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The Boatload of Ginseng That Launched the China Trade

The Empress of China launched the China trade on Feb. 22, 1784, when she sailed out of New York Harbor loaded with ginseng, lead, Spanish silver coins and woolen cloth.  The Treaty of Paris had been signed, America and Britain were at peace and America was free for the first time to trade with China.

The Empress of China

The Empress of China

American merchants had been eyeing China as a tantalizing opportunity ever since peace broke out.  Not only were Americans enamored of Chinese tea, silks and home goods, but traders didn't have too many other options. The British had cut off American trade with the West Indies, and European nations had set up daunting trade barriers.

The Empress of China was built as a privateer during the American Revolution, but was quickly refitted after the peace treaty was signed on Sept. 3, 1783. Her voyage was delayed by an extremely cold winter that kept her frozen in New York Harbor. Finally, the weather broke and she was on her way. On Aug. 23, 1784, the ship sailed up the Pearl River. The sailors aboard the ship were thrilled to see the Stars and Stripes unfurled for the first time in that part of the world.

John Green, an Irishman from Philadelphia, was the Empress of China’s captain. His senior business agent, or supercargo, was Samuel Shaw, a 29-year-old Bostonian who had served as Gen. Henry Knox’s aide-de-camp. They were greeted politely by the French, the Danes, the Dutch and the British. They were all restricted to a section of Canton where goods were exchanged in large factories, or hongs, their ships moored nearby.  Shaw reported:

On board the ships it was impossible to avoid speaking of the late war. They allowed it to have been a great mistake on the part of their nation – were happy it was over, --glad to see us in this part of the world, -- hoped all prejudice would be laid aside, -- and added, that, let America and England be united, they might bid defiance to all the world.

The 'New People'

The Chinese weren’t sure what to make of the Americans. They called them the ‘New People.’ (Later they would call them the ‘Flowery-Flag Devils' after the stars on the flag that looked to the Chinese like flowers.) Shaw showed them a map of the United States and explained the size and possibilities of the new country. The Chinese, he wrote, ‘were not a little pleased at the prospect of so considerable a market for the productions of their own empire.’

Samuel Shaw

Samuel Shaw

The Chinese were less interested in buying foreign goods than in selling their own, but they did prize ginseng, used as a curative, energy booster and aphrodisiac. Ginseng grew in only a few places: eastern Asia and parts of North America, including Canada, the mountains of New England, New York and Appalachia. Three months were spent scouring the eastern United States for nearly 30 tons of ginseng to ship aboard the Empress of China. It was the largest shipment ever to arrive in Canton. Unfortunately for the Americans, the Europeans had also brought large amounts of the root. The price had plummeted.

Otherwise, the trading went well. Shaw negotiated the purchase and sale of goods with the Chinese hong merchants from the French factory until an empty building was made ready for the Americans.

The ship left Canton on Dec. 28, 1784 and arrived in New York Harbor on May 11, 1785, with 800 chests of tea, 20,000 pairs of nankeen trousers and a huge quantity of porcelain. Newspapers announced her return, and her cargo was sold in stores up and down the East Coast. That's where they learned the real money of the trip was made in the sale of Chinese export goods to Americans.

All told, the voyage earned a 25 percent return on investment, not as much as hoped, but enough to spawn a new era of commerce with China.

Shaw gave a complete report of the voyage to John Jay, the U.S. foreign minister. Jay shared his findings with Congress, whose members felt ‘a peculiar satisfaction in the successful issue of this first effort of the citizens of America to establish a direct trade with China.’

For the next 60 years, the China trade would make New England merchants very, very wealthy. In Boston alone the China trade enriched George Cabot, John Perkins Cushing, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Robert Bennet Forbes, Israel Thorndike and Russell Sturgis. Gideon Nye from North Fairhaven, Mass., made his fortune in the China Trade. And in Salem, trade with China made rich men of Elias Hasket Derby, Abiel Abbot Low and Joseph Peabody. The wealth generated by the China trade can best be seen in Salem’s Chestnut Street District, part of the Samuel McIntire Historic District, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Peabody-Essex Museum.

With thanks to When America First Met China by Eric Jay Dolin.