My second cousin at Tigerhawk has been posting on a fascinating family trip to China and the changes he has observed since his last visit 22 years ago. Among the things I like best about TH is that while he is upfront about his right-of-center politics he is hardly dogmatic, his impressions are thoughtful, his eyes are open, and he has a marvelous way with words.
Our family has a long, historic association with the former Celestial Empire. The father of the great-grandmother TH and I share was a missionary and merchant in Canton and Hong Kong in the 1860s, and our Gr-gr-gr-great Uncle Henry Olmsted made two arduous passages to China in 1839 and again in 1843 about which I have written here. In the previous generation, our Gr-gr-gr-great grandmother and her three sisters each married merchant captains, several of whom sailed to China and two of whom died at sea.
Among our family papers is an extraordinary letter of instruction from merchant Edward Thompson of Philadelphia to our collateral relation Captain Isaac Isaacs for a voyage to Canton, China in 1823. Edward Thompson was at that time one of the leading merchants of Philadelphia and his admonitions and particular instructions are so remarkable that I reprint the letter here in full:
Philad. May 22d. 1823
Cap Isaac Isaacs
Proceed with my Ship the Woodrop Sims under your Command to Canton in China & when you arrive deliver all the cargo and Specie onboard to my Sons there (except what may belong to yourself and officers and Crew) – You will please to regard my Sons in Canton precisely as you would me in Philadel – I consider All they do as beyond all question right – I accordingly Confirm it – Make all the expedition in your power consistent with the safety of the Vessel – and when you receive a Cargo for the Ship proceed for Philadelphia – I would recommend the Straits of Banca in preference to Gaspar – the one has good anchorage ground, the other very dangerous and Rocky – Please give your Crew once a day a half Gil (sic) of Whiskey to each man, but none to the Boys – Should however one Boy David be dissatisfied with this, let him go into the Forecastle with the men and fare with them. I hope you will preserve strict subordination on board, and at the same time use the men well. I am always mortified and much hurt to learn that any person is used ill on board my Ships- Take great care of the sails, rigging & provisions on board – let a regular account of the provisions, water, Canvas etc. be kept and entered on the Log Book by the first officer both whilst in port and at Sea – please to be as little as possible at Canton. Indeed I have great confidence in your setting an example to all my other Captains that will be of great importance to my Interest – you are of the same opinion as myself that a good Master of a Ship is Never easy when he is absent from the Ship, and of Course makes all possible haste to get back – in regard the dunnaging the Ship and Stowing the Cargo, you are inprospicion of my Ideas, and your Judgment and experience I estimate so highly, that I consider it unnecessary to say a word more on that subject – my Sons will furnish you with Such packages as you may from time to time require – in order to make good Stowage, I am very desirous the Woodrop Sims should bring me a great Cargo, and brought in good Order – therefore, be careful in dunnaging, and let me particularly request you will try the Pump very often; was I the Commander of a Ship with a valuable Cargo, I should never omit one half an hour without trying the Pumps – remember She will be best to have a good deal of stone in her bottom, which can be judiciously used in dunnaging between the Tea and the Skins- avoid all passengers; and speak nothing at Sea – don’t ride Commodore at Canton; don’t Fire a gun unless for a pistol or to drive away an Enemy; - If you displace an officer, do without one in his place
– on the return voyage I apprehend you may put Sails; provisions; and perhaps a quantity of Cassia or Tea in the Cabin – no strangers to Ship goods in my Ship I much prefer paying you & the officers for their space tonnage and at the highest prices going in Canton - your privilege is Eight Tons – I allow more than usual in order that the Captain and officers may put no goods in the State rooms, but use their State rooms for their clothes, trunks and Sleeping in – the Cabin belongs to the owner – please invite no parties on board my Ship – it interrupts business, and is attended with Expense – don’t go nearer than 6 degrees to the Cape of Good Hope, nor nearer than 2 ½ to 3 degrees of the Cape De Verd Islands. Be very particular in this, those Islands are much to be dreaded – If it is possible never put into any port on the passage – it is impossible for me to give you any idea of the painful Sensation I should have at hearing of my Ship putting into a port whilst on her passage to or on her return from Canton. I hope you will be dispatched by my Sons from Canton by the 10th or 15th December next – whilst you are in attendance at my Ship my Sons will attend to any business you have at Canton – my Sons will pay the Compadores Bills as they are best acquainted with the Customs there, let my Sons see the articles wanted for Ships Stores on the return voyage – as they know what is necessary from the great experience they have had – What ever you may want for the Ship at Canton apply to them for, and Compell them in all matters the Same as you would do with me in Philad. – don’t suffer any shaving on board my Ship when Crossing the line – nor let the Boys write home except to say they are well and have arrived safe – they frequently do much mischief by writing home about things which they don’t understand and particularly in writing about accidents that may have happened on board – give particular attention to this; If this should be disregarded I never will Suffer a Boy to go on board my Ship again – remember my Sons pay all Bills in Canton which saves you trouble & leaves you more time to attend to the duties of the Ship – pay great attention to the Deck of the Woodrop Sims. Remember the Surveyor’s level, and let us endeavour to disappoint all their imaginary Evils in that respect – When the Ship is discharging in Canton pay great attention to see that everything comes out right – I generally want to make Some Communication to the Commanders of my Ships when they arrive in the Delaware – therefore Call at Reedy Island for that purpose – be particular in having the following Signal mark painted Very bold & large Letters without hair strokes on two pieces of old Canvass W●S and when you make Macao attach them as a Signal to your foretop sail and your foretopgallant Sail – and when you enter Capes of Delaware on your return attach them to your Sails as above – don’t show them at Sea – as I don’t wish her to appear as a merchantman at Sea, but as a Ship of War, regulate the Painting of the Ports accordingly, etc. etc. – As I stated in my letter to you, your wages will be Fifty dollars a month and Eight Tons privilege – the first officer Three Tons and 35 dollars a month – the second officer Two Tons and 25 dollars a month – as per Shipping articles – Should you find a surplus of provisions on board the Woodrop Sims previous to your leaving Canton – dispose of the same to the best advantage and pay the proceeds to my Sons in Canton – remember the importance of a thick Coat of Varnish on the Decks – Should you have a bad man on board your Ship endeavour to get rid of him as soon as you can – Should the American Consul at Canton insist on putting one or more American Seamen on board the Woodrop Sims, you will receive them – and also receive persons in distress at Sea by Ship Wreck on board the Woodrop Sims & treat them with Humanity – Wishing you a prosperous voyage under the blessing of the Almighty, I remain with great regard
Sell all Spare Canvass & Spare rope or anything you have too much of or leave with my Sons. Varnish also the tressel Trees, etc. etc.
One might reasonably wonder today whether our ancestor felt at all "micro-managed" by his employer after receiving such a letter. On the other hand, the risks were so great and the profits from a successful voyage to China so potentially vast that perhaps such precautions were routine. This letter is endorsed at the bottom by an agent of Mr. Thompson saying simply: "Consider these as your instructions for present voyage for E Thompson May 10th, 1824.