Letters of the China Trade: 1870—1883

Back in the June/July/August issue of the SACS newsletter, we were treated to some excerpts of letters written by Ruth Crowell, an American who lived in China with her husband, a sea captain in the tea trade1, in the late 19th century. In this issue, we are favored with some letters from the sea captain himself, Ira Crowell, to his wife’s father and to a niece and nephew back in the United States.

You may recall that Ruth Bradford first went to China with her father, Arthur Bullus Bradford (1810-1899) who was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as US consul to Amoy (present-day Xiamen), in 1861. After the Opium Wars (1839–42), Amoy was one of the first ports to be opened to foreign trade – particularly the tea trade – and to residence by foreigners, according to two Beaver County Pennsylvania historians, Marjorie Douthitt and Peggy Jean Townsend.

Ruth met Ira F. Crowell, first mate, on the ship of the returning voyage from China in 1863. She married him, though probably, a little later. He became a sea captain, and she frequently accompanied him on his voyages, becoming known to the crew as the Fifth Mate. Captain Crowell died of cholera, and Ruth returned to Buttonwood in Darlington Township, [PA] where she, [and her sisters] Isabella, also a widow, and “Joe” (Josephine) lived for some time.2

Crowell mentions two events in his letters that deserve a bit of elaboration. The first has to do with missionaries in China, the second with the opium trade.

Crowell’s discussion, in his December 5 letter, of religious self-determination for all people may have sprung from events leading up to and resulting from the Tianjin (Tientsin) Massacre. The treaties of Tientsin (1858), [allowed for] residence in Peking for foreign envoys, the opening of several new ports to Western trade and residence the right of foreign travel in the interior of China in addition to freedom of movement for Christian missionaries.3 The presence of these missionaries led, twelve years later, and at least partly, to the Tientsin Massacre of June 21, 1870 which was a:

… violent outbreak of Chinese xenophobic sentiment that nearly precipitated international warfare and signaled the end of the “cooperative policy” between China and the Western treaty powers. Before the incident, rumours circulated in Tientsin that the French Sisters of Charity were kidnapping and mutilating Chinese children. Hostility mounted, and on June 21 the French consul, Henri Fontanier, fired into a crowd of locally prominent representatives, missing the district magistrate but killing his servant; immediately the consul and some 20 others, mostly French, were killed and mutilated by the mob.4

The other event Crowell writes about, this time to his nephew, on February 22, 1883, concerns the prohibition placed on American traders to carry opium. It is important to understand that, in the West, opium was used as a painkiller in the late 18th century, especially in combination with morphine (a derivative of opium), to treat soliders in the Civil War. It was an effective pain killer, but also led to huge numbers of veteran ‘addicts’5. In his letter, Crowell is almost certainly commenting on the Treaty As To Commercial Intercourse And Judicial Procedure, which was ratified in July, 1881 and proclaimed three months later on October 5th. Article 2 of that treaty states:

The Governments of China and of the United States mutually agree and undertake that Chinese subjects shall not be permitted to import opium into any of the ports of the United States; and citizens of the United States shall not be permitted to import opium into any of the open ports of China, to transport it from one open port to any other open port, or to buy and sell opium in any of the open ports of China. The absolute prohibition which extends to vessels owned by the citizens or subjects of either Power, to foreign vessels employed by them, or to vessels owned by the citizens or subjects of either Power, and employed by other persons for the transportation of opium…6

So, with that little bit of extra background information, I hope you enjoy reading the three letters that follow. As with his wife’s letters, I should say that Crowell’s comments, especially with regard to the English, do not reflect the attitudes of the Shenzhen Asian Culture Society!˜˜˜˜˜˜˜˜

Hong Kong

December 5, 1870

My Dear Mr. Bradford,7

To day finds the good Stm “Venus” at the above port, with Ruth and myself on board. I am glad to say her health has been excellent, until about a month ago, she caught a severe cold and this trip down has entirely cured her of it. Hong Kong at this season is perfectly delightful, warm and pleasant; quite different from the weather at Buttonwood I imagine, as I presume you have plenty of snow and Ice now. Shanghai is more like our climate as a week ago there a little Ice was seen. I presume you keep posted up about the China Question which at one time looked rather badly. I cannot blame the Chinese so much as some as I think all Nations and all people should have their own way in religious views and not have some other nation’s religion or other person’s views jammed down their throats. And I think also if the Missionaries would stop at Home and attend to our heathen [illegible], it would prevent much trouble out here.

We have a Telegraph company started, and slowely [sic] the wires are being lain [sic] (submarine) between Hong Kong and Shanghai, and in another six months we can tel. direct to America from Shanghai.

The china coast which has never had a Light House, has now nine in course of construction, three of which are now lighted, this will materially add to the safety of navigation tof the China Sea which has always been vy dangerous.  Mssrs Augustine Heard&Co the firm that I sail for have two new large Stm coming out from England and as I am at the head of the list of Capts. I think probably I shall have one of them, altho I like the ”Venus”.

I would like to have a line from you whenever you will honor me with one. [illegible] also hoping some day to settle down at Amoy Harbor.

I am yours faithfully,

Ira X Crowell



March 25, 1882

My Dear Katrina,

Never a day goes by or in fact an hour passes but what I am thinking of you all at dear old Buttonwood. When you are about getting up and beginning the day, we are drawing the curtains of night around us, and always when I lay down at night the last thing in my mind is Home and its many loved ones. My latest news from you all is Feb 9th. Please tell Aunt Ruth that I have not seen her handwriting this time. I presume Uncle Woke will have left for his Red river ranch long before this reaches you, and no doubt you will miss him very much. Do you realize that none of you girls have written to me for over six months, but I will forgive you as I know you will have no news of importance to narate [sic]. I have the most flattering accounts of you all through Aunt Ruth. She keeps me posted on your conducts. So Fan is taking drawing lessons so Woke says. What is your forte?

Kit: I want you to write me how that ice house proved last summer. I have asked Aunt Ruth but she will not tell me. Don’t you let her know I asked you. I am dreadfully homesick to see you all, but fate forbids that I hould live at home. Some day I may come back, but I will be so old and ugly that you will send me back. Please say to your good mother I will write her a letter some of these days that will astonish her. I pine to ask her lots of questions but somehow I cannot put my thought and queries on paper. Give my love to dear old “Dove” and beautiful “Fan” and to all at the Home. Take good care of Aunt Ruth and write me a line sometime when you are in the humor. We will begin our regular trips soon.

With love from your – old Uncle Capt. Who never forgets “Katrina”.˜˜˜˜

Amoy, China

Feb. 22, 1883

My Dear Frankie;

I think I have been indebted to you for a letter for some time, but truly I have so little time and so little of interest to write that I have waited so long, and in fact I have made the necessary apology, and will now say a few words. I am writing to Grandma Bradford and I just enclose three more sheets to show that Uncle Captain has not forgotten dear old Buttonwood or the people there. My latest is from Kitty, and all were well at that time.

I am expecting a transfer from this Coolie trade to some other steamer. This last trip up while steaming along the coast of Borneo, the steamer was run aground on a dangerous shoal, and but for the fact of the tide being in our favor, we would have remained there, and possibly many lives would have been lost.

The old Captain that has command is past his usefulness, and like all Englishmen that I know, full of conceit, and if I tell him there is danger, he will say he is Captain. We came off all right, but we were all very much shook up. As the natives upon that coast are a dangerous lot, called Dyaks and we would have been swamped with them as soon as daylight came. “All’s well that ends well.”

Today an American gunboat has come into port, and the sight of the American flag is good, as there are none on this Coast. Passing the law not to carry Opium under the American flag, has driven every one from the Coast, it being an impossibility to compete with others who are allowed to do so. I approve of stopping the Opium Traffic, but it should be done by all Nations and not to the exclusion of one.

I hope you are enjoying your school days, and by the reports I think you are. Obtain all the usefull [sic] learning, that you can, for it will be the best legacy that anyone can leave you, and will be of service to you when money and friends fly away. Now I must stop and wish you all the success imaginable.

With Love from Uncle Captain.

Notes to text:

1And probably the opium trade as well.

2 http://www.bchistory.org/beavercounty/booklengthdocuments/BradfordBookHTML/Bradfordindex.html

3 “Opium Wars” Encyclopedia Britannica, from Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. Copyright © 1994-2003 Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. May 30, 2003.

4 “Tientsin Massacre.” Encyclopedia Britannica, from Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. Copyright © 1994-2003 Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. May 30, 2003.

5 Opium.” Encyclopedia Britannica, from Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. Copyright © 1994-2003 Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. May 30, 2003.

6 The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 3, No. 3, Supplement: Official Documents (Jul., 1909), pp. 253-275 accessed via JSTOR.

7 Arthur Bullus Bradford (1810-1899), Crowell’s father-in-law, was a preacher and an influential abolitionist.

8 Augustine Heard & Co. was a 19th century American trading firm in China that imported and exported many commodities, including tea and opium. The firm was founded in 1840, in Canton, by Augustine Heard, Joseph Coolidge and John Murray Forbes. …Business flourished, mainly because of the use of fast clipper ships. Still, tea did not provide much profit compared to opium, which enabled the firm’s finances to soar until it became the third largest American firm in China in the mid-19th century.


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