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China Trade


CHINA TRADE. Cut off from the West Indian trade that was so important in the colonial period, American merchants, in the years following the American Revolution, discovered new opportunities in the China trade. This trade grew rapidly after the Empress of China, outfitted by investors from New York and Philadelphia, returned to New York in 1785 from a successful voyage, earning those investors a 25–30 percent profit. Although New York alone sent the next vessel, the aptly named Experiment, the merchants of Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Providence, Salem, and lesser ports were quick to grasp the new possibilities. In the early years, the routes generally started from the Atlantic ports, continued around the Cape of Good Hope, went across the Indian Ocean by way of the Dutch East Indies, and ended in China. For many years, however, China restricted trade with the western world because it feared the corrupting influence of "foreign devils," who had little to offer China anyway. Therefore, until the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, the only Chinese port open to foreign trade was Canton. Then, once American traders did arrive in the open port, the Chinese government restricted their movements to trade compounds called "hongs."

The early cargoes carried to China were chiefly silver dollars and North American ginseng, a plant that the Chinese believed had curative properties. In 1787 John Kendrick in the Columbia and Robert Gray in the Lady Washington sailed from Boston for the northwest coast of the United States. Gray, who was carrying a load of sea otter peltries, then continued to Canton. His furs found a ready sale in Canton, which solved the problem of a salable commodity for the Chinese market. For the next two decades, Americans exchanged clothing, hardware, and various knickknacks in the Pacific Northwest for sea otter and other furs, thus developing a three-cornered trade route. As sea otters gradually disappeared, traders shifted to seals, which lived in large numbers on the southern coast of Chile and the islands of the South Pacific. Sandalwood, obtained in Hawaii and other Pacific islands, also became an important item of trade. In return, American sea captains brought back tea, china, enameled ware, nankeens, and silks. The China trade involved long voyages and often great personal danger in trading with Indians and South Sea islanders. Success rested largely on the business capacity of the ship's captain. The profits, however, were usually large. At its height in 1818–1819, the combined imports and exports of the old China trade reached about $19 million.

After the Opium War (1840–1842) between the United Kingdom and China, China was forced to open four additional ports to British trade. Commodore Lawrence Kearney demanded similar rights for Americans, and, in 1844, by the Treaty of Wanghia, Americans obtained such privileges.


Layton, Thomas N. The Voyage of the Frolic: New England Merchants and the Opium Trade. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Smith, Philip Chadwick Foster. The Empress of China. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1984.

H. U.Faulkner/a. e.

See alsoChina, Relations with ; Cushing's Treaty ; Fur Trade and Trapping ; Ginseng, American ; Kearny's Mission to China ; Open Door Policy ; Pacific Fur Company ; Sea Otter Trade ; Trade, Foreign .

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