Saturday, October 18, 2014

Reporting Voyages Round the World in the New Nation

            In the decade after Samuel Shaw’s first voyage to China, an American exodus swept into the Great South Sea, carrying the word that a new people had arrived to take their legitimate pace among the community of nations. They spilled out from the wharves of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and countless smaller seaports into Calcutta, Pondicherry, Sumatra, Ceylon, and even insulated Japan and returned with cargoes of tea, pepper, coffee, and silks that provided a timely injection of capital into the withered economy and stimulated the recovery of the early 1790s . .
            Their early contacts with the peoples of Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe’s Asian expatriates offered this “new people” a significant measure of their national character. They believed that Americans who traveled abroad, as much as those who remained behind, contributed to the creation of the republic and, especially, toward the formation of an authentic national identity. Indeed, contact with the regions beyond Europe, navigated between “civilized” Europe and the “barbaric” East, afforded Yankee voyagers a more nuanced palette from which to fill in the details of an emergent national persona.
            Within three years, the Columbia Redivia and Lady Washington had opened a fur trade for Americans between the Northwest Coast and China, and the nation’s newspapers preened over the expedition in the same language of global achievement.

            This passage from True Yankees explores a cultural chord within the history of the early republic that I find fascinating.  While voyages such as those of the Empress of China, Grand Turk, and Columbia and Washington contributed to the economy of the new nation, helping to rescue the country from the throes of the wrenching depressing of the 1780s, it was the reporting of these American travels in the print culture of the republic that equally merit our attention.  The accounts of these voyages in print culture contributed to formation of a national identity, by casting the “voyages of commerce and discovery” as national achievements that warranted celebration across the country, by framing these journeys as American accomplishments that transcended state and local loyalties, and by identifying a constellation of traits that situated American in global terms, as “citizens of the world.”

            We find a nice example of this national construction in the 1787 voyage of the Columbia and Lady Washington, hailed as the American vessels that opened the Northwest Coast fur trade.

Courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society

In preparation, the six Boston-area owners commissioned gleaming medals of silver and copper to commemorate the global and national nature of the voyage. (Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society)  Few Americans would see these tokens of the new nation’s entry onto a global stage, but it is likely many would read—or hear read to them—accounts of the medals in the pages of their newspapers.  They were touted in the pages of Boston’s Massachusetts Centinel in September and Charleston’s Columbian Herald, featuring an image of the national hero George Washington on its masthead, in October.  The language that Americans read in these journals bespoke the imagery of a national and global imagination:

Silver and copper medals, we are told, are striking off, to be carried by Capt.
Kendrick of Boston, bound to the Pacific Ocean, to be distributed among the natives of the Indian Isles. . . Fitted at Boston, North America, for the Pacifick Ocean.”[i] (my italics)

Courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society

            Journals like Virginia Journal considered the event so important that the papers described the preparations for the voyage in its issue for 11 March 1787, several weeks after the modest fleet had sailed.  The language emphasized that this was not a New England adventure, but a national enterprise.

Quoting the Journal of Congress for 24 September 1787, the Carolinians emphasized that the vessels and cargoes were “the property of citizens of the United States, and that they are navigated principally by inhabitants of the United States.”  Against the report of Shays’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts, this was welcome news indeed.

So, the ship Columbia Redivia, under Captain John Kendrick, and the sloop Lady Washington under Captain Robert Gray, sailed out of Boston for northwest coast.[ii] The press covered the departure with all the ceremony that had attended that of the EmpressAs reported in the Salem Gazette (3-4-1787) New York Packet (10-12-1787), the New-Jersey Journal (10-17-1787, the Vermont Gazette (10-15-1787), and Charleston’s State Gazette of South-Carolina (10-22-1787),

Sunday sailed from this port the ship Columbia and sloop Washington, commanded by Captain J. Kendrick and Captain R. Gray, on an enterprizing voyage to Kamschatka, on the western part of this continent.  The object of this voyage is to open an intercourse between these States and the natives of that distant country, by trading with them for furs, of which commodity, it is said, that country abounds.  The greatest commercial advantages are expected to be derived from this intercourse.

German-speaking Americans likewise could share in the national moment, reading in the Lancaster Beifung for 17 October 1787 and the Neue Unpartheyische Lancaster Zeitung und Anzeigs-Nachrichten of Lancaster Pennsylvania1(10-17-1787):

The national achievement was a national paradox: To unite the nation from thirteen disparate states, Americans would need to travel beyond their boundaries and engage the wider world.


[i] Massachusetts Centinel, 29 September 1787; The Columbian Herald, or The Independent Courier of North America 10-22-87; and Anne E. Bentley, “The Columbia-Washington Medal,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3rd Ser., 101 (1989): 120-127.
[ii] Joseph Ingraham, Joseph Ingraham’s Journal of the Brigantine Hope on a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of North America, 1790–92 (Barre, MA: Imprint Society, 1971), xii; Robert G. Albion, et al., New England and the Sea (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1972), 57.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Americans Celebrate the Empress of China, 1785

On the 11th of May 1785, the American ship the Empress of China slipped into her berth along the wharves of New York’s East River, to the calls and “huzzahs” of astonished merchants, sailors, and dockworkers. Hundreds of curious on-lookers dropped their ledgers, tools, and carts and raced to observe her arrival. Even in the midst of a staggering economic depression, New Yorkers were used to seeing ships returning from distant Europe and the West Indies or coastal ports like Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston. But the arrival of this vessel drew exceptional notice because her port of call had been particularly exotic and her cargo was not the usual store of sugar, molasses, and grain carried on a conventional voyage. The Empress was the republic’s first Indiaman, the first American vessel to sail “eastward of Good Hope” into the waters of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Fifteen months earlier, she had departed New York with a cargo of Appalachian ginseng and Spanish dollars, and onlookers now gaped to see the wares she had brought back from the East.[i]

The opening lines to True Yankees recall the gaping astonishment and gleeful festivities that surrounded the Empress’s return from China.  The event was important, ushering in a new age of global engagement for Americans, at the moment when they were constructing a new nation. But, so, too, was the experience of encounter, as Americans’ responses to the voyage reveal how they thought about their young republics (as the thirteen new states defined themselves) and the ways in which they attempted to mark the Event. These forms of thinking nationally were as experimental as the Empress’s voyage itself.

In this age of genteel sensibility described by a number of historians, the news journals of the day were inventing a language of national sensibility to replace the discourse of imperial feeling made null by the Revolution and independence.  It would create a language of achievement, duty, and honor.[ii]

The project began even before the Empress sailed.  In March 1784, The Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser reported on preparations for the voyage, asserting “the ship  . . . belongs to citizens of the . . . United States.” A host of other newspapers described the fanfare that accompanied the national moment. On passing Fort George, the Empress had fired the “United States salute,” it was reported. Designed by “Mr. Peck of Boston,” she carried “several young American adventurers.”  In the details, readers could not only feel the embrace of the national moment, but also glimpse a set of traits that would define the American and become the essential themes of an emergent China Trade literature.  In an anthropomorphic exercise, the vessel itself seemed to encapsulate traits that the editors hoped would appear in the character of the “new people”: “built on the new invented construction of the ingenious Mr. Peck . . . she is deemed an exceeding swift sailer.” A product of American craftsmanship, crafted by their countrymen’s own hands, she was, as well, a “handsome, commodious and elegant ship.” As for the men, readers could see in the descriptions of captain and crew representations of a familiar trope, the simple, honest New England Jonathan, “all happy and cheerful, in good health and high spirits” who behaved “with a becoming decency.”  In an early expression of the manifest destiny that would mark the antebellum era, they appreciated their national mission and were “elated on being considered the first instruments, in the hands of Providence, who have undertaken to extend the commerce of the United States of America.”  Yet, against the isolationist impulse of later periods, they embraced the opportunity to encounter and engage the wider world and to carry the republic “to that distant, and to us unexplored country.”  In sum, then, they were simple, enterprising, national, cosmopolitan.[iii]  As the Congress toasted two months later at its Independence Day banquet, “May the Simplicity of Manners, Industry and Frugality distinguish the Character of an American,” and bring “Liberty, Peace and Happiness to all Nations.”[iv]

[i] True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity, 1784-1844 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), xi.
[ii] Sarah M. S. Pearsell, Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 6-8.
[iii] Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, March 11, 1784.
[iv] New Hampshire Mercury and General Advertiser, 19 July 1785.