It is February 22, 1784, and George Washington’s fifty-second birthday. In New York, two ships set sail down the chilly East River—The HMS Edward on its way to England with papers formalizing the separation of a young United States from Great Britain, and the Empress of China on its maiden trading journey to China, carrying sea otter pelts, sandalwood, and silver, and bound for Guangzhou, or Canton as it was then called.
Thus local author and historian Eric Jay Dolin began his talk at the Library last Monday evening, by doing what has become his trademark, picking out the threads of the past and showing us not only what they mean, but how they fit together.
In this, his tenth book, and his third after his widely praised bestseller, Leviathan, which discussed the history of whaling in America, Dolin takes on America’s relationship with China, how it began, how it developed, and the impact it had.
With his introductory remarks, Dolin illustrated how America began its trading partnership with China at the very beginning of its history.
And, the story that follows, for the most part, is not a pretty one. In fact, Dolin calls the actions that resulted from our eagerness to trade with the empire of China an “ecological and human rights catastrophe.”
Despite its vast population, then, as now, China was a poor country, with no need for American goods. Colonials, on the other hand, were primed for Chinese goods—such as tea, porcelain and silk—by the British and the long arm of the East India Company.
What China wanted was silver, and from the get-go a trade imbalance resulted. In an attempt to provide the Chinese the goods they did covet, Dolin, who has a masters in Environmental Management from Yale University, as well as a PhD from M.I.T., carefully documents the environmental devastation that followed: the sea otter population was decimated, large areas of Fiji, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest deforested for their sandalwood and old growth trees, respectively.
This keen awareness of human impact on the environment is a common theme in Dolin’s work; he painstakingly documents the decline of whales in Leviathan, and in Fur, Fortune and Empire, the otter, seal, and beaver receive his careful attention.
In his talk, Dolin went on to discuss the impact of our trade on eastern peoples. In particular, western countries introduced opium, which was illegal in China. At the height of the practice, this drug trade brought in tens of millions of dollars. Opium had a devastating impact on the Chinese, resulted in 2 wars, and ultimately crippled the country. Although America cornered only a small percentage of this trade, the famous Forbes family earned its fortune by selling illegal drugs in China.
The worst result of the drive for trade was the practice of bringing Chinese indentured servants, or “coolies,” as they were called, to South America and the United States to work. Although not technically slaves, such workers could in theory buy their freedom after years of labor, in reality they were treated as such. On the way over, 12 percent of the workers died before they ever reached shore. In America, “coolies” were partly responsible for building our railroads.
Peppered throughout his discussion were the memorable details that keep Dolin’s books lively and fast-paced. He talked of the additives put in tea leaves-- iron fillings, ash leaves soaked in ferrous sulfate and sheep dung—and the intrepid Salem woman who snuck into the male-only colony of Canton.
Of his success, Dolin--who lives in Marblehead with his wife and 2 children, and, until recently, did all his writing and research in a basement so damp and dark his family called it “the cave”—says, “I’ve been lucky.”
Maybe so, but he has a large following of happy customers. Alyce Deveau said of his third visit to the Library, Dolin “has a standing invitation” to come and speak.
And, the widely respected Kirkus Review called When America Met China a Top Ten Book Pick for Fall 2012.
Signed copies are available at The Spirit of 76 bookstores in Swampscott and Marblehead.
For more information, visit www.ericjaydolin.com