Commercial break: the first American trade mission to China

Stuart Heaver:

Next Saturday marks the 230th anniversary of a small ship setting sail from New York. It was the 52nd birthday of George Washington, the man who five years later would become the first president of the United States, and as that little ship set off down the East River, past a 13-gun salute, it set in motion a commercial relationship that is now the most critical in the global economy.

The Empress of China was bound for Canton (Guangzhou) and the first direct contact between America and China. She was to spark a frenzy of maritime trade between the two nations.

These days, every nuance that might represent a commercial or geopolitical change in the relationship between the US and China is eagerly reported by the world’s media, though on that chilly Sunday morning in 1784, there was no relationship at all. And over the course of more than two centuries, while the scale of US-China trade has burgeoned beyond any 18th-century imagination – the total trade in goods and services between the US and China stood at US$539 billion in 2011 – the legacies from those early days remain and some of the characteristics are surprisingly similar.

This historic voyage was not inspired by diplomacy or naval prowess, however, but by Americans’ love of tea.