How was Providence involved in the China trade?

“Canton Waterfront with Steamer Spark” by Guan Lianchang. Painted in Canton, China, circa 1855.


What do Nicholas Brown, John Brown, Jr., Thomas Poynton Ives, George Benson, Welcome Arnold, John Innes Clark, Colonel Joseph Nightingale, Joseph Russell, William Russell, Thomas Lloyd Halsey, Samuel Snow, Sullivan Dorr, and Edward Carrington have in common? Well, other than being recognizable street names for Providence residents today, all of these men were prominent Providence merchants involved in the China trade during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. 


During the period from the American Revolution to the War of 1812, Providence was in direct commercial contact with every quarter of the globe, including China. During this era, Rhode Islanders were really interested in “oriental goods,” making it a lucrative opportunity for these merchants. Though the China trade in Providence has received the most attention from scholars, the volume of this trade actually pales in comparison with that of Latin America and Europe, which were much more profitable destinations for merchants during this time. 


Nonetheless, the first Providence vessel to make the voyage to China was John Brown’s General Washington in December 1787.The ship’s cargo included anchors, cordage, sailcloth, cannon, gun carriages, shot, bar iron, sheet copper, steel, spruce spars, rum, brandy, wine, cordials, cider, hams, cheese, and more, valued at approximately $26,000. The return cargo included tea, silks, cotton goods, porcelain, lacquered ware, cloves, and flannels, valued at approximately $99k. John Brown and his partners made a 30% profit, though the voyage did take 18 months in total.   


The success of John Brown’s ship encouraged other Providence merchants to enter the China trade. However, the length of time it took to get to China and the additional cost of sending these ships to China made it an unprofitable venture compared to trade with Latin America and Europe. Nonetheless, between 1787 and 1828, Providence averaged three voyages to China annually. Comparatively, Providence sent an average of thirty ships annually to Europe and fifty annually to Latin America during this time. 


It is very likely that some of the first Chinese people in Rhode Island came on these return voyages from China — maybe one day we’ll find out who the first Chinese person in Rhode Island was! 


Want to learn more? Check out these resources: 

— Brown University – The Archaeology of College Hill: Negotiating the Shipping Trade

— Rhode Island Historical Society – Prosperity at the Wharves: Providence Shipping, 1780-1850 

— Warwick Rhode Island Digital History Project – John Brown: The Cleverest Boy in Providence Town