Dec. 18, 2020

The Culinary Adventures of Major Samuel Shaw During His First Voyage to China

In Episode 6 of our podcast, we introduced you to the activities of the first US Consul to China, Major Samuel Shaw. Shaw’s first voyage to Macao and Canton (modern-day Guangzhou), on the ship titled Empress of China in 1784, was a celebrated affair. It was a source of national pride for the young country that had declared its independence from Britain merely eight years before Shaw embarked on his eastward journey. 

Shaw was somewhat of a dashing 30-year-old Bostonian who had served his country well in the Revolution and was now looking to secure himself a financially lucrative career. He was a gentleman without resources. His journals give a glimpse into the life of a sociable upper-class American out and about in a world far removed from his home. Although Shaw spent his time in the company of Europeans and Americans of his stature and seldom engaged with people of the countries that he visited, he was curious of the world around him, especially the food. 

Portrait of Major Samuel Shaw
(taken from his journals published by Rev. Josiah Quincy Jr.)

This blog post details the kinds of food that Shaw jotted down in his journals while at sea on his first voyage as well as some of the entertainments at the social dinners he so loved to take part on land during his time as US Consul in China. 

The Empress called on many ports on its way to China and at each port they filled up with fresh food and water. But their supplies were often supplemented at sea with fish, and sometimes poultry, that they snagged from the deck of their ship. For example, just before sighting the Canary Islands on the 14th of March, 1784, a little over a month after they left New York harbor, the crew of the Empress caught a giant fish that Shaw called “Albacor.” He describes it as a mackerel with a short round body and forked tail. (What they caught appears to be a small-bodied tuna called Bonito.) Often when he came across flora and fauna that he had not previously encountered, Shaw referred to the book “Animated Nature.” (This happens to be a set of eight volumes by Oliver Goldsmith titled A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, published in 1774.) He appears to have had these books with him on his voyage since the title is mentioned more than once in his journals. 

They cooked the tuna in two ways – as a stew and barbecued. Neither preparation lived up to Shaw’s expectation.

As they approached Java, they tried to capture an albatross for its meat but the bird proved too strong for them to take in. However, the crew did manage to successfully fish a sizeable shark out of the water by luring it with a piece of meat. Part of the shark was pickled and the remainder boiled and eaten with butter. Near Java, they also caught some birds, called boobies, that the crew had never seen before. They must have been waterfowl of some kind for Shaw describes them as big as a duck with webbed feet and pointed beak. 

Most of these fish and poultry that they caught at sea were not to Shaw’s liking. (Indeed, boiled tuna does not sound very appetizing!)  Shaw found them “indifferent food.” 

But once, they caught a porpoise! Porpoises as marine mammals that look like dolphins but are actually toothed whales closer in relation to narwhals than dolphins. They are relatively bigger than any fish, weighing over a 100 pounds. Shaw was quite delighted with the porpoise. It was again cooked in different ways – the liver was fried, flesh was roasted as well as boiled. The boiled parts were made into soup. Shaw immensely liked the porpoise preparations comparing the fried liver to pork and the roasted porpoise to venison going as far as to say that no one would actually know that they were eating fish if they hadn’t been told! 

Another food that really met his approval was the port that he tasted on the Nicobar Islands in South Asia while he was on his way to Bengal for a casual visit during the months in which Canton was closed for business. Throughout these voyages Shaw comments on food eaten by locals although he does not always taste them. At Nicobar, Shaw described the tribes as having an abundant supply of coconut and yams which he claimed were their staple diet, supplemented with hogs, poultry, and fish. After tasting the hogs of Nicobar that were seemigly fed with coconuts, he called the meat “the best pork I have ever tasted…” (280)

Food was about sociality on and off the boat for Shaw. When they docked at ports, Shaw and the captain of the vessel, John Green, made dinner visits to the governors of these ports, to other vessels docked there, and any Americans they met in the region. It was also customary for Shaw to share the food that the Americans brought with them with some of the people they met. At Port Praya (Cape Verde), Shaw sent over to the Viceroy of the island some biscuit, a cheese, and a dozen bottles of “good wine” since Shaw found the Viceroy’s collection quite middling. (Along with the food he also sent three packs of playing cards and a letter of acknowledgment). 

Once in Macao and Canton, Shaw’s sociability made him a regular at dinner parties and other entertainments thrown by his European counterparts as well as the Hong merchants who liaised with foreigners on behalf of China. These dinners could be colorful affairs. Shaw notes that at one dinner that the Portuguese served to the Europeans (and Shaw) in Macao, there was also unique non-culinary entertainment. This is how Shaw described the event: 

“The dessert, which was very elegant, was prepared in a room adjoining that in which we dined, and the tables were ornamented with representations, in paper painted and gilt, of castles, pagodas, and other Chinese edifices, in each of which were confined small birds. The first toast was Liberty! and in an instant, the doors of the paper prisons being set open, the little captives were released, and, flying about us in every direction, seemed to enjoy the blessing which had just been conferred upon them.”

Journals of Major Samuel Shaw, p.234.

Shaw appears to have gotten used to exotic foods and entertainment after his first voyage. He continued to visit China as consul until 1792 but the later voyages do not have as many entries on culinary delights although his descriptions of the beautiful white European women that he met became more and more colorful. Shaw’s adventures were cut short by his premature death during his return to the United States from China. He died at sea near the Cape of Good Hope.


Shaw, Samuel, and Quincy, Josiah. 1847. The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw, the First American Consul at Canton. Boston: W. Crosby and H.P. Nichols.