The China Trade at the Penobscot Marine Museum

Betty Schopmeyer
Betty Schopmeyer, Education Director, Penobscot Marine Museum

The beautiful Penobscot Bay town of Searsport boasts many old homes dating from the great seafaring era. Here one can find the Penobscot Marine Museum. Its principal exhibits illuminate the industry of Penobscot Bay in the 19th century and illustrate life on one of the great square-rigged ships, and what it was like to visit China when it truly was exotic.

The Asian artifacts in Penobscot Marine Museum’s collection were donated by ship captains who brought back souvenirs and items to furnish their own homes.  Betty Schopmeyer, Education Coordinator, has furnished the following information to provide a small sense of what this museum offers.

For hundreds of years, Maine has built fine ships and produced extraordinary mariners. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Maine vessels and captains participated in the trade with China, peaking after the Civil War. Maine was involved in the China Trade predominantly through shipbuilding and supply of master mariners. Mainers sometimes bought shares in ships owned predominantly by Boston and other outside merchants. Only a few Mainers, such as Portland ship builders Preble and Jewett, and Theodore Lyman of York owned their own ships in the China Trade:. Few, if any, Maine products were exported to the Far East. One exception was ice from the Kennebec River, which was carried to Calcutta, Bombay, and Batavia.

Red Jacket
Maine marine artist Percy Sanborn painted this portrait of the Rockland-built clipper “Red Jacket” sometime after her 1882 wreck in the Cape Verde Islands.

Some Maine shipyards built clipper ships. As competition intensified in the Far East trade, fast vessels became profitable. This led to the development of the clipper, which could outsail the slower, higher capacity English “tea wagons.”

Although Maine shipbuilders turned out another type of merchant vessel, the Down Easter, and most clippers were built in large East Coast port cities, about sixty clippers were built here. Among them was the well-known Snow Squall built in South Portland in 1851 and active in the China Trade.

Another piece of the China trade represented at the museum involves the coolie trade and Cuba. By the 1860s Cuba was third behind only England and France as a trading partner of the United States (China was number five). Cuba produced highly desirable sugar and molasses. For many years Cuban sugar growers had relied on Black slaves, but with the slave trade cut off, they turned to China for coolie laborers. By the late 1860s, about 150,000 Chinese had sailed for Cuba. About 15 percent of them died en route. Penobscot Marine Museum has a collection of papers of Thomas Pillsbury, a Rockland captain who carried a full load of about 500 Chinese workers to Havana in 1861. He was paid for each man delivered alive. There is some question about whether these men were forced or voluntary emigrants. The next year, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law forbidding American citizens to engage in this trade.

Another fascinating aspect of the China trade from Maine involves a seafaring family, the Colcords. Captain Lincoln A. Colcord and Jane French Sweetser Colcord of Searsport were the parents of Joanna and Lincoln Colcord, born at sea, aboard the Charlotte A. Littlefield, in 1881 and 1883 respectively. The family took many voyages together. The children did lessons on board, and Joanna even took her final exams from Searsport High School in Hong Kong.

Sewing box
Laquered sewing boxes like the one, above right, were frequently found in the homes of Maine deepwater captains, a useful gift or perhaps something that a captain's wife might have acquired when shopping in Canton.
Opium pipe
A carved ivory opium pipe.

Between 1899 and 1901, Captain and Mrs. Colcord and Joanna, then a budding photographer, made voyages to the Orient on the State of Maine. The vesselcarried case oil from New York and brought back tea, fans, and rattan furniture. On the second voyage, Joanna took a photographs which preserved a record of the voyage.

The history of these years offers us perspective on more recent events, as well as a look back to the time when trade meant personal involvement and valuable cultural experiences for captains, crews, and often family members. As Joanna Colcord said in describing her early life, these Maine maritime families were truly “citizens of the world.”

From the January 2009 CAFAM Newsletter

One thought on “The China Trade at the Penobscot Marine Museum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.