Friday, June 30, 2017

Canton, Mass. And the Old China Trade

Few may know that the town of Canton, Massachusetts was named for the city of Canton, China. The Anglicized name for the city Guangzhou seems an odd choice for the newly formed town separating from Stoughton, but the parish voted and approved the name on December 6, 1796:

“It has been a matter of much conjecture why the town was so called. It has frequently been asked whether this name was petitioned for, and whether it was given to the town on account of the China trade, which was at the time of its incorporation becoming important? To these questions a negative answer must be returned. The naming of the town was the whim of one individual… It is related that when the question of a name for the new town was discussed, the Hon. Eljiah Dunbar said that this town was directly antipodal to Canton in China, and for that reason should so be called. This argument, fallacious as it was, served to convince those who probably had nothing better to offer; and so this name, unmeaning and without any historical associations, was adopted.” – Daniel T.V. Huntoon, History of the town of Canton, Norfolk County, Massachusetts

View of Canton, Mass., 1878

While the story of how Canton got its name is puzzling, what is more interesting about this description is the quick sentence about how important the “China trade” was to early Massachusetts. After the Revolutionary War, though unable to trade with familiar partners like England or its colonies that remained in the West Indies, the United States was finally free to trade with areas previously monopolized or forbidden by their king. The Empress of China, financed by Philadelphian Robert Morris, was the first American ship to sail for the port of Canton, China in 1784. The significance of this attempt at commerce with China, “to us the unexplored country,” was immense, and accounts of the ship’s embarking were reprinted in newspapers throughout the states, including Massachusetts (Adventurous Pursuits: Americans and the China Trade, 1784-1844). While the new United States was completely foreign to the merchants in Canton, they were happy to engage in trade and the Empress of China returned the following year loaded with cargo. The experimental voyage had gone very well and had yielded a great profit for its financiers. The Empress has also brought to Canton Samuel Shaw, born in Boston, who would remain there to negotiate American-Chinese trade, becoming the first U.S. consul to China.

Many Massachusetts entrepreneurs followed suit, and the ports of Boston and Salem came to depend on Chinese trade. Salem’s Elias Hasket Derby’s ship, the Grand Turk, was by chance routed to Canton after dropping off cargo in Mauritius, and triumphantly arrived back in Salem in 1787 loaded with goods like tea, cinnamon, and chinaware. Derby’s continued trade with the Chinese eventually made him America’s first millionaire. Derby’s success would influence Thomas Handasyd Perkins, whose fur trade with Canton would make him one of the leaders in American-Chinese trade for over forty years.

Elias Hasket Derby of Salem, Mass.
But profits were not the only sign of success for Massachusetts merchants and financiers. Boston’s Joseph Barrell convinced five other investors to back a voyage to China that would go around the Cape Horn of South America rather than the traditional route, which ran across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope. The Columbia embarked on this trade experiment in 1787 and did not return to Boston until 1790. While financially the voyage was not a success, the ship had inadvertently become the first American vessel to sail around the world and was immediately outfitted for another venture that would lead to the “discovery” of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest and America’s claim to the Oregon territory.

Eventually trade with the Chinese declined, as it was increasingly more and more difficult to find goods marketable to the commercially independent Chinese. To counter this lopsided trade relationship, British and American ships began trading with opium, which led to the Opium Wars between England China in the mid-1800s. These wars, as well as internal strife in both China (Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864) and the United States (American Civil War, 1861-1865), brought the era of the “Old China Trade” to an end.

However, trade with China was essential to the commercial success and development of Massachusetts and the rest of the United States in the early years of the country’s independence, and remembering this period of history may have been a better reason for the naming of Canton, Massachusetts than Elijah Dunbar’s faulty geographic facts.

Further Reading:

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff