America's China Trade
by Michael Begun
The overthrow of English authority drastically altered American commerce. Although colonial porcelain and tea merchants exercised some degree of autonomy on a local level, they were officially operating under the English flag with little ability to act independently in foreign trade. After the Revolutionary War, however, this sovereignty came to an end when America became its own nation, free to conduct foreign trade however it pleased. As John Demos explains:
Throughout the preceding two centuries, they had been colonists, and thus, in a broad sense, dependents. They had absorbed from elsewhere regular infusions of migrants and goods, of cultural nourishment and guidance. But henceforth the currents would flow, also, in reverse direction. The new United States would increasinglysometimes aggressivelyturn out toward other groups and places.i
Among these other groups and places, Demos argues that "the acmethe epitomeof this remarkable outreach was the so-called China trade."ii Although trade with China was never worth more than fifteen percent of America's global commerce, American presence in Canton (the only mainland Chinese port open to foreigners) established the new nation, at least psychologically, as an equal to the European powers who had been trading in Canton for decades or even centuries before.iii
The following illustrations from the Foreigner's Quarter of Canton reinforce this idea of America becoming an equal partner in world commerce.
Notice the way in which there is no American flag present in the painting above, and compare this to the flag's prominent position in the painting below.
This is due to the fact that there was no American flag at the time of the first painting's execution in 1760. However, by the time of the second painting's completion a few decades later, America had become an established presence in Canton, receiving the title "Flowery Flag Kingdom" from the Chinese. By 1789, there would be fifteen vessels sailing under this flag at Canton, which was more than any other nation except for Great Britain.iv
The following chart illustrates the steadily increasing number of American ships departing from Canton compared to of other nations.
Perhaps this can all be said without statistics, as Norman Brouwer once lectured:
"The period from the end of the Revolution in 1783 to the end of the War of 1812 is referred to by historians as the Romantic Era of Maritime History. It is a time of great economic and political instability, with almost continuous warfare in Europe, blockades and embargoesMerchants with courage introducing stars and stripes for the first time in remote and exotic corners of the globe stood the chance of realizing a small fortune from a single voyage or experiencing economic disaster."
Or more romantically, by the New Jersey poet Philip Freneau:
From thence their fragrant Teas to bring Without the leave of Britain's King; And porcelain ware, enchas'd in gold, The product of that finer mold . . .
i. Demos, John. Viewpoints on the China Trade. Common-Place. (common-place.org) vol. 5 no. 2 January 2005.
iii. Writer's Program, New York. A Maritime history of New York. Haskell House Publications. 1973.
iv. McKay, R. South Street; A Maritime history of New York. Haskell House. 1971. p. 6
2005 Fordham University
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