John Ledyard launched America’s China trade after sailing with Capt. James Cook on a voyage to find the Northwest Passage. Instead, Ledyard found what he thought was a way to make a fortune.
Ledyard was an American adventurer from Connecticut, a marine in the British Navy looking for adventure. He signed up with Cook as a corporal on the Resolution, one of two ships Cook was sailing to the Pacific.
John Ledyard was born in Groton, Conn., in November 1751, the son of a wealthy sea captain. He grew up in Hartford with his grandfather after his father died of malaria in the Caribbean.
He briefly attended Dartmouth until he was expelled. His most memorable achievement was paddling a wooden canoe 140 miles down the Connecticut River from Hanover, N.H., to his grandfather’s farm in Hartford. He was the first white man to make the trip; the Dartmouth Outing Club’s canoers take an annual trip in canoes down the river in his honor.
Ledyard was so profligate that his grandfather willed his estate to his younger brother. Finding himself at loose ends, John Ledyard went to sea.
He joined Cook’s third voyage, which began July 12, 1776, in Plymouth, England, and lasted four years, during which Cook was killed in Hawaii. In March 1778, Cook and his men landed in the Pacific Northwest and obtained 1,500 sea otter pelts in trade with the Indians on Vancouver Island. Late in 1779, the expedition arrived in Canton and discovered the Chinese treasured sea otter pelts. Ledyard later wrote the pelts cost sixpence but sold in China for $100.
Ledyard returned to America and persuaded Robert Morse, merchants and investors to finance a voyage of three ships – then six — to the Pacific Northwest for furs and then to China.
The plan fell apart, though, and only one ship sailed to China without stopping in the Pacific Northwest. The Empress of China left New York Harbor on Feb. 22, 1784, the first ship from the newly independent United States to sail to China. The voyage initiated lucrative trade with China that provided the capital for the mills, factories and workshops that fueled the young republic’s commercial expansion.
John Ledyard left another legacy: his diary. He kept it during his voyage with Capt. Cook, and it was published in 1783, the first work to be protected by a U.S. copyright.
On June 10, 1777, he recorded his impressions of the Friendly Islands (now Tonga) in the diary. One night he slept in the house of a chief. He was baffled by what happened after a pretty 17-year-old came into the house and kissed the chief’s toe:
On the 10th of June we carried two large tents, two astronomical tents and a markee ashore accompanied by a strong guard of marines, and erected them on a spacious green encircled by a grove of tall trees about forty rods from the watterside, which lay north of our encampment. On the east we had a beautiful lagoon that reached several miles into the country on the margin of which were dispersed some houses: on the south a branch of the same lagoon and on the west a thin tall woods in which was interspersed several more houses; after our tents were pitched and the guard appointed Cook went on shore attended by a chief called Polahow who was the supreme governor of all these islands, and invited him to his mark. Polahow was a man about fifty-five years of age and bout the middle stature, but excessive fat and corpulent, yet active and full of life; he was exceeding good natured and humane, very sensible and prudent, and remarkably timorous:…
Cook then invited one of the chiefs to board the ship, and Polahow invited Ledyard to his house:
…Polahow chose rather to have me go with him to his house, where we went and sat down together without the entrance; we had been here but a few minutes before one of the natives advanced through the grove to the skiers of the green and there halted, Polahow observed him, and told me he wanted him, upon which I beckoned to the Indian and he came to us; when he approached Polahow, he squatted down upon his hams and put his forehead to the sole of Polahow’s foot and then received some directions from him and went away and returned again very soon with some baked yams and fish rolled up in fresh plantain leaves and deposited in a little basket made of palm-tree leaves, and a large cocoanut shell of clean fresh water and a smaller one of salt water, these he sat down and went and brought a mess of the same kind and sat them down by me. Polahow then desired I would eat, but preferring salt, which I had in the tent, to the sea-water which they used, I called one of the guard and had some of that brought me to eat with my fish, which were really most delightfully dressed and of which I eat very heartily.
Their animal and vegetable food is dressed in the same manner here as at the southern and northern tropical islands throughout these seas, being all baked among hot stones laid in a hole and covered over wrist with leaves and then with mould. Polahow was fed by the chief who waited on him both with victuals and drink. After he had finished, the remains were carried away bhp chief in waiting who returned soon after with two large separate rolls of cloth and two little low wooden stools. The cloth was for a covering while asleep, and the stools to raise and rest the head on as we do on a pillow: these were left within the house or rather under the roof — one side being open. The floor within was composed of coarse dry grass, leaves and flowers, over which ws spread large well wrought mats. On this Polahow and I removed and sat down while the chief unrolled and spread out the cloth; after which he retired and in a few minutes there appeared a fine young girl about 17 years of age, who approaching Polahow stopped and kissed his great toe, and then retired and set down in an opposite part of the house. It was now about nine o’clock and a bright moon shine, the sky was serene and the winds hushed. Suddenly I heard a number of their flutes beginning nearly at the same time burst from every quarter of the surrounding grove: And whether this was meant as an exhilarating serenade or a soothing soporific to the great Polahow I cannot tell, though in fact from the appearance of the young girl and other circumstances I must confess my heart suggested other matters, buy my heart at that time was what Polahow’s ought to have been and now what it was — I appeal to any one. Polahow immediately on hearing the music took me by the hand intimating that he was going to sleep and shewing me the other cloth which was spread neatly beside him and the pillow, invited me to use it. I pretended to acquiesce, but a bed of flowers only added to my
uneasiness. As soon as Polahow had lain down, the girl approached him and spread the cloth over him after which she sat down behind him as he lay upon his side and began one of the most extraordinary operations I ever before had seen or heard of, which was patting him on the posteriors with the palms and back of her hands alternately in a constant and quick succession of gentle strokes which she continued with unremitted uniformity and celerity until she found her lord fast asleep when she gently rose and went off. This performance lasted about three quarters of an hour and both the novelty of it and the situation I was in respecting a variety of objects left me in a kind of listless reverie. Whether this ceremony respected Polahow merely as a mark of distinction, or whether the operation was applied as a provocative to certain passions — as a lullaby to sleep, or to assuage the embarrassments he was under in that altitude from his asthmatic complaints I cannot determine. It is true, said I, rising from reverie and walking out into the middle of the green in the full moonshine, where I could extend my prospects and where the sounds that proceeded from the circumventularing flues would more regularly pass the ear. — It is true, that of all the animals from the polypus to man, the latter is the most happy and the most wretched, dancing through life between these two extremes, he sticks his head among the stars, or his nose in the earth, or suspended by a cobweb in some middle altitude he hangs like a being indigenous to no sphere or unfit for any, or like these Indians he is happy because he is insensible of it or takes no pains to be so.
Read the whole diary here. With thanks to When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail by Eric Jay Doolin.