Monday, October 29, 2012

Eric Jay Dolin's "When America First Met China"

Eric Jay Dolin is the author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling In America, which was chosen as one of the best nonfiction books of 2007 by the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe, and also won the 2007 John Lyman Award for U. S. Maritime History; and Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. A graduate of Brown, Yale, and MIT, where he received his Ph.D. in environmental policy, he lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail, and reported the following:
When America First Met China traces our fraught relationship with China back to its roots: the unforgiving nineteenth-century seas that separated a brash, rising naval power from a battered ancient empire. It is a prescient fable for our time, one that surprisingly continues to shed light on our modern relationship with China. Indeed, the furious trade in furs, opium, and bêche-de-mer—a rare sea cucumber delicacy—might have catalyzed America's emerging economy, but it also sparked an ecological and human rights catastrophe of such epic proportions, the reverberations can still be felt today. Peopled with fascinating characters-from the "Financier of the Revolution" Robert Morris to the Chinese emperor Qianlong, who considered foreigners inferior beings—When America First Met China explores a time many years ago when the desire for trade and profit first brought America to China’s door.

By the time the reader reaches 99 of the book, the Empress of China, the first American ship to sail to China, had already blazed the trail, and in her wake, an increasing number of American merchants sent their own ships to China to purchase tea, silk, and porcelain. Indeed, between 1784 and the end of the War of 1812, in 1814, nearly three hundred American ships made a total of 618 voyages to Canton.

One thing that nearly all American ships engaged in the China trade had in common was their relatively small size. Whereas the vessels the Europeans sent to Canton, called East Indiamen, were quite large, with British ships averaging twelve hundred tons, their American counterparts, befitting their scrappy upstart origins, were almost all less than five hundred tons, and many were below two hundred, making them Lilliputians among giants.
On page 99, however, we are introduced to one of the few exceptions to the rule – the behemoth, Massachusetts.

From page 99:
One of the few American ships in these early years that approached the size of the European ships fared poorly, not because of its size but rather due to poor planning. Soon after returning to China in 1786, Shaw hatched a plan with Randall to build a magnificent ship for the China trade, and they sent orders back to the states to begin construction. The end result was the Massachusetts, which at 820 tons was the largest American merchant ship built up to that point. Launched in September 1789, and then moved from the shipyard in Braintree to Boston, the Massachusetts “excited a considerable sensation in the commercial part of the community,” recalled Amasa Delano, its second officer (a distant relative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt). “Parties of people in every rank of society frequently came on board of her to gratify their curiosity and express their admiration.”

The ship’s departure was curiously delayed due to Moll Pitcher, a fortuneteller of considerable fame from Lynn, Massachusetts, who predicted that all the men who shipped out on the Massachusetts would be lost at sea. As a result panic-stricken crewmembers, always prone to believe in rumors and portents kept leaving, and it wasn’t until the third entire crew was signed on that the men stayed put. “It seems strange,” Delano observed, “that a class of men, who are continually exposed to storms hardships, and dangers, should be so powerfully affected by the traditions which are handed down from generation to generation concerning omens, charms, predictions, and the agency of invisible spirits.”
Learn more about the book and author at Eric Jay Dolin's website.

The Page 99 Test: Fur, Fortune, and Empire.

--Marshal Zeringue