When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail – Eric Jay Dolin

The winter had been one of the worst in recent memory.  John Green, captain of the Empress of China, had wanted to sail from New York in early February but river ice had barred his way.  Finally on Sunday, February 22, 1783, the temperature rose, the ice retreated, the Empress of China cleared the wharf and was on her way, and so began America’s trade with China.

During the colonial period, American merchants chafed over the restrictions England placed on foreign trade. The British East India Company was the only entity allowed to trade directly with China.  America had developed a love for tea and American merchants longed for this business.  Once America was free of England, merchants began to trade as they wished.  The American Revolution had left the country nearly bankrupt, and the income from foreign trade was necessary.   And, of course, fortunes could be made from the sale of tea.  Soon ships laden with cargoes of silver, ginseng, furs, sandalwood, sea cucumbers, and cotton fabrics regularly left for China, returning with silk, porcelain, furniture and thousands of tons of tea. China strictly regulated trade and kept interaction with foreigners to a minimum.  Nevertheless, culture clashes were frequent and sometimes bloody.

This is a thoroughly researched book documenting everything about the maritime trade, from ships and cargo to sailors and merchants.  It covers the period from the sailing of Empress of China to the rise of steamship travel and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, and is sprinkled with contemporary narratives and beautiful illustrations.

For someone with a love of sailing, the book would be a treasure, but I found the excess of details about cargo and ships to be distracting.  Skip over the minute details and there is a sweeping epic with an oppressive emperor, greedy merchants, drug smugglers, pirates, misunderstanding, and war.  It is also a story of terrible ecological damage still felt today.  This is an interesting book that gives insight into today’s complex relationship with China.

eGalley review     Publication date 9.10.12

This entry was posted in adult, nonfiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.