A Cycle Of Cathay


Traders, missionaries, industrialists, investors, entrepreneurs, navalists—these were the people who went west to Asia. And with them, very soon, came their protectors, the agents of the state: consuls, diplomats, and service attachés. With commerce and evangelism came the flag, and with the flag came the state.

It is hardly surprising that from earliest times the focal point was China. India belonged to Britain, and much of Southeast Asia fell within European colonial spheres. Japan, until midcentury, was tightly closed to intruders. Furthermore, Southeast Asia and Japan were fringes on the larger fabric of Chinese civilization. China was the heartland, very old, often powerful, fabled from time to time in the West. For readers in early America the most recent works on China were those of the eighteenth-century French philosophes. China was the center of Asia’s population, culture, and trade in exotic goods.

People-to-people relations with China seem to have begun in 1784, just after the end of our war for independence, when the Empress of China , six months out of New York, arrived off the Portuguese colony of Macao, near Canton, on August 23 to become the first ship of American registry to participate in the China trade. Upon her return to New York in May, 1785, she had netted a profit of 25 per cent on an investment of $120,000 —not enormous, but a clear promise of things to come.

What that vessel and its successors joined was a system of tightly controlled access to China that had evolved since the early eighteenth century. Contemptuous of merchants and suspicious of “barbarians” (i.e., foreigners), China’s Confucian rulers had sought to restrict the sea barbarians to Canton as they did their overland counterparts, coming across Central Asia in the Marco Polo tradition, to designated market points in the north and northwest. At Canton, American traders from New York and New England—especially from Salem and Boston—joined trading representatives, or factors, from a half dozen or more European nations in inhabiting a series of “factories,” or combined bachelor quarters and warehouses. These were in a riverfront section to which foreigners were confined outside the walled Chinese city. (Foreign wives were confined considerably farther away, in Macao; incentives to linger in Canton, once the trading season was over, were thus minimal—unless, of course, one wanted to escape one’s wife.)

This Canton system of trade provided adventure for the young, the restless, and the brave, profits for merchant investors, and delights for those back home who had a taste for Chinese silks, porcelain, and teas. Much of the happy lore of the old China trade dates from this era. Not only did the foreigners have much to win—and sometimes lose. Chinese middlemen—the famous Hong (or business-firm) merchants, who “secured,” or acted as guarantors for, each’arriving foreign ship; the Co-Hong (or officially licensed merchant monopoly); and a wide assortment of compradors (accountants and foremen), “linguists” (interpreters), and supervisory officials—also developed deep and complex stakes in this regulated trade as well as in its darker side, smuggling, and also had much to win and lose.

These were the days when—as Samuel Eliot Morison has written—“Boston was the Spain, Salem the Portugal, in the race for Oriental opulence.” Every Salem housewife had ambitions for a chest of hyson tea, a China silk gown, and a set of Canton chinaware. These were also the days of sudden and great prosperity for individuals and firms alike. By 1803 the Boston house of Perkins and Company had a representative in Canton and became, for a while, the oldest surviving American firm. In the next three decades the consolidation of various houses, including that of Perkins, led to the establishment of the leading American business in nineteenth-century China, Russell and Company, of Canton, originally founded by Samuel Russell of Middletown, Connecticut, in 1818— a firm that finally went under in 1891. Individuals as well as companies prospered. Between 1807 and 1827 the Canton agent of the Perkins-Sturgis-Forbes group, one John P. Gushing, with only two clerks to his establishment, did a business of millions of dollars a year—and returned a very wealthy man in 1830 to his Summer Street, Boston, mansion and his Belmont estate, attended by a retinue of Chinese servants. To cite one other individual of many: Warren Delano, one-time agent for Russell and Company, made not merely one but two major killings in the China trade in separate decades— and thereby gave his grandson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, both a solid inheritance and a special sense of kinship with China.

A recurrent question, however, for the early American traders was how to pay for the much-desired tea, silks, and chinaware—and what to sell to the Chinese in exchange. For a while the answer was furs—especially from the North Pacific sea otter, whose skin was much prized by the Chinese upper class. For a time, sandalwood from Hawaii also found a market. By 1792 the trade route from New England to the Pacific Northwest coast to Canton and back to New England was fairly well established. But after 1815 a great change took place in such trade: a shift from silks and china to rapidly increasing quantities of teas transported to America and Europe.