Carrying a full load of goods, including 30 tons of ginseng, and finally free of the ice that had choked the harbor for weeks, the Empress of China set out from New York on February 22, 1784 for China. Just months after the British had finally evacuated the city after the Revolutionary War, American merchants were seizing the opportunity afforded by independence to enter the China trade.
The Empress voyage was the brainchild of John Ledyard, who had sailed to the Pacific with British explorer Captain James Cook. He hoped to trade for furs in the Pacific Northwest and carry them to China. He found backers including Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. The group found the copper-plated ship that became the Empress under construction in New England. Ledyard backed out when the fur plan fell through, but Morris suggested ginseng as a valuable replacement cargo. The Chinese prized the root as a cure for all manner of ills.
The Empress needed six months to make the 18,000-mile trip to Canton (modern Guangzhou) and four months to trade its cargo for tea and export porcelain. Returning home in five months, reaching New York in May 1785. She was greeted with superlatives. One city newspaper believed the voyage ushered in “a future happy period” in which “burdensome” trade with Europe could be replaced with profitable navigation “to this new world” in the east. The cargo was sold at a 30-percent profit, a substantial return.
Soon dozens of ships each year were plying the seas between the United States and China, helping build fortunes in New York and New England. The desire for speed in this trade gave birth in the 1830s to the magnificent clipper ships that were the fastest sailing ships ever built.