Opening China

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Trading with one of the hong merchants, Shaw obtained a cargo for the return voyage. It set a pattern that would be followed by other Americans: 2,460 piculs (a picul was the Chinese hundredweight, equal to 133 1/3 pounds) of bohea (black) tea, 562 piculs of hyson (green) tea, 962 piculs of chinaware, 24 piculs of nankeens (cotton cloth), 490 pieces of silk, and 21 piculs of cassia, a cinnamonlike spice. Captain Green had also been commissioned by Robert Morris to purchase certain articles for his wife, including “a dressing Boxe and four Lacquered Fans” and “Bamboo silk Mounted Window Blinds. ” The captain’s purchases for his own account included “umbrellas,” lacquer ware, “six hundred Ladies Silk Mitts,” “six pr. sattin shoes Ladies,” and 113 pairs of “Sattin Breeches at 1 1/2 Dollars p’ pair.” Shaw ordered a set of dinnerware decorated with the emblem of the Order of the Cincinnati, a fraternal society of Revolutionaty Army officers in which he was active. Later he sold the set to George Washington, and pieces of it are displayed at Mount Vernon. Although tea accounted for most of the imports from China, an advertisement for one ship’s cargo illustrates the great variety of goods Yankee traders would bring back: “Fresh Bohea tea of the first quality, in Chests, Half and Quarter Chests, China, a great Variety, Sattins, Lutestrings, Persians, Taffetas, of different Qualities, black and other Colours, for Gentlemen’s Summer Wear, Nankeens, Elegant Sattin Shoe-Patterns, Pearl Buttons with Gold Figures, Superfine Lambskins, Ivory and lacquered Ware, Tea-Caddies, A Large Assortment of lacquered Tea-Trays, Waiters, Bottle-stands, &c. &c., Silk Handkerchiefs, Hair Ribbons, Cinnamons and Cinnamon Buds, Black Pepper, 200 Boxes excellent Sugar, &c.” Individuals could place special orders with captains or supercargoes and housewives requested such items as “Two Canton Crape shawls of the enclosed colors at $5 per shawl” or a “Sett Mother Pearl Counters.”

After being entertained at “another public dinner and supper” by each nationality in the factories, the Americans left Whampoa on December 28, 1784. Encountering an American ship at the Cape of Good Hope, Shaw learned from a newspaper that his father had died. “How precarious is all earthly happiness!” he wrote in his journal.

The Empress of China reached New York on May 11, 1785, some fourteen months after its departure. New York’s Independent Journal called the voyage a “judicious, distinguished and very prosperous achievement.” The profit was not in fact remarkable, about 25 per cent on an initial investment of $120,000, but the voyage proved that trade with China was feasible. Shaw sent a report to John Jay “for the information of the fathers of the country,” in which he said, “To every lover of his country, as well as those more immediately concerned in its commerce, it must be a pleasing reflection, that a communication is thus happily opened between us and the eastern extremity of the globe.” Jay forwarded the report to Congress and later informed Shaw that the members of “Congress feel a peculiar satisfaction in the successful issue of this first effort of the citizens of America to establish a direct trade with China, which does so much honor to its undertakers and conductors.”

The “old China trade” had started. This romantic and important chapter in the history of the United States would last until the early 1840’s, when Great Britain defeated China in the Opium War and a treaty was concluded between the United States and China that established more normal political and commercial relations. But the trade that the Empress of China inaugurated had a lasting and significant effect. Americans acquired a fascination with China that survived the Communist take-over, as shown by the thousands of American tourists who have visited the People’s Republic of China since President Nixon’s trip to Peking in 1972. The search for furs to trade in Canton opened our minds to the importance of America’s West Coast: it strengthened the United States’ claim to the area later called the Oregon Territory, and it led to the first American contacts with California. Ships in the China trade called at the Sandwich Islands for water, fresh food, sandalwood, and relaxation, beginning a relationship with Hawaii that eventually resulted in annexation and statehood. New England’s “peddling keels” enlarged our knowledge of the world and the world’s knowledge of us. Their cargoes contributed to national economic revival and created the first American millionaires. Perhaps most important, meeting the challenges of the China trade helped to give a sense of achievement and confidence to the struggling young nation.