American statesman and chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Letter Signed as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, two pages, large octavo, New York, January 30, 1786. To Samuel Shaw, U.S. Consul for Canton, China.
“I have the Honor of transmitting to you herewith enclosed, a Commission constituting you Consul of the United States, at Canton in China. You have my best wishes that you may derive advantages from this office, equal to the Honor and Propriety with which I am persuaded it will be exercised. Altho neither Salary nor Perquisites are annexed to it, yet so destinguished a mark of the Confidence and Esteem of the United States, will naturally give you a Degree of Weight and Respectability which the highest personal merit cannot very soon obtain for a Stranger in a foreign Country.
“It will not be necessary for me to dwell on the advantages your Country may derive from the Information you may acquire. Permit me however to request the Favor of your correspondence, and that you will transmit to me by proper conveyances, whatever Intelligence and observations you may think conducive to the public Good. The mercantile and other Regulations at Canton, respecting Foreigners; the number and size of foreign vessels, and of what nations, which annually enter there-their Cargoes and what articles of Merchandize answer best, are matters which merit attention. It might also be useful to know whether Foreigners do or can carry on a circuitous Trade in that part of the World, either on their own account or by being Carriers for others, whether Asiatic or European. Accurate Information on all these points will probably require Time to collect; and as accurate Information only can be useful, I cannot flatter myself with receiving ample Details from you very soon after your arrival, unless on such of these subjects, as may not require much Time to investigate.
“I shall not omit writing to you by every opportunity, and will do myself the pleasure of sending you such Information respecting our Country, as tho’ perhaps not very essential to you either as a Consul or a merchant, cannot fail of being interesting to an American Citizen, early and strongly attached to his Country.”
Major Samuel Shaw, a Boston merchant and member of the Empress of China expedition that launched the China trade in 1784, was appointed the first Consulate General to China in 1786, as documented in John Jay’s letter. This appointment solidified trade relations between China and New England.
Because British colonists were forbidden to sail into the Pacific, it was not until after the Revolution that the first American ships sailed to China to begin commerce. The two countries proved to be excellent trading partners during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. New England grew ginseng root in the wild that the Chinese needed for medicinal purposes. Conversely, China grew a great variety of high quality teas that Americans preferred to British teas. China also manufactured beautiful silks and porcelains greatly demanded by Americans, while America provided furs and pelts from the Pacific Northwest much desired by the Chinese.
The first of the trading ships was the Empress of China, which had been hired by the banker Robert Morris. Its most important man aboard was the “supercargo” Shaw, who was given charge of the ship’s $120,000 cargo that included lead, 2,600 animal skins, fine camlet cloth, cotton, a few barrels of pepper, and thirty tons of ginseng, valued by the Chinese for its healing powers. The Empress left New York harbor on February 22, 1784, arriving six months later at Macao, a Portuguese outpost on the Chinese coast. It was then guided up the Pearl River to Whampoa, where trading ships stayed while their supercargoes worked out deals in Canton, twelve miles upstream. The Chinese wanted as few foreigners as possible in their country, believing they had nothing but trouble to offer China. The Chinese called the Americans the “New People,” and were lumped with all outsiders as “Foreign Devils.” Shaw spent the next four months in Canton, where foreigners were confined to compounds called hongs-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, reaping an impressive profit of $30,000 for Morris and his partners. Other merchants were quick to see the value of the China trade, and before long Boston and Salem, Massachusetts became important ports in the early days of the China trade. By 1790 twenty-eight American vessels-most of them from New England-had made the journey to Canton, and the China trade was in full swing. It lasted until 1842, when the Opium War broke out in an attempt by the Chinese to stop the drug traffic.
During this period Canton was the only Chinese port open to foreign trade. “A journey up river provided an exotic introduction for the first-time visitor to China. Rows of houseboats extended from shore to midstream along the riverfront, forming a floating city and leaving only narrow passage lanes for the ‘fast boats’ to travel. Long river junks rowed by half-naked oarsmen slid by, ‘flower boats’ filled with Chinese ladies of pleasure circled the newcomers, and official mandarin boats patrolled the shores. In Canton the cargo was offloaded in a restricted area on the riverfront where foreign factories, or hongs, were set back from the water and grouped in a long line along the riverside. It was here that the merchants lived and did business during the trading season. Instead of dealing directly with many Chinese merchants, the foreigners instead dealt with an intermediary group known as the co-hong. These two dozen Chinese businessmen handled all matters of foreign trade for all of China. Despite their power and wealth, members of the co-hong were noted time and again for their honesty and integrity in dealing with foreign merchants; contracts were made with a handshake, not a piece of paper. Acting through his member of the co-hong, an American merchant spent several weeks or even months visiting shops and factories bartering with Chinese merchants before his vessel, filled with a cargo of luxury items, set sail for home” [R. Todd King, The China Trade in Early New England].
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