South Seas, Samuel Shaw, Amasa Delano, Edward Fanning, Harriet Low, Robert Bennet Forbes, Sea voyages, China, Commerce
Dane Morrison’s True Yankees is a closely told account of five American travelers who made the long voyage to Canton, China, between 1785 and 1840. Morrison weaves their five journeys into an extended meditation on “how [Americans] discovered their [national] character in the South Seas” through exploration, trade, and encounters with the diverse peoples of Europe, Asia, and Oceania (xii). This is a heavy analytical burden for five individual travelers to carry, but nevertheless True Yankees finds subtle differences in “national character” as understood by Americans who looked east rather than west (xiii). Morrison proposes no radical reinterpretation, but the unique preoccupations of his South Seas travelers add useful crosshatching that ultimately makes our image of early Americans’ “national character” more three-dimensional.
Morrison’s five travelers were all New Englanders who undertook trading voyages to China and who recorded those voyages in journals or memoirs. Samuel Shaw served as supercargo aboard the Empress of China, the first American vessel to trade at Canton after its departure from New York in 1784, which began his decade-long career trading around the South Seas. Amasa Delano followed Shaw to China in 1790, and then became an early pioneer in the trans-Pacific trade in seal furs. The third eighteenth-century voyager, Edmund Fanning, undertook a two-year circumnavigation of the globe in the late 1790s, sealing and trading as he went. Morrison then jumps well into the nineteenth century to follow the sojourn of Harriet Low, a young woman from Salem who accompanied her aunt and uncle while they spent more than three years [End Page 840] as members of the expatriate mercantile community in southern China in the early 1830s. Finally, Robert Bennet Forbes witnessed the First Opium War as a commercial agent in Canton for a big American firm from 1838 to 1840. These travelers each get their own chapter, which allows Morrison to tell their tales and explore their worldviews in detail.
In some ways, the ideas about national identity embedded in these stories tread well-explored ground. Both the eighteenth- and the nineteenth-century travelers thought of themselves and their fellow Americans as practical, innovative, and hardworking. They thought of themselves as “free” in all senses of the term, particularly in contrast to what they perceived as the tyrannical systems of Qing China and the other European nations that traded with it. They valued their neutrality, even as the connotations of that term shifted from more political to more commercial across the decades under study. Indeed, the wide chronological spread between Morrison’s two clusters of travelers allows him to trace such changing subtleties of national identity across time. Political republicanism served the earlier generation of travelers as a powerful language for articulating American national difference, and although the later generation occasionally made reference to it, republicanism had become an increasingly hollow concept by the Jacksonian period. It was replaced by a blossoming of commercial power and assertive national self-confidence, as that later generation openly celebrated the United States’s rising international status. In all these ways, Morrison’s analysis conforms to the scholarly consensus about emerging understandings of “national character.”
But Morrison has also made the stories of these five travelers serve as important reminders of the complexity of national identity in the early republic. Above all, he cautions us, “in the early years of the new nation, America faced East” (xvii). Americans’ ideas about “national character” were formed in relation to the rest of the world, in contrast to the peoples of Asia and in the context of a broader European mercantile community. Early Americans in the South Seas sought recognition as independent and distinct members of the global community, both from imperial officials at Canton and especially from other European traders in the factories. For the first generation of travelers, this desired recognition took the form of...