This posting was written by Dael Norwood, a Bernard & Irene Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellow at the New-York Historical Society.
On February 22, 1784, a small ship with big ambitions weighed anchor, and sailed down the East River. Commanded by John Green, the Empress of China left New York on George Washington’s birthday aiming to be the first American ship to reach Canton, China. The novelty of this distant destination loaded the vessel with more than just ginseng root and silver dollars. Backed by a group of prominent Philadelphia and New York merchants and managed by respected veterans of the Revolutionary war, the ship bore Americans’ hopes for a new era of prosperity and independence.
The Empress left a country in increasingly desperate straits. Just a month before, Congress had proclaimed the Peace of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War. But once the celebrations died down, the war’s costs remained. In addition to the lives and property destroyed, the fighting had deeply indebted state governments and the Continental Congress. Worse, now that they were proudly separated from the British Empire, Americans were cut off from the British West Indian ports that had been the lifeblood of the colonial economy. Efforts like the Empress’s voyage were part of a larger push to overcome these economic and political problems by expanding trade to new areas. In the post-revolutionary depression, American merchants tried to drum up business not just in Asia, but anywhere they could.
Even so, trade with China was a big deal. Americans knew the Qing Empire as a political and economic superpower, but getting to Canton, the empire’s only port open to Westerners, was a difficult task. No matter whether merchants sailed east (around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian ocean, like the Empress did) or west (around Cape Horn and across the Pacific) a voyage to Canton would be among the longest sea routes, requiring well-built ships, careful management, and plentiful supplies. The commerce also required capital, and lots of it: ships needed to carry a sizable store of Spanish silver dollars (aka pesos de ocho, pieces of eight). Chinese merchants rarely accepted anything less than hard cash.
Risky and complex, in the 18th century trade with China was similar in cachet to international aerospace industry of the late 20th century. Like building jets and satellites, trading in the “East Indies” marked a nation as a serious competitor on the world stage. For this patriotic service, the captain and crew of the Empress were lauded as pioneers. As the ship left New York, the city’s Independent Gazette not only wished it success, but reminded readers that those who formed “new channels for the extension of our commerce” were performing a service for the nation.
Public spirit notwithstanding, the merchants of the Empress managed the voyage pretty well, returning home on May 11, 1785 with a valuable cargo of teas, silks, cotton cloth, and porcelain. The venture cleared a return of roughly 30% – not bad. Furnishing proof that trade with Asia was not only possible, but profitable, the Empress’s voyage earned wide accolades. One New Yorker argued that the safe return was worthy of “public thanksgiving and ringing of bells!” More circumspect, but still enthusiastic, Congress congratulated the mariners directly, expressing a “peculiar satisfaction” in “this first effort of the citizens of America to establish a direct trade with China.”
This new link was important. Samuel Shaw, the supervising merchant, or supercargo, who served on the Empress ably summarized the lasting significance of the voyage. Reporting to Congress on how the Americans had been “treated in that distant region,” Shaw focused on what the voyage meant for U.S. relations with other peoples. The Empress, he related, had received aid “from our good allies the French,” who had helped integrate the inexperienced American merchants into Canton’s foreign mercantile community. And even the English at Canton had behaved cordially, a welcome surprise.
But it was Shaw’s meeting with the Chinese that provided a conclusion to warm any proud revolutionary’s heart. “The Chinese were very indulgent towards us,” he wrote, “[t]hey styled us the new people.” Though cut off from the British Empire’s familiar markets, the Empress seemed to find a new way forward for American independence.
For more information on this topic, watch for an N-YHS exhibit in October of 2014 that will examine the long, complex, often troubled, but also mutually sought-after relations between China, the U.S., and the people of both nations from the 1770s through the present day.