A venture from the United States to China in the late eighteenth-century was a risky undertaking. The absence of a strong market for U.S. goods handicapped American trade. A voyage to Canton also represented a major capital investment. Merchants, therefore, financed this commerce through multiple small-scale investors to limit individual exposure to risk and promoted each departure as a self-contained venture. The voyage of the sloop Experiment to Canton strikingly demonstrates these salient characteristics of early American commerce with China.

The Empress of China, the first American ship in the China trade, returned in triumph to New York on 11 May 1785. Its investors enjoyed a clear profit of between twenty-five and thirty percent and refitted the ship for a return voyage to Canton, financed by a new partnership. 1

The success of the Empress of China stimulated a group of New York and Albany businessmen to consider their own venture to Canton, employing an 85-ton sloop appropriately named the Experiment. Theirs was a much less ambitious undertaking, but then it was not backed by Robert Morris, the Philadelphia "Financier of the Revolution," who had been the principal supporter of the Empress of China's venture. Nevertheless, this was a significant enterprise: it was only the second direct voyage from the new United States to China, and the Experiment was a very small vessel indeed, particularly in comparison with East Indiamen of 1,000 tons or more that European companies employed in the Canton trade. The venture's commercial aspects illustrate important features of the early American trade with China.

The sloop was built in the summer of 1784 at Albany for Stewart Dean, who had commanded several privateers during the recent war with England, and Teunis T. Van Vechten, a prominent Albany merchant. When eventually federally enrolled in the coastwise trade after returning from China, the Experiment's dimensions were listed as length - 58 feet 11 inches, beam - 19 feet 3 inches, depth of hold - 8 feet 11 inches, register tonnage - 85 ½ tons. 2 The sloop cleared Albany in mid-July on her maiden voyage, carrying a full cargo of wheat and corn consigned to Shirley, Bangor & Company in Madeira. There, Dean loaded with wines and sailed to the West Indies, pausing en route at the Cape Verde islands to "fill [his] Deck with small Cattle." The wines and cattle were bartered for rum that was taken to Charleston, South Carolina, which the sloop left on 23 December for New York. 3

Dean sold a one-third share of his vessel to the partnership of James Stewart and John Jones in early January 1785. 4 A financially dismal round trip voyage to Charleston followed: the owners netted less than £50 after paying all operating expenses. This they attributed to "the Kooped condition of the american Trade [which] at present is such that where formerly One American Vessel frequented that or any of the American Ports, there is now Ten, and every place is over Run & Glutted owing to our not having Liberty of the English West India Trade." 5 The Experiment, therefore, "was Chartered from here [New York] with Passengers for St Eustatia for £275 York money and there Discharged." 6

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Next
Title Page

Last updated December 3, 1996