Thursday, March 13, 2014

True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity

 Dane A. Morrison
Johns Hopkins University Press
Available Autumn 2014

            During the years between the Treaty of Paris (1783) and the Treaty of Wangxi (1844), American travelers and expatriates first voyaged “eastward of Good Hope,” from the ports of Algiers to the bazaars of Arabia, from the markets of India to the beaches of Sumatra, from the villages of Cochin China to the factories of Canton.  Their “voyages of commerce and discovery” introduced the new nation to the world and the world to what the Chinese and other called the “new people.”  True Yankees explores these early American encounters in the South Seas and the ways in which their first contacts with the East influenced the construction of a national identity. 
Fan, depicting the Empress of China at Whampoa Reach, c.1785
Courtesy, Atwater Kent, Philadelphia
            The book traces America’s earliest global engagements through the voyages of five Yankee travelers. Merchant Samuel Shaw spent a decade in Asia, 1784-1794, scouring the marts of China and India for goods that would captivate the imaginations of his countrymen, dying suddenly of tropical fever off the Cape of Good Hope. Mariner Amasa Delano toured much of the Pacific as an explorer and seal hunter in the 1790s and early 1800s. Edmund Fanning circumnavigated the globe as another sealer, explorer, and trader, touching at various Pacific and Indian Ocean ports-of-call well into the 1830s. Harriett Low was a reluctant twenty-year-old when she accompanied her merchant uncle and ailing aunt to Macao, residing there between 1829 and 1834 and recording her observations of expatriate life. Merchant Robert Bennet Forbes’s last sojourn in Canton, 1838-1839, coincided with the eruption of the First Opium War.  
            This examination of the Indies Trade demonstrates how the global encounters of ordinary mariners and merchants, coming at the moment of the nation’s emergence, influenced the ways in which Americans thought of themselves and represented their ideas about an emergent American national character—the “true Yankee.”