Item #010165 1816 – One of the earliest extant Old China Trade letters regarding a shipment of tea and silk from a merchant who was simultaneously beginning the largest American opium smuggling concern in China. Philip Ammidon to Benjamin Ives Gilman.
1816 – One of the earliest extant Old China Trade letters regarding a shipment of tea and silk from a merchant who was simultaneously beginning the largest American opium smuggling concern in China
1816 – One of the earliest extant Old China Trade letters regarding a shipment of tea and silk from a merchant who was simultaneously beginning the largest American opium smuggling concern in China

1816 – One of the earliest extant Old China Trade letters regarding a shipment of tea and silk from a merchant who was simultaneously beginning the largest American opium smuggling concern in China

Canton, China to Philadelphia: 1816.

This stampless folded letter from Philip Ammidon (an early American opium dealer, in Canton, China) to Benjamin Ives Gilman in Philadelphia measures 16½” x 9½” unfolded. It was sent on 30 November 1816 and is one of two copies sent by Ammidon to ensure his message was received. As this letter was sent long before mail from China was officially routed through the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, it was privately carried and bears no postal markings. It is likely the second earliest extant commercial letter sent to the United States from China. In nice shape.

It reads in part:

“I am shipping, on board the Ship North Point , John C. Paneson, a quantity of Teas & Silk, & I request that immediately upon receipt of this, you will affect insurance for my account on Said property, to Amount of Fourteen thousand five hundred Dollars ($14,500) at from Whampow to Baltimore, or a port of discharge in the United States, against all risk. The North Point is a fine . . . Ship, & Capt Paneson considered an experienced man. She is expected to leave here about the 15th of next month (Decemr) – I am also shipping a further quantity of Tea, by the North Point, (say 405 Chests) which I shall otherwise insure. – I shall designate the two parcels of goods by separate Invoices & Bills of Lading, which will be forwarded you in a few days,

I am very Respectfully / Your Al. Friend / Philip Ammidon”

. Item #010165

American trade with China began in 1784 when the Empress of China left port with a cargo of ginseng and fur pelts, the only commodities besides silver and opium of interest to Chinese merchants. She returned a year later filled with tea and silk which turned a 25% profit on its owner’s investment. Soon a handful of American free-traders entered the market whose contact was limited to the port of Canton (today, Guangzhou). One of those, Stephen Girard, soon found a way to circumvent the British East India Company’s monopoly of the opium trade. Instead of obtaining his opium from India, he secured his in the Levant.

Although some accounts place Ammidon in China in the early 1800s, it is more likely he didn’t arrive until 1815 after the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812 when relations between Great Britain and the United States thawed. Regardless, Ammidon was one of the earliest American traders in Canton, and after a burst of Chinese smuggling control temporarily crippled opium trade, he was able to purchase a shipment from one of Girard’s supercargoes at a bargain-basement price in 1816. No doubt, he turned a significant profit which may have been used later in the year to fund the tea and silk transaction referred to in this letter.

In 1818, Ammidon partnered with Samuel Russell to form Russell & Company which devoted its efforts almost exclusively to the opium trade. Amidon soon traveled to India and somehow skirted the East India Company’s monopoly and sourced a supply of opium there. After merging with Perkins & Co., another opium supplier, Russel & Company became the largest American supplier of the narcotic to the Chinese. Ammidon left the company and returned to the United States, sometime between 1827-1830.

Whampoa was an anchorage in the Humen, a narrow strait in China’s Pearl River, a gateway to Canton about 15 miles further north. All foreign ships docked to load and unload their cargos at Whampao, and from there, goods were ferried to and from Canton by sampan. As foreigners moved their cargo upriver more deeply into Chinese territory, they became increasingly dependent on Chinese navigators, merchants, and Imperial patrol boats since pirates infested the waters. In addition to the western merchantmen and sampans, the harbor was filled with houseboats, junks, and ‘flower boats’ that provided music, wine, opium, and women to sailors. Shallow-drafted ‘crab boats” with many oarsmen scuttled in and out of the harbor using small inlets to smuggle opium while avoiding official patrols.

(For more information, see “This Week in China’s History: February 22, 1784” at The China Project website, “The Dragon and the Eagle” at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum website, Downs’s “American Merchants and the China Opium Trade, 1800-1840” in The Business History Review Winter 1968, Perdue’s “Rise and Fall of the Canton Trade System” at MIT’s Visualizing Cultures website, and “A Chronicle of the China Trade” at the Harvard Business School website.)

Unique. At the time of listing, nothing similar is for sale in the trade. Neither the Rare Book Hub or Stamp Auction Network list any auctions for similar letters. (Stamp Auction Network identifies only two pre-1835 letter to the U.S. from China as having appeared at auction; neither was related to the opium trade.) OCLC shows nothing similar in institutional collection. There is an image of one earlier American letter at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum website.

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Price: $4,000.00