- Historic Sites
Once again, Americans are learning the delicate art of trading with the biggest market on earth. Here’s how they did it the first time.
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
As American merchant ships call again at the China coast, they are following in the ghostly wake of a sailing ship of 360 tons burden which arrived at Whampoa Reach, the anchorage for Canton, on August 28, 1784—188 days out of New York. She proudly fired a “federal salute” of thirteen guns and was saluted in return by the other foreign vessels already anchored there. As Captain John Green recorded, his ship “had the honor of hoisting the first Continental Flagg Ever Seen or maid Euse of in those Seas.” Thus began United States trade with China—a trade that would have an impact far beyond the exchange of goods.
The dispatch of the ship to Canton was no casual undertaking. The enterprise was backed by Robert Morris, the great financier of the American Revolution. In November, 1783, he had written to John Jay, minister for foreign affairs, “I am sending some ships to China to encourage others in the adventurous pursuit of commerce.” (However, Morris and his partners in this profit-seeking venture may not have agreed fully with the comment of New York’s Independent Gazette that “a contemplation on the services they are rendering their country must sufficiently compensate for the risque of their property.”) A converted wartime privateer was appropriately named the Empress of China, and Captain Green was released from the Continental Navy for the express purpose of taking command of her. (Weighing some three hundred pounds, the imposing Green prudently specified in his will that his coffin should be “carried to the grave by eight laboring men of the neighborhood.”) As supercargo, responsible for business affairs during the voyage, the owners selected Samuel Shaw, a young man of twenty-nine whose performance as a major in the Revolutionary War had prompted General Washington to provide a testimonial stating that ”… he has greatly distinguished himself in every thing which could entitle him to the character of an intelligent, active and brave officer.” A sea letter was obtained for Captain Green from Congress, signed by the president and secretary of Congress. (There would not be a President of the United States for another five years.) Disdaining such mundane phrases as “To whom it may concern,” but uncertain as to who might be encountered, Congress addressed the letter to the “most Serene, most Puissant, High, Illustrious, Noble, Honorable, Venerable, Wise and Prudent, Emperors, Kings, Republicks, Princes, Dukes, Earls, Barons, Lords, Burgomasters, Councillors, as also Judges, Officers, Justiciaries, and Regents of all the good cities and places, whether ecclesiastical or secular, who shall see these patents or hear them read.” Shaw took with him “copies of the treaties between America and the European powers in amity of her. ” As a precaution against pirate attacks in Eastern waters, the guns that the vessel had carried as a privateer were left in place. The owners chose February 22, Washington’s birthday, for the sailing date. Captain Green recorded that upon the vessel’s departure, “Great Number of Inhabetants Salluted us by giveing three Chears which we Returned. ” As she sailed out of New York Harbor, the Empress of China fired a thirteen-gun salute, which shore batteries returned with twelve guns.
The voyage began only six months after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain acknowledged American independence, and only three months after the last British troops had evacuated New York. The new nation gloried in its freedom, but it faced critical political and economic problems. The Treasury was empty, and the Continental Congress had no authority to levy taxes. Inflation was rampant in many states. Industry and trade had been severely damaged by the war. The country no longer enjoyed a favored trading position within the British Empire, and England prohibited American ships from re-entering the lucrative West Indies trade. New England’s shipbuilding and whaling industries had been shattered. Each state, jealous of its prerogatives and looking out for itself, began establishing its own customs duties, sometimes granting more favorable treatment to foreign goods than to those of other states. It was an imperfect union, still five years away from adopting the federal Constitution.
One logical step toward economic revival was Robert Morris’ “adventurous pursuit of commerce.” China trade was not only “adventurous” but also uniquely appropriate. London had prohibited colonial Americans from participating in that trade, which involved the very tea that had so memorably raised American tempers on the eve of the war.
But while trade with China seemed attractive, finding goods that could be traded in Canton for tea, silks, and porcelains was not easy. A proudly self-sufficient nation, China had no desire for the usual items of Western trade. The initial solution to this problem was ginseng, an aromatic root that the Chinese believed to have miraculous medicinal powers, including the restoration of youthful virility. So highly prized that it was an imperial monopoly in times of scarcity, the root was carefully dried, then wrapped in silk and stored inside a series of metal-lined boxes, with packages of quick-lime between the boxes to absorb moisture. Anyone examining a piece was asked not to breathe on it, for fear of contaminating the precious herb.