It was February, 1784. Only five months earlier, the U.S. and Great
Britain signed the Treaty of Paris (September 3, 1783). This agreement
ended the Revolutionary War. U.S. ships could no longer trade with
the British West Indies. Trade with other nations was in a slump. Americans
especially missed tea. Robert Morris (1734-1806), a banker, decided
to find a way to supply that tea. By doing so, he said, he hoped "to
encourage others in the adventurous pursuit of commerce."
Empress of China
Morris hired a small ship and renamed it the Empress of China.
The ship was set to sail east, around the southern tip of Africa, to
Canton (Guangzhou), China. It would return by the same route. The ship's
captain, John Green, had spent the war attacking British cargo ships.
His crew of 34 men included a gunner, who would come in handy if the
ship met pirates. Also aboard were two carpenters, a barrel-maker,
and several boys. The boys were beginning their careers in the merchant
In some ways, the most important man aboard was the "supercargo," Samuel
Shaw of Boston. Shaw was a businessman, in charge of the $120,000 cargo
in the ship's hold. The Empress carried lead, 2,600 animal skins,
fine camel cloth, cotton, and a few barrels of pepper. It also carried
30 tons of ginseng, a root that grew wild in North America. The Chinese
valued ginseng for its healing powers.
Trading in Canton
The Empress left New York harbor on February 22, 1784. Six
months later, in August, it arrived at Macao, a Portuguese outpost
on the Chinese coast. Here, Captain Green hired Chinese pilots to guide
his ship up the Pearl River to Whampoa. Trading ships stayed in Whampoa
while their supercargoes worked out deals in Canton, 12 miles upstream.
The Chinese wanted as few foreigners as possible in their country.
They believed that China was the center of a square earth. Foreigners,
they felt, had nothing but trouble to offer China. The Chinese called
the Americans the "New People." But Americans were lumped
with all outsiders as "Foreign Devils."
Samuel Shaw spent the next fourth months in Canton. Foreigners there
weren't free to roam. The Chinese ordered them to stay in compounds
call hongs [see Macartney
and the Emperor for more about hongs]. Hongs were
pleasant places, where Chinese merchants called to trade.
Shaw traded his cargo for tea, nankeen (Chinese cotton), tableware,
silk, and spice. The shipment was welcomed in the U.S. when the Empress returned
there in May, 1785. The Chinese goods brought Robert Morris and his
partners $30,000 — an impressive profit.
Other U.S. merchants were quick to see the value of the China trade.
At first, however, they flooded the Chinese market with ginseng. Chinese
demand for the root dropped, and so did its price. But the Chinese
did want sea-otter pelts, which Yankees traded from Indians in the
American Northwest. Sandalwood, found in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii),
also brought a high price from Chinese merchants.
From Ginseng to Opium
The trade took an ugly turn in the early 1800s. British merchants
began carrying opium to China, and many Americans followed suit. Opium,
a drug, created its own demand by making addicts of its users. U.S.
merchants found they could buy a pound of opium in Turkey for $2.50
and sell it in Canton for $10.00.
A Chinese attempt to shut down the opium traffic led to war with Britain.
The "Opium War" lasted two years. It ended with a treaty
that punished China and opened four more ports to British shipping.
In later treaties, China granted the U.S. and France the same privileges
Turmoil within China would interrupt trade with the U.S. during the
next 100 years. Then, in 1949, a Communist government took over in
China. The next year, Chinese and U.S. troops faced off in Korea, and
the China trade ended for 22 years.
Now, commerce between China and the U.S. is picking up again. Trade
has brought the two nations closer, just as it did in 1784.
Acknowledgement: Essay by Karen Markoe, Associate
Professor at Maritime College, State University of New York. Published
in Scholastic Search, November 14, 1980. Reproduced here with
permission from the author.