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Rated: E · Chapter · History · #2196563
Captain McKendree finds himself in a strange new world.
Chapter 1: A Siren’s Song

Captain Everett McKendree slowly brought the eyeglass down from his eye to his side, pausing a moment before handing it to Chief Officer Seth Trunnell. He did not move as Trunnell peered through the glass in the same direction McKendree still faced, south toward where they were sailing. Both of their faces mirrored the other as Trunnell brought down the glass and gave it back to its owner: faces of stern agitation.

The air around them was nearly silent. Only the flapping of the displayed sails in the ever-increasing wind drowned out the constant, raucous splashes of water against the ship’s hull. The sixty-seven crewmembers hardly matched the din of nature’s making, merely adding to it with their busywork. There were shouts from mates to sailors, yards being hauled, mops splashing over the decks, and the occasional “aye, aye!” hollered. But beyond the necessary, nothing else moved the air. No shanties struck out from those sanding the deck, no laughter from the crew belowdecks who were no doubt drinking and playing cards. It was simply too hot for any of that.

The Nephelai and the Discretion had been sailing for nearly one hundred days since leaving England in June. It was the maiden voyage for Far East Goods, a private company interested in bringing back to England treasures from the East. That desire, however, had been difficult to realize. Since 1672, the British East India Trading Company had held a monopoly over trade in China thanks to its Royal Charter. Far East Goods had been one of the dozens of private British agencies lobbying for years to end the inequitable monopoly and open China to free trade. Finally, in 1833, the British East India Trading Company’s tyranny over Asian trade ended, and Far East Goods finally was able to sail to Canton, though not after several months of competition with those very companies they had previously partnered with to end the Royal Charter. But at last they had won a charter and were able to sail to the home of every merchant’s dream.

While Henry Clarkson, the owner of Far East Goods, had primarily raised his company through being a middleman between the British East India Trading Company and the bourgeois in London, he had not been twiddling his thumbs, waiting for this opportunity to fall on him. It was no surprise that his were the first vessels to leave England in pursuit of the East after the monopoly was abolished. In fact, if it were not for a fire and an outbreak of malaria, two other ships would have been coming home to England with thousands of pounds, both in regards to money and weight of tea. But Clarkson’s losses would not be substantial enough to drown what would be coming home to him, if not all legally. Clarkson knew his way around politics and was chummy with leading members of parliament, not to mention the Prime Minister himself. It was said that Clarkson alone was responsible for the revocation of the Royal Charter due to his networking. He was a functional politician without the hatred. McKendree was suspicious of Clarkson’s workings. Not all of them laid themselves out as kosher.

Captain McKendree turned and looked up as he heard a shout from one of the shipmates working the masts. The sailor pointed north, and McKendree followed the finger to what must be of some import. He squinted and then raised the glass again to his eye. “Damn it all,” he cursed under his breath. Trunnell turned around as he realized the oath was not in reference to what lay ahead of them. The captain handed the eyeglass to his chief officer who, after a moment of searching, repeated the oath. “What now?” Trunnell asked. McKendree said nothing, clasped his hands behind his back, and walked smartly to the starboard railing. He laid a fond hand upon the sun-splintered wood and stared out at the Discretion. He wondered if they had seen the same things.

Both ships were what would be considered tea clippers. Built just a year before embarking to China in Boston, they were designed specifically for speed and freight capacity. The Nephelai and the Discretion were built exactly the same: each were 235 feet in length with a beam of 41 feet and a depth of hold of just over 21.5 feet. They had three masts each and carried twenty-three sails; with all of them displayed and sailing leeward in a dead run, they could reach nearly twenty knots.

Besides their transit from the States to London, the tea clippers owed total allegiance to Captains Everett McKendree of the Nephelai and Willard Gaskell of the Discretion, who in turn answered only to Clarkson. The journey east had been relatively uneventful, the mounted cannons ever wary of pirates seeming extraneous.

“Ready the cannons,” McKendree said softly over his shoulder. Trunnell did not hear a single word McKendree had spoken over the sounds of the water, wind, and sailors, but he did not have to hear. He knew exactly what the captain had said. He had thought it too. They were in trouble. “The damn opium.” If only he actually knew.

Ever since the price of silver had risen due to England’s change to the gold standard, a trade imbalance appeared between England and China. The British were ever fond of their teas, but the Chinese did not care about the British silver dilemma and demanded the same prices, not to mention increased tariffs. Silver, in the form of specie, had to be brought to Europe from South America and Mexico, and the supply lines were all but reliable. With a shortage of silver, other goods began to be traded, including rice and furs, but only one consistently stood the test of time: opium. Produced in India, this drug was demanded by the Chinese almost as fiercely as in the West; and now that Turkey had begun production on a cheaper though slightly less desirable stock, trade with the Qing dynasty would reap financial benefit for all of England. Originally, Chinese officials turned a blind eye to the opium trading as it allowed greater quantities of tea to be purchased and exported. However, the Chinese magistrates became aware of the new disparity of prosperity as their imperial treasury began to diminish. Thenceforth, the opioid was deemed illegal. To the British, this just meant that the opium had to be carefully smuggled through various private agencies before reaching Canton. There was no way to sneak the snuff past the Cohong.

The ships had reached Macao within sixty days, stopping only when necessary provisions were dwindling, and once in India to acquire their stock of opium. Now was when the politics began. Ever wary of foreigners, the Chinese government had several steps of regulation before merchant vessels could enter Canton, the only city of trade in the entire Chinese empire. At Macao, each ship had to hire a licensed Chinese pilot and receive a chop, written permission to enter China. After a thorough inspection of the ships, during which the opium chests were skillfully hidden in the ship’s hold, the vessels would finally enter Chinese waters.

After a short stop at Lintin Island where the ships offloaded the opium in exchange for specie and other silver goods, the Nephelai and Discretion were piloted up the Pearl River, a stretch of water that was less of a river and more of a thoroughfare. There were hundreds of vessels, from Chinese war junks wandering up and down the placid river to the sampans on which families lived lining either shore to the thousands of other smaller ships, some fishing, some commuting, others trading. There were flower boats full of strangely-dressed Chinese women and ornamental ships with large eyes painted on the bows and sails that resembled wings. A strange music filled the air, and one sailor, Casey Bluford, who swore he saw one of the eyes of those ships blink, refused to spend any more time on the deck, screaming, “The music’s the Sirens, I tell you, sir! Just wait and see, you’ll be jumping to your deaths in another moment, sir, believe me, sir!” There was hardly a strip down the center of the river for the tea clippers to proceed up once they neared their destination. The forty-one foot beam suddenly became a little too wide, and the helmsman stood off to the side of the Chinese pilot, grateful that for once he was not in control of the ship.

The Western ships anchored ten miles downstream of Canton at Whampoa Island. Though the Cantonese trading year had just begun, already over fifty ships were at anchor at Whampoa. Several of them flew the standard of the British East India Trading Company, but many others were present: there was a Danish flag, Austrian, American, and Swedish to name a few, not to mention the Dutch East India Trading Company insignias on the numerous East Indiamen. Here, coolies would offload the foreigners’ cargo onto chopboats to be ferried to Canton, and the merchant ships awaited to be assigned a Hong merchant, one of thirteen of the Cohong, a Qing dynasty-authorized merchant guild who were responsible for trade in and out of Canton. It was a difficult, precarious position to be in, negotiating two worlds, those of Western capitalism and Chinese sovereignty. The Hong were responsible for the foreigners as the captain was responsible for his crew. If one of the “foreign devils” misbehaved, strayed onto the mainland, or did anything unacceptable to the Chinese, not only would the Hong be disgraced but also the offending crew would not be received back in China. As the area of land the foreigners were restricted to was extremely small, this was not usually difficult to enforce. Most Hongs regarded merchant crews with disdain, viewing them as simply a means of acquiring wealth. They would ensure the integrity of the exports, charge high tariffs, and let the crews be on their way.

Henry Clarkson had obviously played is hand well, for the Hong who greeted the Far East Goods clippers was none other than Wu Ping-Chien, called by the English as Houqua. He appeared on the deck almost immediately after weighing anchor, long before many of the other ships had met theirs, his black robe waving in the wind as though a spirit, his bald head shining with sweat from the heat of the August day.

Houqua bowed before McKendree who returned the gesture. Then the former extended a hand as in the Western tradition. McKendree raised his eyebrows in surprise, then, smiling, took the elder Hong’s hand with a firm grasp. “See,” the Chinaman said, reflecting the other’s smile, “I could be an Englishman if it were not for my eyes! Now, let me take you and Captain Gaskell to Sweden, yes? Then we can discuss what you came here for.”

Within an hour, the holds of the Nephelai and Discretion were emptied and the captains, chief officers, and clerks from both ships were brought to the foreigner’s sector of Canton. The stout, Chinese workers had suspended the heavy crates on bamboo poles that were carried by the shoulder off the ships and onto the ferryboats. Thousands of chopboats, sampans, and Chinese duck boats filled nearly every square meter of open water. Captain McKendree noticed several boats carrying cargo stamped in bold, red letters “Far East Goods” and began to feel anxious about the cargo ever making it to shore. Not only were the hundreds of chests so haphazardly situated on the sterns of the boats so as to appear ready to capsize at any moment, the sheer number of boats littering the open water precluded any logical possibility of the load ever making it to shore. He voiced his concern to Houqua who was seated next to him. As a response, the Chinaman smiled and assured him, “Do not worry. It is your role to captain a ship as it is the coolies’ role to ensure your goods are safely handled. You would hardly trust one of them to captain your ship, just as we would be remiss if we were to trust you to the care of transporting these shipments. See? We all have a function in this process, like cogs in a gear. Let these cogs fulfill their duty as you do yours.” McKendree was comforted little by these statements.

The ferryboat docked in front of a row of narrow palladian structures built side by side in a row facing the river. McKendree noted their elegance in contrast to the red and blue-gray brick buildings that the Cantonese natives lived and worked in. Their facades were magnificent with high columns and sweeping archways and neatly slanted roofs. Each factory had a flag displayed out front facing the water depicting the nation after which the factory was named. Houqua led the two British captains to the one with a Swedish flag hoisted out front. He opened the door to reveal a long hallway—the factory’s length compensated for their narrow construction. Leading them into the building, he ushered them into a room on the left and closed the door behind him.

The room was furnished in a Western manner, but all the furnishings were probably made within several miles of the foreigner’s sector of Canton. Covering the walls were colorful paintings of Canton, of city life, the marketplaces, even the factories themselves. Since foreigners were not allowed to see any other part of Canton besides this small sector, the paintings provided the only glimpse of actual life in China.

A small Chinese man came and poured cups of tea for the three of them as they seated themselves in the three chairs resting around a round, wooden table supported by a single leg. A large viewing window facing south toward the Pearl River and overlooking the American Garden provided ample light to see by in the early-afternoon sun. The garden was hardly something to admire, now only a dirt field with three trees planted near the fence at the water’s edge a hundred yards from the window. But the factories had burned down nearly a decade ago, and they were fortunate enough to have a factory to stay in at all.

Houqua set down his cup and reclined in his chair. “I trust your crews are under control?” he began, foregoing any other pleasantries.

What he meant was immediately understood by the captains. “Do not worry, Houqua,” McKendree assured, “our crews will keep to themselves. They are spooked enough as it is by your music, perhaps even more so than a phantom ship in the fog.”

Either the Hong did not understand his meaning or the joke was lost in translation, for Houqua merely nodded and continued talking. “I trust your discretion. We just must be careful that what happened to that Italian on the American ship does not happen to any British man. That would be entirely disgraceful, to myself as well as to your great nation.”

The captains looked briefly at each other. Both knew of the “Terranova Incident” he was referring to. A few years previously, an Italian seaman by the name of Francis Terranova had been bargaining with a Chinese woman for some goods. She was attempting to sell jar of olives in addition to what he required; but, not wanting the olives, the Italian threw the jar at her head, knocking her unconscious, whereupon she fell out of the boat and drowned. Eshing, the Hong consigned to the crew of the American ship, the Emily, was arrested following the captain’s refusal to hand Terranova over to the Chinese for justice. The Chinese officials demanded a search of the ship in order to find the offending Terranova, but the Americans, fearing the discovery of smuggled opium in the hold, handed the Italian over. A court was convened, and Terranova was strangled as a punishment without any word to the captain. This news traveled around the globe quicker than the tea did.

“Houqua,” Captain Gaskill began after a few moments of uncomfortable silence, “you must forgive us for our ignorance, but what are we to do during this waiting period? Are we to oversee anything besides our crews? The minutiae of this trading system escape us as this is entirely new territory we are sailing in.”

The elderly Chinaman sat up, sipped at his tea, and leaned back once again in his seat, his brows furrowed as though mentally engaged in some terrible battle. He spoke again before long. “Before anything can proceed, the value of your goods must be determined.” He read the look of concern on McKendree’s face and quickly added with his endearing smile, “Do not worry, the valuing will not occur until tomorrow, and I will be present for the entirety of the process to ensure accurate values. Currently, my jiangbaidu—I believe you refer to them as Compradors?—is keeping active watch over your goods. I am his direct superior, and he was chosen by my hands, the same hands that will be choosing your tea.”

As he himself had mentioned previously, were it not for the color of his skin, his narrow eyes, and his traditional dress, Houqua could have been mistaken for an Englishman. His speak was clearer than the Cockney in London and contained no hint of the stunted pidgin Chinese that the English captains had heard so much about. His words and status revealed a shrewdness in business and charm in relations, the two markings of a successful factor.

He continued after a short pause where he noted the look of unease dissolve off of McKendree’s face. "During this time, you will have little to no responsibility. Your clerks will be kept busy enough keeping books and ensuring accuracy in all of our interest and pricing calculations. We have many of our own clerks and pursers keeping track of cargoes being received and dispatched, all of which have imported goods to be valued and exporting merchandises to be evaluated, sales and interests to file, and all manner of other business employments that you need not mind yourselves with.

“You will find all you need here in this factory. There is always a great deal of busyness in a factory, and you will see many coolies running to and fro. They are all under direct orders from the Comprador and will not interfere with you in any way. This first floor is dedicated primarily to our end of the trade: the warehouse where we will be storing not only your goods but also the tea and finery that will leave with you, the rooms for the coolies, the kitchen, and several offices are here. The second floor is where you will find your bedchambers, the dining room, and offices for your clerks, not to mention the tea tasting room and verandah if you ever wish for a better view of the river and a cool breeze.”

Houqua paused for another sip of dark tea before embarking on a tangential topic. “It is a great pleasure to see the workings of a private, British company here in Canton. Your employer, the Mr. Clarkson, has been a driving force in this opportunity. I have known of him for many, many years, and it is wonderful to see the fruit of his hard labor. I consider him a dear friend, though I have seen nothing of him save for his penmanship. You are rich indeed in spirit to be under such leadership.” He leaned forward slightly as though about to whisper a secret. “While the British East India Company has been a driving force in our exportations, the lack of competition has led to a lag in its activity. In fact, the Americans have begun to out-export you Europeans. They have more companies than there are nations in this world! Henry Clarkson is a hero for what he has done, both for China and England. I only wish he could be present to receive the proper honor he deserves for his wondrous plans. He has opened the doors between our emperor and your people in a way that the Chinese, so mistrustful when it comes to the West, can support. There is a new age dawning where China and England will dominate the world.” He spoke the next words with a marked emphasis on each syllable. “The world will never be the same.”

McKendree glanced at Gaskill who was mesmerized by this short monologue. As for the former, he could not help but feel an aversion to these words. There were too vague, too cryptic, too crazed to be innocent.

Almost as though snapping out of a trance, Houqua sat back again in his chair and returned to the more pertinent topic of conversation. “The entire process here will take a week. All cargo to be sent home with you should be loaded onto your ships by a week this Thursday. Do you have any questions for me?”

“A week?” McKendree spluttered in shock. “I was expecting at least two months, even three!”

The smile again. “You are not just any merchants. Our top priority is to send you off on your way with a taste of China to your home.”

“Are we restricted in our wanderings,” Gaskell asked immediately as though he had not heard his fellow captain’s remark. “I have heard of and seen many Chinese pieces of art that I would wish to acquire while here. I trust there is a market open to foreigners? I have set my mind on purchasing one of those puzzle boxes. Such clever carpentry!” He looked to his fellow captain for agreement, but none came. McKendree’s mind was busy with other matters, his brow furrowed and his contemplative eyes seeking out every crevice in the Hong’s face.

“Yes,” Houqua returned, “you will be allowed access to our market within the confines of the foreigner’s sector. But if you should require anything that is not available in that market, simply ask and it will be brought to you. But,” he turned to Gaskill as he said this, “your specific interest in a puzzle box brought something to mind that I nearly forgot. Emperor Daoguang has a special gift he wishes to send back to your employer, Mr. Clarkson. It is one that is long overdue and will mark a lasting bond between our two great nations and the trade that has brought us so close.” McKendree noticed a twinkle in his eye as he said this, a gleam that spoke both of archness and playful mischief. He glanced at Gaskill, but he seemed not to have noticed, an inquisitive smile etched across his face. The twinkle unnerved him, but he knew not why. It was familiar.

Houqua continued as though this tangent had never occurred. “Shortly, a jing xuan—a valet in your language—will come and usher us to dinner. You and your chief officers are welcome to join us at our table, along with your company’s clerks. And do not worry,” he quickly added, “our chefs are well-informed in preparing Western cuisine.”

“Dinner?” McKendree gasped again. “Why, it is hardly three in the afternoon!”

Houqua flashed his teeth once again, this time accompanied with a throaty chuckle. “Yes, our customs are somewhat unusual to merchants, but fear not: there is an evening tea that will fill your appetites before night.”

As if on cue, a Chinese youth not older than twenty appeared at the door of the tea room. He spoke several words in the inflective Chinese language to Houqua before disappearing back from where he had come, the door making no noise as it slid closed, but not before two other youths appeared. Their dress was similar to that of Houqua’s, though their long, black hair was braided into queues that fell down each of their backs. They stood silent and attentively at the door.

“Ah, dinner is soon to be ready. These two,” he gestured at the youths, “will be your valets. They will lead you to your quarters where you may dress for dinner. I will see you later this evening. I have some business to attend to,” he finished as he stood up from his seat, the two Englishmen doing the same. With a bow, Houqua disappeared through the side door.

Gaskill turned to McKendree. “What a charming gentleman he is! I cannot imagine how old Henry played his cards to ensure this Hong. And I wonder what he means by this great gift? From the emperor himself! How intriguing! Next thing you know, Clarkson will be Prime Minister.”

Though McKendree murmured in agreement, he did not fully believe Houqua’s angelic façade. Something was amiss, and he knew it. This talk was not blameless, and Houqua was not the innocuous resident merchant he so easily disguised himself as. And all this talk about Clarkson: it did not bode well. That gleam in his eye was more than just cunning, and he did not find it comforting that Houqua had mentioned this “great gift” in passing.

Both captains walked toward the waiting valets who escorted them out the door and down the long, empty hallway. They ascended the staircase at the end of the hall and proceeded to the second story. Gaskill was conducted into the first room on the right and McKendree into the second. The valets remained outside as the Englishmen entered their separate bedchambers.

The room was nearly empty and devoid of many of what McKendree would consider to be essential items. There was a fourpost bedstead in one corner surrounded on all sides by tightly-woven mosquito netting and a small table with a solitary chair tucked neatly under. McKendree stepped around several chests containing his personal belongings that had been brought to his chamber and walked to the washbasin. There was no soap or towel that he could find, and there was no water. He looked to the door to see the valet disappear and, several moments later, reappear with a pail of fresh water. The youth brought the water to McKendree and placed it at his feet, bowed politely, smiled, and shuffled back to the door.

McKendree nodded in thanks and quickly washed his face. The water was cold and refreshing, but the lack of soap made him feel dirty still. Realizing it was not worth sulking over a lack of soap, he turned to his chests and found his uniform coat, breeches, and stockings. He looked to his valet. The youth did not move. “Very well, then,” he sighed as he began to undress. “These Chinamen and their customs.”
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