The Fur Trade to China

Captain James Cook and his crew hunting “sea horses” (walruses) off the coast of, with the HMS Resolution in the background, c 1778 (painting by John Webber, courtesy National Maritime Museum)

By the 1700s, there was no more talk among explorers or traders about an easy link to China. The geography was clear; there is a gigantic ocean, the Pacific, between the west coast of America and Asia. The first person to clarify the geography between the Northwest Coast and Asia was the great English explorer James Cook, who in 1778 collected some sea otter furs, an animal he scarcely knew. By a happy accident he found a hungry market for the furs in Canton, China.

When other British traders followed to trade furs with the Coast First Nations and then carry their goods to China, they added another link to a long chain of trade that had connected China and the rest of the world for some 2000 years. During the early years of the trade, up to 1800, the custom was for the ships to spend the season, May to September, trading on the coast, to spend the winter in Hawaii and then to sail for China. There they would exchange their furs for tea, silk and porcelain and then sail for their home ports, either in Britain or in New England.

The new key item in the China trade was tea, which in England, in particular, was becoming a necessity of life. This new trade with Asia was conducted with great difficulty over many obstacles—storms, disease and pirates, among them.

China tolerated the trade, though it still had little need or enthusiasm for contact with the outside world. China was still nearly self-sufficient, but there was great demand for the very special fur of the sea otter. On the Northwest Coast, the First Nations knew the value of their skins and bargained strenuously with the traders. However, increasing competition and longer trading seasons were destroying the sea otter population. By 1802, most trading vessels took two years to collect a cargo.

This passing trade for sea otter skins is one of the stranger episodes in world trade but it had some lasting effects. It established the first direct economic relations between the coast of the future Canada and Asia. It also brought the first Chinese workers to America. This was only temporary but it was the first meeting of people who had been until then separated by the vast tablelands of central Asia.

Learn more: Macao and Chinese Customers