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Empress sailed into US-China trade history

By William Hennelly | | Updated: 2021-12-07 13:25
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A woman walks past Chinese and US flags displayed at the US Soybean Export Council booth during the 2021 China International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS) in Beijing, on Sept 4, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

While the last couple of years in the US-China trade relationship have been filled with rancor, there was an innocent time when both sides heartily embraced bilateral commerce.

At the center of that nascent trade relationship in the late 1700s was a ship called the Empress of China, which set sail on the maiden US voyage to China from New York Harbor in 1784, not long after the United States won independence from Great Britain.

A pivotal event in the buildup to the Revolutionary War — the 1773 Boston Tea Party — also stoked the desire of Americans to sip their tea free of import duties imposed by the British crown.

"The Americans had a deep affection for tea. The British monopolized the tea trade and imposed tea taxes on American colonies, causing the relationship between both sides to continue to deteriorate," explained The Dragon and The Eagle: American Traders in China, A Century of Trade from 1784 to 1900, an exhibition at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum from December 2018 to April 2019.

"On December 16, 1773, American colonists boarded three vessels owned by the East India Company and dumped 342 chests of tea into the sea; this political protest came to be known as the Boston Tea Party. Soon after that, destruction of tea successively occurred in other areas including New York and New Jersey, leading to the outbreak of the American War of Independence," said the exhibition, highlights of which are available in a slideshow online.

As the Empress "marked its departure with a 13-gun salute in the East River, she was about to embark on a six-month, 18,000 (nautical mile) passage from New York to Canton (now Guangzhou)", wrote Stuart Heaver in an article for Yacht Style's Asia issue in 2019.

"The backers of the Empress of China were all the signatories of the Independence agreement, so they knew what they wanted. This was a private enterprise but a national priority," Libby Chan Lai-pik, assistant director of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum (Curatorial and Collections), told Heaver.

"At the end of the eighteenth century, China was the oldest empire in the world, while the United States was the youngest republic. Their initial relations began when the first American trading ship, the Empress of China, sailed from New York to Canton on Washington's Birthday, February 22, 1784," proclaimed the exhibition. "The distinctive Stars and Stripes inspired the Chinese to refer to America as the 'Flowery-Flag' country."

Incidentally, America's first president George Washington purchased a porcelain tableware set from the ship's China voyage.

"Dinner parties were a popular means of socializing, and Chinese porcelain would have been used to serve guests in America's most affluent households," says the website than manages Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. "Washington was one of many who expressed a desire to be fashionable when he ordered porcelain pieces, adding 'pray let them be neat and fashionable or send none'."

Washington first purchased Chinese porcelain in his bachelor years at Mount Vernon and would do so throughout his life, the website said.

The Empress, a 104-foot, three-mast ship was commanded by Captain John Green, 46, an imposing Irishman who was a veteran of the Revolutionary War against Great Britain and former prisoner of that war.

A large hardwood chest he took with him was in the Hong Kong exhibition, as was the original letter from the US Congress authorizing the voyage.

The ship's crew received a warm welcome in Canton where they were referred to as the "new people".

"The Chinese were very indulgent towards us," Samuel Shaw, a 29-year-old Continental Army artillery officer cited for gallantry in the Revolutionary War wrote in his journal. Shaw would later serve as the first US consul to Canton.

While current American exporters are aware of what products China desires, for example cherries from Washington state or almonds from California, so were traders of that day. The Empress' outbound cargo included ginseng and woollen cloth.

"It was notoriously difficult to source goods that were in demand in a largely self-sufficient China, but the Americans had done their market research carefully," Heaver wrote.

The Empress of China returned from China on May 11, 1785. She carried 800 chests of tea, 20,000 pairs of nankeen trousers (cotton garments from Nanjing), cinnamon, and roughly 64 tons of porcelain, some of which went to George Washington. The ship's return was heralded by newspapers, and New Yorkers lined up to welcome her home.

In 1986, China minted a silver 5-yuan to commemorate the Empress' voyage.

The Empress of China wasn't just a profitable venture. It was the forerunner of the current multibillion-dollar US-China trade.

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