Object of the Month

Protecting American Interests: the Steamer Queen on the Pearl River, 1855

U. S. Chartered Steamer Queen in Canton, China Watercolor on paper

U. S. Chartered Steamer Queen in Canton, China

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This watercolor by Chinese artist Sunqua shows the Steamer Queen on the Pearl River, in the Thirteen Factories quarter of Canton (now Guangzhou) circa 1855. The steamer was chartered by the U.S. Navy for the protection of United States citizens residing in the port province during the tumultuous era of the Taiping Rebellion and skirmishes with pirates. Lieutenant George Henry Preble served as her captain.

China trade

For centuries, trade with China was highly restricted and dominated by the Dutch and Portuguese. American trade with China began in earnest soon after the new nation had won its independence. In 1784, the Empress of China sailed from New York with a cargo of ginseng, trading in Canton for tea and silks, and earning a modest profit for its owner and commencing a golden age of trade for Massachusetts ships. Although the Chinese were largely uninterested in acquiring foreign goods, sea-otter furs were of interest and a lucrative Boston-Northwest Coast-China-Boston trade route began. Ships from Salem also traded with China, stopping along the way in ports like India, Java and Sumatra. Families with the familiar names of Forbes, Hooper, Shaw, Russell, and Heard made great fortunes that they brought back to Massachusetts. Their business and personal papers and Chinese artifacts fill many a Massachusetts institution, including the Massachusetts Historical Society.

By the time the watercolor featured above was painted, the advent of the clipper ship had shortened the four to five month's voyage between the United States and China by a month or more and steamers like the Queen plied inland rivers, enabling trade with the Chinese interior. The "Factory" district referred not to manufacturing facilities, but rather to the complexes where foreign businesses were headquartered and their employees lived and worked. In the painting, one can see the flags of the United States, France, and other nations.

Who was George Henry Preble?

Born in Portland, Maine, on 25 February 1816, George Henry Preble was the youngest son of Captain Enoch and Sally (Cross) Preble. On 10 October 1835 at age nineteen, Preble was appointed a midshipman in the United States Navy; first reporting for duty on 1 May 1836 on board the frigate United States. His first service took him first to Gibraltar and around the Mediterranean; a volume of sketches and watercolors Preble made around this time has survived in the George Henry Preble papers here at the MHS.

Preble first went to Canton in 1844 as acting master (and later acting lieutenant) of the sloop St. Louis. The St. Louis was part of a larger Navy squadron supporting Caleb Cushing in his successful mission to negotiate a treaty between China and the United States. Some ten years later, Preble was once again part of a squadron supporting a diplomatic mission by a show of force; in this case, Matthew C. Perry's Japan Expedition. Starting in 1853 Preble was attached to the Macedonian as a lieutenant in its trip to Japan, where a treaty was negotiated at Yokohama.

Shortly after landing in China from Japan on 1 September 1854, Preble was appointed Captain of the Queen, a 137-ton steamer Perry had chartered from an Englishman residing in Hong Kong for the express purpose of protecting American merchants and their interests in China against pirates and rebels. Preble commanded the Queen for 8 months until the charter expired, 31 March 1855.

About the artist

Sunqua was one of the most accomplished nineteenth-century Chinese artists producing works for the European market. He was active between 1830 and 1870 and established studios in Canton and Macao where he accepted commissions from wealthy foreigners for ships' portraits, harbor and marine scenes, still-life paintings, and city views. Although this view of the Queen is the only work by Sunqua in the MHS collection, the Society also owns views of Hong Kong and Macao by Sunqua's contemporary Lam Qua. Such paintings would have been highly sought-after souvenirs of an exotic and once-forbidden land.

For Further Reading

Griffin, Katherine H. and Peter Drummey, "Manuscripts on the American China Trade at the Massachusetts Historical Society," Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, vol. 100 (1988), p. 128-139.

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a collection of the George Henry Preble papers.

George Henry Preble's diary of his cruise to China and Japan (included in the George Henry Preble papers) has been published as The Opening of Japan: A Diary of Discovery in the Far East, 1853-1856 (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962). Also available on microfilm and as digital facsimiles in the MHS library and within the online database China, America and the Pacific, a publication of Adam Matthew Digital, Inc.