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Chapter 7

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.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p106  Chapter VIII
Changing Trade

Throughout this period in which Yankee traders were searching from Nootka Sound to the Fijis for anything and everything which might be sold in the Canton market, the number of American vessels which every year took their place among the shipping anchored at Whampoa naturally increased. In 1784 it was only the Empress of China which flew the Stars and Stripes in China waters, but before the end of the century an average of more than ten American voyages a year were converging upon Canton with their varied cargoes of specie, merchandise, sea‑otter furs, sealskins, and sandalwood. From 1804 to 1809 a total of some one hundred and fifty-four vessels found their way to China from the United States. Our trade had completely outdistanced that of France, Holland, Denmark, and Portugal, and we were pressing hard upon the heels of the honorable East India Company.

[image ALT: An engraving of a busy harbor scene. In the foreground, a patch of ground marked by a tall palm tree on the viewer's right, near which a man in a European jacket, wearing a three-cornered hat, stands and talks to several Chinese people sitting on the ground: they wear broad-brimmed hats. In the middle ground, a large body of water with some sixty or <SPAN CLASS=seventy boats, mostly Chinese junks, but five or six three-masted European sailing ships that dwarf them, and an island or possibly a small peninsula with a tall pagoda in the center. To the viewer's left, a town can be seen in the distance with another tall apgoda; in the background, a range of mountains meets the water. It is a view of the Chinese port of Whampoa in the early 19c.] ">

These ventures into the Pacific had already instilled new life and vigor into American commerce. They had led the way to a stirring revival of mercantile activity from Salem to Baltimore. But the growth of the Canton trade itself, subject to many fluctuations, was unusually irregular. It was not merely that the character of the expeditions to the Northwest and the Seal Islands made a China voyage at best a venturesome risk for merchants and seamen, but, more important, markets for the sale of Canton goods were to a great extent dependent upon conditions in Europe. Like the general commerce of the young republic, the one neutral in a warring world, trade with China flourished with  p107 hostilities among the European states, suffered with peace, and temporarily collapsed with the events of 1812.

The first definite check in its expansion came as a result of the Embargo of 1808. In the following season only eight American vessels reached Canton as compared with thirty-three in the previous season.

One of these ships was John Jacob Astor's Beaver. It had slipped out of port, much to the disgust of rival merchants in New York, through a clever ruse which Astor had ingeniously employed to obtain a special sailing permit from President Jefferson. The great fur merchant had won this exceptional privilege by claiming that there was an important Chinese mandarin aboard the Beaver. His position was represented as being so influential that it would be extremely impolitic to force him to remain in the United States because of an embargo which had nothing to do with relations with China. Jefferson solemnly considered the case as a question of national comity. At length he wrote that the opportunity of making the United States known to the Chinese 'through one of its own characters of note' made the granting of a passport to the Beaver a diplomatic measure 'likely to bring lasting advantages to our merchants and commerce with that country.'

Too late it was disclosed that this important mandarin for whom the President had interceded was simply a coolie member of the Beaver's crew. By that time Astor's vessel was well on its voyage.

After the withdrawal of the embargo, the trade to the Far East quickly recovered and flourished gayly until the shadow of war with England. The American imports at Canton varied from three to six million dollars a year, a great part of them specie despite the thousands of seal and otter skins collected at such hazard, while exports to the  p108 United States to an equal amount were in the form of teas, silk, and nankeens. The amount of tea brought to America in the first decade of the nineteenth century, much of it for reshipment to Europe, was almost double that imported in the decade of the eighteenth.

To the English at Canton this growing trade was becoming more and more a cause of grave anxiety. They had to recognize that little American ships, about a third the size of their East-Indiamen and 'manned by sailors of exceptional alertness of mind and body,' were undermining their monopoly. A report to the East India Company at London as early as 1809 spoke of this 'deeply irritating neutral trade.'

Consequently it is not surprising that the troubles of 1812 were preceded by British interference with American shipping in the Far East along exactly the same lines as that experienced by our vessels in other parts of the world. On the plea that the American ships were harboring British deserters, they were searched by British men-of‑war and their seamen impressed with absolute effrontery. No respect was paid to the territorial sovereignty which the Chinese were powerless to enforce, and the fact that a ship was anchored in the reaches of Whampoa afforded it no more protection than had it been on the high seas.

The only way in which the Americans could maintain their rights and hope to keep their crews intact was by the threat of armed resistance. Nor was it an idle threat. Seamen fresh from warding off the attacks of Northwest Indians and natives of the South Sea Islands were more than ready to train their guns upon British boarding parties. The armed ships and fighting sailors of the Pacific were not the peaceful merchantmen of the Atlantic.

In 1807, the resentment of the Americans against impressment  p109 became so bitter that affairs reached a crisis. Hostilities were about to break out between the British and Americans. The former had established a virtual blockade of Canton and were threatening to seize every American ship. The latter were ready to defend themselves. Sentries were posted and ammunition served out to every crew.

At this point there might easily have been a naval engagement had not Captain Edmund Fanning, who that year was in command of the Tonquin, decided to take the risk of running the blockade. He was stopped by a British vessel and quietly went aboard with his papers to sound out the intentions of the English by a test case. To his own good fortune and to that of all Americans in port, he discovered that he personally knew the British commodore. He was able to explain the position of his countrymen and thanks to his good offices the British decided to lift the blockade. Peace was restored and the interrupted trade continued for a time without any further interference with American shipping.

When actual war between the two countries broke out some five years later, Canton did become the scene of open hostilities. Both British war vessels and American letters-of‑marque brought in their captured prizes, and this led to conflicts in which China's territorial rights were completely disregarded, and to a British blockade of the port which only three Boston vessels were able to run. The Rambler, the Jacob Jones, and the Tamaamaah 'escaped dashingly the British blockading squadron' in 1815, but the rest of the American merchant fleet was bottled up.

The most exciting incident in the course of the war occurred when H. M. S. Doris took the American ship Hunter off the Ladrone Islands, brought her to Whampoa as a  p110 prize, and then captured a schooner, after a brief fight in which one Englishman was killed, within ten miles of Canton. This was too much for the American vessels at Whampoa. They decided that such a flagrant disregard of Chinese sovereignty could work both ways. Arming their crews, they went to their countryman's assistance and after a vigorous engagement forced the British to release the American schooner.

On the whole, the China trade was effectively disrupted by the war. While the American shipping at Whampoa lay inactive, the British successfully drove the Yankees off the Northwest Coast and away from Hawaii. Astoria was surrendered and a British sloop forced King Tamaamaah to break his contract with the Winship brothers for the delivery of sandalwood. Britain commanded the Pacific and no American war vessels appeared at Canton to protect the China trade.1

Peace, however, brought a revival of the commerce even more spectacular than that which had followed the lifting of Jefferson's embargo. Thirty American vessels reached Canton in the season of 1815‑16, thirty-eight the next year, thirty-nine the next, and no less than forty-seven in 1818‑19. This set a new mark for the China trade and both the imports and exports were over nine million dollars.

In the Essex Institute at Salem there is a manuscript copy of the returns of American vessels at Canton from June 6, 1816, to May 25, 1817. No other source gives such a clear and concise picture of the China trade at this period when it was recovering from the interruption of war.

Forty-three vessels came into port under the American  p111 flag; thirty-eight left. The smallest of these ships was of one hundred and forty-seven tons burden and the largest four hundred and seventy-nine; the average size still being something less than three hundred tons. Their crews ranged from eleven to thirty and averaged about twenty. Boston was the home port of the greatest number, eleven; Philadelphia of nine, New York of seven, Salem of five, Baltimore of four, Providence of three, Amsterdam of three, and Newburyport of one.

Most of these vessels had sailed directly to Canton, but among the ports at which the others had touched were Amsterdam, Antwerp, Gibraltar, Valparaiso, Sumatra, the Northwest Coast, and Batavia. The destinations of the thirty-eight which left China were: Boston nine, Philadelphia nine, New York six, Amsterdam four, Northern Europe three, the Mediterranean two, Providence two, and one each for Baltimore, the Sandwich Islands, and the Northwest Coast.

As for cargoes, the listed imports were silver dollars, ginseng, opium, quicksilver, lead, betel nut, iron, sea otter, land otter, beaver, fox and seal skins, camlets, ebony, copper, cochineal, steel, brimstone, nutria skins, and sandalwood. The exports were largely tea — Bohea, Congo, Campoy, Souchong, Hyson Skin, Hyson, Young Hyson, Imperial and Tokay — together with cassia, chinaware, camphor, sugar, rhubarb, silks, sewing silk, pepper, sugar,º candy, aniseed, saltpeter, nankeens, and white lead.2

For one of these ships, the Lion, sent out by the New York firm of Minturn and Champlin, we have even fuller details in the papers of its supercargo, William Law. They  p112 show that his vessel's cargo was largely silver specie and that he himself, allowed ten tons privilege in addition to his commission of three per cent on all goods bought and sold in Canton, took out three casks containing nine thousand Spanish dollars and a bale of white foxskins. The return cargo included 360 chests of Young Hyson, 362 of Hyson, 3893 of Hyson Skin, 311 boxes of chinaware, and smaller quantities of sugar, cassia, rattans, chinaware, lacquer, crape hangings, paper, silk, paintings, sweetmeats, gold leaf, ivory counters, brushes, and floor mats. Many of these smaller items represented special commissions for Law's friends who wanted Canton shawls, crapes, scarfs, and chinaware. Among the scattered documents there is one brief note in a very feminine hand formally thanking Mr. Law for the 'very elegant Shawl, and Work Box, as a proof of his devotion they will ever be highly esteemed.'

This examination of the trade after the close of the War of 1812 shows little change from conditions during the first decade of its existence. More ships were involved, but they were of the same type, sailing from the same ports and following the same routes. Imports at Canton were still largely specie, with the Northwest, the Seal Islands, and the South Seas represented by a moderate quantity of furs and sandalwood. Exports were the same as those first carried to the United States by the Empress of China.

Nevertheless, the commerce with Canton was actually on the brink of an interesting transformation. Voyages to the Northwest and to the islands about Cape Horn were becoming more and more infrequent, as may be seen in the falling‑off in the importations of sea‑otter furs and sealskins. The direct route from the Atlantic to Canton instead of circuitous voyages about the world was becoming more the rule. The China trade, in short, was losing its air of romance  p113 and excitement, and becoming simply a regular commerce which differed from that in other parts of the world only because of the peculiar conditions which still existed in Canton.

The year 1821, when the United States Treasury first began making its annual reports on American trade with China, may perhaps be taken as the division point between the romantic and prosaic periods. Ships after this date became somewhat larger and faster, but because they no longer had to be so heavily armed, they did not need such large crews. The Empress of China, three hundred and sixty tons, had a crew of forty-four and could carry a cargo of only four hundred to four hundred and fifty tons. A vessel of this later period might be six hundred and fifty tons burden, but it needed a crew of only twenty‑six and could carry thirteen hundred tons of cargo. Moreover, it could sail in any season and make the trip out to China and back, touching perhaps at Anjer in the Straits of Sunda or at St. Helena, in from nine to twelve months, whereas the Empress of China had taken fourteen and a half.

For another thing, supercargoes were being entirely replaced by American firms at Canton, and instead of individual merchants providing the initiative and capital for the voyages, they were being undertaken by large companies. In 1825, it was reported that seven eighths of the China trade was in the hands of four firms; Perkins and Company, of Boston; Archer, of Philadelphia; Jones Oakford and Company, of Philadelphia; and T. H. Smith, of New York.

As for ports, Salem had already lost its early significance; Boston and Philadelphia were soon to dwindle in importance. Baltimore had become more active than Providence. New York dominated the trade and was to become  p114 the great center for the distribution of tea. It had been the first to send out a voyage to Canton; it was again to be in the lead during the final phase of the old China trade.

Under these new and more prosaic conditions the trade did not yield such high profits. The average return on investments was estimated at six per cent. Competition became too keen in a market which remained so strictly limited in spite of the ingenuity of the Americans in pandering to the tastes of the Chinese. Bills of exchange on London were to take the place of specie and both domestic and foreign manufactured articles were imported to some extent, but there was nothing which the Americans could carry to China in this period and reap such rich rewards as when they first took out ginseng or the furs of the sea otter and the seal.

Grouping together the years from 1821 to 1841, the final period of the old China trade's full development, we find that between thirty and forty vessels were now arriving in Canton every year from American ports, and that combined exports and imports averaged well over ten million dollars. These figures are as true for the end of the period as for its start. The official exports from China to the United States for the season 1821‑22 were valued at $5,242,356; those for 1841‑42 at $4,934,645. There were years in between when they were valued at about twice these amounts, but there was no consistent expansion to the trade. While American foreign commerce as a whole increased by leaps and bounds and in 1841 was more than six times what it had been fifty years earlier, trade with Canton had remained practically static after its first dramatic period of rapid growth.3

 p115  By the time this point was reached, however, the Americans had achieved one thing which had never been thought possible. It will be remembered that English economists had believed that whatever direction American commerce might take it could not compete with England in the Far East. 'It would hardly be to the interest of the Americans to go to Canton,' Lord Sheffield had declared, 'because they have no articles to send thither, nor any money.' Yet so completely had this theory been disproved that that American trade had passed that of the East India Company and the British were to be compelled to annul the Company's monopoly and throw the China trade open to all Englishmen in order to compete on equal terms with their Yankee rivals.

As early as 1819 it was brought out in parliamentary reports relative to trade with China and the East Indies that the Americans were beginning to handle a greater commerce than the East India Company. The complete English totals always far exceeded those of the Americans because of the independent trade of the 'country ships' which were allowed under special license to sail between Canton and the ports of India — a lucrative trade based upon opium; but in the season of 1817‑18 the Company's imports at Canton were $5,045,000 as compared with $7,076,822 for the Americans. Exports were respectively $6,390,600 and $6,777,000.

Nor could the English in succeeding years catch up with their rivals. In fact their trade began to decrease. In the period from 1820 to 1828 there was a loss of fifteen per cent as compared with their trade of the preceding twenty-five years. The total commerce of the East India Company from 1821 to 1827 as reported to the House of Commons was £16,182,826 and that of the Americans £18,479,698.  p116 This gave the latter an annual average of £382,812 more than the Company. And what proved even more galling to the British was that the American lead was in part due to the fact that American ships were bringing to Canton British manufactured goods at the rate of £200,000 a year.

'The ruinous competition which the Company's Woollen investment has had to contest with, during the last few years, from the introduction of British Manufactures by Americans,' reported the Select Committee of the East India Company at Canton in 1821, 'has been gradually increasing, but its injurious effects have never perhaps been more seriously felt than at present.'

How could the Americans undermine the monopoly of the great and mighty East India Company? The explanation seems largely to lie in the informality of their trade and consequent slight overhead. The Company had its dignity and prestige to maintain; it had traditions which could not be broken. Its great ships were almost all over one thousand tons — the Earl of Balcarras built in 1815 was 1417 tons — and carried crews ranging from 107 to 133 men. They were the last word in safety, comfort, and luxury, but had not been built for either speed or efficiency. They simply could not compete with the little American ships which could make two voyages to their one, were sailed by what appeared to the British to be skeleton crews, and carried on their business at Canton with an efficiency and dispatch — sometimes remaining in port for little more than two weeks — which the servants of the Honorable Company could not hope to emulate.

It was no wonder that every interest in England combined in attacking the East India Company when it failed to hold its position against the Americans and yet refused to allow independent English traders to invade its monopoly.  p117 Protracted hearings were held in Parliament and countless witnesses, both English and American, were examined. The inevitable result was that the special privileges of the Company were withdrawn, and in 1834 the China trade was thrown open to private merchants who might better be able to compete with the private merchants of the United States. In the clash of commercial rivalries in China, David had slain Goliath.

The most important result of this development upon the American trade was that the importation of British manufactures fell off, due to the new competition of English merchants, and a certain impetus was given to the trade in domestic products. Bills of exchange on London maintained the supremacy which specie had formerly held, but instead of bringing back nankeens the Americans began taking cotton to China, and Lowell sheetings and drillings found a prominent place in ships' manifests. Cotton imports at Canton, which began in 1826 with a value of $15,777, ran as high as $357,332 in 1841.

Otherwise the last two decades of the old China trade show, with few exceptions, that imports at Canton were following familiar lines. If furs became almost a negligible item, there was some ginseng imported, South American copper, lead ingots from Gibraltar, a little steel from England and Sweden, rice from Batavia and Manila, quicksilver, iron, tobacco, candles, beef, Turkish opium, ships' supplies of all sorts, various South Sea products such as bêche de mer, mother of pearl, or sharks' fins, and a few American novelties like the watches and music-boxes which Samuel Shaw was first called upon to present to the Canton customs officials.

The most significant change which exports from Canton had undergone was that tea had grown more and more important  p118 until it amounted to more than eighty per cent of the entire trade. Not only had nankeens disappeared from home cargoes as the Americans began bringing cotton to China instead of carrying it away, but silk exports had become greatly reduced due to changes in fashions — falling off from $1,317,846 in 1821 to $285,773 in 1841 — and the demand for chinaware had virtually died out because of the introduction in America of French and English porcelain. There was, of course, some trade in such products as cassia, matting, crapes and shawls, sweetmeats, fireworks, lacquer and horn ware, rhubarb, pearl buttons, or Chinese paintings, but it amounted to little.

By 1841 the China trade was the tea trade pure and simple, and American ships were bringing home about fifteen million pounds every year. It was a trade protected by the Government through a system which allowed the withholding of duties for eighteen months, and it gave to China an importance which no one in 1838, when the first sale of Assam tea was recorded, could have believed would come to be shared with India and Ceylon.

If there was little change in most of the ships trading at Canton, it nevertheless is still true that in the very closing years of our period the commerce with the Far East led to the most dramatic and thrilling development which shipbuilding has ever experienced. The China trade gave birth to the clipper ship.

The first full-rigged ship to be built along the lines of the fast little Baltimore schooners from which the name 'clipper' was derived, according to Arthur H. Clark in 'The Clipper Ship Era,' was the Ann McKim, four hundred and ninety-three tons. She was destined for the China trade and for a number of years sailed on the Pacific route. Clark describes  p119 her as a remarkably handsome vessel. Her frames were of live‑oak, copper-fastened throughout, her bottom sheathed with specially imported red copper, and her fittings of mahogany. She mounted twelve brass guns and carried three skysail yards and royal studding sails.

But although the Ann McKim proved to be unusually fast, her carrying capacity was small, and consequently no other ships were constructed along her lines. Then in 1839 the Akbar, six hundred and fifty tons, was built for John M. Forbes. On her first passage to Canton this fine vessel, constructed somewhat more on clipper lines, made the voyage from New York in one hundred and nine days. The experiment was so success­ful that the Akbar was quickly followed by a series of vessels, which, although they still were not extreme clipper ships, distinctly pointed the way to that ultimate perfection of shipbuilding.

The Helena, six hundred and fifty tons, made several remarkable passages to city for N. L. and G. Griswold. The Paul Jones, six hundred and twenty tons, owned by John M. Forbes and Russell and Company, commanded by Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer, of Antarctic fame, arrived at Hongkong one hundred and eleven days out of Boston on her first voyage in 1843, and some years later made the run from Java Head to New York in seventy‑six days. The Houqua, a seven‑hundred-and‑six‑ton ship also commanded by Captain Palmer, made Java Head seventy‑two days out of New York and Hongkong in another twelve. On the return voyage she sailed from China to New York in ninety days. Others among the early clippers were the Montauk, the Panama, and the Coquette, the last making Canton from Boston in ninety-nine days. The distance between Canton and the Atlantic Coast was rapidly shrinking. Just half the time required at the end of the eighteenth  p120 century was now necessary to sail between the Eastern and Western worlds.

Faster runs were still to be made, however, and when the demands of the China trade resulted in the construction of the Rainbow, seven hundred and fifty tons, for the New York firm of Howland and Aspinwall, the extreme clipper ship made its bow to a skeptical and then enthusiastic seafaring world. So sharp were the Rainbow's lines that shipping authorities questioned whether she would be able to sail, but when launched in 1845 all doubts were quickly dispelled. On her second voyage to Canton she went on against the monsoon in ninety‑two days and was home in eighty-eight. The round trip, including two weeks in port for discharging and loading cargo, took six months and fourteen days — the Empress of China on its first voyage had taken fourteen months and nineteen days — and the Rainbow brought to her owners the news of her own arrival in Canton.

'Captain John Land, her able and enthusiastic commander,' writes Clark, 'declared that she was the fastest ship in the world, and this was undeniably true; finding no one to differ from him, he further gave it as his opinion that no ship could be built to outsail the Rainbow, and it is also true that very few vessels have ever broken her record.'

This brings us to the end of our period, and the further exploits of the clipper ships of the China trade are another story. But the day was clearly foreshadowed when, with the British Navigation Laws repealed and the tea trade concentrated at Shanghai, these fast-sailing American vessels were for a time almost to drive the English vessels from the Eastern seas. The clipper ships could so outsail their rivals that the latter would often be refused cargoes while the Americans invariably loaded as soon as they put into port  p121 and were quickly away under their great clouds of canvas in spectacular 16,000‑mile races to get the first teas to the London market.

England was then forced to follow America's example and build her own clipper ships, and in 1866 there was race from Foochow to London among these British vessels which is without parallel in the annals of sailing. It has no concern with the old China trade as far as the United States is concerned, but it is difficult to omit the story in any account which even touches upon China and the clipper ships.

Five vessels sailed from Foochow for London within three days in May, 1866, all loaded with the first teas of the season. The Fiery Cross was the first to get away on the morning of the twenty-ninth. The Ariel left at ten‑thirty, the Serica and the Taeping at ten‑fifty on the thirtieth, and at midnight on the thirty-first sailed the Taitsing. Carrying all sail as they jockeyed for the lead in a race in which continents served as the marking buoys, the five vessels passed through the Straits of Sunda, across the Indian Ocean, and about the Cape of Good Hope never more than four or five days apart. Now one and then another stretched out in the lead as it caught a better wind or left its rivals becalmed.

At the Cape of Good Hope it was the Fiery Cross which was still in the van with the Taitsing trailing the whole fleet. Then coming up on the Azores the Ariel jumped to the front, and the Taitsing passed the Taeping, the Serica, and even the Fiery Cross. Nearing the entrance to the British Channel the Taeping and the Serica crept up on the new leaders, passing both the Taitsing and the Fiery Cross, closing in on the Ariel.

At the Lizard the Taeping was on the Ariel's heels, and the two vessels, ninety days out of Foochow, sighted each  p122 other and raced up the Channel side by side. They picked up pilots at the same time, passed Deal eight minutes apart with the Ariel in the lead. The Serica was four hours behind them, the Fiery Cross one day, and the Taitsing two. But while the Ariel was the first to cross the finish line, its eight-minute lead was cancelled because the Taeping had sailed from Foochow twenty minutes later. Victory consequently went to the latter vessel. It had won by twelve minutes on a 16,000‑mile course!

Those were the thrilling days for men who went to sea. The China trade had served to introduce the first clipper ships; in these races it marked the final summit of their glory.

The Author's Notes:

1 One American vessel, the frigate Essex, Captain David Porter, cruised about the South Pacific preying upon British commerce with dramatic success, but it never came near enough the China coast to be of any aid to traders from Canton.

Thayer's Note: The exploits of Captain Porter and his ship are detailed by George R. Clark et al. in A Short History of the United States Navy, Chapter 11, The Cruise of the Essex.
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2 The total value of all American imports at Canton in this season is given in other sources as $5,609,600, with exports valued at $5,703,000. American disbursements in port are estimated at $250,000.

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3 For complete figures on trade at Canton throughout the whole period with which this book deals, and a chart indicating its annual fluctuations, see Appendix.

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Page updated: 19 Aug 16