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.