Ancient China collides with newfangled America in this epic tale of opium smugglers, sea pirates, and dueling clipper ships.
Brilliantly illuminating one of the least-understood areas of American history, best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin now traces our fraught relationship with China back to its roots: the unforgiving nineteenth-century seas that separated a brash, rising naval power from a battered ancient empire. It is a prescient fable for our time, one that surprisingly continues to shed light on our modern relationship with China. Indeed, the furious trade in furs, opium, and beche-de-mer—a rare sea cucumber delicacy—might have catalyzed America’s emerging economy, but it also sparked an ecological and human rights catastrophe of such epic proportions that the reverberations can still be felt today. Peopled with fascinating characters—from the “Financier of the Revolution” Robert Morris to the Chinese emperor Qianlong, who considered foreigners inferior beings—this page-turning saga of pirates and politicians, coolies and concubines becomes a must-read for any fan of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower or Mark Kurlansky’s Cod.
In 1784, the Empress of China became the first ship to set sail for Canton under the American flag. The journey was celebrated as an affirmation of the new country's independence from Britain. Previously, all trade with the Far East had been tightly controlled by the British East India Company it was no accident that the commodity dumped in Boston Harbor was tea. Historian Dolin (Fur, Fortune, and Empire) argues for the centrality of the China trade in the early days of the republic. Despite that, at the time of American independence, "no more than a handful of colonists had ever set foot in China," the first few decades saw more than 600 American trading missions and "as much as one-tenth to one-fifth of all the items in many early nineteenth-century homes in Boston and Salem came from China." This fast-moving but superficial overview focuses on intriguing anecdotes and personal vignettes, featuring colorful subjects such as pirates, drug runners, and slave traders, as well as those engaged in more salubrious pursuits. But while entertaining, Dolin fails to deliver a deeper analysis of early relations between the two nations. 16 pages of color and 83 b&w illus.; map. .