“When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail” by Eric Jay Dolin (Liveright Publishing/W.W. Norton, 394 pages, $27.95)
Eric Jay Dolon grew up near the ocean in New York and Connecticut and studied forestry, environmental management, policy and planning at Yale and MIT. His previous books include “Fur, Fortune and Empire” and the award-winning story of American whaling, “Leviathan.”
He serves as a fisheries policy analyst at the National Marine Fisheries Service.
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His latest book, “When America First Met China,” is a useful and highly readable history of American trade with China, a history that includes wide-ranging studies on the environmental impact of the factory system of trade in Canton, the exploitation of seals, sea otters and sandalwood, as well as an exhaustive treatment of the opium trade which so distorted relations between China and the so-called Western developed world.
Dolin’s “exotic history” begins just after the Revolutionary War when American ships were free to sail to China, having been previously excluded by the British Parliament and the East India Company’s monopoly over American shipping to the Far East. American shipbuilders, capitalists and sailors were champing at the bit to sail east, hoping to make profits from delivering silver bullion, woolens and manufactured goods in return for tea, silk and porcelain. Shipbuilding processes come under Dolin’s expert eye, as does capitalist accumulation under the hard-driving barons of the day like Robert Morris, Stephen Girard and John Jacob Astor, each of whom amassed huge fortunes trading furs into China in return for tea.
During the late 18th and early 19th century, America’s share of trade with China remained a tiny fraction that of Britain’s, though the Americans were certainly ambitious and creative.
It was always the hope of American merchants to “unlock” China’s millions of people to American products. Little did they know that China was not the Celestial Empire of their imagination, but a poverty-riddled, brutally ruled and disunited land where there was no real market for finished American manufactured goods. The same is largely true today, despite China’s great leap forward.
Perhaps the centerpiece of Dolan’s book is the Opium Wars, fought to pry open China’s restrictive Canton trade (where foreigners were restricted to a single port and forced to operate under highly restrictive rules) in order to benefit British desires to export the drug to China’s millions of addicts. Taking place in the 1840s, the two Opium Wars did indeed pry open China, though at great human and political cost. Unlike the British and Americans, The Chinese retain bitter memories of these old battles.
“When America First Met China” delves into dozens of other subjects – Clipper Ships, international law, missionaries, women, cultural practices and art among them. It is handsomely produced with lavish illustrations and gorgeous color prints. Though it has no bibliography, it does have extensive notes which point toward further reading for those so motivated.