Within a year of the end of the American Revolution, the United States sent a ship to China, where the government hoped Americans could start a robust (and lucrative) trade.
Samuel Shaw was the supercargo on that first voyage of the Empress of China. On his next voyage to Canton, he went as the U.S. consul, charged with helping the United States gain a foothold in the China trade. On behalf of the United States, he had to make a good impression---all the while knowing that the United States might not make such a good trading partner.
Joanna Cohen, “Dilemmas of Abundance,” in Luxurious Citizens, The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 15–45.
Johnson, Kendall. 2012. Narratives of Free Trade: The Commercial Cultures of Early US-China Relations (Commercial Cultures of Early US-China Relations). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Johnson, Kendall. 2017. The New Middle Kingdom: China and the Early American Romance of Free Trade. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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.
Van Dyke, Paul Arthur. 2011. Merchants of Canton and Macao: Politics and Strategies in Eighteenth-Century Chinese Trade.Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Wang, Dong. 2013. The United States and China: a history from the eighteenth century to the present. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Producer: Abby Mullen and Deepthi Murali
Show notes assistance: Brenna Reilley
Background assistance: Dael Norwood, Katrina Ponti
Music: Andrew Cote
Voice actors: Caroline Greer, David Montgomery
If French history is your thing, check out David’s show, The Siecle Podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.
ABBY MULLEN: It’s 1784. The Treaty of Paris has just been signed, ending the war between Great Britain and the now-independent United States of America. The country and all its people, now have to move from the business of making war to the business of living in peace under the Articles of Confederation.
It wasn’t just people who had to move from war to peace. Vessels fitted out for war now had to be transformed into something else. One ship that had been a privateer in the war now took on a new role: opener of a new trade. On George Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1784, this vessel, now named the Empress of China, set sail from New York, bound for Canton. It was the first American vessel to make the journey.
On board the Empress of China was a war veteran named Samuel Shaw. On this voyage, he was the supercargo–in other words, he was in charge of selling the cargo. But on his next voyage to Canton, he would go as the U.S. consul.
MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. In this episode, we’re looking at Samuel Shaw, the first US consul to China–specifically, to Canton, or what we’d call Guangzhou today. Shaw had a huge opportunity–he got to bring the United States into this highly lucrative trade network, and he got to establish the United States as a serious commercial power in the Pacific. But as he went, he knew that the financial position of the United States was actually quite weak, and could even collapse at any moment.
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Okay so, The Empress of China was kind of a big deal. For the United States, it was a chance to break into a market that seemed like the pinnacle of foreign trade, but it was also a chance to establish the United States as a separate distinct nation from Great Britain and its trade restrictions. The voyage even made it into a poem by one of the foremost American poets of the time, Philip Freneau.
CAROLINE GREER: ON THE FIRST AMERICAN SHIP Empress of China, Capt. Greene That explored the rout to China, and the East-Indies, after the Revolution, 1784 With clearance from Bellona won She spreads her wings to meet the Sun, Those golden regions to explore Where George forbade to sail before. Thus, grown to strength, the bird of Jove, Impatient, quits his native grove, With eyes of fire, and lightning's force Through the blue æther holds his course. No foreign tars are here allowed To mingle with her chosen crowd, Who, when returned, might, boasting, say They shewed our native oak the way. To that old track no more confined, By Britain's jealous court assigned, She round the Stormy Cape shall sail, And, eastward, catch the odorous gale.
MULLEN: The last few stanzas really bring home the value of the Empress:
GREER: To countries placed in burning climes And islands of remotest times She now her eager course explores, And soon shall greet Chinesian shores. From thence their fragrant teas to bring Without the leave of Britain's king; And Porcelain ware, enchased in gold, The product of that finer mould. Thus commerce to our world conveys All that the varying taste can please; For us, the Indian looms are free, And Java strips her spicy tree. Great pile proceed!—and o'er the brine May every prosperous gale be thine, 'Till freighted deep with Asia's stores, You reach again your native shores.
MULLEN: For Samuel Shaw, it was an opportunity to reinvent himself after his service in the Continental Army.
KENDALL JOHNSON: He serves in the Continental Army as an aide to General Knox, an aide-de-camp. So it’s sort of a very important position. And through his service in the Continental Army, he becomes a major.
MULLEN: That’s Kendall Johnson, a historian who studies US-China relations in this early period. Kendall tells us that this military service really mattered for Shaw’s choices after the war.
JOHNSON: He’s coming into officer class status. But he doesn’t have capital, he doesn’t have cash, he doesn’t have a certain competence. Competency would be like the economic foundation to basically have a family. And during the Revolutionary War, he’s writing back to his brother, his father, to his friend about how little money he’s got. So you read these letters is a strange combination of elitism, talking about how much he needs to appear to be an officer. But also economic desperation, a fear of going broke and bust. Fear of an economic future for himself but also for the nation. And that drives him to sea, and when he’s at sea, you could say he makes a good amount of money, but he also loses a lot of money. So he’s never able to sort of, I guess you could say he is elite, but he’s always on that sort of brink of economic disaster.
MULLEN: Shaw did know the right people to help him out. He was a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati, an order founded by George Washington for Continental Army officers. Many of those people were wealthy and well-connected.
JOHNSON: Through those connections he’s made during his service in the Continental Army, he has an opportunity to go to sea. And that takes him to Canton, and on the first ship, the Empress of China, to go to China from the United States.
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MULLEN: On this first voyage, Shaw wasn’t a consul…yet. But he was the supercargo, which means he was in charge of selling the goods that the United States brought to trade in Canton. They were bringing a somewhat surprising cargo to the Chinese–one that actually has a long history in both North America and China.
JOHNSON: It’s ginseng, the root ginseng, which has medicinal purposes. In the long history of materia medica of China, like the use of ginseng, and also in native peoples in North America. And the Dutch and the French had been trading smaller amounts of ginseng in the 18th century and early 19th century, particularly the 18th century, and Shaw is basically taking up that mantle. But in some ways, he doesn’t really look back and say, ‘Wow, I’m continuing what’s been going on before.’ He sees it as the United States new opportunity and the payload of the Empress of China is filled with ginseng; about 25,000 silver Spanish dollars, and a payload of ginseng.
MULLEN: It’s not all about the short-term profit, though. As the Empress of China made its way to China and back, over about 14 months, Shaw was already starting to act a little like a consul. He wanted to see the United States recognized as an independent, sovereign country. A country that could trade successfully in the same markets as the big imperial powers. And to do that, Shaw needed to collect information and make friends.
JOHNSON: Along the way, he’s also with the captain meeting other ship captains. He writes about in his journals, the satisfaction of being recognized by French and Dutch sea captains.
So, the responsibilities of the supercargo regarding the payload, quickly fold into issues of respect in symbolic recognition of the United States on this first voyage through Shaw’s journals.
MULLEN: Shaw was really happy that the United States seemed to be getting some respect, but he also felt a tremendous amount of anxiety. Would this whole China expedition actually work? Was this trade actually a good idea? Historian Joanna Cohen points out that leaders like Benjamin Franklin weren’t so sure that luxury goods from places like China fit into the republican ideals of this new nation. On a practical level, some more wealthy people thought that luxury goods would cause people to buy stuff instead of paying their taxes. Of course, it was the poorer folks who would mismanage their money and their civic duty in this way.
On a broader level, the government under the Articles of Confederation was being held together with little more than goodwill and Scotch tape. According to Kendall Johnson, Shaw had been around some of the builders of the American government and he knew very well how fragile the system was. Without a strong central government, every state had its own debts to pay, and its own way of doing trade with the world, including making its own money. But the American government’s reputation hinged on the actions of the states, and some of them had a lot of debts that they had to pay.
JOHNSON: How does the United States factor into the world superpowers regarding global commerce, naval power, the United States has no Navy? The questions, the anxieties, that Shaw brings to the China trade, are deep. The Articles of Confederation don’t provide any way of centralizing monetary authority so that you can tax, so that you can raise money so that you can hold debts together in ways that make sense to other countries. And he’s deeply worried about that, because, personally, he’s suffered from the depreciation of the Continental currency. He’s projecting that personal anxiety, nationally, internationally to say, Well, how are we going to be respected if we can’t pay our debts as a nation? So going to China is an exercise in building that sense of confidence.
MULLEN: The Empress of China returned from its voyage in May of 1785, and less than a year later Samuel Shaw was headed back to Canton, but this time he was going as the official consul to Canton from the United States. Sort of.
Shaw was unlike many of our other consuls in that he left his post multiple times every year, sometimes he even traveled back to the United States. This ambulatory consulship was necessary because of how the Chinese trading system worked.
MULLEN: Most of China was closed to foreign trade. The port of Canton, where Shaw went, was the only port open to foreigners. The Qing government set up a complex system to restrict access of foreigners to the rest of China. Dr. Dong Wang is going to help us understand it a little better. She studies the relationship between the United States and China in this early period.
DONG WANG: The Canton trade was restructured by this Canton system that consisted of four key components. One was the local, or I would say provincial, Guangdong maritime customs. The second element in the Canton trade system was the port of Macao very close to Canton by water channel. The third element was the important anchorage at Whampoa. Whampoa is a town about 12 miles away from Canton, the city of Canton at the time. And then the fourth element was the cohong system. Now, the mechanism at the time, the Qing Chinese rulers came up was they of course wanted to control the trade to control foreigners and Chinese. So, they came up with this idea that the team top officials did not want direct contact with foreign traders. So they used a middleman that was licensed.
MULLEN: These four elements were meant to do three things: keep most foreigners from interacting with most Chinese people, funnel trade through government-authorized agents, and keep the trade flowing.
WANG: In the Canton system, foreigners were normally restricted to two or three locations which are Macao, Whampoa, and also the very small area, about a quarter mile radius of area. We could also even say it was like several hundred steps of that area around the foreign warehouses which were known as factories or foreign hongs, or simply hongs. That means you know, the warehouses and trading place where were Chinese, designated Chinese merchants, and foreign the warehouses and living quarters were so that was the so called, the latter one, was the so-called Golden Ghetto. To be more specific here, European and American buildings with national flags flew over the sloping roofs in the so-called foreign factories, warehouses, and living quarters. Somewhere there, the foreign factories or warehouses in that area stood about two or three stories high on the banks of the Pearl River.
MULLEN: One sidenote: If you’re like me, you might have been taught in your high school history class that this period of Chinese history was insular, isolationist, because China saw itself as superior to the nations that wanted to trade there. Maybe that’s how the Chinese rulers talked–but it’s not how they acted.
WANG: There was a myth that you would think that because the Chinese emperors had this sense of superiority and was self centered. The Middle Kingdom regarded itself as the center of the universe. To some extent, yes, it was true, but I would say by the time of the late 17th century all the way through to the early 19th century, the so called sinocentrism was more actually of a myth or rhetoric than real life.
"By the time of the late 17th century all the way through to the early 19th century, the so-called sinocentrism was more actually of a myth or rhetoric than real life." Hear more from Dr. Dong Wang about the US relationship with China…Click To Tweet
What happened was that the Qing Emperors were keenly aware of their weaknesses in relation to foreign traders, foreign armed ships, or gunboats. So they were very much aware of China’s inferiority at the time. But they didn’t come up with a very effective way to deal with these very demanding foreign traders who were determined to do business with China, to open up the Chinese market due to really the unstoppable development of capitalism.
MULLEN: Even though the Chinese were playing from a position of weakness, their approach did give them a sense of mystery and grandeur, at least to Shaw.
SHAW: “In a country where the jealousy of the government confines all intercourse between its subjects and the foreigners who visit it to very narrow limits, in the suburbs of a single city, the opportunities of gaining information respecting its constitution, or the manners and customs generally of its inhabitants, can neither be frequent nor extensive. Therefore, the few observations to be made at Canton cannot furnish us with sufficient data from which to form an accurate judgment upon either of these points. The accounts given in the writings of the missionaries are enveloped in much mystery, and, in many instances, border not a little upon the marvellous. All we know with certainty respecting the empire of China is, that it has long existed as striking evidence of the wisdom of its government, and still continues the admiration of the world.”
MULLEN: Shaw’s duties as consul didn’t look that different from his duties as the supercargo of the Empress of China.There were a few reasons why. There’s one thing we haven’t mentioned yet about Samuel Shaw’s consulship, and that is, it wasn’t official. Yes, he had the papers from the US government. But China did not recognize the legitimacy of any foreign consuls. So Shaw had no standing with the Chinese government to advocate for the United States. According to Laurie Dickmeyer, a historian who studies trade relationships between the United States and China,
LAURIE DICKMEYER: The Qing government did not recognize consuls as having any power. So if you were a consul in Canton in these early years, from 1784 to 1842, that meant you were a spokesperson for the American community in Canton, and not a lot else, you didn’t really have too much power beyond that. Though, you are, of course, expected to be a leader in that community and to help out maybe any poor sailors that needed assistance to communicate back home about folks who had passed away, that kind of thing.
MULLEN: There just weren’t that many Americans in Canton in these early days. So the more typical job of helping out American seamen didn’t take up much of Shaw’s time. But he did spend a decent amount of time identifying Americans and disambiguating them from the British. National pride meant that he didn’t want Americans to be identified as British, but also he didn’t want the Chinese to feel about Americans the same way they felt about the British. He wanted Americans to be seen as new, exciting, and not threatening. He started to make these distinctions from his first voyage on the Empress of China.
SHAW: “Ours being the first American ship that had ever visited China, it was some time before the Chinese could fully comprehend the distinction between Englishmen and us. They styled us the New People, and when, by the map, we conveyed to them an idea of the extent of our country, with its present and increasing population, they were not a little pleased at the prospect of so considerable a market for the productions of their own empire.”
MULLEN: Shaw saw his job as establishing the United States as a trading nation, in this considerable market, using his own trade as the hook.
JOHNSON: Shaw doesn’t write a lot about helping other people out. I think his role as a consul was primarily to report back to the Secretary of State, in this case John Jay. And of course he would provide service to other US ships that are trying to make the same run the same gauntlet of licensing of the Canton system. But he doesn’t really write about taking people under his wing. He’s a private trader, and it’s one of those examples in the early consular history where commerce is the whole point.
MULLEN: For instance, when the ship Cantonarrived in 1788, Shaw knew that the cargo was ginseng, but he didn’t seem to care much about anything past that.
SHAW: “What money they gave, or what goods they received, I know not; as I made it a rule not to question any of these gentlemen concerning their business.”
MULLEN: There’s one other job for Shaw in Canton, making friends with the other traders. in some ways, his best chance to improve the United States’ standing in China was to make friends with the other commercial representatives from imperial powers there and learn from them.
Since they were restricted to such a small area of Canton, they got to know each other much more than they got to know the Chinese people. But Shaw also spent a lot of time elsewhere, since even the port of Canton was only open to foreign traders for part of the year. Many traders went to Macau during the off-season, but some went all the way back to their home country. Shaw did that a few times. So he spent a lot of time aboard a ship.
JOHNSON: Shaw makes the four voyages and he’s appointed counsel on his second and his second voyage, last from 1786 to 1789. That’s almost two and a half years there. But he’s also at that point, not just staying in Canton the whole time. In fact, he can’t, he’s got to move to Macau when the trading season is over. But most people like Shaw would take that opportunity to go somewhere else and he goes to Bengal at that point.
MULLEN: In between Shaw’s second and third voyages, the United States made a big change–they implemented a constitutional government. Shaw was reappointed as consul by the new president, George Washington, and he returned to China for a third time.
JOHNSON: His third voyage wass from 1792 to 1792. And then his final voyage is 1793 to 1794.
MULLEN: Samuel Shaw died on his return voyage to the United States in 1794. But his presence in China over the previous decade had done some good for the United States
DICKMEYER: Especially the first time they arrived, that first voyage in 1784, the Chinese didn’t quite know what to do with them. They looked at the Americans and said, ‘Hey, aren’t you British? Actually, you speak the same language, you look the same way, you dress the same way. Maybe you’re Dutch. What is the situation here?’ And so Samuel Shaw had to politely explain to the officials in Canton, all the Americans were coming from this continent in North America. Here’s the map, this is where we’re located. We’re very brand new. And we’re hoping that we can trade with you just like the British are. So that had to be explained. And there were constant instances of confusion between the British and the Americans in those first few years, certainly. But fairly quickly, within 20 years, the US is able to insert itself into this system of trade, and be quite successful and be actually the second largest trading partner of the Chinese port, second only to the British.
MULLEN: Even though trade took off, a consulship in Canton wasn’t necessarily a plum position.
DICKMEYER: Because there weren’t any real official positions, that didn’t leave a whole lot of incentive for people to even be consuls, right? So during those first 50 years, when Americans are in Canton, there are maybe consuls for only 14 of those 50 years. Yeah, that is not a particularly strong position to have at this point.
MULLEN: Over the next half-century and more, the seeds that Shaw planted began to bear more fruit. The United States did prove itself a solvent and relatively reliable trading partner, and American ships began to go to every corner of the globe. And over time the United states even began to assert themselves to China’s detriment.
JOHNSON: He really gives you a new perspective on how the United States is coming together and formulating an idea of itself in this early period, and he’s at the intersection of commerce and consular service, but also international law. And he’s writing before the missionaries come. He’s running before the diplomatic corps gets set up as a structured national service. Which means that you can see a lot of the ideas percolating, percolating underneath the surface that become institutionalized later on. So as an intellectual historian of sorts, I find him deeply insightful regarding where our ideas of international law come from. How notions of free trade were bouncing around. And notions of free trade were being redefined by this narrative of the United States. Not just taming the continent in Manifest Destiny, but finding its place in a global network of trade. Putting itself at the center.
Laurie Dickmeyer is an assistant professor of history at Angelo State University, where she teaches the U.S. survey and upper-level Asian history courses and leads oral history and digitization projects on World War II-era and postwar West Texans. She also acts as a host for the New Books Network for the New Books in East Asian Studies channel. Currently, she is revising her Ph.D. dissertation, “The Ghost of the Hong Monopoly: US-China Trade and Diplomacy in the Nineteenth Century” for publication.
Dong Wang (王栋) is a historian of U.S.-China relations, modern China, and China and the world. She is distinguished university professor of history and director of the Wellington Koo Institute for Modern China in World History at Shanghai Univ., as well as research associate at the Fairbank Center of Harvard Univ. since 2002. She is a naturalized American citizen based in the Boston area, the Lower Rhine of Germany, and Shanghai.
Kendall Johnson is a professor at the University of Hong Kong. He researches material print culture in a transnational and global historical frame. Prior to joining the University of Hong Kong, he was an Associate Professor of Early American Literature at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. He was a Fulbright Visiting Associate Professor in American Studies at The University of Hong Kong for the 2008‐2009 academic year. After joining HKU he served as the Director the American Studies Programme (2010-2014) and the Head of the School of Modern Languages and cultures (2011-2017). His most recent single‐authored book is The New Middle Kingdom: China and the Early American Romance of Free Trade (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).