1788 The First Chinese in North America?

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Most historians agree that there must have been Chinese among the “Indios” (Filipinos) who often served on the crews of the Spanish ships – the so-called Manila galleons – that sailed annually between the Philippines and Mexico from the late 16th century onward.  There must also have been Chinese crewmen on board British and American ships bringing tea, silk, and porcelain from China to the Atlantic coast of North America in the 18th century.  In both cases, however, nothing definite is known about those Chinese.  We do not know for sure that they actually existed.

More will be known once researchers have gone through crew lists of merchant ships preserved in British and American archives [1].  For now, however, the first identifiable Chinese individuals to reach this continent seem to have been two seamen who served with John Meares in his voyage to Vancouver Island in 1788-89, Affee (Ah Fei?) and Aehaw (Ah Ho?) [2].  The “Ah” prefix shows that both were ethnic Cantonese.  They belonged to a group of 50 Chinese who had come with Meares from Guangzhou.  Affee and Aehaw were assigned by Meares to help man a small ship, the North-West America, that had just been built on Vancouver, partly by Chinese carpenters.  Its mission was to trade along the coast for sea otter furs and to take those for sale to China.

Meares had left Guangzhou with two British-built ships, the Felice and the Iphigenia.  “The crews of these ships consisted of Europeans and China-men, with a larger proportion of the former.  The Chinese were, on this occasion, shipped as an experiment: – they have generally been esteemed an hardy, and industrious, as well as ingenious race of people; they live on fish and rice, and, requiring but low wages, it was a matter also of economical consideration to employ them; and during the whole of the voyage there was every reason to be satisfied with their services. – If hereafter trading posts should be established on the American coast, a colony of these men would be a very valuable acquisition.” [3]

These Chinese were skilled workers rather than mere coolies, and all were volunteers:  “A much greater number of Chinese solicited to enter into this service than could be received; and so far did the spirit of enterprise influence them, that those we were under the necessity of refusing, gave the most unequivocal marks of mortification and disappointment.  – From the many who offered themselves, fifty were selected, as fully sufficient for the purposes of the voyage: they were, as has been already observed, chiefly handicraft-men, of various kinds, with a small proportion of sailors who had been used to the junks which navigate every part of the Chinese seas.” [4]

It may seem surprising that there should have been so many volunteers at a time when China was prosperous and at peace.  However, the inhabitants of the southern provinces already had a tradition of seeking their fortunes overseas, and the newly discovered Northwest Coast sea otters, with fur that was much more valuable in China than any other fur, offered a chance at fortunes that were truly worth seeking.
Some of the Chinese with Meares, including Affee and Aehaw, were captured by the Spanish warships Princessa and San Carlos, and forced to build fortifications and then to work in mines. [5]  These may never have returned to China.  Some may have married Indian women and settled down in the region that later became British Columbia, Washington State, and Oregon.

[1]  [http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/catalogue/RdLeaflet.asp?sLeafletID=130&j=1].

[2]  Meares, Voyages, Appendix X.

[3]  Meares, John. Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789 from China to the North West Coast of
America.  London, 1790, page 2.
[4]  Meares, ditto, page 3
[5]  Meares, Voyages, Appendices I and X
Note:  As noted by several websites, including Wikipedia, Meares came to North America from the Portuguese settlement of Macao (Aomen), not from Canton (Guangzhou).  It seems that Meares sailed under a Portuguese flag so as to evade the monopoly of the East India Company. 
This bears on the question of the ethnicity of the fifty (not seventy) Chinese carpenters, smiths, and sailors who accompanied him to Vancouver Island.  Meares does not say exactly where he hired them.  But we know that at least two had Cantonese prefixes to their names, and it seems very likely that most if not all were speakers of one of the southern Guangdong dialects -- Guangzhou-Samyap (Sanyi), Zhongshan, and Taishan-Szeyap (Siyi), perhaps with a few Hakka (Kejia) and Teochiu (Chaozhou) speakers thrown in.  One source claims that Meares brought Fujianese with him to North America.  We know of no evidence for this.
Several other English ships sailing from East Asia to the Northwest Coast at that period also had Chinese workmen and crew aboard.    A list of those ships is slated to be included here.

Research & writing by Ben Bronson and Chuimei Ho; copyright 2004-2006 by the Chinatown Museum Foundation.