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
Although ginseng grown in China and Korea was considered the best, a variety found in America and Canada was acceptable, and some already had been exported to China by English merchants. It was collected in the forests by Indians, who traded it for whisky and trinkets.
In addition to ginseng, the Empress of China carried furs, camlets (woolen garments), cotton, pepper, and lead. First stop out of New York was at the Cape Verde Islands, for supplies and caulking. Samuel Shaw found little to divert him there: according to his journal, the wife of one Portuguese official “did not excite in any of us an idea that would militate with the tenth commandment,” while the viceroy lived in a house that was “in point of elegance nearly equal to a good barn.” Leaving the islands, the Americans headed southward to round the Cape of Good Hope, then northeast across the Indian Ocean. Almost five months after leaving New York, they sighted Java Head, which was to become a landmark in the China trade. As they dropped anchor in the Sunda Straits, natives in canoes offered for sale fish, fowl, turtles, fruit, and coconuts. Perhaps even more welcome was the invitation by a French captain experienced in the China trade to accompany his ship to the China coast. Captain Green accepted the offer with alacrity, for the Sunda Straits and a stretch off Borneo were dangerous waters, where the threat of Malay or Chinese pirates was added to natural perils. A Boston shipmaster a few years later wrote of them, ” ‘Tis surprising to see the joy depicted on everyone’s countenance at getting clear of these horrid straits.”
A month’s sailing took the ships to Macao, a small island on the south China coast. Visited by Vasco da Gama on his famous voyage in 1497, Macao had been under Portuguese control since 1557. Shaw quoted the British Admiral George Anson that Macao “subsists merely by the sufferance of the Chinese, who can starve the place and dispossess the Portuguese whenever they please.” (That sufferance has now lasted for over four centuries; although Peking claims that Macao is Chinese territory, the government has declined politely Portugal’s offer to return control of the island to China.)
At Macao, the Empress of China obtained a Chinese permit, or “chop,” to proceed up the Pearl River, and took on a Chinese pilot. After a day’s sail, the vessel arrived at Whampoa Reach, where it joined forty-five European merchant ships anchored in a sweeping arc. Officers of the various nationalities promptly and formally called on the first citizens of the United States to reach China. Shaw wrote that with the British “it was impossible to avoid speaking of the late war. They allowed it to have been a great mistake on the part of their nation,—were happy it was over, glad to see us in this part of the world,—hoped all prejudice would be laid aside,—and added, that, let England and America be united, they might bid defiance to all the world. ” British merchants, it would turn out later, were less enthusiastic about these new competitors.
It was at Whampoa that the Americans were introduced to some of the peculiarities of dealing with China—peculiarities that nevertheless resulted in a trading system that, wrote Shaw, “appears to be as little embarrassed, and is, perhaps, as simple as any in the known world.”
It had been established in 1720 by K’ang-hsi, one of the greatest of the Manchu emperors, and both its peculiarities and simplicities stemmed from two related facts. China had no strong interest in trade with the outside world, and all foreigners were officially regarded as “barbarians.” One typically scornful imperial edict stated, “As the dispositions of these said foreigners are depraved by the education and customs of countries beyond the bounds of civilization, they are incapable of following right reason; their characters are formed, their perverse obstinacy is untameable; they are dead to the influence of our renovating laws and manners.” Emperor Ch’ien Lung disdainfully informed King George III that the Celestial Empire had “no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians.… But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces are absolute necessities to the European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favor, that foreign hongs should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence.”