Skip to main content

America And China: The Opening Gun

March 2023
1min read

Having sacrificed trade with the British West Indies by seceding from the empire, imaginative New !England businessmen looked to the Orient to [ill the trade gap. To that end a Bostonian named Samuel Shaw was dispatched for Canton in February, 1784, as supercargo on the Empress of China. She arrived there on August 30, and is seen above at far left in a harbor scene painted on a fan given her captain by the Chinese. On Shaw’s return he sent a report to Jay.

… The Day of our arrival at Canton, August 30th, and the two following Days, we were visited by the Chinese Merchants, and the Chiefs and Gentlemen of the several European Establishments, and treated by them in all respects as a free and independent Nation. … The Chinese. themselves were very indulgent towards us, though our being the first American ship that had ever visited China. … They styled us the New People , and when by the map we conveyed to them an Idea of the extent of our Country, with its present and increasing population, they were highly pleased at the prospect of so considerable a market for the productions of theirs. …

The Police at Canton is at all times extremely strict, and the Europeans residing there are circumscribed within very narrow limits. … On the 25 November au English ship, in saluting some Company that had dined on board, killed a Chinese, and wounded two others, in the mandarine’s Boat along side. It is a maxim of the Chinese Law that Blood must answer for Blood, in pursuance of which they demanded the unfortunate Gunner. To give up this Poor man was to consign him to certain Death. Humanity pleaded powerfully against the measure. … [On November 27] the supercargo of the [British] ship was seized … and committed to Prison. Such an outrage on personal Liberty spread a general alarm, and the Europeans unanimously agreed to send for their Boats with armed men from the shipping … and ours among the number. … To what extremities matters might have been carried, had not a negociation taken place, no one can say. … A deputation, in which I was included for America, met the Fuen , who is the head Magistrate of Canton … [who] demanded that the Gunner should be given up within three days. … The English were obliged to submit—the Gunner was given up—[the supercargo] was released—and the English, after being forced to ask pardon of the Magistracy of Canton, in presence of the other Nations, had their Commerce restored. … The Gunner remained with the Chinese—his fate undetermined. …

We left Canton the 27 December. … To every Lover of his country, as well as to those more immediately concerned in Commerce, it must be a pleasing reflection that a communication is thus happily opened between us and the Eastern Extreme of the Globe. …

—R. B. M.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "December 1968"

Authored by: The Editors

’Bye, Phoebe Snow, Goodbye Buffalo What a way was to go! But if you’ll travel come to this yule Eschew the Road of Diesel Fuel

Authored by: The Editors

An obscure Pennsylvania carpenter named John Scholl left the world a legacy of charming toys and beautiful fantasies

Authored by: Richard B. Morris

States they were, united they were not; while their Secretary for Foreign Affairs sought to pull them together, Europe waited for them to fall apart

Authored by: Peter Padfield

Battle can never be civilized, but in a century of total war and almost total barbarism it is refreshing to look back upon chivalrous combat. If it is gallantry and honor, even quixotism, you thirst for in a barren time, they are at their highest in the duel between His Britannic Majesty’s frigate Shannon and the United States frigate Chesapeake , which met off Boston in the calm, early evening of June 1, 1813. Here is an authoritative and totally absorbing description of that famous encounter, together with an account of the principals, Captain P. B. V. Broke and Captain James Lawrence.

Authored by: Alvin M. Josephy Jr.

The new Kinzua Dam floods the Senecas’ ancestral lands—in violation of our oldest Indian treaty. "Lake Perfidy” may even have claimed the bones of their greatest chief

Authored by: Thomas Fleming

An African-American physician and his family were arrested for murder in Detroit after defending their home against an angry mob of whites. Then attorney Clarence Darrow came to their defense.

Featured Articles

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.