February 22, 2012

Back to business

The Empress of China

The minute the Treaty of Paris was signed – and hostilities between the US and Britain ceased – businessmen got back to business and the Empress of China took off for the Far East.

The Empress had been a privateer during the war, but was quickly refitted for the long trip to Canton. Frozen in New York harbor briefly, she was able to leave when the ice broke up on February 22, 1784, and to the delight of her investors, she returned 14 months later with what would become staples of the China Trade: tea, silks and china.

Then, as now, the Chinese were much more interested in selling than buying.  The fledgling US really didn’t have much to offer in any case – though the furs of the northwest were popular –  and in any event, the real money was made back home, where tea from China was cheaper than the overpriced India variety from Britain and the silks and fine china were coveted by every housewife.

Export porcelain

The one exception to that rule was, curiously, ginseng.  The herb, highly prized by the Chinese, is native only to Korea, Manchuria – and Appalachia. Ginseng kept the China Trade healthy in those early years.

For a riveting account of the voyage to Canton, the National Archives has posted the diary of Catherine Delano‘s trip in 1862 – she and her six children (one of whom would become FDR’s grandmother) traveled on the China clipper Surprise to join her husband and he. thoughtfully, leased the whole boat for her.  Sufficiently roomy for her to take a piano.

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Happy birthday to GW – PBS recently aired a very interesting documentary on the Washingtons, showing how a rich and influential family wound up taking a chance on the New World.  (Loyal royalists, they lost it all during the Civil War.) Annoyingly, it is completely un-locatable on the PBS website, but here’s a clip from the ever-reliable YouTube:


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