Friday, November 28, 2014

True Yankees by Dane Morrison - Book Review

True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (The Johns Hopkins Studies in Historical and Political Science) by Dane A. Morrison (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 280 pages, $34.95) uses the voyages, writings, and experiences of American traders and sojourners Samuel Shaw, Amasa Delano, Edmond Fanning, Harriet Low and Robert Bennett Forbes during the period 1785 through 1840 to describe the expansion of American mercantilism in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in support of his thesis that their voyages helped spread the web of American influence and power while establishing the newly founded country's legitimacy and to develop the distinctive qualities of behavior and belief that firmly established the American character during a period where the existence and development of America a a nation and world power was still very much in question.

The five merchant world explorers in the book stand as representative of those pioneers in post-revolutionary America who sought to build their fortunes by following the China trade to build their lac (fortune) exploring far from their New England origins as they pioneered new routes to the Great South Sea, encountered new people, cultures, and economic opportunities for themselves while helping to build America's wealth back during a period of fragile economic recovery and weak international recognition. They “progressed” from seeking to trade in ginseng, cotton, seal furs and whale oils to Chinese silk, ceramics, and east Indian opium in a triangle trade similar to that between America, Africa, and the Caribbean islands in slaves. Because all five were skilled writers who shared their stories in personal journals, correspondence, and books, they established an extensive record of their activities, developing understandings of the world they functioned in, successes and failures. Morrison weaves their stories together into an intriguing period covering a little over half a century when the emerging American character was developed and established through the success of the efforts of people like them, picturing the excitement their voyages generated in the commercial and popular minds of Americans who were themselves on a voyage from being thirteen autonomous colonies toward a continent-wide nation of distinctive character and disposition. As we follow their voyages and writings, readers see the development from questing merchants following their needs and ideals to established world traders championing American exceptionalism manifested as prejudice and closed-mindedness.

The core of the book describes both exploring and trading. The explorations included some genuine discoveries, but a number of first visits by Americans to places where the British had already made bad impressions, making it more difficult to establish relations. The American traders saw the indigenous peoples of the Pacific islands as barbarians or primitive peoples who were somewhat less than human, manifesting little or no interest in the culture, language, customs, or religions of the people they encountered. In the late 18th century, when Samuel Shaw began his trips as supercargo on the Empress of China, the Pacific charts were inaccurate and travel extremely dangerous. Yankee traders had been preceded to China by a couple of hundred years of Portuguese, Spanish, and British traders. China, in order to protect itself from cultural mixing, had established a foreign trade zone in Canton, beyond which foreigners were forbidden to go. They had little incentive to wish to discover the real China, anyway. By the late 1830's, when Harriet Low, a New England spinster lived in Macao and Canton, attitudes had hardened as the Opium trade threatened Chinese stability. Low viewed this disruption through the narrow lens of New England superiority and fundamentalist Protestant judgment. Meanwhile, Forbes made his fortune as an intermediary representing traders being banned from China because of Opium.

Dane A. Morrison

Dane A. Morrison is Professor of Early American History at Salem State University in Salem, MA. He has published, written, and presented widely in this his specialty. He has been at Salem State for twenty -one years. This book is, essentially, an academic treatise with the kind of annotation and references you would expect from such a book. Nevertheless, it is a highly readable account of this important, but not widely known component of American History.

True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (The Johns Hopkins Studies in Historical and Political Science) by Dane A. Morrison (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 280 pages, $34.95) is an academic treatise written to demonstrate the thesis of Yankee traders in the development and nurturing of the expansion of American vision of itself, the establishment of the U.S. as a “major player on the world stage,” and the discovery of a unique national identity. The book is fully annotated and contains interesting illustrations. It serves well to fill a hole in the historical knowledge base of many interested in American history and makes a significant academic contribution while remaining highly readable. I received True Yankees as an electronic galley from Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle App.