Focus On: Recent Acquisitions in the Manuscripts Division
The Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library supports historical research. Each year, individuals with all levels of library experience arrive at the Division's Reading Room to consult collections assigned the classmark, or call number, 'MssCol.' In an effort to provide a glimpse into activities of the Manuscripts Division, kindly accept this blog series 'Focus on,' as I seek to highlight recent acquisitions, research opportunities, and new publications.
Samuel Waddington Seton's diary will interest those individuals who study the history of trade in general, and the Old China Trade in particular. Seton's diary is a perfect primary source for understanding American financial relations within global networks after the Revolution. It provides evidence of encounters between the new American merchant and Canton [Guangzhou,] the only port in China then open to foreigners. The small volume joins other resources such as the William Law papers,William Edgar papers, and Goold & Company records which all boast rich data on trade networks between the United States, China, and other significant ports during the pre-industrial age of sail.
Historians have suggested the China trade drove economic development in North America between the Revolution and Civil War. "The first American clipper ship sailed from New England to the China coast in 1784, the year after the Republic was founded" Harold R. Isaacs wrote in his seminal 1958 study, "Scratches On Our Minds: American Images Of China And India." More recently, historian John Demos referred to the China trade as a 'key part of our national youth' in his on-line article 'Views on the Trade' published as part of a special issue of Common-Place dedicated to Pacific Routes. "Narratives of Free Trade: The Commercial Cultures of Early US-China Relations," an electronic edition published by Hong Kong University Press in 2012 provides an updated history of the first commercial encounters between a China and the United States. Editor Kendall Johnson and authors focus mostly on Massachusetts, whose great sea-faring families dominated American interests in China. However, New Yorkers such as John Jacob Astor also financed trade to South East Asia and profited greatly from silk, tea, and illegal opium.
The Setons were a prominent family in New York society. Samuel's father, William Seton (1746-1798) was one time cashier of Alexander Hamilton's Bank of New York and a loyalist ruined financially by the American Revolution. Seton Hall University was named for the family's most famous member, Samuel's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Ann Bayley, the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Samuel himself never married, and was remembered for a life dedicated to the children of New York in his role as Superintendent of Public Schools.
Seton's diary is essentially the notebook of a supercargo travelling between New York and China aboard the ships "Magdelen" and "Jefferson" from 1806-07. Seton dutifully entered a note every few days about his current location, including latitude and longitude, and weather conditions. From locations charted, it is possible to follow the voyage south toward the equator in just 34 days, then below South Africa and into the Indian Ocean. The entire journey to China took 128 days.
Seton was then only a teenager when he served as supercargo aboard the ship 'Magdelen.' This position was of utmost importance and represented the financial interests in a ship's freight. A supercargo could stand to earn enough money in a single trip to live comfortably upon return. The supercargo was to have excellent language and mathematical skills to ensure correct measurements for payments made and cargo received. Therefore, in the notebook one will find a range of notes kept by Seton in preparation for his duties. A dictionary of the Malay language, commentary on Chinese culture and history, description of teas, lists of exchange rates, mathematics of measurement, and observations of life in China are all to be found in his notebook.
With the great risks associated, it is incredible Seton was only sixteen years of age when he set sail across the globe to conduct trade in foreign ports. However, there is evidence to suggest Seton was not alone and travelled alongside a member of the Ogden family. Supercargos have historical antecedents in the sixteenth century when Portugese ships first began European trade with China. From this perspective, Seton's diary is a very modern document and only rare insofar as it documents American merchant activity from New York.
Unfortunately, the notebook does not include a ledger of the Magdalen's stores, so we can only speculate the trip a success. A small volume with much to say about the early American international relations, Samuel Waddington Seton's diary is now open to research for all. Potential projects might include mapping Seton's travel using latitude and longitude positions to recreate voyages of his and other vessels on the China Trade via geocoded maps. In future blogs posts, I hope to detail other new acquisitions and research opportunities including the Edwards Pierrepont papers and Henry Strybing account book.