China and the World

Sail of the century

A new account of how American merchants first arrived in China

The Empress of China first anchored off Canton in 1784

After a year in which Week in China has reported frequently on Sino-US relations, we end 2012 with an account of the earliest days of contact between the two countries. So early, in fact, that when the Empress of China first anchored off Canton in 1784 – six months after leaving New York – its hosts had no knowledge of the country from which the ship had sailed, or any way of referring to its inhabitants by name.

On being advised by the new arrivals that they most certainly were not British (as the Chinese had assumed), the locals kept things simple by deciding to refer to their visitors as “the New People”.

So says Eric Jay Dolin, author of When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs and Money in the Age of Sail. The recently published book is an account of the first hundred years of Sino-US trade ties.

For a relationship so critical to America’s future, more knowledge of how the relationship with China started out is important, Dolin suggests, and he helps out with a history that looks at events from the arrival of the first merchant ship in present day Guangzhou through to the late 1860s, and the advent of steamship travel.

Of course, the Chinese were trading with America long before the 1780s, mostly with the sale of silk, tea and porcelain to the former British colony. But in the days before independence, the goods had to arrive courtesy of the East India Company which held a monopoly, mandated by Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom. It wasn’t until the Stars and Stripes flag was first seen fluttering off Canton that a genuinely new relationship was to be established. Misconstruing the ensign’s design, the Chinese would later use it to descriptively label the American merchants as the “Flowery Flag Devils”.

From the start, the relationship looked lop-sided in commercial terms. For the Americans, trade with China was treated with great importance, as a chance to redress the commercial stranglehold still enjoyed by their former colonial master on trade routes elsewhere. But for the Chinese, the interest was less immediate. Initial American hopes of cashing in on a 300-million consumer market were never fulfilled as hoped. As Dolin points out, there is resonance here with some of the frustrations of more recent times. Another theme that features in the book – an American trade deficit with the Chinese – was also apparent from the very start of commercial ties.

Ginseng, sea otter pelts, sealskins and sandalwood were the main goods that the Chinese actually bought from American traders. They too offer an intriguing parallel: after all, there are those who claim that the sale of low-price Chinese goods in American supermarkets today has come with a cost to China of widespread environmental damage. Two hundred years ago it was the purchases by Chinese consumers that led to some of the worst cases of destruction of natural habitats and animal species.

Hawaii (christened Tan Heung Shan, or Sandalwood Mountain by the Chinese) had been almost entirely stripped of its sandalwood forests by visiting traders by the 1820s, for instance, while seal populations in the Pacific and South Atlantic were decimated by American ships bound for Canton.

At home, the sea otter was hunted close to extinction on the Pacific coast by 1832, in one of the most lucrative trading opportunities of the time. The sea otter trade was truly a global enterprise. Teaming up with Russian fur traders from Alaska, American ships carried press-ganged natives from the Aleutian and Kodiak islands to California, and then forced them to hunt for pelts for delivery to the Chinese.

In later chapters, Dolin also deals with the opium trade, in which American merchants were active, although never as heavily as the British.

Another chapter covers the Chinese coolie trade, with thousands of labourers shipped overseas, often to the sugar plantations and guano mines of Latin America. Some of the cases of mutiny and mistreatment on American ships make for grim reading, including the 300 coolies who suffocated to death in the hold of the Waverly at anchor in Manila in 1855, or the 70 Chinese corpses thrown into waters off Hong Kong after a mutiny three years later.

Nor was that the worst of the fatalities, Dolin says. Dysentery, scurvy and other diseases would kill at least 26,000 Chinese coolies, a shipboard mortality rate approaching 12%. Eventually, the suffering was enough to rouse public concern and in 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed legislation making the United States the first Western nation to prohibit the trade.

How about wider human contact between the two countries? The Canton trading system prevented foreigners from travelling into the Chinese hinterland for many of the early years of commercial ties, while few Chinese showed much interest in making a return journey on the merchant ships to America. So it wasn’t until the 1830s that a visit from China first caused a wider stir in the United States, with the arrival of 17 year-old conjoined twins called Chang and Eng. The pair, who were ethnic Chinese but actually born in Thailand, count as something of a cross-cultural success story. Brought back to Boston to spend 10 years touring the country as an object of public curiosity, the brothers decided to settle in North Carolina once their contract came to an end, becoming naturalised citizens, marrying two sisters and producing 21 children, all surnamed Bunker.

When America First Met China is a straightforward read that should be of interest to anyone doing business with China. The chapters on the Opium Wars and subsequent international treaties help, for example, to give perspective on why these still rankle with Chinese today.

But often it is the parallels with the present day that stand out most, like the endeavours of the Carne brothers of New York, who made their fortunes by getting Chinese craftsmen to copy French luxury perfumes, fans, silk and porcelain, and then pricing the goods as if they had been made in Paris. The Chinese even managed to find a pulpy wood that could pass as expensive rhubarb when pickled. It sold very well, Dolin writes, even after a number of children died from eating too much of it. Sound familiar?


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