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.
American merchants had long eyed 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.
Within 20 years of the Empress of China’s voyage, American ships would outnumber those of all other nations trading with China. Profit from the China trade would finance mills, factories, railroads and mines as well as courthouses, schools, roads and bridges. Philanthropic merchants would pour their wealth from China into such institutions as the Perkins School for the Blind, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Bunker Hill Monument and the Boston Athenaeum.
The China Trade Begins
The Empress of China, built as a privateer during the American Revolution, got a quick retrofit after the peace treaty was signed on Sept. 3, 1783.
Extremely cold weather froze the Empress of China in New York Harbor and delayed her first voyage. Finally, the weather broke and she sailed off to the East.
John Green, an Irishman from Philadelphia, was the Empress of China’s captain. Samuel Shaw, a 29-year-old Bostonian who had served as Gen. Henry Knox’s aide-de-camp, served as his senior business agent, or supercargo.
On Aug. 23, 1784, the ship sailed up the Pearl River in South China. The sailors aboard the ship thrilled to see the Stars and Stripes unfurled for the first time in that part of the world.
The French, the Danes, the Dutch and the British all greeted them politely. But the Chinese restricted them to a section of Canton where goods were exchanged in large factories, or hongs, while their ships moored nearby. Shaw reported on exchanges between British and American mariners:
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 didn’t know what to make of the Americans. They called them the ‘New People.’ (Later they would call them the ‘Flowery-Flag Devils’ because the stars on the flag 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.’
The Chinese had less interest in buying foreign goods than in selling their own. They did, however, 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.
It took three months to scour 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 plummeted.
The China Trade Takes Off
Otherwise, trading went well. The Chinese made an empty building available for the Americans. Shaw negotiated the purchase and sale of goods with the Chinese hong merchants.
The Empress of China left Canton on Dec. 28, 1784 and arrived in New York Harbor on May 11, 1785. 22 months after her departure. She carried 800 chests of tea, 20,000 pairs of nankeen trousers and a huge quantity of porcelain. Newspapers announced her return, and stores up and down the East Coast sold her cargo. That’s where the Americans learned how to make real money in the China trade: the sale of Chinese export goods to Americans.
All told, the voyage earned a 25 percent return on investment. Investors had hoped for more, but they made 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. Members of Congress responded with ‘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, Mass., trade with China made rich men of Elias Hasket Derby, Abiel Abbot Low and Joseph Peabody.
You can still see the wealth generated by the China trade 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. This story about the China trade was updated in 2023.