Pacific World, Atlantic Assumptions

Dael A. Norwood

Samuel Augustus Mitchell, A New Map Of The World on the Globular Projection (Philadelphia, 1846). Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection at Stanford University Libraries.

The “Pacific world” is not a useful analytic category—at least, not when it comes to understanding the people, goods, or processes involved in Americans’ commercial exchanges in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like the “Atlantic world,” the keyword whose hegemony it seeks to replicate, the “Pacific world” foreshortens commodity chains and capitalist logics that stretched farther than any ocean, and flattens important ecological, political, and cultural distinctions, limiting our ability to understand the past.

I’ve come to this perspective through my research on the American China trade, a commerce that at first glance seems tailor-made for a “Pacific world” frame. But instead of proving the Pacific world’s value, the China trade troubles it. In practice and in Americans’ understanding, the China trade was not a trans-Pacific commerce, but a global one. It shares this in common with other forms of Americans’ maritime engagement in the early republican era. A closer look at the far-flung entanglements of the American China trade reveals the gaps a “Pacific world” perspective produces.

What was the American China trade? John Demos once referred to it, lyrically, as “a complex, multisided, many-splendored thing.” [1] More prosaically, the phrase denotes U.S. merchants’ share of the maritime shipping business of purchasing, transporting, and marketing the products of China beyond Asia, as well as the transactions that made those exchanges possible.

Those enabling transaction were extensive. While Americans wanted Chinese goods—tea, silks, porcelains, and furniture—there was little demand in China for American produce or manufactures. Bereft of saleable goods from home and credit abroad, in the first decades of the China trade, U.S. merchants from ports up and down the East coast sailed the world over to gather the coin and rare commodities needed to do business in China.

They traded in European, Caribbean, and South American ports for Spanish silver dollars, the only always-accepted money in Chinese markets. Chasing shifting Chinese demand for luxury consumables, they gathered ginseng root from Appalachian forests; hunted furs in the Arctic and Antarctic; and shipped sandalwood, birds’ nests, and beche de mer (sea slugs) from Hawaii and other Pacific Islands. And most infamously, American traders visited the Ottoman Empire and the Bay of Bengal to buy opium to smuggle into the Qing Empire. (Nothing quite like an addictive narcotic to ensure consumer demand!)

As a result of all these detours and epicycles, American China traders’ routes were complex, circuitous, and only occasionally transpacific. Indeed, until well after the conquest of California, many U.S. merchant ships went east across the Atlantic to reach China, not west across the Pacific. The cabotage trade they conducted along the way, on circum-Atlantic and intra-Asian trips, was always a critical part of their business.

As the commerce matured, some of the U.S. firms based in Canton (Guangzhou) developed expertise and capital enough to establish more regular routes—but these still spanned continents and hemispheres. Perkins & Co., one of the most successful merchant houses, linked North America, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, China, and Europe together in a circuit, trading furs and sugar for coin and opium in order to buy teas and textiles to exchange for sugars and furs, seeking profit at every stage. Arbitrage, on a global scale, was the business of the American China trade.

Opium smuggling, central to the U.S. trade in China from the 1820s forward, created new extra-Pacific connections. Viscous, bulky, and easily recognized as contraband, opium could not replace silver as a commodity currency in legitimate purchases from tea dealers. Instead, traders substituted bills of exchange drawn on London banks for Spanish silver dollars. The cotton boom was critical to this development: The increase in slave-grown fiber exports made British commercial paper more readily available in the United States, providing American merchants with a means to finance their Asian trade. As historian Jacques Downs explained, “Americans drank Chinese tea paid for by Southern cotton through the medium of London bills and Asian opium.”[2]

The American China trade changed significantly during era of the early republic.[3] But throughout, the commerce was navigationally, organizationally, and functionally, a global affair—and one whose flourishing was tied directly into the growth of a global capitalist system dependent on dispossession, bondage, smuggling, and cheap credit.

We can tell similar stories about other circuits of exchange that involved Americans and the Pacific.

Americans’ war on charismatic marine animals was a global campaign.[4] Whaling was a peripatetic affair: Ships followed their prey from cape to cape and pole to pole, depending on the season, whale population, and market demand.[5] Crews were drawn from multiple continents, ships were built, outfitted, and launched almost exclusively from Atlantic littoral ports, and the meat and oil that Melville’s favorite “fish” yielded was sold worldwide. Sealing and other marine fur-hunting trades worked similarly. The animals might, sometimes, be found in the Pacific, but the capital, labor, and consumption involved rarely were.[6]

Some historians have highlighted the guano trade as an “opening” of the “Pacific world” for the modern era. But this label fits awkwardly, too. The guano trade depended on global linkages: Asian and indigenous laborers who worked Pacific or Pacific-bordering mines to supply European and American farms and plantations.[7] American policymakers, at least, did not consider the guano traffic a Pacific matter. The Guano Islands Act of 1856—frequently cited by historians as an “origin” point of U.S. empire in the Pacific—names no specific ocean in its text, but gives U.S. citizens the right to claim property rights in “a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government.”[8]

In short: the “Pacific world” fails to adequately encompass the full extent of the people, places, and goods involved in American maritime commerce in the early republic.

And like a Yankee trader, the framework also smuggles in material we might not want. Just as the “Atlantic world” lines up neatly with NATO’s Cold War worldview—but rather less so with early modern imperial or commercial realities—so too does the “Pacific world” overlap with the U.S. military’s division of the world into theaters of war, as well as the PRC’s claimed sphere of influence. We might now live in a world where superpowers face off in the Pacific, but people living in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not.

In a scholarly era that actively pursues the “vast” world of early America, and does so while speaking in the context of an exhaustively globalized present, why should we replicate the problems of the “Atlantic world” again? As the Great Pacific Garbage Patch reminds us, not everything belongs in an ocean. We can choose other frames for our investigations, and potentially be the better for it.


[1] John Demos, “Viewpoints of the China Trade: A Young Nation Looks to the Pacific,” Common-Place 5, no. 2 (Jan. 2005),

[2] Jacques M. Downs, The Golden Ghetto: The American Commercial Community at Canton and the Shaping of American China Policy, 1784–1844 (Bethlehem, PA, 1997), 111.

[3] This dynamism is missing from many histories of Americans’ China commerce, which describe the period from the inaugural voyage of the Empress of China in 1784 to the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 as one era, that of the “Old China trade.” Like the “Old South,” the label implies a stability that never existed. China traders’ memoirs, written after the end of the Canton system and generally nostalgic, have substantially shaped perceptions of the period. William C. Hunter’s vivid pastiche accounts have been particularly influential: William C. Hunter, The “Fan Kwae” at Canton before Treaty Days, 1825–1844 (London, 1882); and William C. Hunter, Bits of Old China (London, 1885). For an analysis of how Hunter’s books became so influential, see Philip de Vargas, “Hunter’s Books on the Old Canton Factories,” Yenching Journal of Social Studies 2 (July 1939), 93–94.

[4] The “Great Hunt” in David Igler’s phrase. Igler, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush (New York, 2013).

[5] For arresting visual depictions of this wandering, see Ben Schmidt, “Reading Digital Sources: A Case Study in Ship’s Logs,” Sapping Attention (blog), Nov. 15, 2012,; Benjamin Schmidt, “Shipping Maps and How States See,” Sapping Attention (blog), Mar. 31, 2014,

[6] For examples of the complexities of such voyages, see the narratives analyzed in Dane A. Morrison, True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (Baltimore, 2014).

[7] Edward D. Melillo, “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840–1930,” American Historical Review 117 (Oct. 1, 2012), 1028–60,; Gregory T. Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History (New York, 2013); David Armitage, “From Guano to Guantánamo,” The Times Literary Supplement 5775 (Dec. 6, 2013), 10–11.

[8] 11 Stat. 119: “An Act to authorize Protection to be Given to Citizens of the United States who may discover Deposits of Guano” (Aug. 18, 1856),

17 May 2022

About the Author

Dael A. Norwood is assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware.

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