Exporting the Revolution: American Revolutionaries in the Indies Trade

By Dane A. Morrison

In April of 1791, as Capt. Joseph Ingraham of Boston navigated the brigantine Hope through the central Pacific, he encountered a set of islands unmarked on any of the nautical maps he carried.  The Hope was en route to the treacherous waters of the Northwest Coast to find otter pelts for the China trade, part of an effort to establish the new nation within a global economy.  On April 19, sixteen years after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord that began the American War for Independence, Ingraham’s journal recorded, “I named the first Washington’s Island in honor of the illustrious president of the United States of America.  The other I called Adams’s Island after the Vice President.”  Coming upon two more islands, he added, “This I called Federal Island.  The other . . . I named Lincoln’s Island in honor of his excellency general Lincoln.”  Other islands he dubbed Franklin, Hancock, and Knox.  As was customary, first mate Ebenezer Dorr kept his own journal, adding that they named Federal island “in honor of our new, equal, and liberal constitution, which I hope will be as permanent as the island itself.”[1]

For Ingraham, the China trade was a continuation of his Revolutionary War experiences and a means of commemorating the layered meanings of that struggle.  During the War, he had served aboard the Massachusetts warship Protector, had battled a British privateer, only to be captured, and spent 1781 as a prisoner of war on the notorious British prison ship, Jersey.  Ingraham was not alone in constructing the emerging trade with China, India, and ports “eastward of Good Hope” as an extension of republican values.  He represents a generation of Yankees who voyaged “round the world” and whose experiences and published accounts exported not just names but what they believed were the values of the Revolution.[2]  By reading deeply into their experiences, we see the China trade as an extension of the Revolution and, indeed, construct an extended American Revolution.

The revolutionary symbolism that celebrated the first American voyage to China set the precedent.  From Portsmouth to Charleston, newspapers flaunted the departure of the Empress of China for Canton on Washington’s Birthday 1784, to a multitude of toasts, huzzahs, and the booming of thirteen cannon—the “United States salute”—representing each of the new states.  A host of journals boasted Yankee enterprise in the construction of the “handsome, commodious and elegant ship” that carried “several young American adventurers” on an “experimental” voyage to China to “that distant, and to us unexplored country.”[3] They reprinted the vessel’s sea letters, announcing the Empress to the world as American and emphasizing that “the ship … belongs to citizens of the … United States,” befitting the enterprise of a distinctly new republic.  For supercargo Samuel Shaw, the Empress was a symbol of the new nation itself, sailing on “boisterous seas of liberty” to establish an American presence on the world stage. Beneath the displays of patriotic fervor, however, Shaw anticipated the myriad dangers the ship would encounter, and most ominously perhaps, feared that the new nation would not be accepted as legitimate within Europe’s expatriate communities and among Asia’s mandarins, pashas, and rajas.

National celebrations like those that sent off the Empress of China mattered because the fate of the republic hung in the air.  At home and abroad, many predicted its imminent collapse and scolded, “this so-called independence of the Americans will not amount to much.”[4] Britain held steadfastly to its regressive Navigation Acts, and Lord Sheffield’s vindictive trade policies expanded the Royal Navy’s blockade of the vital West Indies sugar islands.  Even former allies resurrected mercantilist trade policies to place a staggering premium on American exports to European ports.  Shaw could not be sure of how Europe’s jealous, competitive East India Companies would receive an American trade mission in the unfamiliar waters “round the world.”  With Yale College president Ezra Stiles, he could only hope that America’s early “voyages of commerce and discovery” would be respected and the “great American revolution … will carry the American flag around the globe itself: and display the thirteen stripes and new constellation at Bengal and Canton.”[5]

The first practical signs of Europe’s recognition came in mid-July, half a world away off the coast of Sumatra, in language that recalled the wartime struggle.  Anchoring in the Sunda Straits, the Empress saluted two French naval ships; in return French Commodore d’Ordelin welcomed the newcomers “in the most affectionate manner.”  He relayed the news that Lafayette had received the order of the Society of the Cincinnati, and confided that his countrymen were “much pleased with the honor done to their nation.”  To Shaw’s relief, d’Ordelin “gave us an invitation to go in company with him” and “expressed a wish to render us every service,” even offering to guide the Americans through the reef-strewn Strait and pirate-infested China Sea.

On August 23, the Empress and her French consort anchored off Macao, the peninsular port that guards the passage upriver to Canton.  Macao was ostensibly a colony of the Portuguese Empire; in reality, it was a world city, a cosmopolitan enclave that operated under an often-chaotic pastiche of Chinese and Portuguese regulations.  For the Americans, entry to the Pei-ho, or Pearl River would be another anxious moment when they wondered whether the stars-and-stripes would be recognized as the flag of a legitimate nation.  Their concerns were eased once Shaw “had the honor of hoisting the first Continental flag ever seen or made use of in those seas,” as emissaries from the French, Swedish, and German delegations, “came on board to welcome us to that part of the world.”  It was a historic, if ironic moment, Shaw might have noted, as European expatriates across the globe opened doors that had been closed by their countrymen in the Atlantic.

On August 28, the Empress anchored upriver at Huang-po, the roadstead for foreign vessels.  The image of the stars-and-stripes sailing into Whampoa, as Americans called it, in company with the fleur-de-lis, established a further measure of legitimacy for the new nation.  Again, the U.S. “Federal salute” was “answered by the several Commodores of the European nations” with due regard, as the Danish factory sent an officer “to compliment” the visitors, the English sent an officer “to welcome your flag to this part of the world,” and the Dutch factory offered a boat “to assist.”

Reaching Canton on August 30, Shaw considered the landing in China as historic as the new nation’s day of independence, later asserting that the federal government should recognize the moment as a great national holiday.  Invitations to call came quickly and cordially, as the Americans were treated “in all respects as citizens of a free and independent nation.”  Shaw noted that in conversation at the British East India house, “Lord North’s cruel war” could not be ignored.  The erstwhile enemies strove to make amends, and he described the English overtures in glowing terms:

On board the English [ships], it was impossible to avoid speaking of the late war. They allowed it to have been a grave mistake on the part of their nation, were happy it was over, glad to see us in this part of the world, hoped all prejudices would be laid aside, and added, that, let England and America be united, they  might bid defiance to all the world.

Shaw learned that Americans would need to introduce their new nation to a world that did not quite know what to make of them.  He recorded in his journal how the Chinese “styled us the New People” and the “flowery flag people,” mistaking the thirteen stars in the ship’s pennant for a floral pattern.  He came to realize that the Chinese knew almost nothing about this former part of the British Empire, and observed, “when, by the map, we conveyed to them an idea of the extent of our country, with its present and increasing population, they were not a little pleased at the prospect of so considerable a market for the productions of their own empire.”[6]

On 11 May 1785, the Empress returned to New York as she had left it fourteen months and twenty-four days earlier, to the joyful booming of cannon. One of Shaw’s first responsibilities was to send a report to Foreign Minister John Jay, observing, “it becomes my duty to communicate to you . . . an account of the reception its citizens have met with, and the respect with which its flag has been treated in that distant region.”  For the most part, his countrymen could be pleased.[7] The voyage had been an economic success, earning a profit somewhat above 25 percent, a respectable showing during the wrenching post-war depression.  Shaw could not commemorate the Empress’s success without situating the voyage within a revolutionary context.  Consequently, he sent a poignant gift to General Washington: a 300-piece service of Chinese porcelain bearing the emblem of the Society of the Cincinnati.[8]

The voyage of the Empress established a precedent as the new nation stepped onto a global stage.  In the form of cannon salutes, toasts, showing the flag, or applying the names of Revolutionary heroes to “undiscovered” lands, American voyagers imagined that they exported their republic across the globe.  In their voyages past the Cape of Good Hope, reaching the ports of Algiers and the bazaars of Arabia, the markets of India and the beaches of Sumatra, the villages of Cochin, and the factories of Canton, they introduced the infant nation to the world and the world to what the Chinese, Turks, and others dubbed the “new people.”

Dane Morrison is professor of early American history at Salem State University.  He is the author of True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) and the forthcoming Yankees Abroad: Critical Themes in World History (Hackett) and Eastward of Good Hope: Early America in a Dangerous World (Johns Hopkins).

Title image: 

E.Bensell,“View of the Island of Woaoo,” 1821.  (Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

Further Reading:

Goetzmann, William H.  New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery (New York: Viking, 1986).

Israel, Jonathan.  The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Morrison, Dane.  True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

Yakota, Kariann Akemi.  Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America became a Postcolonial Nation.  New York Oxford University Press, 2011.


[1] Joseph Ingraham, Joseph Ingraham’s Journal of the Brigantine Hope on a Voyage to the

Northwest Coast of North America, 1790–92 (Barre, MA: Imprint Society, 1971), 58.     

[2] Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War: A Compilation from the Archives, 9 (Boston: Wright and Potter, 1901), 637. 

[3] In this post-war usage, the term described American generally rather than New Englanders specifically.

[4] Hamilton Andrews Hill, “The Trade, Commerce, and Navigation of Boston, 1780-1880,” in The Memorial History of Boston, including Suffolk County, 1630-1880, ed. Justin Winsor  (Boston: Ticknor, 1881), IV: 201-204; Franklin, quoted in Benson J.  Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812 (1869; Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2010).

[5] Ezra Stiles, The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor (New-Haven: Thomas & Samuel Green.  1783).  The President of Yale College presented his election sermon at Hartford, Connecticut on 8 May 1783, even before the definitive treaty had been signed.

[6] Samuel Shaw, The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw, the First American Consul at Canton, ed.  Josiah Quincy (Taipei: Ch’eng-Wen, 1968), 183; Worcester Magazine, 1 May 1787.

[7]Samuel Shaw, The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw, the First American Consul at Canton, ed.  Josiah Quincy (Taipei: Ch’eng-Wen, 1968), Appendix, 43.

[8] The Society of the Cincinnati was an organization of veterans of the Revolutionary War, established in May 1783; the Roman hero who served as motif for the organization specifically referenced the Washingtonian ideal of soldiers who served their country, then gracefully retired to civilian life.  Shaw had taken “an active efficient part in the formation” of the Cincinnati, and, as its founding Secretary, had drafted the society’s constitution.  Quincy, in Shaw, Journal, 111.

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