Trade between the United States and China began long, long, ago and it was because of believe it or not – tea.
When the American Revolution ended in September of 1783, U.S. ships were not welcome in the British West Indies. The French and Spanish had also closed their Caribbean harbors to protect their business interests. Because of these measures, Americans turned their sights to the Far East to buy tea, silk and porcelain, that they had been purchasing from English merchants before the war.
A big problem…
Unfortunately, most of our nation’s ships had been either captured, burned or lost at sea due to the war and those that did survive needed extensive repair, to get them sea worthy again. The country however, was in a deep depression and establishing a new trade route abroad was vital to reviving the economy of the new, young nation.
Enter Robert Morris…
Mr. Morris was a very influential man – he had signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Articles of Confederation. In 1784 he was the government’s Superintendent of Finance and held the post of Agent of Marine. With his background in banking and his dogged determination, he knew that commerce with China was doable and essential, in contributing to getting the new nation back on its feet. He and his partners hired a small three mast sailing ship and renamed it the Empress of China. It was such a momentous enterprise that Philip Freanau, “poet of the American Revolution,” was stirred to verse:
She now her eager course explores,
And soon shall meet Chinesian shores,
From thence their fragrant TEAS to bring
Without the leave of Britain’s king;
And PORCELAIN WARE, enchased in gold,
The product of that finer mould.
The Empress of China…
She set sail from New York in February 1784, with orders to return with tea, spices, silk and Chinese cotton cloth. Fourteen months later they arrived in Canton on August 28, 1784. American business agents were responsible for trading $120,000 in cargo with the Chinese. The Empress carried in her hold 30 tons of Appalachian ginseng, cordage, 2,600 animal skins, lead, planks, cloth and assorted wines and spirits. It took four months for the agents to conclude their transactions. The Empress set sail from Canton on December 28, 1784 and reached New York in May of 1785. Now in her hold she carried: 500 bolts of silk fabric, 64 tons of porcelain, 75,000 pounds of green tea and 327,000 pounds of black tea, all of which was sold at a 25 – 30 % profit. The China trade was underway! Over the next decade, tea consumption in the U.S. reached an annual 3 million pounds.
It was the tea trade that fostered the first American millionaires – John Jacob Astor for example- to begin extensive and hurried shipbuilding. The need for speedy transportation of tea across the oceans, was essential to prevent spoilage. This need resulted in the design and construction of the “clipper” ships. They were so beautiful and sleek, that they were called “the greyhounds of the sea.” These state-of-the-art vessels of American ingenuity became the envy of the British who were forced to up their game.
History shows that…
The Empress of China was the first American ship to make economic and diplomatic contact with China, and that made a significant difference in the United States’ relations with China. The Empress’s success offered the first opportunity for Americans to directly interact with China, and proved that such ventures could be done, albeit with some financial risks. This first voyage of the Empress of China in a small but important way, proved America’s newfound freedom from British control and further encouraged personal and national efforts to expand trade into not only China, but into other parts of Asia and in general encouraged other international trade as a whole.
All this and much more, all because many Americans had given up drinking English tea as an unpatriotic beverage after the Boston Tea Party. But, they still craved their precious tea and it was this overwhelming demand for tea that motivated Mr. Morris and others eventually to brave the seas to sail to China in search of this beloved commodity.