearing, blaspheming, or obscene language, and Captain Hill supplemented his attempts to promote godliness, a matter not altogether in his control, by strictly enforcing a cleanliness which did fall within his province. On Saturdays all bedding was to be aired and clothes washed. Sunday was a day of rest, but the men were mustered and had to be clean.

The Ophelia met its first adventures after leaving Boston while rounding Cape Horn. Encountering unusually hot weather, two weeks were spent in making the stormy passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

'We were scourged with a series of dreadful Gales during which time we had but few Intervals of Moderate Weather and those were Very Short,' wrote Captain Hill. 'The  p78 Winds Varied generally from S.W. to N.W. and sometimes to N.N.W. but the heaviest of these winds was from the West by North and N.W. The terribly heavy Sea, Produced by such a continuation of Gales, operating upon an Ocean, Open even to the Pole, without Interruption except from the Masses of Ice, may readily be conceived. I think I have never seen so heavy a Sea before. With these Gales we wore and tacked occasionally as the wind shifted a few Points, but the drift occasioned by the Current and heave of the Sea, was such that although we carried all the Canvas we Possibly could and never hove to, yet we hand enabled to do but little more than keep our Position. The Ophelia Proved a Most Excellent Sea Boat, and Safe Ship, or we should not have done so well, and I considered ourselves as being extremely fortunate in having Suffered no damage, except a Main top Sail split and a jib boom partially sprung. . . .'

Finally, one hundred and twenty‑two days out of Boston the battered vessel made Valparaiso. But the Spanish authorities were in an unfriendly mood. There was no disposition on their part to stretch the regulations which allowed foreign ships to obtain fresh provisions into permission to buy any copper, and the Ophelia was unable either to trade legitimately or to smuggle. It left port after a brief stay with its cargo of silver dollars still intact.

Ill‑luck now continued to dog Captain Hill as he vainly sought out various ports of the Pacific where his specie might be exchanged for some other commodity which could be traded at Canton. At the Galapagos Islands rough weather prevented him from landing even a boat's crew, and at Hawaii there was a temporary feud on between King Tamaamaah and the Americans which prevented him from buying a single picul of sandalwood. The Ophelia was  p79 forced to turn westward and, crossing the Pacific by way of New Britain, the Admiralty Islands — where for a time the ship was stuck upon a reef — and New Guinea, it at length reached Batavia. Here again there was no trade for an American vessel, and Captain Hill continued on the course to his ultimate goal of Canton. It was August, 1816, when the Ophelia anchored at Whampoa with the exact same cargo with which it had left Boston a little over a year before.

The hong merchants could, of course, always use specie and the voyage was by no means a loss. A cargo of Canton goods was taken aboard and Captain Hill set out on the homeward voyage by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Five months later and the Ophelia was in Boston Harbor.

The ill‑luck of his ventures in South America, however, had by no means discouraged Captain Hill with the prospects of trade in the Spanish colonies. Soon after his return with the Ophelia, he set out once again for Valparaiso aboard the Packet, two hundred and eighty tons, carrying a miscellaneous cargo costing some two hundred thousand dollars.

When he reached the Chilean port on this voyage, it was to find the South American colonies in open insurrection and a patriot squadron harassing the regular Spanish shipping. Consequently the authorities eagerly welcomed an American ship bringing supplies which they could not import themselves. Free permission was granted Captain Hill to trade and to export copper, and by sending some of his goods overland from Valparaiso to Santiago he managed to do thriving business.

When he reached Canton with his new cargo, mostly copper, he found such a ready sale for it that he freighted to Boston the China goods for which it was exchanged and  p80 returned in the Packet to South America. For the next few years he traded regularly back and forth between Canton and Valparaiso, repeating the success of his first venture, and it was not until 1822 that the Packet returned to Boston after a total voyage of almost five years.

This Canton-South American trade, in which Captain Hill was by no means the only voyager, never assumed the importance of other branches of America's commerce with China. In 1819, we find that American vessels exported from Canton to South America only $262,830 worth of goods. This seems to be a fair average for the period and an indication of the extent of the direct trade, even though it does not take into account South American products which were picked up en route by the fur‑traders. But, at the same time, Canton exports to Europe in American ships were six times this amount, and the value of those goods taken directly to the United States twenty-four times as great. It was a trade important only because it represented a phase of that widespread search on the part of the Americans for any products which could be exchanged for Canton's teas and silks.

The Author's Notes:

1 Tamaamaah, as he was then called, is known to history as King Kamehameha I.

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2 Captain Cleveland had brought the first horse to Hawaii in 1803. The people were greatly excited; Tamaamaah blasé. He could not see that a horse's ability to transport a person faster than he could walk was sufficient compensation for all the food the horse would consume.

[decorative delimiter]

3 It was the whalers especially who later made Hawaii a regret port of call. Samuel Eliot Morison says that sixty put into Honolulu in 1822, while some twenty years later the annual arrivals were over four hundred.

[decorative delimiter]

4 The author of Two Years Before the Mast found Cleveland's fame still bright when he visited the California coast. 'We take this opportunity to assure the author,' Dana wrote in a review of Cleveland's book, 'that, after the lapse of more than thirty years, the story [of his battle] was yet current in San Diego and the neighboring ports and missions.'

Thayer's Note:

a Capt. Hill's journals lie in manuscript in the New York Public Library and have not been published in full. Abridgments of two of Capt. Hill's journals have been published, edited by James Wilbur Snyder, Jr.: "Journal of a Voyage to Canton, 1815" (New England Quarterly, 10:355‑380); and "Voyage of the Ship 'Packet' to South America and China, 1817" (Americana, 33:310‑325). The captain's manuscript autobiography (Autobiography of Samuel Hill and Other Matter about Him, in the New York Public Library like his journals) still does not appear to have been published at all.

What our author will focus on in the next pages here, from the first of the journals mentioned, is by and large omitted by Snyder in his abridgment, which is as a whole rather less interesting. To my mind, this speaks well to Dulles' storytelling ability and makes me wonder, should you be casting around for a doctoral or publishing project, what other bits omitted by Snyder still lie in manuscript.

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Page updated: 19 Aug 16