Caleb Cushing famously brought a weathervane shaped like an arrow as a gift to the American consul in China in 1844. Cushing, a Massachusetts politician from Newburyport and U.S. ambassador to China, wanted to spread some good will.
Instead, the weathervane was a lightning rod for criticism. Many of the Chinese people suffered from a mysterious malady, and they blamed the swinging weathervane. They said the pointing arrow was ‘causing serious impediment to the felicity and good fortune of the land.’
When the Americans took down the weathervane on May 6, a mob of angry Chinese attacked them. The local constabulary had to intervene.
Caleb Cushing’s Weathervane
The Chinese were right to view the weathervane as a bad omen. The first Opium War (1839-42) between the British and the Chinese had just ended with a treaty full of concessions to the British. Cushing came to China to get as good a deal for the Americans.
The Chinese for decades had set up the Canton, or 13 Factory, system for European traders eager to buy tea and silk. They restricted trading to one section outside the walls of one city – Canton (Guangzhou). There, 13 factories, or hongs, served as trading posts, warehouses and temporary living quarters for foreigners. The Chinese did not allow women because they didn’t want the foreigners settling permanently in their country.
After the Revolutionary War ended, Americans could trade with China. The small, fast New England ships surprised their European rivals by establishing trading relations in Canton. They sold furs, ginseng, sandalwood and bullion for tea, silk, lacquerware, furniture and porcelain. Americans went wild for Chinese products. According to one estimate, as much as one-fifth of the items in early American homes in Boston and Salem came from China.
The China Trade had special importance to the growth of the young country because England and her colonies wouldn’t trade with America.
The Opium War
The First Opium War started with a Chinese war on drugs. The British East India Company had a monopoly on opium grown and processed in India, which it sold into China. By 1838, Chinese officials worried about the growing addiction to the drug and the loss of silver to pay for it. The Qing emperor sent Lin Zexu to Canton to end the opium trade. Lin arrested Chinese opium dealers and demanded the foreign firms turn over their opium. They refused.
Lin held the British merchants hostage and forced them to turn over their opium to be destroyed. The British responded by sending a military force to Canton, defeating the Chinese navy and capturing the city. They then negotiated the Treaty of Nanking, which forced China to reimburse British traders for the seized opium. The Chinese also had to open five more trading ports and turn Hong Kong over to the British. The treaty also prevented the Chinese from prosecuting British subjects for crimes committed in China. It had nothing to say on the subject of opium.
The Chinese called it the Unequal Treaty because the British gave up nothing. But it was only the first.
Enter Caleb Cushing
Caleb Cushing was one of those Victorians who seemed to be able to do everything. Born in Salisbury, Mass., he had a Harvard degree and spoke French, Italian and Spanish fluently. He had edited a newspaper and served as a state lawmaker from Newburyport and counselor to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Then in 1843, President John Tyler appointed him U.S. Ambassador to China.
Before Cushing left for China, he said at a Faneuil Hall dinner that he aimed to ‘bring nearer together … the civilization of the old and new worlds.’ That was pure baloney. His friend Daniel Webster told him he had to get what the British got. Webster, always aware of commercial opportunities, told Cushing of the potential in expanding the China trade to the ports newly open to the British.
“Those ports belong to some of the richest, most productive, and most populous provinces of the empire, and are likely to become very important ports of commerce,” Webster said.
Unlike the British, Americans weren’t interested in legalizing the opium trade in China. The American public, after two wars, still felt hostile toward the British. Americans blamed them for starting war with China by peddling the evil drug, though New England merchants were not above trading opium.
No Truck With Evil-Doers
President Tyler sent Cushing to China with a letter to the Qing emperor, telling him the Americans ‘shall not take the part of evil-doers,’ and ‘shall not uphold them that break your laws.’
Cushing left from Norfolk, Va., with Webster’s son Fletcher, arriving in China on Feb. 24, 1844. He read every book he could on China on the way over.
Soon after the weathervane incident, on June 16, a band of Chinese broke into the American garden and attacked the Americans with clubs. That was a mistake. The Americans responded with gunfire, shooting and killing one of the Chinese men. Cushing refused to hand the American over to the Chinese for trial. Instead, on July 11, he was tried by a jury of his American peers and found not guilty.
Cushing managed to negotiate exemption from Chinese law – or ‘extraterritoriality’ – in the treaty signed on July 3, 1843. Opium was excepted. Any American who traded in opium would be at the mercy of Chinese justice. U.S. citizens accused of crimes or civil offenses in China would be tried in consular courts, and in 1906 the United States Court for China was established in Shanghai.
The treaty also allowed the Americans to build houses, hospitals, churches and cemeteries in the five trading ports opened to the British. That would allow doctors and missionaries to live there. Americans were also now allowed to learn Chinese, which had been forbidden.
Caleb Cushing Signs a Treaty
The Treaty of Wanghia expanded American trade with China and paved the way for the era of the clipper ship. China would fight a second opium war with the British, followed by more wars with European nations and Japan. Finally, the Qing Dynasty collapsed.
Caleb Cushing would return to Massachusetts, where he became a congressman, a brigadier general in the Mexican-American War, mayor of Newburyport, a justice in the state Supreme Judicial Court and attorney general of the United States. He resumed his diplomatic career, negotiating a treaty with Colombia for the Panama Canal and resolving tensions with Spain. He died on Jan. 2, 1879 in Newburyport.
Thanks to When America First Met China, by Eric Jay Dolan. If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy A Young Puritan Woman Chronicles the China Trade. This story was updated in 2022.