It’s 1846, and Alexander Hill Everett is having a hard go of it. In his time, the Boston diplomat and man of letters has worked for John Quincy Adams in Russia, he’s served in The Hague, he’s served as American minister to Spain. He’s written books about politics and edited the new nation’s first literary magazine. He even convinced his friend Washington Irving to come to Spain to seek inspiration for his writing, and welcomed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Madrid. At age 56, he’s spent more than 15 years living abroad in the service of his country. But now he’s very sick. And what’s more worrisome, he’s on a slow boat to China.
Everett is on his way to become America’s second-ever minister to that immense and mysterious nation. He has already retreated to recuperate once, turning back in Rio de Janeiro. Now he’s decided to press on, to make it to Canton, that city in the heart of the Pearl River Delta where for some decades, Western merchants have traded sticky black balls of opium for tea, porcelain, and silk.
He arrives in Canton, going up the wide brown river past Whampoa, the anchorage where tall clippers from abroad unload passengers and goods. Perhaps he is well enough to look out at the startling, incandescent green of the rice paddies and marvel at the 40,000 boats thronging the river in the tropic furnace of a Canton summer. On one shore he would see a 17-story pagoda, taller by far than Faneuil Hall and the Old State House. Maybe he thinks of what he might accomplish here. Maybe he thinks of the future these two nations — one ancient, one barely out of infancy — have together. Soon after his arrival, however, he succumbs to illness. Alexander Hill Everett dies on June 28, 1847. More than 8,000 miles from home, he is buried in the South China mud, on the side of a hill above Whampoa, where his stone still stands today.
He’s not alone. There, on that foreign shore, the ground is thick with people from Massachusetts. In the graveyard are sailors, missionaries, merchants of Salem and Boston. In 1847 Canton and Massachusetts are at either end of an aquatic highway, the Route 66 of the time, linking the two places together in people’s minds much tighter than almost anyone today realizes.
In our time, Canton — now known as Guangzhou, pronounced “gwong-joe” — is a teeming metropolis of more than 13 million people, spangled with factories that produce everything from LEDs to underwear to children’s books. The Boston area is a biotech hub, a banking center, and a higher-education mecca, its trading past more of a charming curio than a topic of current conversation.
But at the high-water mark of New England’s shipping industry, the two were intimately tied. If you find yourself today on a hillside in Guangzhou, in a graveyard full of familiar names, or on a street in Salem, where the houses speak in a coded language of the East, you may see for yourself that long-distance trade is not just an exchange of goods. It’s also the sowing of strange seeds, which may fuel a rebellion or quell it, build railroads or build mansions. And it’s a series of tales about human yearnings — the longing for ways to prove oneself, the taste for new vistas, the loneliness of dying so far from home.
The way to China lay out on the cold deeps of the Atlantic, around the horn of Africa, across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea — or, for other voyagers, around South America and across the vast Pacific. Despite the distance, Massachusetts ships were once so numerous in far Eastern waters that, according to one historical account, a prominent merchant on the island of Sumatra thought Salem must be a country.
The stream of sailors began even before the American colonies declared independence, says historian John Haddad of Pennsylvania State University Harrisburg. The colonists were not allowed to launch their own trading voyages; the British East India Company handled the empire’s affairs. But the ships were crewed with Salem men, Boston men, people from New London, New York, Philadelphia. They wrote vivid accounts of a strange place where there was money to be made. When their turn came, they were ready. “Right after the revolution, these wonderful merchant sailors and captains, they were so eager. They said, ‘We’ve always wanted to go to China — let’s go,’” says Haddad. “’We’re all in.’”
A vessel called The Empress of China pulled into Whampoa in 1784 carrying ginseng from Appalachia and silver, as well as Samuel Shaw, a Boston Revolutionary War officer who had high hopes for trade with the celestial empire. When the ship returned to New York nearly 15 months later with a cargo of tea, porcelain, nankeen cloth, and other goods, Shaw sent a rushed message to the office of the secretary of foreign affairs. Contact had been made. In Guangzhou, the Americans were called “the new people.” They were thought peculiarly polite, compared to the British.
The ship’s return was widely seen in the United States as demonstrating that the young nation was more than a jumped-up set of backwater counties, explains Dane Morrison, a historian at Salem State University and author of the book “True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity.” He writes, “Shaw himself believed that the Congress should recognize the introduction of Yankees at Canton as a great American holiday. . . as historic even as the country’s independence day.”
Before long, the ships carried American missionaries. Elijah Bridgman of Belchertown, Mass., the first of the new arrivals, joined a team translating the Bible into Chinese. His cousin James followed him to Guangzhou, arriving in 1844. “It seemed only a little thing to step over to China now,” said R.C. Morse, publisher of the missionary paper The New York Observer, when he visited minister Samuel Bonney in Guangzhou in 1854.
American women joined the flow, too. In 1829, Harriet Low, a vivacious 20-year old Salemite, stepped off the ship in Macau, the Portuguese colony at the river mouth where foreign traders spent the off-season. One night she and her aunt absconded to Canton, skimming over the Pearl in a small boat. “Had a delightful head wind till we reached Whampoa, too late to see the beautiful scenery and the fleet of ships now there,” Low wrote in a letter. “At eleven the moon rose in splendor, so that we had a fine view of the pagodas as we neared Canton, and the endless variety of boats. I forgot all my fatigue, and we stayed on deck.” The women went for a walk one evening through the few streets of the foreigners’ neighborhood. “Lights were called for, that the Chinese could look at us,” she wrote. “They were all perfectly civil, and made no noise, but only showed a little curiosity.”
The tales these travelers sent home from the ends of the earth were more than just entertainment. “The stories, both in print form and oral form, influenced people’s understanding of who they were,” says Morrison. When the China trade began, maps of the world showed the United States on the periphery, where it had always been — but that was changing.
The Yankees came to Guangzhou to take something away. The profits of a single journey to buy silk, tea, and other China goods could be on the order of $1.5 million in today’s money. Though an individual might have only a share of that total, many traders retired after 10 years with fortunes equivalent to $5 million or more, plenty to live on comfortably for the rest of their lives. It was a get-rich-quick game; everyone knew it. But the merchants, sailors, and missionaries left more than silver (and a disturbing growth in opiate addiction) behind. They helped alter the history of South China.
Elijah Bridgman, the translator from Belchertown, helped create scripture that fell into the hands of a man called Hong Xiuquan. Hong, having deciding that pamphlets from Bridgman’s colleagues reinforced the message of a fever-dream he once had, proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He began to gather followers to his new religion, and after a number of years, they had an army. Together they marched across the country, leaving terror and death behind them. For more than a decade, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which used an adapted version of the Bible Bridgman had worked on as its holy text, held a large swath of South China in its thrall, including the ancient capital city of Nanjing, west of Shanghai. The reigning Qing Dynasty fought back, in one of the bloodiest wars in human history. At least 20 million people died before the Taiping movement fell apart. Frederick Townsend Ward, a son of Salem and soldier of fortune, was one of the mercenaries hired to help put down the rebels, as it happens. Where one Massachusetts denizen’s work was swept up in civil war, another was there when the disturbance was laid to rest.
One missionary brought something of more lasting humanitarian worth. Born in Framingham, Peter Parker was a farmer’s son who trained as a doctor and minister at Yale. He came to Guangzhou in 1834 and started a small clinic that soon grew into a much larger affair, where he treated thousands of patients. Parker was the first person in China to use anesthesia, when it became available, and brought modern surgical techniques to China, training a number of his assistants as surgeons. When he retired, another American doctor took over. Though foreign involvement ended in the early 20th century, the hospital continued.
Today, the modern outgrowth of Parker’s Canton Hospital sits on the north bank of the Pearl, at a busy intersection where large banyan trees shade the traffic. It’s known as the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hospital. And although you would be hard-pressed to find anyone there who has heard of Framingham, there is a plaque to Parker just inside the oldest building’s front door.
Meanwhile, the new link to southern China was changing the landscape in Massachusetts, too. The money that came back, Haddad says, helped finance the construction of the first railway in the state. Built by Thomas Perkins, fabulously wealthy head of the opium behemoth Perkins and Co., the railway transported the stone for the Bunker Hill Monument from a quarry in Quincy. That granite, pulled over tracks that the China trade paid for, wound up in other Boston structures too, including the Custom House Block. The Perkins School for the Blind takes its name from the same Perkins, a generous early benefactor.
China money washed up and down the streets of Massachusetts towns, and even went further west: John Murray Forbes, a scion of the Perkins family, invested millions on behalf of Howqua, the wealthiest Cantonese merchant, in American westward railways. “You can understand what Forbes did as a transfer of China’s economic power,” says Haddad, “into America’s Industrial Revolution.” Morrison believes that some of the special language developed for business — dubbed the Canton Pidgin — even wound up in the mouths of Salemites and other port-dwellers: a cumshaw, meaning a bribe; a hawpoo, meaning a boat; and one phrase that even today requires no translation, chop-chop.
In Salem there are stately old houses with little decorative details that, when one looks closer, turn out to be stylized Chinese coins, persimmons, and other motifs from the East. Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum grew out of a society for mariners returned from Guangzhou and other faraway ports. “They would go all over the world and bring back all these curiosities and strange things,” says Haddad. The members would hold an annual parade for which they brought out their foreign finery, including Chinese palanquins and mandarin robes, and march through the streets of Salem, celebrating themselves and their trade.
Because of this heritage, the Peabody Essex Museum now has one of the nation’s finest collections of Asian art and artifacts from that period. In fact, it even has a painting made in 1850 of the graveyard in Guangzhou. Alexander Hill Everett’s stone rises above the others, an obelisk of white rock among a scattering of low tombs. Two ships stand in the middle distance, both trailing American flags above the Whampoa water.
The connections don’t just exist in storied museum collections or historic buildings. When I was in the Boston area recently, a friend unwrapped an old family tea set. As I watched the pieces come out of the crepe paper on that warm summer evening near Wellesley College, I realized they were Guangzhou ware, or “guang cai” in Chinese. I had seen their twins a few weeks earlier in a museum on the other side of the world, on the site of the tiny traders’ enclave where Harriet Low once strolled.
When my husband and I moved to Guangzhou from Massachusetts in 2015, we were merely the most recent arrivals along a road that was once much better traveled. “These connections are so insane because they’re all around us, but only if you have the eyes to see are you able to identify them,” says Morrison. “It’s the kind of thing in which a whole new world opens up to you, when you know what to look for.”
In Massachusetts: railways, persimmons, porcelain. In Guangzhou: hospitals, scriptures, graves.
James Bridgman, the missionary, died after being hit by a rock thrown from the Guangzhou city walls. He was buried in the graveyard above Whampoa, like Alexander Hill Everett. Records also place there Lydia Hale Devan, a young missionary from Boston who was learning Chinese; Captain John Land of the Massachusetts ship Challenge; and many others. One Bostonian who did not become a permanent resident of the cemetery did come through to complain loudly about it in 1856. After comparing the graveyard unfavorably with Mount Auburn, merchant George Train called it “a little square patch of stingy soil on a bleak and dismal hill that owns but a single tree” and moaned, “Should I die on this foreign shore, throw me overboard — do anything but bury me at Whampoa.”
I was intrigued: Was there anything to see there now?
“In one year, there could be easily upwards of 50 or more men dying” at the Whampoa anchorage, historian Paul Van Dyke of Sun Yat-sen University wrote me in an email. “And in some years, there were several funeral ceremonies for dead officers every week, and sometimes a couple on the same day.” Thousands of foreigners were probably buried on the islets around the anchorage, though many were given no more than a swiftly decaying wooden cross.
It was the same all along the old sea route. Though there is a memorial to Samuel Shaw in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston, he’s buried at sea off the African coast. Dane Morrison tells of something a colleague saw once in Sumatra. Back in the trees, erected by his shipmates, is an obelisk for a mariner of Salem. “It’s just sitting there by itself, in the jungle, in Sumatra,” says Morrison. “Isn’t that something?”
One day early last spring, I set out to find the graveyard. I had heard that at a place called Bamboo Ridge, near the old anchorage, there might be a “fan gui mudi” — a “foreign devil graveyard,” to use the antiquated Opium War-era term. My husband dropped a pin on Bamboo Ridge on a map and hailed a Didi, China’s equivalent of Uber. With a friend visiting from the States, we hopped in the car. The drive took us past the bustling markets, past the glass-and-steel exhibition halls of the Canton Trade Fair.
Guangzhou is still the city that trade built. Twice a year, the trade fair, one of the world’s largest wholesale expos, takes place in the sprawling conference grounds built near the pagoda sailors used to see from Whampoa. Rather than guang cai, you can get stylishly chipped enamel mugs and coffee pots that look right out of Cambridge or Brooklyn — or, more likely, are headed there. Fuzzy Easter chicks, probably from a factory in the Pearl River Delta, are on sale nearby. The array of goods, from machinery to car parts to clothing, is impressive. Once, in one of the districts of the city turned over entirely to shipping, my husband and I saw two men pushing a handcart heavy laden with boxes labeled “America.” We asked: What’s in them? The answer: Selfie sticks.
The trade does not come through Boston, Salem, or any New England town directly anymore. The major US ports now are Los Angeles, Long Beach, New York and New Jersey, Seattle and Tacoma. Last year imports from China totaled nearly $463 billion. In a sense, the trade that began with The Empress of China goes on, though few people remember the role Massachusetts played in the process. Wandering the aisles of the fair on one visit, thinking of those early traders, and watching deals go down in temporary coffeeshops erected along the expo hall concourse, I reflect on how ephemeral even the most permanent-seeming things are.
“We have the myth of the West,” says Haddad, “the cowboys and the pioneers.” Just as important an American tale was that of New Englanders rising from the ashes of Puritanism to trade in the East. For a while at least, nothing seemed more natural than that sons and daughters of Salem, Boston, New Haven, New London would be washing up in Sumatra, South Africa, and Guangzhou. What do we take for granted today, I wonder, that will seem unimaginable, bizarre, or even unsettling in 200 years? Where will we be surprised to find graves?
Back in the car on the way to find Everett and the other Bostonians, whisking along in the shadow of the Whampoa pagoda, the driver and my husband discussed the story of the cemetery. But when we reached Bamboo Ridge, it was a wall of impassible jungle.
We rolled down the windows and crawled down the road, asking passersby if they’d heard of a foreign devil graveyard. At first we got blank stares, or laughs at the odd phrase. Then we asked a pair of older gentlemen relaxing in lawn chairs under a tree. Sure, one said. It’s right through there. We looked at the chain link gates behind him, the entrance to a military training camp. We went in, along with the driver, who’d gotten curious. After a number of false starts, wandering through the sighing bamboo under a leaden sky, we got the older man to come show us the way.
Behind some barrack-like buildings, on the far side of a snarling watchdog, we found the graveyard. The gray stones and table-like tombs, looking out of place in that patch of forest, rose in three tiers up the hillside, overlooking a shipyard. There was Alexander Hill Everett’s obelisk; there were captains of ships, sailors, and not just from the United States but from Denmark, England, Australia.
I learned later that the graveyard lay overgrown and forgotten for decades, weathering the worst of China’s upheavals in obscurity, until it was rediscovered in a 1984 survey of cultural relics. Now maintenance is the responsibility of a local museum. For all it’s hidden from passersby, the hedges along each terrace are neatly clipped, the grass kept from swallowing the graves up again. It looks just like the painting in Salem.
Below us, in the shipyard, a loudspeaker began to play “Taps.” We traced the faded letters with our fingers. Even with so much company, it must have been extraordinarily painful to come this far and then find yourself dying from some mysterious tropical disease or washed overboard. Of course you can still perish far from home — nothing simpler! But in the age of air travel and the Internet, we don’t experience distance in the same way these people did. Now their graves are at the back of a Chinese military camp, another kind of distance from us.
This is the fallacy of every time and place. We think we’re standing still — that, in the ways that matter most, the world has always been more or less what it is now. But things change beyond recognition, every single day. The children of Puritans can become explorers, a Bostonian who has spent his career in Europe can die suddenly in China, a trio of Americans can end up on a Whampoa hillside with a Chinese Didi driver, reading grave inscriptions. It’s mind-boggling, the forces that conspire to unmake everything we take for a permanent reality.
“Maybe no place on earth has changed as much as that little corner of the world in the last 200 years,” says John Haddad, awestruck, when I tell him about the place. By the time Alexander Hill Everett arrived in China, he had seen the burgeoning growth of a new nation, and he lived to see clearly the strange new identity it was building for itself along the sea roads. From the hillside where he is buried, I can look out over the city where so much of what Americans buy is made. I wonder if it is the kind of view Everett would have recognized.
Veronique Greenwood is a writer and essayist living in South China. Follow her on Twitter @vero_greenwood.