Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Ginseng Trading

DECLARATION of a state of war between Great Britain and its colonies almost immediately set loose some thinking about how to divert some of the profits and commercial arrangements of the British Empire to other owners. In particular, the American merchants began to consider how to capture colonial trade with China, or at least look into what useful gossip they could pick up in the many dealings with sea captains in port, or traders in their counting houses. The waterfront has always been a tough place, and in the seaside taverns, it can be particularly difficult to get trustworthy information or form dependable commercial alliances. So it is not entirely surprising if the captains and agents of Robert Morris found themselves in the company of many seafarers who later proved to be little short of pirates. England was conducting a lucrative trade with China, and the American colonies supplied much of the commodities. The Treaty of Paris suddenly transformed smuggling and near-piracy into open season for international trade, with much room for sharp practice.

On February 22, 1784, the Empress of China, a brand-new copper bottomed vessel built in Boston for a dubious trader named Daniel Parker, set sail from Manhattan for Canton. John Cleve Green was the captain, and ownership was a confused tangle of William Duer, John Holker, and a firm of Turnbull, Marmie, and Company which was essentially a disguised agency of Robert Morris, with Morris the dominant owner. The ship had a cargo of two commodities: 250 casks of ginseng, and twenty thousand dollars in silver. The ship would return from China a year later, bearing tea, silks, and porcelain. The world was in a post-war depression, and the numerous part owners of the venture were barely speaking to each other. But five years later it was recorded that 19 American vessels were tied up in the port of Canton. Just whose idea it was, and who gets the main credit for making it a success can be endlessly disputed, both inside and outside the courtroom. But this was in broadest outline, how the China trade began.

The rest of the story is mainly a botanical one.

Originally published: Saturday, October 29, 2011; most-recently modified: Tuesday, May 21, 2019