A New Frontier
The year was 1776, and the American colonies were seized with revolutionary fervor. But in New Hampshire, a twenty-five-year-old student studying to be a missionary dropped out of Dartmouth College and shipped out with the Royal Navy on Captain James Cook’s third and final voyage. Six years later, after Cook was killed in Hawaii, the sailor, John Ledyard, returned to America’s shores to proselytize not for God but for trade—with China.
John Ledyard was fired up by a scheme to dispatch Yankee ships around the tip of South America to the Pacific Northwest to collect the pelts of the northwest sea otter for the China market. Coastal Indians would barter a pelt for “only a hatchet or a saw,” Ledyard wrote. But the Chinese would pay one hundred Mexican silver dollars for a single fur, a markup that his contemporary Adam Smith could love.
A Connecticut Yankee with a hooked nose, an ample inheritance, and a penchant for trouble, Ledyard was an American visionary in a time of global turmoil. The Spanish and Portuguese empires were crumbling. The Royal Navy ruled the seas. And America’s War of Independence had left the United States barely united and deeply in debt.
Britain had shut Yankee merchants out of the lucrative trade with the British West Indies. America’s once-thriving shipping industry limped along. Its whaling and cod businesses were in tatters. Its slave trade fared little better. “The town of Boston is really poor,” complained the Reverend John Eliot in a letter to a friend in March 1780. “If some brighter prospects do not open up, it is my opinion that we cannot subsist.” Americans needed a new frontier beyond Europe’s sway. And it was to China that they turned, planting deep within the Yankee imagination the fancy that China’s markets held the answer to American prayers.
In May 1783, Ledyard chased down Robert Morris, the Philadelphia merchant and signer of the Declaration of Independence who had bankrolled the American Revolution. After sharing his China plan with Morris, Ledyard boasted that he would soon be at the helm “of the greatest commercial enterprise that has ever been embarked on in this country.” But Morris and his partners dawdled, and the impatient Ledyard left the United States again. Urged on by Thomas Jefferson, he tried to cross Russia’s vast expanse to reach America’s West Coast. But the Russians stopped him. His next venture led him to Africa, but as he began his journey into the continent in January 1789, he accidentally poisoned himself and died.
Robert Morris stuck with the China idea, however, and on a wintry Sunday, February 22, 1784, the Empress of China, a three-masted ship of 360 tons, set sail from New York Harbor bound for the prosperous southern Chinese port of Guangzhou, known to Westerners as Canton. The Empress carried a crew of forty-two, a box of beaver skins, twelve casks of spirits, and twenty thousand Mexican silver dollars. But her prize cargo was thirty tons of American ginseng harvested in the Appalachian forests. Philip Freneau, the poet of the American Revolution, celebrated the ship’s departure with verse reflecting America’s newly won liberation. The Empress was heading, he wrote, “where George [the British king] forbade [Americans] to sail before.”
At noon on May 11, 1785, the Empress returned to New York to a thirteen-gun salute—one for each of the United States. In her hold, she carried more than twenty-five thousand pounds of tea, a load of cloth, and a large selection of porcelain. The venture earned a 30 percent profit of more than $30,000 (nearly $1 million today). The New York News Dispatch declared that the journey “presages a future happy period” of trade with China, an example of the high bar that America’s fledgling media were already setting for relations with the Middle Kingdom. Morris backed a second voyage, the Pallas, which made $50,000, but his luck soon soured. Pouring his earnings into a Pennsylvania land deal that went belly-up, he was tossed into a debtor’s prison. Nonetheless, in the next fifteen years, more than two hundred American ships would follow the Empress to Guangzhou, a fleet second only to the four hundred vessels of the British.
Tea, which predated coffee as the American beverage of choice, brought American traders to China. The tea that was tossed into Boston Harbor on the night of December 16, 1773, had been shipped out of the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. Within a few years of independence, tea composed nine-tenths of the goods leaving China on American ships. In 1785, American vessels carried less than a million pounds of tea from China; in 1840, they moved nineteen million.
What began as an exchange of American raw materials for Chinese tea soon mushroomed as Asian handicrafts of every variety flooded into the United States. Though today we speak of an American pivot to Asia, American tastes have been pivoting to Asia for more than two hundred years. The American appetite for blue-and-white Chinese bowls, plates, and teacups was so prodigious that New England carracks limped into Boston Harbor with crates suspended over their sides. To a people who only recently had measured wealth by the number of chairs a household owned, Chinese porcelain, known as china, represented status and taste.
China in 1800 was a manufacturing powerhouse, responsible for about one-third of all the goods made in the world. And Americans were beguiled by its products. “Willow pattern” porcelain, inscribed with trees, bridges and pagodas, monks and scholars, “filled us with wonder and delight, Or haunted us in dreams at night,” wrote poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston’s upper crust clothed themselves in Chinese silk. The dining room in George Washington’s Mount Vernon boasted a 302-piece dinner and tea set brought to America by the Empress of China. Chinese porcelain sparked the founding of an American porcelain industry. Curtains from China inspired the American drapery business.
As there is today, there was fakery on all sides. Chinese artists churned out some two hundred copies of Gilbert Stuart’s famed portrait of George Washington. Yankee merchants sold them in Philadelphia until Stuart won a court order in 1802 banning their sale. American woodworkers paired pagodas with Algonquin longhouses on Yankee-made side tables made to look Chinese. In Boston and New York, tea salesmen packaged old Chinese tea in new boxes. The entrepreneurial gumption would only be matched two centuries later when Chinese knockoff artists produced vast quantities of bogus North Face jackets and pirated DVDs.
American fascination with things Chinese went beyond household goods and luxury items. In 1834, two New York businessmen brought a Chinese woman named Afong Moy to the city, where they displayed her in a cage. Dressed in Oriental finery, Moy was part of an exhibition to sell Chinese knickknacks. The New York press went wild, extolling her bound feet and exotic ways. When she arrived in New York Harbor in October, the advertised price to see her was a quarter. By the time she opened at 8 Park Place a few weeks later, it was up to fifty cents. Moy’s success inspired American showman P. T. Barnum to devote a whole museum to the Chinese—as freaks. Among his showpieces was a pair of conjoined twins.
Fused at their rib cages, Chang and Eng Bunker were shipped to the United States in 1829 by Robert Hunter, a British merchant, who believed that he’d struck it rich with a touring exhibition of Chinese mutants. Though they were ethnic Chinese, the pair hailed from Siam, hence the term “Siamese twins.” After three years in America, Chang and Eng successfully sued Hunter for breach of contract and set out on their own.
Chang and Eng’s case was not the first time Chinese had turned to America’s courts for justice. That tradition dates back at least to 1805 when Chinese merchants began filing motions against their deadbeat American counterparts in Philadelphia’s courts. Even then Chinese plaintiffs were impressed with what one petitioner called America’s “equal protection of the Rich, and of the Poor, and for dealing equal measure to its own Citizen, and to the Alien.” Many more cases would follow.
Acting as their own managers, Chang and Eng toured the young nation, appearing in formal wear, performing backflips and somersaults, and hoisting portly spectators on their heads. With their earnings, the twins purchased a one-hundred-acre plantation, with slaves, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. They married sisters, Sarah and Adelaide Yates, and fathered twenty-one children. They died in 1874 within three hours of one another at the age of sixty-three and were buried together near their plantation.
Although American impresarios promoted Chang and Eng as a gruesome curiosity, their success underlined the opportunities America presented to the Chinese. The pair burrowed deep in the American psyche, resurfacing in a historical novel published in 2000 and again as the characters Terry and Terri Perry in the 2013 animated movie Monsters University.
This trade in goods and people reignited America’s shipbuilding industry and rekindled its economy. Less than a decade after Reverend Eliot penned Boston’s obituary, its shipyards were booming again. In 1789, the Massachusetts, at nine hundred tons then the largest ship ever built in the United States, was launched for the China trade. Unfortunately, profit-hungry investors used uncured wood and had the ship built in haste. By the time it limped into Guangzhou Harbor, it was a rotting hulk and had to be sold for scrap.
The fortunes that East Coast merchants amassed in the China trade were vital to the United States’ evolution from seafaring nation to factory of the world. The Astors, Greens, Russells, Delanos, Lows, and Forbeses plowed the proceeds earned in China into New England textile mills, Philadelphia banks and insurance companies, New York real estate, and railroads that laid the foundations for American power.
Taxes on the commerce bolstered the fortunes of the US Treasury. “Our trade to the East Indies flourishes,” wrote President George Washington to his old comrade-in-arms, the Marquis de Lafayette, on June 3, 1790. “The profits to Individuals are so considerable as to induce more persons to engage in it continually.”
The promise of the Chinese market drew Americans to the West Coast, Hawaii, and the South Seas in search of goods to trade with the Celestial Kingdom. From the early 1800s, as the young nation’s ambitions expanded, business interests lobbied the federal government to secure deepwater ports on the Pacific Coast to serve as launching pads into Asia.
One hopeful merchant was the New York real estate mogul and German immigrant John Jacob Astor, whose vision for the Oregon Territory as a springboard for American expansion into the Pacific influenced American presidents and secretaries of state. Astor made his fortune trading fur, first with Native Americans in upstate New York and then via ships plying the waters off the Oregon coast. In 1810, he established the Pacific Fur Trading Company and built a settlement, Fort Astoria, on the Columbia River.
The British soon seized Astoria, but other Americans flocked to the coast to collect otter pelts for the Canton trade. A key ally in Astor’s struggle to fend off foreign competition was John Quincy Adams, son of President John Adams. First as ambassador to Russia and Great Britain and then as secretary of state and president, Adams blocked Russian and British forays into California and the Pacific Northwest, sweeping the coast clear for America’s westward heave toward the Far East. He, too, believed in the promise of trade with the Middle Kingdom.
Even Midwesterners like Senator Thomas Hart Benton caught China fever. In 1819, Benton argued that Missouri’s borders should cross the Missouri River Valley to bring the new state just a little closer to China. Contemporary writers imagined an endless wagon trail from Ohio to Oregon lined with densely populated trading posts grown rich on Asian commerce. Despite the fact that trade with China would sputter and slow (in percentage terms it peaked in 1805–8 at about 15 percent of foreign trade), the sobering reality of the present day never dislodged the oversized expectations for tomorrow. As many do today, Americans then believed that their future resided in Asia.
Trade with China also helped cement America’s embrace of a rough-and-tumble business model based on individual initiative that became a key to the nation’s success. In 1786, Congress rejected a proposal to establish a trading monopoly modeled on Britain’s state-run East India Company, which dominated commerce with China. Americans were free traders. “Commercial intercourse,” Senator Rufus King wrote then president John Adams, “would be more prosperous if left unfettered in the hands of private adventurers.”
In Asia, these “private adventurers” faced off against the mightiest trading empire in the world, the United Kingdom, and from the start the Americans dreamed of replacing the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes as the dominant standard in the Pacific. To compete, the Americans embraced innovation. Their ships were smaller, averaging 350 tons, but cheaper to build and faster than the lumbering 1,200-ton behemoths of the British East India Company. American ships employed fewer men; 19 hands each compared with the 120 crewmen common on British vessels. Sailors on US ships were paid better and encouraged to move up the ranks from deckhand to captain.
New Englanders, like William Phelps and Amasa Delano, a distant ancestor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, went to sea as teenagers, at a time when it was not unusual for an American captain to be barely twenty. They sailed with imprecise navigational instruments (calculating latitude had been perfected, but longitude would have to wait for later in the century), lived off maggoty bread, and were often racked by venereal disease. But their lodestar was the prospect of profits in Guangzhou, a shining beacon that persuaded America’s best and brightest to choose the sea as a career.
As William Phelps testifies at the start of his memoir: “Born within a cable’s length of the sea-beat shore, inhaling with my earliest breath the atmosphere of the Old Ocean, it was not a matter of much wonder that I very early manifested a strong love for the sea, and took to the water as naturally as a duck.”
After months onboard, braving storms and scurvy, the Americans would arrive at the coast of China. The first stop was Macao, a spit of land jutting into the South China Sea, eighty miles down the Pearl River from Guangzhou. Though Macao belonged to China, Chinese authorities had allowed the Portuguese to manage it since the mid-sixteenth century as a way of keeping foreigners out of China proper but close enough to trade. There, American sailors found a melting pot of Pacific Islanders, Filipinos, Malays, Africans, Indians, Europeans, merchants, and gamblers, not to mention the Chinese. The climate—Guangdong’s winters were mild compared with the bitter cold of the Northeast—delighted the Yankee sailors.
After securing a Chinese boatman, ships would stop at Whampoa, twelve miles from Guangzhou, where traders discharged their cargoes and paid duties. From there, they would head to Guangzhou itself. At various points, the Americans doled out bribes, known as cumshaw, or squeeze, to keep the goods moving.
Traveling up the Pearl River, the sailors confronted a world afloat: coastal junks, sampans, ferry boats, barber boats, and food vendors bobbed along in the muddy waters of the Pearl. “We passed a pagoda of large size, seven stories high,” wrote Charles Tyng, who sailed from Boston in 1815 at the age of fourteen. “The houses were curious, similar in appearance as those seen on china plates, and other ware. The country seemed crowded with inhabitants, young and old, all moving about like ants round an ant hill.”
To America’s founders, China was a source of inspiration. They saw it as a harmonious society with officials chosen on merit, where the arts and philosophy flourished, and the peasantry labored happily on the land. Benjamin Franklin venerated China’s prison system and sought information on its census, its silk industry, and how its people heated their homes. George Washington wrote that he had once thought that “the Chinese tho’ droll in shape and appearance were yet white.” (The American construction of an Asian racial “type” would happen later in the nineteenth century.) The revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine compared Confucius to Jesus Christ. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson admired China’s ability to close itself off from the outside world, finding virtue in its isolation.
The Americans who actually went to China, by contrast, were befuddled and awed by the empire. Guangzhou, home to one million people, a quarter of the population of the entire United States in 1800, was the greatest city most of them would ever see. Samuel Shaw, a former artillery officer in the Continental Army who traveled to Guangzhou three times before dying of a fever on a return voyage in 1794, remarked on the “excellence” of the government but pronounced himself glad to be an American. Amasa Delano described China with the wonder of a country hayseed, contending that it “is the first for greatness, riches and grandeur of any country ever known.” Still, he too was distressed when he saw what appeared to be the corpses of mixed-blood babies floating down the Pearl River.
Under rules established in the eighteenth century, trade with China was conducted at arm’s length. In theory, Westerners could do business only with a special guild of merchants, commonly known as the Thirteen Hongs, which was appointed and taxed heavily by the Qing court. Westerners were confined to a compound of about a dozen buildings, called factories, cut off from the general population in a section of Guangzhou outside the city walls and small enough to be measured in footsteps—270 along the bustling Pearl River and 50 from the riverbank inland. By the mid-1820s, the Americans occupied their own factory on Old China Street.
Westerners in Guangzhou were governed by what were known as the “Eight Regulations,” a long list of rules designed to maintain China’s political and national security and manage foreign trade. Among these was a ban on Western women, issued in order to prevent families from settling in China. Another outlawed teaching a foreigner Chinese. (To communicate, Chinese and Westerners developed their own language, a mélange of English, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Cantonese that was called “pidgin,” derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of the word “business.”) Selling Chinese books to a foreigner was also prohibited, as was spreading Christianity.
The Americans soon learned, however, that though the government was wary of foreigners, the Chinese people were less so. Western women may have been forbidden, but British and American captains occasionally sneaked them in from Macao for a look around. Westerners were theoretically allowed to leave the foreign ghetto only when accompanied by a “linguist,” who worked for the government. But as American trader William C. Hunter noted, “We walked when we pleased and remained as long as we pleased while on each occasion a linguist was the last person we ever saw.”
Other rules barred foreigners from owning property or conducting business other than trade in Guangzhou. Nonetheless, Americans ran inns and taverns and even, in the case of former slave trader William F. Megee from Rhode Island, hired themselves out as building contractors.
Westerners were prohibited from consorting with Chinese women, but William Hunter kept a Chinese lover. Benjamin Chew Wilcocks, a Philadelphia merchant and famed gourmand who was the US consul in Guangzhou for a decade, fathered a daughter with his Chinese mistress. In 1833, when he was past fifty, Wilcocks’s mission to find a wife in Philadelphia was almost derailed when his love child arrived aboard a tea ship in the City of Brotherly Love.
Nathan Dunn, a suspect in the first reported sodomy case in Pennsylvania, managed for eight years to flaunt the Chinese regulation evicting foreigners from Guangzhou after the end of each trading season. It was rumored that he preferred Chinese men. Dunn was also the first American to pursue another passion—Chinese antiquities. On December 22, 1836, he opened a massive exhibition—Ten Thousand Chinese Things—in the new Philadelphia Museum, wowing the cream of American society with an Oriental phantasmagoria.
William Hunter’s warm feelings for Guangzhou and his Chinese partners were shared by many other American traders who found themselves at sea when they returned to the United States. The banquets, the scenery, the people, the camaraderie with merchants from around the globe, and the unforgettable nature of life in China made America seem dull. Writing of the merchant John P. Cushing, who retired to Boston a multimillionaire in 1830 after twenty-seven years in Guangzhou, a colleague named John Latimer noted that America “was no home to him. His habits had become so fixed, that China was to him a home.” Remarked Benjamin Wilcocks on his return to Philadelphia: “I am unhinged, unsettled, idle and of course irritable. . . . Everything here loses in comparison with” China.
One reason the Americans felt loved in China was that in the early days, they were generally well behaved. They had no choice. From the Atlantic seaboard until they reached the Chinese mainland, Americans relied on the kindness of strangers. Their ships could not land at a single port without the approval of Britain or another European power. They traversed the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean courtesy of the French navy. Once in Guangzhou, the American merchants had no military to back up their demands, and no diplomatic representative to negotiate on their behalf. So, unlike the frontiersmen in the American West who fought Indian tribes with an army behind them, America’s pioneers in China sought harmony and peace.
When Samuel Shaw first arrived in China in August 1784, it took him days, and the intervention of a French captain, to convince the Chinese that the Americans and the British were not the same. The Chinese initially called the Americans “the New People,” Shaw wrote, and the United States the “nation of the flowery flag.” But, after trying out at least sixty-one other options, the Chinese settled on a name for the land that these new people came from—Meiguo, or “the beautiful country.”
With time, influential scholar-officials in the Manchu court became well disposed toward the Yankee traders. In 1817, the Americans received favorable mention from Ruan Yuan, who governed two southern provinces, Guangdong and Guangxi. He praised Americans as “the most respectful and compliant people” from the Western world. Chinese merchants had a similarly favorable impression of the Americans. In his memoirs, Samuel Shaw recounts a bargaining session with a Chinese merchant who refused to buy Shaw’s products at Shaw’s stated price. This went on for a week, Shaw wrote, and Shaw negotiated politely throughout. The Chinese merchant was impressed, and contrasted Shaw’s civility with the surliness of most British traders. “All China-man very much love your country,” the merchant told Shaw in pidgin English when he at last had accepted Shaw’s terms. But the merchant also predicted that after a few trips to Canton, the Americans would lose their patience and “make all same Englishman, too.”
What pleased the Chinese merchants most about the Americans was that they paid for their tea, porcelains, and cloth with silver. For decades, America’s main export to China was silver dollars, mined and minted in Spanish America. From 1807 until 1833, American ships hauled 2,225 tons of silver to China, more than half of all the silver China imported during that time. Just as American consumers injected billions of dollars into China’s economy in the late twentieth century, American merchants flooded the Middle Kingdom with silver in the early days of the relationship.
US silver exports to China played a key role in helping the Qing court right its balance of trade and postponed for many years the economic crisis brought on by the trafficking of Indian opium into China. As British drug sales in China skyrocketed, Chinese silver flowed into the coffers of the East India Company and private British trading houses. In 1807, the East India Company took 3.4 million silver dollars out of China—its first sizable export of silver—but Americans brought 6.2 million to China in that same year.
The American trade imbalance with China was tough on the United States and its traders. One Cantonese merchant named Consequa sought President James Madison’s assistance in collecting multiple debts. Yankees scoured the globe for products to replace silver. The first boom was in ginseng. Chinese had been consuming the American version of the root since the early 1700s, when a Jesuit priest discovered the plant in use among the Iroquois of North America. In ginseng, Samuel Shaw thought that he had chanced on the charm to unlock China’s market. “Useless produce of our mountains and forests,” Shaw enthused shortly after the Empress of China made landfall, was going to make him rich. But the ginseng boom soon turned to bust. The year before the Empress of China landed in China in 1784, ginseng had sold for thirty dollars a pound. But Shaw could only get four dollars. By 1790, a pound of Yankee ginseng fetched barely twenty-five cents. “Because of the Americans, the price has dropped,” groused Chrétien-Louis-Joseph de Guignes, the French consul in Canton. Even when the price fell to sixteen cents, the pigheaded Americans just moved more of the stuff. In 1802, they brought 300,000 pounds to China; in 1824, 800,000. (The price of wild American ginseng did finally recover—in the 1990s. Today, it’s over a thousand dollars a pound. And most of it still goes to China.)
Sea otter pelts were next. The British had inaugurated the trade in 1784 off the coast of modern-day Oregon. Three years later, the Americans arrived, and over the next decade, the Bostonmen, as the Indians called them, elbowed out the British. American ships took two hundred thousand pelts to China—worth $6 million in the currency of the day. By the mid-1820s, the sea otter had vanished from the Pacific Northwest.
Traders from Connecticut specialized in seals. On Más Afuera, a seven-mile-long rock five hundred miles off the coast of Chile, Americans found three million of the creatures, wrote Amasa Delano in his memoirs. They were soon gone. From the mid-1790s to the 1820s, Americans killed more than six million fur seals. By 1824, the fur seal had disappeared from the waters around South America and from the islands to the south of Africa, where William Phelps had slaughtered them in his teens.
In Hawaii and on Fiji, American traders found sandalwood, used for furniture and incense, and the oleaginous sea cucumber, which the Chinese ate. But in the end, facing a huge trade deficit and hoping to stanch the flow of silver into China, the Americans, like the British, began to run drugs.
The Chinese had been sampling opium since the eighth century. In the early years, it was either eaten or drunk. By the beginning of the Ming dynasty in the fourteenth century, it gained popularity among the well-heeled as an aphrodisiac and an after-dinner relaxant. In the sixteenth century, it became more widespread as it was combined with another import: tobacco. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, opium was available in coastal Chinese homes. The American trader William Hunter observed that among his Chinese friends, “smoking was a habit, as the use of wine was with us, in moderation.”
The first American ships to carry opium to China brought it from Turkey in 1804 courtesy of two Philadelphians, Benjamin Wilcocks, the gourmand consul with the love child from Macao, and his brother, James. Chinese smugglers were happy to cut the more potent British product from India with what became known as “turkey.” From the end of the War of 1812 to the mid-1830s, Americans bought more Turkish opium than any other nation. One Boston firm alone, Perkins & Company, regularly shipped one-half to three-quarters of Turkey’s entire yearly crop of 150,000 pounds to China. By 1818, the Americans were buying opium in India as well, challenging the East India Company’s monopoly on the drug traffic there.
The US entry into the opium trade coincided with an enormous increase in opium exports to China. In 1773, British ships moved 75 tons of opium to China. By the 1830s, American and British vessels were carrying more than 350 tons a year. In 1829, total British exports to China accounted for $21 million, about half of it from opium. American exports hit $4 million, of which opium constituted one quarter.
The US opium trade had reverberations at home. Within two decades, the opium traffic reversed America’s trade imbalance with China. Silver poured back into the United States, contributing to sharp inflation in the 1830s. One American firm, D.W.C. Olyphant & Company, refused to carry the drug out of religious conviction, but most American merchants saw a good opportunity in moving “turkey” to China.
“I do not pretend to justify the prosecution of the opium trade in a moral and philanthropic point of view,” mused Warren Delano, an American opium trader in Guangzhou and the grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “but as a merchant I insist that it has been a fair, honorable and legitimate trade.” Equivalent, he argued, to importing brandy into the United States.
The vast gap between the Chinese and American cultures made for many clashes. When an American sailor allegedly killed a Chinese woman on September 29, 1821, the small American community in Guangzhou faced its first crisis. Would the Americans conform to the Chinese way of doing things, or would they defy the mandarins?
Francis Terranova was a Sicilian deckhand on the Emily, a 284-ton cargo ship from Baltimore. He was buying fruit from Ko Leang-she, a peddler on a sampan, when Ko fell into the sea. The Chinese accused Terranova, who was unimpressed with the quality of Ko’s bananas, of throwing an olive jar that hit Ko on the head and knocked her into the water. Others said that Ko had simply slipped into the water and drowned.
Wang Yuanren, the district magistrate, invited US consul Benjamin Wilcocks to view the corpse. There was a gash on the right side of Ko’s head, Wilcocks wrote, into which the olive jar “fitted exactly.” Terranova, Wilcocks thought, was guilty. The Chinese authorities demanded that the sailor be handed over. In negotiations with Wilcocks, the Chinese agreed to a trial and to a Yankee approach to the proceedings. Witnesses for both the defense and the prosecution would be called.
On October 6, 1821, a flock of Chinese warships surrounded the Emily. Led by Magistrate Wang, hundreds of Chinese officials and soldiers crowded onto the deck, dwarfing the American delegation of forty. None of the American witnesses spoke Chinese. When the Chinese interpreters arrived, they approached Wang on their hands and knees, leaving the impression that they would not be translating anything that the magistrate did not wish to hear. Unmoved by testimony from the Emily’s sailors backing Terranova’s story, Wang cut the hearing short. The Americans accused the Chinese of breaking their pledge to grant Terranova a fair trial. Wang then lost patience and pronounced Terranova guilty. The Emily’s captain refused to hand over his deckhand. On October 7, the Chinese suspended trade with the United States.
The prospect of a trade embargo was too much for the Yankees. After sixteen days, the Americans turned Terranova over to the Chinese. Before dawn on October 28, he was taken to the office of the viceroy in Guangzhou and strangled.
The British were shocked, more by American docility than by the execution. The Americans had “barbarously abandoned a man serving under their flag to the sanguinary laws of this Empire without an endeavour to obtain common justice for him,” reported the Select Committee of the East India Company. To the British, the case brought home the need to live outside the purview of Chinese law. To the Chinese, it showed that even when China tried to placate foreign mores, the foreign devils would still be unsatisfied.
The matter did not end with Terranova’s execution. While the Sicilian was being tried on deck, the Emily held a load of opium in its stowage. Tipped off that the captain was smuggling drugs, Chinese authorities confiscated the cargo and sent the ship back to Baltimore empty.
The Terranova case colored American views of China for years. Westerners cited it as proof that they needed extraterritoriality, under which foreigners policed their citizens on Chinese soil, to ensure “universal values” and to protect the rights of the accused.
The potent mix of money, drugs, and cultural differences that swirled around Guangzhou was bound to ignite. Amasa Delano wagered that British gunboats would soon attack China. In Delano’s view, the emperor’s unwillingness to fully open his country to trade with the West was a strategic mistake. “The English possess great power in Asia both by sea and land,” he wrote. “If they attacked, I think it would end in the dissolution of the present government of China.” He would eventually be proven right.
For the United States, however, trading with China not only saved but helped shape the new republic. America’s discovery of the China market was integral to the rise of the United States. For the Chinese, America also meant opportunity—for their officials, for their showmen, and for one globally minded businessman.
Copyright © 2016 by John Pomfret
John Pomfret served as a correspondent for the Washington Post for two decades, covering wars, revolutions, and China. He is the author of the acclaimed book Chinese Lessons, and has won awards for his reporting on Asia, including the Osborne Elliot Prize. He holds a BA and MA from Stanford University and was one of the first American students to go to China after relations were normalized. Pomfret was expelled from China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Most recently, he was a Fulbright senior scholar in Beijing.