Expat Imperialism: Reconsidering the Bonds of Empire

“Opium ships at Lintin in China, 1824,” by William John Huggins, 1828. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum.
“Opium ships at Lintin in China, 1824,” by William John Huggins, 1828. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum.

Dane Morrison
Salem State University
Follow on Twitter @trueyankees

On a balmy Sunday evening in March 1838, a colorful conclave of English, Parsee, American, and Hong merchants crowded the resplendent grand hall of the New English factory in Canton in a sort of town meeting to hear Chief Superintendent and Plenipotentiary of Britain’s China trade, Charles Eliot. Eliot was there to announce Britain’s response to the arrival of Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu, who had arrived days earlier with a commission to eliminate the opium trade, his sweeping proclamation demanding they deliver “every particle of opium” to him for destruction. It was addressed to “the Barbarians of every nation.” Recognizing the sprinkling of Americans in the hall, Eliot expressed his delight for their tacit cooperation, and assured them, too, of the protection of the British government. Proclaiming what everyone already knew, that two American warships, the imposing USS John Adams and the Columbia, were expected imminently, he hoped that he could count on their assistance. “Yes, you may,” someone shouted back. All in all, it was “a very pretty speech,” American merchant Robert Bennet Forbes observed.[1]

More than a pretty speech, Eliot’s words recognized an important aspect of imperial and global history – Eliot understood that the sinews that connected the British Empire were more than ships plying trade routes, colonial administrators issuing edicts from imposing fortresses, or agents collecting taxes from impoverished farmers. They were also strengthened by informal ties of commerce, gentility and affinity that bound, albeit loosely, communities of global expatriates. In subtle but significant ways, the empire of the 1830s was already an informal phenomenon, connected by the citizens of the world whose residencies in colonial outposts created webs of support.

The print culture of early global travelers reveals a world of expatriate networks that transcend nationality. Their journals, letters, ships’ logs, and publications mirror the maritime world of cultural and national diversity described by historians such as Marcus Rediker and Jeff Bolster.[2] Whether British, French, Dutch, Danish, Portuguese, Spanish, or American, members of this expatriate community spoke the same patois of business terms. They shared the cultural same assumptions and, in ports like Canton, agreed that Western concepts of commerce and property trumped the arbitrary demands of a seemingly backward tyranny. And, they all inhabited the same spheres of separation. Certainly, the transient captain or peripatetic supercargo rarely remained in port long enough to set down firm roots, form friendships, or feel himself a member of a foreign quarter.

Yet even those who sojourned for extended periods in one place, as the merchants of Russell & Company or Olyphant & Company and the British merchants of Jardine and Matheson or the East India Company did in Canton, were still alien to any place in the Indies. Though settled in Canton or Calcutta, Bombay or Bencoolen, they remained outsiders–fan quai in China, ferengi in India, kafirs in North Africa, yabanci in Constantinople, or papalangi in Polynesia. And, sometimes, they even governed together. In Canton, the expatriate community conferred in a 40-member Chamber of Commerce, the body authorized to govern the affairs of the community, and different nationalities held the gavel on a rotating basis.

“Foreign Factory Site at Canton” by unknown Chinese artist, c. 1810. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum.
“Foreign Factory Site at Canton” by unknown Chinese artist, c. 1810. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum.

The American experience is particularly instructive in reconstructing a world that was, in American Samuel Shaw’s words, experienced “both nationally and personally,” in the words of Samuel Shaw, supercargo aboard the first Yankee vessel to sail to China. In the decade after Shaw’s 1784-1785 voyage aboard the Philadelphia Indiaman Empress of China, an American exodus swept into the Great South Sea, joining their Western counterparts, as well as Fujian Chinese, Parsee, and Arab traders, and carrying the word that a new people had arrived to take their legitimate pace among the community of nations. They spilled out from the wharves of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and countless smaller seaports into Calcutta, Pondicherry, Sumatra, Ceylon, and even insulated Japan and returned with cargoes of tea, pepper, coffee, and silks that provided a timely injection of capital into the withered economy and stimulated the recovery of the early 1790s.

We do not know how many Americans traveled to the East during the height of the Indies trade between the 1790s and 1840s. Tabulating the number of Yankees who sailed to some part of Asia, from Constantinople to Cape Town to Hawai’i, the numbers of crew and passengers they carried, and the numbers of people they left behind in distant ports is complicated by the scanty records that have survived. They were sailors and supercargoes, merchants and missionaries, prisoners and pirates, and lopers or “alone men.”

An essential step in acquiring membership into the community of civilized nations was that of gaining recognition in the expatriate enclaves of the distant outposts of Europe’s empires in the East. Samuel Shaw captured the importance of these connections in his journals describing the first American voyage to the East, that of the Empress of China to Canton, February 1784 – May 1785. Throughout the passage, Shaw tells his readers, the Empress benefitted from the aid of Western expatriates. Approaching the Sunda Straits, the Americans met up with two French vessels en route to China, which guided the Empress to her destination. At Macao and Canton, French colonial officials made the necessary introductions and customs arrangements to initiate trade.

Recognition of the new nation on the other side of the world came in the form of maritime tradition. As Captain John Green brought the Empress to anchor, he ordered a thirteen-gun salute to announce the Yankees’ arrival, “which were answered by the several Commodores of the European nations.” Soon, the Danish factory sent an officer “to compliment” the visitors, and the English sent an officer “to welcome your flag to this part of the world.” They were followed by the Dutch factory, which offered a boat “to assist.” The “French ships sent two boats, with anchors and cables, under an officer, who assisted us in getting into a good berth, and staid on board till we moored.” Protocol required the visitors to return these visits, and here, too, Shaw was pleased to report, “The behavior of the gentlemen on board the respective ships was perfectly polite and agreeable.” Shaw may not have realized its significance, but this amiable reception was, in fact, reciprocal: In a distant outpost, representatives of the East India companies and their nascent empires were relieved to find allies, even those from a weak and backward nation, augmenting their little community.

Given the feelings over “the late war,” the Americans were particularly apprehensive over the reception awaiting them by East India Company officials. Implicitly referencing his identity as an American merchant, Shaw noted with some pride that John Bull had not been “behindhand.” Even the head of an English factory assured him, “As soon as it was known ¼ that your ship was arrived, we determined to show you every national attention.” Invitations to call, the signals of respect among Western gentility, came quickly and cordially. Shaw could write to Jay, “Besides the gentlemen of the factory, many of their captains visited us, gave invitations, and accepted ours in return.” As to the war, the erstwhile enemies strove to make amends, and America’s unofficial consul 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.

For their part, John Bull’s China expatriates gained much goodwill in return. In practical terms, Americans helped cement the bonds of empire for England. When an unfortunate cannoneer aboard the British Indiaman Lady Hughes inadvertently killed several Chinese subjects, including a mandarin’s servant, the Americans joined the expatriate community at large in supporting the EIC “in the present business.”

In official circles, within the halls of Parliament and Congress, and within the editorials and essays that fretted over such things, boosters and critics would worry over other nations’ imperial expansion, economic competition, and spheres of influence throughout the next century.

Upon the onset of the First Opium War, however, the actions of Commissioner Eliot suggest a subtext to these debates, an informal imperialism traced in the correspondence of the men and women who filled the communities of Western expatriates that spanned the globe. On the one hand, the highest official representing Britain in China had offered the Empire’s protection to the lesser states of the international community. Yet, by invoking the aid of Canton’s expatriate enclave, including even the newest of those nations, he tacitly recognized the webs that connected any one empire depended on informal ties that transcended nationality.


[1] This post draws on material from True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Marc-William Palen offered valuable comments, and I am indebted to him for the opportunity to share these ideas.

[2] Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 (Cambridge, ENG: Cambridge University Press 1989); Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000); and Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press, 1998).

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