The New People in Canton

Contextualizing Early American Interests in the China Trade


  • Bruce Yao University of British Columbia



In 1784, American merchant and soon-to-be United States consul to China—Samuel Shaw— embarked upon a six-month journey to Canton aboard the Empress of China. Backed by the United States Government and fellow capitalists, Shaw’s voyage marked the beginning of relations between the newly independent United States and China. This paper will explore the motivations behind Shaw’s voyages by analyzing relevant primary documents alongside the context in which they were produced. Central to this paper’s arguments are Shaw’s journals , which are some of the only surviving documents from the earliest American trade delegations to China. Using these sources, this paper concludes that while trade with China was profitable, the profits involved were negligible in the context of the gruelling journey across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Rather, this paper argues that the voyage to China was driven by a newly independent nation’s deeply rooted desire to project its sovereignty to the wider world. In other words, the Empress of China was guided by an ideal that reverberates across American history and popular imagination: independence.


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