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book review

‘When America First Met China’ by Eric Jay Dolin

Like Britons, Americans thirsted for Chinese tea but found entry into the Chinese market a challenge.
Like Britons, Americans thirsted for Chinese tea but found entry into the Chinese market a challenge. PEABODY ESSEX MUSEUM

“Made in China” is a vintage appellation. However anxious China’s economic juggernaut makes Western policy makers, Chinese goods have traveled the world for millennia.

From silks donned by ancient Romans to the tea that countless Britons sipped, the West has had — still has — an hearty appetite for China’s products. First by land, then by sea, Europeans sought trade with the Chinese. The history of this trade has been a story of push-pull punctuated by bursts of violence and mayhem. The Chinese, ever wary of European encroachment into the Middle Kingdom, consigned trade to a few coastal ports, Canton above all, where the “foreign devils” — the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the British — did a spirited business in tea, porcelain, and opium, a commodity so addictive yet alluring (to the Chinese) and lucrative (to the British) it sparked not one but two wars in the 19th century.


Americans were scrappy latecomers to the Chinese trade, but they made their mark. In “When America First Met China,” Marblehead writer Eric Jay Dolin recounts these first economic contacts. Dolin, author of “Leviathan,’’ a history of whaling in America, and “Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America,’’ is a diligent researcher and competent storyteller; he is not, however, an exciting one. The racy subtitle promises intrigue in the Far East, but the narrative hovers somewhere uneasily between PhD thesis stodginess and position-paper obviousness (“The United States’ relationship with China is complex and critically important to America’s future,’’ he earnestly relates.)

That said, Dolin has uncovered some fascinating nuggets about the history of US-China trade. After the American Revolution, American traders set out to give their old Colonial masters a run for their money — literally. The British were already well established in China, but American merchants were intent on muscling them aside. They were a cheeky, freewheeling lot.


Mused one American, whose ship had put in at Macao, “[T]here is much hauteur with the English and enough independence in the Yankee to despise it. As one of our ships was dropping down past an Englishman he hails in a Yankeefied manner, ‘Where are you bound?’ and was also answered Yankeefiedly, ‘To Boston with a load of tea; don’t you want to go and see Bunker Hill?’ ”

Like Britons, Americans craved Chinese tea. And, until the Europeans were able to make cheaper versions, Chinese porcelain was a feature of many American homes: Dolin notes that in the early 19th century, between a fifth and a tenth of all items in many Salem and Boston homes came from China. (Indeed, this is a history with a Boston bent: Many of the ships in the China trade sailed from the city’s port). But then, as now, cracking the Chinese market proved vexatious and difficult. American ships brought ginseng in their holds, as well seal skins, otter fur, and sandalwood, whose fragrant oil was used in furniture and incense prized by Chinese customers.

Dolin describes the rapacious trade in these commodities. Seal and otter populations were devastated — between 1792 and 1812, some 2.5 million seal skins were shipped to Canton. Oceans and forests were despoiled. The environmental consequences of sandalwood harvesting in the Pacific islands were severe: “the verdant hillsides of Hawaii and Fiji were quickly transformed into an ecological wasteland, denuded of much of their forests and littered with mangled branches and stumps,” Dolin writes.


As long as there was money to be made, moral considerations took a back seat. Nowhere was this more evident than in the trade of a notorious substance coveted by Chinese consumers: opium. Vast fortunes grew from traffic in the “foreign mud.” The role of opium in Chinese history is the subject of an enormous literature; it is still a sensitive topic. The British shipped opium from India, which was then exchanged for precious silver. It was a nefarious business. A succession of Qing emperors issued edicts banning the trade, but a swarming network of smugglers and corrupt officials (many of them opium addicts) stymied efforts to check the trade.

The British dominated the opium traffic, but a handful of American traders made fortunes, turning a blind eye to the consequences of the drug’s damaging effects. One such figure was Jamaica Plain-born Robert Bennet Forbes, who made a mint from opium in the 1830s. Observed another American Canton hand, “We pursued the evil tenor of our way with supreme indifference, took care of our business, pulled [rowed] boats, walked, dined well, and so the years rolled by as happily as possible.” But not happily for China, which fought back in earnest in two wars (1839-1842 and 1856-60), which only saw Western powers wrest more economic control from the Asian nation.

Dolin touches on the opium trade and a myriad of other topics: life in Canton; the building of China clippers, fast ships that brought tea to the West; and the gruesome voyages of Chinese laborers on American ships, to the plantations of Latin America. Dolin urges us to ponder the dispiriting historical legacies of such activity, but “When America First Met China” is less a sustained consideration than a grab bag of vignettes and anecdotes that never quite comes to life.


Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at mprice68@ gmail.com.