A New Frontier
The year was 1776, and the American colonies were seized with revolutionary fervor. But in New Hampshire, a twenty-five-year-old student studying to be a missionary dropped out of Dartmouth College and shipped out with the Royal Navy on Captain James Cook's third and final voyage. Six years later, after Cook was killed in Hawaii, the sailor, John Ledyard, returned to America's shores to proselytize not for God but for trade — with China.
John Ledyard was fired up by a scheme to dispatch Yankee ships around the tip of South America to the Pacific Northwest to collect the pelts of the northwest sea otter for the China market. Coastal Indians would barter a pelt for "only a hatchet or a saw," Ledyard wrote. But the Chinese would pay one hundred Mexican silver dollars for a single fur, a markup that his contemporary Adam Smith could love.
A Connecticut Yankee with a hooked nose, an ample inheritance, and a penchant for trouble, Ledyard was an American visionary in a time of global turmoil. The Spanish and Portuguese empires were crumbling. The Royal Navy ruled the seas. And America's War of Independence had left the United States barely united and deeply in debt.
Britain had shut Yankee merchants out of the lucrative trade with the British West Indies. America's once-thriving shipping industry limped along. Its whaling and cod businesses were in tatters. Its slave trade fared little better. "The town of Boston is really poor," complained the Reverend John Eliot in a letter to a friend in March 1780. "If some brighter prospects do not open up, it is my opinion that we cannot subsist." Americans needed a new frontier beyond Europe's sway. And it was to China that they turned, planting deep within the Yankee imagination the fancy that China's markets held the answer to American prayers.
In May 1783, Ledyard chased down Robert Morris, the Philadelphia merchant and signer of the Declaration of Independence who had bankrolled the American Revolution. After sharing his China plan with Morris, Ledyard boasted that he would soon be at the helm "of the greatest commercial enterprise that has ever been embarked on in this country." But Morris and his partners dawdled, and the impatient Ledyard left the United States again. Urged on by Thomas Jefferson, he tried to cross Russia's vast expanse to reach America's West Coast. But the Russians stopped him. His next venture led him to Africa, but as he began his journey into the continent in January 1789, he accidentally poisoned himself and died.
Robert Morris stuck with the China idea, however, and on a wintry Sunday, February 22, 1784, the Empress of China, a three-masted ship of 360 tons, set sail from New York Harbor bound for the prosperous southern Chinese port of Guangzhou, known to Westerners as Canton. The Empress carried a crew of forty-two, a box of beaver skins, twelve casks of spirits, and twenty thousand Mexican silver dollars. But her prize cargo was thirty tons of American ginseng harvested in the Appalachian forests. Philip Freneau, the poet of the American Revolution, celebrated the ship's departure with verse reflecting America's newly won liberation. The Empress was heading, he wrote, "where George [the British king] forbade [Americans] to sail before."
At noon on May 11, 1785, the Empress returned to New York to a thirteen-gun salute — one for each of the United States. In her hold, she carried more than twenty-five thousand pounds of tea, a load of cloth, and a large selection of porcelain. The venture earned a 30 percent profit of more than $30,000 (nearly $1 million today). The New York News Dispatch declared that the journey "presages a future happy period" of trade with China, an example of the high bar that America's fledgling media were already setting for relations with the Middle Kingdom. Morris backed a second voyage, the Pallas, which made $50,000, but his luck soon soured. Pouring his earnings into a Pennsylvania land deal that went belly-up, he was tossed into a debtor's prison. Nonetheless, in the next fifteen years, more than two hundred American ships would follow the Empress to Guangzhou, a fleet second only to the four hundred vessels of the British.
Tea, which predated coffee as the American beverage of choice, brought American traders to China. The tea that was tossed into Boston Harbor on the night of December 16, 1773, had been shipped out of the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. Within a few years of independence, tea composed nine-tenths of the goods leaving China on American ships. In 1785, American vessels carried less than a million pounds of tea from China; in 1840, they moved nineteen million.
What began as an exchange of American raw materials for Chinese tea soon mushroomed as Asian handicrafts of every variety flooded into the United States. Though today we speak of an American pivot to Asia, American tastes have been pivoting to Asia for more than two hundred years. The American appetite for blue-and-white Chinese bowls, plates, and teacups was so prodigious that New England carracks limped into Boston Harbor with crates suspended over their sides. To a people who only recently had measured wealth by the number of chairs a household owned, Chinese porcelain, known as china, represented status and taste.
China in 1800 was a manufacturing powerhouse, responsible for about one-third of all the goods made in the world. And Americans were beguiled by its products. "Willow pattern" porcelain, inscribed with trees, bridges and pagodas, monks and scholars, "filled us with wonder and delight, Or haunted us in dreams at night," wrote poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston's upper crust clothed themselves in Chinese silk. The dining room in George Washington's Mount Vernon boasted a 302-piece dinner and tea set brought to America by the Empress of China. Chinese porcelain sparked the founding of an American porcelain industry. Curtains from China inspired the American drapery business.
As there is today, there was fakery on all sides. Chinese artists churned out some two hundred copies of Gilbert Stuart's famed portrait of George Washington. Yankee merchants sold them in Philadelphia until Stuart won a court order in 1802 banning their sale. American woodworkers paired pagodas with Algonquin longhouses on Yankee-made side tables made to look Chinese. In Boston and New York, tea salesmen packaged old Chinese tea in new boxes. The entrepreneurial gumption would only be matched two centuries later when Chinese knockoff artists produced vast quantities of bogus North Face jackets and pirated DVDs.
American fascination with things Chinese went beyond household goods and luxury items. In 1834, two New York businessmen brought a Chinese woman named Afong Moy to the city, where they displayed her in a cage. Dressed in Oriental finery, Moy was part of an exhibition to sell Chinese knickknacks. The New York press went wild, extolling her bound feet and exotic ways. When she arrived in New York Harbor in October, the advertised price to see her was a quarter. By the time she opened at 8 Park Place a few weeks later, it was up to fifty cents. Moy's success inspired American showman P. T. Barnum to devote a whole museum to the Chinese — as freaks. Among his showpieces was a pair of conjoined twins.
Fused at their rib cages, Chang and Eng Bunker were shipped to the United States in 1829 by Robert Hunter, a British merchant, who believed that he'd struck it rich with a touring exhibition of Chinese mutants. Though they were ethnic Chinese, the pair hailed from Siam, hence the term "Siamese twins." After three years in America, Chang and Eng successfully sued Hunter for breach of contract and set out on their own.
Chang and Eng's case was not the first time Chinese had turned to America's courts for justice. That tradition dates back at least to 1805 when Chinese merchants began filing motions against their deadbeat American counterparts in Philadelphia's courts. Even then Chinese plaintiffs were impressed with what one petitioner called America's "equal protection of the Rich, and of the Poor, and for dealing equal measure to its own Citizen, and to the Alien." Many more cases would follow.
Acting as their own managers, Chang and Eng toured the young nation, appearing in formal wear, performing backflips and somersaults, and hoisting portly spectators on their heads. With their earnings, the twins purchased a one-hundred-acre plantation, with slaves, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. They married sisters, Sarah and Adelaide Yates, and fathered twenty-one children. They died in 1874 within three hours of one another at the age of sixty-three and were buried together near their plantation.
Although American impresarios promoted Chang and Eng as a gruesome curiosity, their success underlined the opportunities America presented to the Chinese. The pair burrowed deep in the American psyche, resurfacing in a historical novel published in 2000 and again as the characters Terry and Terri Perry in the 2013 animated movie Monsters University.
This trade in goods and people reignited America's shipbuilding industry and rekindled its economy. Less than a decade after Reverend Eliot penned Boston's obituary, its shipyards were booming again. In 1789, the Massachusetts, at nine hundred tons then the largest ship ever built in the United States, was launched for the China trade. Unfortunately, profit-hungry investors used uncured wood and had the ship built in haste. By the time it limped into Guangzhou Harbor, it was a rotting hulk and had to be sold for scrap.
The fortunes that East Coast merchants amassed in the China trade were vital to the United States' evolution from seafaring nation to factory of the world. The Astors, Greens, Russells, Delanos, Lows, and Forbeses plowed the proceeds earned in China into New England textile mills, Philadelphia banks and insurance companies, New York real estate, and railroads that laid the foundations for American power.
Taxes on the commerce bolstered the fortunes of the US Treasury. "Our trade to the East Indies flourishes," wrote President George Washington to his old comrade-in-arms, the Marquis de Lafayette, on June 3, 1790. "The profits to Individuals are so considerable as to induce more persons to engage in it continually."
The promise of the Chinese market drew Americans to the West Coast, Hawaii, and the South Seas in search of goods to trade with the Celestial Kingdom. From the early 1800s, as the young nation's ambitions expanded, business interests lobbied the federal government to secure deepwater ports on the Pacific Coast to serve as launching pads into Asia.
One hopeful merchant was the New York real estate mogul and German immigrant John Jacob Astor, whose vision for the Oregon Territory as a springboard for American expansion into the Pacific influenced American presidents and secretaries of state. Astor made his fortune trading fur, first with Native Americans in upstate New York and then via ships plying the waters off the Oregon coast. In 1810, he established the Pacific Fur Trading Company and built a settlement, Fort Astoria, on the Columbia River.
The British soon seized Astoria, but other Americans flocked to the coast to collect otter pelts for the Canton trade. A key ally in Astor's struggle to fend off foreign competition was John Quincy Adams, son of President John Adams. First as ambassador to Russia and Great Britain and then as secretary of state and president, Adams blocked Russian and British forays into California and the Pacific Northwest, sweeping the coast clear for America's westward heave toward the Far East. He, too, believed in the promise of trade with the Middle Kingdom.
Even Midwesterners like Senator Thomas Hart Benton caught China fever. In 1819, Benton argued that Missouri's borders should cross the Missouri River Valley to bring the new state just a little closer to China. Contemporary writers imagined an endless wagon trail from Ohio to Oregon lined with densely populated trading posts grown rich on Asian commerce. Despite the fact that trade with China would sputter and slow (in percentage terms it peaked in 1805–8 at about 15 percent of foreign trade), the sobering reality of the present day never dislodged the oversized expectations for tomorrow. As many do today, Americans then believed that their future resided in Asia.
Trade with China also helped cement America's embrace of a rough-and-tumble business model based on individual initiative that became a key to the nation's success. In 1786, Congress rejected a proposal to establish a trading monopoly modeled on Britain's state-run East India Company, which dominated commerce with China. Americans were free traders. "Commercial intercourse," Senator Rufus King wrote then president John Adams, "would be more prosperous if left unfettered in the hands of private adventurers."
In Asia, these "private adventurers" faced off against the mightiest trading empire in the world, the United Kingdom, and from the start the Americans dreamed of replacing the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes as the dominant standard in the Pacific. To compete, the Americans embraced innovation. Their ships were smaller, averaging 350 tons, but cheaper to build and faster than the lumbering 1,200-ton behemoths of the British East India Company. American ships employed fewer men; 19 hands each compared with the 120 crewmen common on British vessels. Sailors on US ships were paid better and encouraged to move up the ranks from deckhand to captain.
New Englanders, like William Phelps and Amasa Delano, a distant ancestor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, went to sea as teenagers, at a time when it was not unusual for an American captain to be barely twenty. They sailed with imprecise navigational instruments (calculating latitude had been perfected, but longitude would have to wait for later in the century), lived off maggoty bread, and were often racked by venereal disease. But their lodestar was the prospect of profits in Guangzhou, a shining beacon that persuaded America's best and brightest to choose the sea as a career.
As William Phelps testifies at the start of his memoir: "Born within a cable's length of the sea-beat shore, inhaling with my earliest breath the atmosphere of the Old Ocean, it was not a matter of much wonder that I very early manifested a strong love for the sea, and took to the water as naturally as a duck."
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After months onboard, braving storms and scurvy, the Americans would arrive at the coast of China. The first stop was Macao, a spit of land jutting into the South China Sea, eighty miles down the Pearl River from Guangzhou. Though Macao belonged to China, Chinese authorities had allowed the Portuguese to manage it since the mid-sixteenth century as a way of keeping foreigners out of China proper but close enough to trade. There, American sailors found a melting pot of Pacific Islanders, Filipinos, Malays, Africans, Indians, Europeans, merchants, and gamblers, not to mention the Chinese. The climate — Guangdong's winters were mild compared with the bitter cold of the Northeast — delighted the Yankee sailors.
After securing a Chinese boatman, ships would stop at Whampoa, twelve miles from Guangzhou, where traders discharged their cargoes and paid duties. From there, they would head to Guangzhou itself. At various points, the Americans doled out bribes, known as cumshaw, or squeeze, to keep the goods moving.
Traveling up the Pearl River, the sailors confronted a world afloat: coastal junks, sampans, ferry boats, barber boats, and food vendors bobbed along in the muddy waters of the Pearl. "We passed a pagoda of large size, seven stories high," wrote Charles Tyng, who sailed from Boston in 1815 at the age of fourteen. "The houses were curious, similar in appearance as those seen on china plates, and other ware. The country seemed crowded with inhabitants, young and old, all moving about like ants round an ant hill."
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To America's founders, China was a source of inspiration. They saw it as a harmonious society with officials chosen on merit, where the arts and philosophy flourished, and the peasantry labored happily on the land. Benjamin Franklin venerated China's prison system and sought information on its census, its silk industry, and how its people heated their homes. George Washington wrote that he had once thought that "the Chinese tho' droll in shape and appearance were yet white." (The American construction of an Asian racial "type" would happen later in the nineteenth century.) The revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine compared Confucius to Jesus Christ. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson admired China's ability to close itself off from the outside world, finding virtue in its isolation.
The Americans who actually went to China, by contrast, were befuddled and awed by the empire. Guangzhou, home to one million people, a quarter of the population of the entire United States in 1800, was the greatest city most of them would ever see. Samuel Shaw, a former artillery officer in the Continental Army who traveled to Guangzhou three times before dying of a fever on a return voyage in 1794, remarked on the "excellence" of the government but pronounced himself glad to be an American. Amasa Delano described China with the wonder of a country hayseed, contending that it "is the first for greatness, riches and grandeur of any country ever known." Still, he too was distressed when he saw what appeared to be the corpses of mixed-blood babies floating down the Pearl River.