Anchored at Canton: A Supercargoes’ Journal of 1723

The records of the business of the East India Company, available for consultation in the Asian & African Reading Room at the British Library, testify to two centuries of minute record keeping which attended its various activities: trading, military, political. There are the vast minute books of the Board of Directors (known as the company ‘Court’), volumes of transcribed letters which the Company sent to its agents, accounting records, and the log books of the ships that plied the trade. There is also a large archive of journals maintained by the Company’s ‘supercargoes’, experienced merchants and negotiators who sailed with each season’s shipping to China, and exercised oversight in terms of the procurement of the tea, fabrics, and other incidental cargoes of the China trade. In this post, I’m going to take a look at an early example, as a case study of the ‘on-the-ground’ realities of the China tea trade.

The Whampoa Pagoda, nr. Canton – W. P. Floyd, c. 1875

 “Diary and Consultation Book of William Fazakerley, Esq., Chief, Richard Morton, Edmond Godfrey, Thomas Attkyns, Thomas Carter, Thomas Dade, & Devereux Bacon, Appointed a Councill for Mannaging the Affairs of the Honourable United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies in China for the year 1723.”

This diary (of which extracts are provided below) documents the journey of four ships – the Duke of Cambridge, the Princess Ann, the Mountague, and the Hartford – to Canton, from late 1722 through to early 1724. It describes events of the outbound journey to China, the complexities of the dealings with the merchants (organised into firms known as ‘Hongs’), the local imperial customs officer (known to British merchants as the ‘Hoppo’), and the linguists who enacted a semi-proscribed surveillance over the conduct of each European ship. It describes the everyday business of transferring the company’s ‘treasure’ (that is, the silver that it carried from London) from the ships resting at the deep-water anchorage of Whampoa to the Company’s Factory (a kind of warehouse-cum-lodgings) at Canton, and the procurement of cargoes of tea, silk, and china ware.

 

December 1722 Departure from London, entering the English Channel on the 27th
January 1723 The ships arrive at the Island of ‘St Jago’ (modern-day ‘Santiago’) in the Cape Verde islands, off the west coast of Africa
March 1723 Having lost sight of each other in the previous weeks, the ships are reunited at the Cape of Good Hope
June 1723 Ships arrive in Java, after three-month crossing of the Indian Ocean. In the crossing of the South China Sea over the next month, they become aware of ships of the competing Ostend Company not far behind them.
15-18 July 1723 The ships arrive at Boca Tygris, at the mouth of the Pearl River which leads to Canton; there they discover the Wallpole – an East India Company ship of the previous season – which had been delayed in its journey to China. The supercargoes of the Wallpole provide valuable intelligence of the difficulties that the Chinese officials (termed by them ‘the Mandarines’) have presented to their trade, and suggest that two of the ships should travel to the port of Amoy instead. William Fazakerley, as Chief supercargo, decides that under the terms of his ‘Charterparty’ (the legal contract that binds the ship, its crew, and supercargoes together in service to the East India Company) he has no authority to make such an order. The arrival of the English ships, together with the ships of the Ostend Company, ‘has made a great uproar amongst the Merchants at Canton’
 19 July 1723  The terms of business are agreed with the Hoppo; these include a guarantee of ‘free trade’, ‘protection against Insults’, a promise of swift dispatch, and the right to choose their own linguist and ‘comprador’ (the Chinese business – usually a family – which would provision each ship during its stay). The supercargoes transfer to their ‘Factory’ in Canton (a harbour-side warehouse with limited accommodation and office space). The ship’s officers and crew will largely have to remain on the ship for the duration of the stay.
20 July 1723  the first contract is agree with a merchant named ‘Cumshaw’. This is for 5500 ‘peculls’ of Bohea Tea (the standard dark tea) at 27 ‘tales’ per pecull, 1000 peculls of Singlo Tea (the standard green tea) at 16 tales per pecull, 100 peculls of ‘Pechko’ tea (a premium dark tea) at 45 tales per pecull, 200 peculls of ‘Congho’ tea (a mid-range dark tea) at 45 tales per pecull, and 100 peculls of Bing tea (a premium green tea), at a price to be agreed. Procurement of the cargoes begins, with regular requests sent from the supercargoes to the ships for transferrals of small amounts of the company’s ‘treasure’ in order to pay for their investments.
18 August 1723  At the request of several of the Canton merchants, the supercargoes address a letter to senior regional Chinese officials (named as the ‘Frontuck’ and the ‘Foouin’) protesting against ‘the several Impositions and Grievances’ that have attended the trade during this season, by which it would appear that Chinese government officials have exercised a more determined surveillance of the trading activities.
1 September 1723  A contract agreed with the merchant Suqua for china-ware. Anxieties are occasioned in the weeks to come about the quality of  the Bohea tea, in which – it is suspected – the fresher leaves are being mixed with older leaves left-over from the previous season. It is nevertheless noted with some satisfaction that the Ostend Company ships have fared far worse, having been ‘oblig’d to pick up their Quantity were they could find it lett the quality be what it would and we thought it would put a distress upon them[.]’
20 October 1723 News received that one of the boats transferring China-ware to the Hartford has sunk; ‘we are afraid of some Damage seeing severale of the Chests turn’d upside down’.
3 November 1723 Word received from the captain of the Duke of Cambridge that the ship is now drawing 17 feet and 10 inches, and cannot take any more cargo. Fazakerely admonishes him that ‘according to our Computation you want near fivety Tonns of ye. Charterparty Tonnage.’ The rest of the month of November, and the whole of December, is dedicated to the loading of the tea cargoes.
7 December 1723  The last of the Company’s ‘treasure’ is transferred to Canton.
16 December 1723  Supplies of Bohea having been exhausted, the supercargoes agree to take additional Congou, albeit at a higher price.
1 January 1724  Price of Bing tea is finally settled at 33 tale per pecull.
10 January 1724 Delicate negotiations are required when the Hoppo declines to sign the permit to allow the ships to take on board a pilot in readiness for their departure. It transpires that he has been made aware of a handsome clock on board one of the ships, which he wants to send to the Emperor as a present. This ‘obstinacy of the Hoppoo’ threatens to occasion ‘great delays we could not afford’, and the clock is surrendered.
16 January 1724 The supercargoes leave Canton and return to the ships at Whampoa. On the 17th, the ships are ordered to proceed over the natural sandbars, into the deeper waters near the mouth of the Pearl River at Boca Tygris.
21 January 1724 The ships are consigned back to ‘proceed with all Convenient speed for the Port of London where you go consigned to the Honble the Court of Directors of the United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies, heartily wishing you a safe arrivale thither’.
February 1724 The journal ends ‘at sea’, with William Fazakerley taking the opportunity to account for some of the decisions which he and his colleagues had taken during their time in Canton.

 

 

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