Commodities of the China Trade: Bechè de Mer, Shark Fins and Gold

18 December 2013

Cultural Studies | History

Below I have shared one of my personal highlights from China, America and the Pacific, which has just been released. This new multi-library collection provides an extensive range of archival material connected to the trading and cultural relationships that emerged between China, America and the Pacific region between the 18th and early 20th centuries.

During the eighteenth century American merchants sought to establish trade with China. Their ships set sail from New York, Boston, Salem and Philadelphia laden with tea, ginseng and opium; all profitable and powerful commodities that could be traded with the accomplished merchants waiting at Canton. However competition from establishments such as the East India Company kept the American merchants busy; they had to find products which satisfied the niche and sometimes peculiar tastes of the merchants at Canton.

Whilst indexing the Forbes Papers from a collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society I came across a business record item which details specific goods that were to be packed for the China trade between 1828-1829. The record contains a fascinating list of products including the following: bechè de mer, shark fins, tortoise shells, pearl shells, opium and gold amongst others. Trading goods such as shark fins is quite horrifying today but this document is rich in its explanation of the quality of such products and the price they fetched.

Image © Massachusetts Historical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

One product included is bechè de mer, pictured in the above image. Found in the Pacific islands bechè de mer is a Chinese delicacy which was added to soup. Translated bechè de mer means sea slug! Traders collected the niche commodity, often found in birds’ nests, or relied on the experience of indigenous peoples to collect the product for them for a small fee. Such specialized products were never going to put the East India Company out of business or create fame and fortune for the merchants who traded them. They do however offer a fascinating glance into the demands of the market at the time.

This document from the Massachusetts Historical Society can be found in our multi-library resource China, America and the Pacific which is out now. 

About the Author

Sarah Hodgson

Sarah Hodgson

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew, an academic digital publisher of primary source collections in the arts and humanities. I have had the pleasure of working on a variety of projects including Mass Observation Online and African American Communities.