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How A Taste For Chinese Tea Minted America's First Millionaires

A view of Canton (Guangzhou), on the Pearl River in China, circa 1840. Canton was already a great trading port when the American ship the Empress of China arrived in 1784 to fill up its hold with tea.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A view of Canton (Guangzhou), on the Pearl River in China, circa 1840. Canton was already a great trading port when the American ship the Empress of China arrived in 1784 to fill up its hold with tea.

The Empress of China photographed in 1876. Nearly a century earlier, this trading ship set sail from New York, inaugurating America's trade with China. She went in search of tea.
The Empress of China photographed in 1876. Nearly a century earlier, this trading ship set sail from New York, inaugurating America's trade with China. She went in search of tea.

"China, China, China," rants Donald Trump, the presidential hopeful who loses no opportunity to blame America's economic woes on China and its "unfair" trade policies. But how did the fortunes of the Free World and the Middle Kingdom become so inextricably intertwined? What started it all?

The roots of U.S.-China trade can be boiled down to one fragrant little word: tea. The history of the tea trade is a fascinating story of wealth, adventure, and cultural exchange, but also a tragic one of human suffering and cruelty.


Although many Americans gave up tea as an unpatriotic beverage after the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and turned to coffee, the majority still craved it. And it was this overwhelming demand for tea that motivated the newly independent United States, finally free from the monopolistic clutches of Britain's East India Company, to sail to China in search of it.

On a beautiful February morning in 1784, the first American trade ship to China, The Empress of China, set sail from New York. To pay for the tea, its holds were filled with 242 casks of choice New England and Appalachian ginseng, for which there was an enormous demand in China. Everything about that maiden voyage was symbolic: Feb. 22 was George Washington's birthday; a 13-gun salute was fired to represent the 13 states; the two goods being bartered were indigenous to the two countries.

"It amounted to an economic Declaration of Independence – a commercial counterpart to the purely political Declaration of 1776," John Haddad, author of America's Adventures in China, tells The Salt.

It was such a momentous enterprise that Philip Freanau, "poet of the American Revolution," was stirred to verse:

She now her eager course explores, And soon shall meet Chinesian shores, From thence their fragrant TEAS to bring Without the leave of Britain's king; And PORCELAIN WARE, enchased in gold, The product of that finer mould.

Six months later, the Empress reached Canton in time for the tea harvest. The Chinese merchants were curious about these new "foreign devils" who spoke like the "red-haired devils" (Englishmen) but were from a country they'd never heard of. "Relations between individual American merchants and their Chinese merchant counterparts were often quite warm and friendly, or at least civil," Eric Jay Dolin, author of When America First Met China, tells The Salt. "This contrasted with the relationship between the Chinese and the English merchants, which was often very tempestuous, distrustful and hostile."


One Chinese millionaire who had a special affection for his American trading partners was Houqua, whose wealth, estimated at well over $30 million at the time, made him one of the richest men in the world. "Houqua would invite the Americans to sumptuous multi-course banquets at his estate – parties that became legendary in trading circles," says Haddad. "Franklin Roosevelt's ancestors [the Delano family] traded with Houqua, and I have heard that the descendants from the two families kept in touch well into the 20th century."

Overall, that first voyage was successful. "When the Empress returned in 1785 with a cargo of tea that sold for a 25 percent profit, other merchants jumped in," says Haddad. "The China trade was underway!" Over the next decade, tea consumption in the U.S. touched an annual 3 million pounds.

It was the tea trade that fostered the first American millionaires (John Jacob Astor, Thomas Handasyd Perkins and Stephen Girard) and spurred an explosion in shipbuilding. The need for the speedy transportation of tea across the oceans to prevent spoilage resulted in the design and construction of the "clipper" ships, so beautiful and sleek they were called "the greyhounds of the sea." These state-of-the-art vessels of American ingenuity became the envy of the British who were forced to up their game.

National infrastructure benefitted, too, with the new millionaires sinking their money into canals, railroads and factories. "One China trader, John Murray Forbes, wisely invested not only his own wealth in America's rapidly expanding railroads, but also that of his close friend Houqua's," says Haddad. "In this way, the tea trade acted as a colossal trans-Pacific transfer pump, one that steadily pumped economic power from Asia to North America."

Soon tea sets, porcelain ware and punch bowls began to be imported as well – George and Martha Washington filled their Mount Vernon home with the choicest chinaware. The porcelain had another use: It acted as ballast to stabilize ships loaded with light cargoes of dried tea leaves. The tea sets were painted not just with dragons and willows but with all-American designs like the eagle and the Stars and Stripes. "Chinese artisans took European and Western designs and incorporated them into porcelain tea sets and plates," says Dolin. "This was an early example of the ability of Chinese artists to make copies of patterns from other places."

But the tea came at a terrible cost. And the cause was the trade imbalance.

Then, as now, America imported more from China that it exported. Apart from ginseng and silver (which was hard to get), the only other goods the Chinese wanted were sealskins – and opium.

"Traders would have loved to have exchanged a commodity of some sort for their tea cargoes, but they could not find anything that the Chinese wanted in mass quantities," says Haddad. "Enter opium. Starting in 1804, opium became for many traders the good that, once smuggled in, could bring balance to the China trade. It was tea drinking that spurred the advent of an illegal narcotics trade. How tragic!"

The market for pelts unleashed the most horrific slaughter of fur seals. Ships of sealers descended on the Falkland Islands, leapt ashore from their boats, and clubbed the wildly barking animals to death. The carnage went on for years. It was "like picking up dollars on a sea-beach," wrote James Fenimore Cooper in The Sea Lions. Between 1792 and 1812, American ships transported 2.5 million sealskins to China, writes Dolin. In exchange for these "depots of peltry" they got the finest Pekoe, Hyson and Gunpowder.

It doesn't end there.

"Far more gruesome was the role of American merchants in the coolie trade," writes Dolin. For 10 years, starting from 1852, American ships transported thousands of indentured Chinese laborers in the most abysmal conditions to the sugar and tobacco plantations in Cuba and Latin America, as well as to the Chincha Islands off Peru, where the Chinese workers mined guano, or bird waste.

Tragically, the ships used to transport these laborers were those beautiful clippers built for the swift transport of tea. As Dolin says, "It became the misfortune of these graceful ships such as the Westward Ho and Bald Eagle to have their names tainted by association with such a shameful and inhuman traffic."

And to think it all started in the name of tea.

Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.

Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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