Salem to China: Life on Land and Sea  1784 - 1820

Jenny and Pauline’s Third Grade

This was the motto on the town seal for Salem Massachusetts.  Salem first traveled to the East after the American Revolution.  Before that time, England would not allow colonial ships to go there.  England’s own East India Company supplied all of the goods from the East to the colonies.  The first ship to go to China from Salem was called the Grand Turk and it left Salem in November 1784.  The first American ship was the Empress of China.  The ship brought rum and sugar and traded it for tea.

The person on board the ship who was responsible for all of the trade was called the supercargo.  The owner gave him complete control and responsibility for all trade.  He would get a percentage of the profit.  Other people could also choose goods to go on the ship and then he would make trades for them.  Even crew members could try to make money by bringing goods on board to trade.  This was called a venture.  People were guessing, or speculating, that there would be a buyer somewhere in the world for their goods.  For example, a poor woman could try a venture of a dozen pairs of hand knitted stockings.  They could be traded for something else, which she could keep or sell to make money.  Leaving Salem, the ship might have molasses and sugar from the West Indies, cheese and cloth, Massachusetts rum, tobacco, barrel staves, and ginseng (a root the Chinese believe can restore youth).  At each port, the supercargo may trade for other items.  He might get spices like cinnamon and cloves from the Banda Island.  He might also get cocoa, ivory, silks, Arabian coffee, pepper from Sumatra, and gold dust.

“To The Farthest Port of the Rich East”

The Supercargo and Trade

All About Trade

Once they got to China....


The Chinese were very private and would not let the “barbarians” go beyond the “factories” or hongs at the docks.  No other place in China was open to foreigners.  The Chinese built a seven-mile-long, forty-foot-high brick fence to keep the Chinese population away from the “flowery flag” devils, which is what they called Americans.  Only the Hong merchants were allowed to deal with the foreigners.  The Hoppo was the Chinese officer who calculated the taxes on foreign ships.  He expected to receive gifts from the supercargo and the captain.  The Taipan was the main agent of a Hong.  The Chinese also called the American supercargo a Taipan.

Illustration by Lily