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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

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.
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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p123  Chapter IX
American Relations with the Chinese

In their relations with the Chinese, the Americans at Canton were governed by but one consideration: the promotion of their trade. It was to exchange their specie, their furs, or their cotton goods for teas and silk that they had come to Canton, and everything else was completely subordinated to that one end. Far from the protection of their Government, isolated in the midst of an alien people who continued to regard all foreigners as barbarians, the Americans could have no hope of maintaining any rights to which they might feel themselves entitled as citizens of a sovereign state. They soon realized that they were powerless to uphold any such theory as that of political equality with the Chinese.

The other foreigners were in much the same situation, but the English were until 1834 represented by a power­ful trading company which could command the support of the British Government. For the Americans there was no parallel authority. Their little community was made up of small firms and individual merchants in strenuous competition with each other and seldom able to bring any concerted pressure upon the Chinese officials for the protection of American interests. Some half-dozen companies conducted the bulk of the business done in behalf of the merchants at home — such as Russell and Company, D. W. C. Olyphant, Augustine Heard, and W. S. Wetmore — and the permanent American residents at Canton averaged between forty and fifty, but the community had no acknowledged leader. There was no American official comparable to the  p124 President of the Select Committee of the East India Company or to the British Superintendent of Trade.

It is true that there was an American Consul. Samuel Shaw had received the first commission to this post from the hands of Congress itself, and at somewhat irregular intervals the State Department designated various of the merchants resident at Canton as his successors. But these men were never recognized by the Chinese and barely acknowledged by their countrymen. Their duties were to administer the estates of the dead, discipline mutinous sailors, care for the improvident, and report to Washington on the trade. Even for such innocuous tasks they could not count upon the full support of independent and jealous traders. 'The secret manner of transacting business at Canton,' complained Consul Samuel Shaw in 1800, 'made it almost impossible to obtain accurate knowledge of the cargoes in the common way.'

The official Chinese attitude toward this nominal representative of the United States Government was first shown in 1799 when permission was sought to fly the American flag before the factory which the early traders had been given for the transaction of their business. The hoppo refused to treat directly with the American Consul, and although the privilege he sought was eventually granted through the medium of the East India Company, the rule was laid down that all favors sought by the Americans must be requested through the hong merchants and none but verbal communications would be exchanged with the Consul.

At the time when the British were impressing American seamen with complete disregard of the rights of both the United States and of China, the impotence of the Consul became especially conspicuous. He had no way of making those official protests which in another country would have  p125 been received as a direct complaint of the United States Government. All that the Americans could do was to address a memorial to the 'Governor of the Province of Canton,' vainly attempting to remind him of his international obligations.

In view of later developments and the subsequent conflict between Chinese and Americans over legal jurisdiction within China, this memorial is of significant interest as showing the American attitude of that day. There was then no questioning of China's absolute sovereignty. This first expression of opinion on a problem which later led to the demand for extraterritoriality declared:

That by the ancient and well established laws and usages of all civilized nations, persons and property of friendly foreigners within the territory and jurisdiction of a sovereign and independent Empire, are under the special protection of the government thereof, and any violence or indignity offered to such persons or to the flag of the nation to which they belong, is justly considered as done to the government within whose territory the outrage is committed;

That by the same law of nations, the civil and military agents of the government are strictly prohibited from assuming any authority whatever within the territory of the other nor can they seize the person of the highest state criminal, who may have eluded the justice of their own!

There was no result to this memorial, however, and aroused by this new evidence of the futility of a consul who had no access to Chinese officialdom and no way of upholding American interests, the resident merchants in Canton memorialized President Jefferson. Some indication of official support was sought for the Consul, some tangible evidence which might be shown to the Chinese as proving that when he spoke, he spoke with the authority of the United States Government.

 p126  Nothing was done. Washington remained supremely indifferent to the conditions under which Americans lived and traded at Canton. With the one gesture of appointing a consul, the Government officially divorced the American merchants in China and left them completely to their own devices.​1 If they hoped to develop their trade, there consequently was no policy open to them but one of complete acquiescence to every restriction which the Chinese saw fit to impose. This was an attitude which contrasted strongly with the vigor and daring with which they had developed their commerce in the Far East, but friendship had to be maintained at all costs. Even if it served to strengthen Canton's arrogant mandarins in their conviction that the barbarians within their borders could be ruled exactly as they saw fit, no other way was open.

Samuel Shaw had had a first experience of where such a policy might lead and had vainly fought against it in a case which really concerned the English. But his attempt to inspire the foreigners to stand together in defense of their rights had failed, and the necessity of surrender where there was no chance of victory was not lost upon his successors.

Soon after Shaw had arrived in Canton on his first voyage, a Chinese had accidentally been killed by a salute from a British vessel, the Lady Hughes. The Canton authorities demanded that the gunner be given up, as they declared that Chinese law called for a life for a life, but the English refused to deliver their countryman to the tender mercies of Chinese justice. Whereupon the Chinese seized the supercargo of the offending vessel, ordered that all trade with the foreigners be suspended, and withdrew from the foreign settlement all the Chinese servants.

 p127  The situation was critical. The boat crews of the vessels at Whampoa, including that of the Empress of China, were brought up‑river to defend the factories, if necessary by force, while on the river opposite the settlement the Chinese massed forty of their warships.

Shaw now took the lead in urging a united front on the part of all concerned to force the Chinese to surrender their hostage and reach a peaceful solution of the controversy. But there was no feeling of unity among these rival traders. The French, the Danes, and the Dutch frankly refused to risk hostilities on behalf of the English. At a conference with the Canton officials they agreed to send their armed boats back to Whampoa under the Chinese flag in return for permission to carry on their trade, and furthermore promised to exercise all their influence upon the English to induce them to give up the gunner of the Lady Hughes.

Shaw indignantly refused to desert the British. 'I considered the rights of humanity,' he wrote, 'deeply interested in the present business, to support which I had, at the request of the English chief, ordered the American boat to Canton; that when the English chief assured me that the purposes for which she had been required were answered, I would send her back, and not till then.'

Abandoned by all but the Americans and with their whole trade in jeopardy, the English, however, decided upon surrender. They gave up the gunner, despite his complete innocence of anything remotely resembling premeditated murder, to the pleasant fate of strangulation. Peace and commerce were the United States restored.

'Thus ended a very troublesome affair,' wrote the forthright American who had initiated our commerce with China, 'which commenced in confusion, was carried on without order, and terminated disgracefully. Had that spirit of  p128 union among the Europeans taken place which the rights of humanity demanded, and could private interest have been for a moment sacrificed to the general good, the conclusion of the matter must have been honorable, and probably some additional privilege would have been obtained. But as it did terminate, we can only apply to it the observation of the Chinese themselves — "Truly, all Fanquois​a have much lose his face in this business." '

The power of stopping trade through which the Chinese had brought the English to terms in this controversy became a weapon against which the foreigners could develop no protection. The Americans had learned their lesson, and so made the most of what privileges were granted them, accepting the circumscribed life of Canton as cheerfully as they could. It was not as impossible a situation as it might appear to be to‑day. For while the mandarin officials were proud and scornful, convinced that 'if the foreigners are deprived of the tea and rhubarb of China for several days, they are afflicted with blindness and constipation of the bowels, to that degree that their lives are in the greatest danger,' the hong merchants were neither so arrogant nor so conceited.'​2 Consequently their attitude was uniformly friendly and cordial.

One of the hong merchants who especially smoothed the path of the Americans was the famous merchant Houqua. This Chinese was a shrewd and success­ful trader whose operations became world-wide in their scope and whose teas  p129 were shipped to all parts of the world, not only by the American merchants, but on his own account. His word was as good as his bond and his chop on a chest of tea, in London or Amsterdam as well as in New York or Philadelphia, a certain guarantee of its excellence. He had his own contacts with the great English bankers, Baring Brothers, through whom the Americans financed so much of their trade, and prided himself on the international character of his business connections. He even invested in American securities.

[image ALT: A lithograph portrait of an old Oriental man, head to waist, three-quarters right. He wears a simple long-sleeved tunic with an embroidered panel over the stomach, and a long necklace of beads or pearls. He gazes confidently but almost benignly at us. He is Houqua, a wealthy and powerful Chinese merchant of the early 19c, who is discussed at some length in this chapter.]

His wealth was fantastic. While several other hong merchants had failed or been forced into bankruptcy, his fortune had steadily mounted. The authorities knew this, knew it only too well, and he was forced to make enormous contributions to their periodic levies upon the Canton trade. At one time he had to pay $1,000,000 to make up the debts of certain of his brother merchants and at another $1,100,000 for the ransom of Canton. Yet his wealth was estimated in 1834 at $26,000,000, probably the largest mercantile fortune in the world at that time.

Houqua was always particularly cordial toward newcomers, and his friendship for John P. Cushing, the most success­ful of all the merchants at Canton, who retired with a fortune comparable to that of Houqua himself, was admittedly the greatest factor in the outstanding position Cushing came to hold in the community. But the most remarkable example of his generosity was that shown to a Boston merchant who had failed.

This man, as we are told by William C. Hunter, was anxious to wind up his affairs as best he could and return to America. Houqua held his promissory note for $72,000 and the Bostonian had no way of meeting this obligation. One day asked him to call. 'You and I are No. 1 "olo  p130 flen," ' Houqua is reputed to have said to his debtor; 'you belong honest man, only no got chance.' Then taking out the promissory note the Chinese merchant calmly tore it up and threw it into the waste-basket, casually remarking, 'Just now have settee counter, alla finishee; you go, you please.'

The story may or may not be apocryphal, but it has long been taken as symbolic of the pleasant relations between the Chinese and American merchants when there was no interference from Manchu officialdom. Their interests were so nearly identical, moreover, that they were at one in trying to smooth over every incident which might mean a clash with authority. For if the Americans had no effective way of upholding their rights in conflict with the officials, the hong merchants were even more under their control. The Government appointed the members of the co‑hong and held them responsible for everything concerned with the foreign trade.

The success with which the Americans and Chinese cooperated along these lines is attested by William C. Hunter. 'Everything worked smoothly and harmoniously,' he wrote in his memoirs of the life of old Canton, 'by acting in direct opposition to what we were ordered to do. . . . We pursued the evil tenor of our ways with supreme indifference, took care of our business, pulled boats, walked, dined well, and so the years rolled by as happily as possible.'

Unfortunately there were times when the foreign community could not escape official interference. It was impossible for relations with the Chinese populace always to run a smooth course.

American sailors visiting the grogshops of Hog Lane could not invariably be counted upon to conduct themselves with decorum, especially when the chief aim of the Chinese shopkeepers  p131 was to get them drunk and then fleece them unmercifully. A British witness once testified before the House of Lords that the Americans were 'far more orderly and better conducted than the British seamen,' but nevertheless sanguinary clashes with the Cantonese were not always avoided.

The rabble of Canton were in fact often encouraged by the officials to express their scorn and derision of the 'foreign devils' as boisterously as they pleased. When the residents of the foreign settlement attempted to make any excursions about the neighboring countryside, they often found themselves forced to beat a hurried retreat to the factories in the face of a barrage of insulting epithets and small stones. In one instance Henry Trowbridge, who had sailed on the Betsy's sealing voyage in 1801, found myself mobbed at the city gates and only escaped by scattering handfuls of small coins, which diverted the attention of the Chinese long enough to let him get away.

Under these conditions the wonder is not that there were a number of riots and consequent deaths among Chinese or foreigners, but that there were not far more. In the event of the latter being killed, it is to the credit of the Chinese that they invariably took prompt action against the guilty. One such case was that of the ship Wabash, of Baltimore, which lost four of its crew through a pirate attack. The Canton authorities promptly captured thirteen of the pirates and executed five of them. 'To be murdered by pirates,' the Viceroy declared in making recompense for the lives lost, 'is an extremely lamentable case.' This was a satisfying exhibition of Chinese justice; the trouble arose when a Chinese had been killed.

According to Chinese law a willful murder was punished by beheading; killing in an affray, even though accidentally,  p132 carried the penalty of death by strangulation;​3 and a purely accidental death without intent even to injure could be compensated by payment of a fine. These laws were clear and well defined. But they were not applied to foreigners as they were to Chinese. The principle on which the Canton authorities acted was that contained in an imperial edict of 1749, which bluntly demanded, in order to restrain those 'beyond the pale of civilization,' a life for a life in every case in which a Chinese met death at the hands of a foreigner.

Behind this theory there was also the Chinese idea of group responsibility, which was entirely foreign to the principles of European or American jurisprudence. If an American killed a Chinese, no matter what the circumstances, the American community was held responsible. An American had to be delivered up to satisfy the demand of a life for a life, and it mattered not at all to the Chinese whether or not the individual surrendered was really guilty. Justice would be satisfied by his execution.

It has already been noted how this principle worked out in practice in the case of the unfortunate gunner of the Lady Hughes, and in succeeding years the English were involved in a number of similar cases. On one occasion they succeeded in persuading the Chinese to accept the death of one man who had really been killed in a drunken affray as an accidental homicide. In another the death of a Cantonese was shortly followed by the suicide of a butcher on an English ship, and the Chinese authorities complacently reported to Peking that it was this man who had been the murderer. Not until 1821, when a Chinese woman was reported to have been killed by a sailor on the Baltimore  p133 ship Emily, Captain Cowpland, did the Americans find themselves in the position of having to declare whether or not they were prepared to accept Chinese justice.

The circumstances of the death of this woman were obscure. The Chinese claimed that she had been struck by a jar hurled by a sailor named Francis Terranova. Captain Cowpland denied that she had been wounded by any one on his ship and declared that she had simply fallen from the small boat in which she was peddling fruit for the American sailors and had been drowned. His case was weakened, however, because Consul Wilcocks made an attempt to bribe the woman's family to agree that the death was accidental. The Chinese consequently demanded the surrender of Terranova, citing the Wabash case as justification of their right to do so.

The American residents at Canton thereupon held a meeting to decide what course of action they should follow. It resulted in a definite alignment of the sea captains on one side and the merchants and supercargoes on the other. Captain Cowpland absolutely refused to surrender his seaman, and with the backing of his brother officers declared he was ready to defend his ship by force against any Chinese attempt to seize the alleged culprit. It was the attitude to be expected of the seamen of the China trade. But the merchants and supercargoes, men whose primary interest, or rather sole interest, was their trade, were just as strongly opposed to force and favored the surrender of Terranova to prevent any interruption to their commerce. In their behalf it may be said that there was a strong presumption of the sailor's guilt, but nevertheless what they sought was peace at any price.

To settle this issue a committee was appointed of five captains, five supercargoes, and five resident merchants.  p134 Their decision, a tempered victory for the traders as opposed to the seamen, was to adopt a policy of non‑resistance. Terranova was not to be surrendered, but the Chinese might try him for murder aboard the Emily. To this programme the Canton officials agreed.

The trial was duly held, but it was an absolute farce. The mandarin charged with the investigation came aboard the Emily convinced of the guilt of the accused and determined to convict him as speedily as possible. He refused to hear evidence, refused to allow the charges to be translated into English, and finally broke off the trial, abruptly declaring Terranova guilty and demanding his immediate surrender.

This the Americans first refused, but when the Chinese backed up their demands by stopping trade, a compromise was agreed upon. Terranova still would not be given up, but if the authorities attempted to seize him by force no resistance would be offered, on condition that he was given another trial at Canton. This condition was but a salve to the American conscience. The fate of Terranova now became certain and there was no reason for surprise when he was seized a few days later, given a second even more farcical trial to which no Americans were admitted, and then summarily strangled.

In announcing their policy on the Terranova case the Americans at Canton made a statement which completely clarifies their position on the question of Chinese jurisdiction. It clearly shows that since they could hope for no backing from their own government, there had been no change in those ideas which they first expressed in their complaints to the Chinese Government on British interference with their shipping.

'We are bound to submit to your laws while we are in your waters,' they told the Chinese, 'be they ever so  p135 unjust. We will not resist them. You have, following upon your ideas of justice, condemned the man unheard. But the flag of our country has never been disgraced. It now waves over you. It is no disgrace to submit to your power, surrounded as we are by an overwhelming force, backed by that of a great empire. You have the power to compel us. We believe the man innocent, when he is taken from the ship we leave her; and the commander strikes his colors.'

A rather equivocal statement. Hardly the words of men prepared to defend at all costs the cause of justice. The merchants and supercargoes had clearly enough outvoted the captains. Principle had been abandoned for the sake of trade. But the significance of the Terranova case does not lie so much in this forced acceptance of Chinese justice. In reality it planted the seeds of extraterritoriality. It showed the need of some guarantee behind which stood the United States Government whereby Americans would never again be compelled to make such an abject surrender of their ideas of justice.

To the English, who were struggling for the right to administer their own criminal laws in China, no words were too harsh for what they regarded as the betrayal of a common cause. The case of the Lady Hughes, when it was Samuel Shaw who had stood out for resistance to the Chinese demands for the surrender of the innocent gunner, and the English who had sacrificed him for the sake of their trade, was completely forgotten. The 'unaccountable apathy and total absence of exertion' which seemed in British eyes to mark the case were bitterly assailed on all sides. The Select Committee of the East India Company reported to London that the Americans 'had barbarously abandoned a man serving under their Flag to the sanguinary laws of this Empire without an endeavor to obtain  p136 common justice for him.' It declared that their conduct 'deserves to be held in eternal execration by every Moral, honorable and feeling Mind.'

But what could the Americans have done? They were realists. Their Government was beyond reach and in any event could not have been expected to take any action whatsoever in their support. To have held Terranova by force would have meant the entire stoppage of their trade and probably forced their withdrawal from Canton. The thought of how advantageous this might have been to the East India Company may have colored British opinion.

A full report on the Terranova case was sent to Washington by Consul Wilcocks but no official comment was ever made upon it. Canton was still too far away.

Only in one respect was there evidence that the Government felt any responsibility at all toward the American trade with China from the time of the Empress of China's first voyage to the close of our period. Occasional visits were made to Far Eastern waters by vessels of war.

The first of these was that of the frigate Congress. In 1800 it had been sent out against French privateers and cruised as far as the Straits of Sunda but in 1819 it was dispatched for the specific purpose of offering some protection to American ships against Chinese pirates. Under the command of Captain John Dandridge Henley, a nephew of Martha Washington, it anchored off the island of Lintin. All foreign war vessels were forbidden to remain in Chinese waters but the English had disregarded this rule on the pretence of obtaining supplies and the American commander was ready to follow their example, much to the perturbation of the Chinese. Finally the officials agreed to allow the Congress to re‑provision — 'a piece of kindness beyond the limits of strict propriety' — but at the same  p137 time they issued an edict that the foreign vessel would not be allowed 'to make further pretexts to gain time and linger about.'

It is an interesting example of the American policy of acquiescence in all Chinese regulations that the residents at Canton viewed the presence of the Congress with some embarrassment. For fear of offending the authorities they refused Captain Henley's offer to convoy their ships and it was with great relief that they saw him leave Chinese waters without any untoward incident to trouble the peaceful atmosphere of Canton.

The next of such visitors was the Vincennes, Captain William B. Finch, which in 1830 was the first American war vessel to circumnavigate the globe. By this time it was felt that visits by war vessels might possibly have some effect upon the position of the Americans in China through the evidence they offered of the naval power of the United States, but nevertheless the Vincennes's commander was cautioned against any infringement of Chinese customs. Only if a careful course was pursued, the Canton residents told Captain Finch, could it be hoped that these visits would be of benefit in allaying the 'petty delays and impositions peculiar to our flag.'

The frigate Potomac and the sloop-of‑war Peacock were among other such vessels to anchor in Chinese waters. The latter had as a passenger Edmund Roberts, who was on a mission which was to result in the first treaties of the United States with Eastern powers, those with Muscat and Siam, but the Chinese had no idea of according him any diplomatic privileges. Their order to the American war vessels was that they should 'unfurl their sails and return home; they will not be permitted to delay and loiter about, and the day of their departure must be made known. Hasten, hasten!'

 p138  It is only too apparent that throughout this period nothing was further from the thoughts of either the Chinese or the Americans in Canton than any idea of present or future political relations between their two countries. What American policy toward China there was remained simply the policy of Americans actually in China. Their Government had no concern in it and it was dictated purely and simply by the demands of trade as interpreted by the merchants at Canton.

Inevitably under these conditions that policy was conciliatory and pacific. Even in such a crisis as the Terranova case the Americans had to surrender. Far more than the English, with the power of the East India Company behind them, they had to submit with the best grace possible to whatever the Canton officials demanded. One happy result of their attitude was that they won the confidence of the Chinese and almost unconsciously a basis for Sino-American friendship was established which still endures.

The Author's Notes:

1 For a period of fifty years a regularly appointed consul was resident in Canton only fourteen. He was invariably without instructions.

[decorative delimiter]

2 This idea of the foreigners' dependence on tea and rhubarb was generally prevalent in China. A much later report on foreign trade declared: 'The foreigners from the West are naturally fond of milk and cream; indulgence in these luxuries induces costiveness, when there is nothing but rhubarb and tea which will clear their system and restore their spirits; if once deprived of these articles they are immediately laid up with sickness. . . . If we cut off the trade of the barbarians, turbulence and disorder will ensue in their own countries; and this is the first reason why they must have our goods.'

[decorative delimiter]

3 Strangulation was a lesser penalty than beheading because the body was not disfigured.

Thayer's Note:

a A footnote ad loc. in the printed edition of The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw: the First American Consul at Canton: with a Life of the Author reads "A contemptuous term, applied by them indiscriminately to Europeans."

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Page updated: 19 Aug 16