China, Trade, Diplomacy, Christian missionaries, Taiping Rebellion
John Haddad has written an engaging and lucid account of Americans’ early experience in Qing China from 1784—the year of the maiden voyage of the Empress of China from New York—to the 1860s, following the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion. Drawing on an extensive array of primary and secondary sources, Haddad brings to life the American story of the U.S.–Chinese encounter through skillful biographical studies of important historical figures. This approach lends color to topics covered in the classic works of diplomatic history, the best-known example of which is Kenneth Scott Latourette’s The History of Early Relations between the United States and China, 1784–1844, first published in 1917.
The nine chapters of America’s First Adventure in China focus on three categories of historical actors in early bilateral interactions—American traders, Christian missionaries, and diplomats. Haddad pieces together the kaleidoscopic details of their varied experiences into one credible argument: that during this period the United States successfully established itself as a competitive new power, independent of Britain’s dominance, in the Asia–Pacific. More than twenty American trading vessels anchored in Canton (Guangzhou) on average each year, totaling over six hundred ships between 1784 and 1814. The absence of official U.S. [End Page 279] protection and bureaucratic institutions in China gave free rein to American entrepreneurism and pragmatism in the Qing Empire (1644–1911).
Haddad devotes his first three chapters to the Canton trade. Chapter 1 relates the voyage of the Empress of China in 1784, the first direct contact between the United States and China. Key protagonists such as Samuel Shaw, Daniel Parker, and Phuankhequa (or Puan Khequa) are brought to life not only as merchants but also as individuals. In his vivid account of Perkins and Company in Chapter 2, Haddad argues that the innovative business system devised and practiced by a group of entrepreneurial Yankees—mainly Thomas Perkins, John Perkins Cushing, James Perkins, Thomas Forbes, and John Murray Forbes and their Chinese partners, such as Houqua—contributed to its expansion as a multinational firm that allegedly handled half of America’s trade (including opium smuggling) with China.
In the third chapter, Haddad explains how America’s consumption of tea (ten to twenty million pounds per annum), in addition to the commercial drive for the double profit involved in selling “goods for goods” in both China and in the United States, compelled American private merchants to find value-added merchandise suitable for the China market in place of silver. Before the outbreak of the Opium War, Russell and Company, the successor to Perkins and Company, had risen to carry the largest volume of business—primarily opium, tea, and banking notes—in the China trade.
Hard on the heels of these pioneering traders came the dynamic American missionaries who are the focus of Chapters 4 and 5. One of the main challenges for Americans in China arose from their relationship to opium, whether they supported or opposed the trade. In the end, each of the individuals involved was permanently affected by his stance on the narcotics issue. Robert B. Forbes, William Low, and others pumped drugs into China to satisfy their financial ambitions, but later found themselves haunted by the scourge of opium. The uncompromising Charles W. King, based in Canton, became a member of a moral “aristocracy,” constantly reproaching fellow perpetrators for their sin. Another noted player was Nathan Dunn, a Quaker, who benefited materially from his opposition to opium, and shipped back a vast collection of Chinese objects to the United States.
In Chapters 6 and 7, Haddad discusses how the U.S. government, private commerce, Christianity, and science and technology worked in concert to enable America to establish formal ties with China. Influential [End Page 280] figures like Daniel Webster, Samuel Wells Williams, Caleb Cushing, Peter Parker, Elijah Bridgman, and William Reed played an important role in strengthening America’s official presence in China. The signing of the Treaty of...