As China has emerged in the past decade as one of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies, it makes sense to think about how China and the U.S. engaged in commercial activities two centuries ago. By the late 18th century western European powers were cementing commercial relationships with the reclusive Chinese empire. The newly independent United States was likewise interested in what they saw as a nearly limitless market for manufactured goods and special in-demand products. As today, the developing trade was carried on almost exclusively by sea, but instead of large container-ships, European and American sailing vessels of all types plied the routes between China and ports on both sides of the Atlantic.
What brings me to this topic is a portrait of a western shipmaster that was painted in China in the early 19th century. I spotted this piece at the Winter Antiques Show in New York last month and recalled that CHS had a very similar portrait in our own collection– that of Lemuel White of East Hartford (1762-1843). So, as I’ve mentioned in the past (probably ad nauseam to some people) objects can and should tell meaningful stories. Both portraits were painted by Chinese artists catering to the western merchants living in and shipmasters calling at mainland Chinese ports such as Canton (now Guangzhou) and, later, Shanghai. Western demand for tea helped fuel this vigorous commerce, and tea remained the prime export for many decades, supplemented by silks, exotic woods, ivory and other products. The west shipped some manufactured products, plus furs and, perhaps surprisingly—ginseng–a medicinal root in great demand in China. This western trade with China figured in the course of China’s history through the 19th century, as social and technological developments helped to slowly transform an inward-looking kingdom into a nation increasingly interested in the rest of the world.
Chinese officials kept tight bureaucratic control on this commerce through a variety of means, including limits on the number of merchants authorized to trade directly with the kingdom. In time western merchants, and shipmasters like Lemuel White, learned how to play to game, to the economic benefit of both sides. Beginning with the 1784 voyage of the Empress of China, the first vessel of the newly-independent United States to trade directly with China, more and more Americans participated in what was known as the “China Trade.”
Lemuel White almost did not survive to participate in this storied trade, however. As a sixteen year old soldier in the Revolution he was captured by the British and imprisoned on one of the notorious prison hulks floating in Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay. Given the high mortality rate among such prisoners, White was lucky to return home alive. After the war White took to the sea and by at least the 1794 was serving as a mate on a vessel trading with China. We have 2 logbooks in the CHS collection that he kept during a China voyage, 1794-1796, as well as a brass pocket telescope. Unfortunately both logbooks were reused at a later date as scrapbooks, so much of the crucial information such as vessel name is hidden under old newspaper clippings. Potentially, we could arrange for conservation treatment to remove the clippings, revealing more of White’s story. What we do know is that in 1801 White was given command of the brand-new 400-ton merchant ship Oliver Ellsworth, built that year in Hartford. Certainly this command is indicative of his seafaring skills and the trust he held in the eyes of the new ship’s owners. As he transitioned out of his seafaring career White held a variety of state government appointments. His death at age 81 was noted by the Hartford Daily Courant, with special emphasis on his wartime service.