George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Samuel Shaw, 7 December 1790

From Samuel Shaw

Canton in China
December 7th 1790.


The commerce of a nation being one of the principal objects of the attention of it’s rulers, I hope it will not be deemed inconsistent with the duties of the office with which you have been pleased to honor me, that I submit to your consideration some particulars relative to the trade of the Citizens of the United States with those of the United Netherlands at Batavia, the capital of their establishments in India.1

Having sailed from Boston the latter end of March last, in an entire new Ship, built, navigated, and owned by Citizens of America, I arrived at Batavia, the first Port of my destination, on the 30th of August following; when to my no small astonishment I was informed by the head officer of the customs, that all commerce with the Americans was prohibited by orders from Holland, and that we should be allowed to take only the necessary refreshments for our passage to Canton, my second port of destination.2 Notwithstanding this information from the Shabander, I thought it my duty to exercise the right of petitioning to the Governor General and the Council for permission to trade, as had been heretofore the custom; and accordingly I was the next morning presented to his Excellency at his Levee, and in two hours after delivered to him my petition, at the Council board, where I received for answer, that the prayer of it could not be granted.

After informing myself, from the Shabander, of the reasons on which the prohibition of the Americans to trade at Batavia was grounded, I thought it incumbent on me as Consul for the United States, to make a representation to the Governor and Council on a matter which I conceived so nearly to concern the welfare of our Country. On communicating to the Shabander this my determination, he assented to the propriety of it, and observed that though the prohibition was in the highest degree injurious both to the Americans and to the inhabitants of Batavia, yet if the former did not complain to the supreme authority, when they had an opportunity, it would ill become that respectable body to take any notice of the matter to the Administration in Holland. Accordingly on Saturday the 4th of September, I drew up a memorial to the Governor and Council and enclosed it in a letter to the Shabander, requesting him to take the earliest opportunity of having it presented. On seeing that Gentleman afterwards, he assured me that the memorial should be presented on the ensuing Tuesday, and that it would be favorably received, it being the wish not only of the inhabitants, but of the Government also, that the commerce at Batavia should be as free for the Americans as it was for any other nation.

To the aforegoing particulars I take the liberty of adding copies of the letter and declaration above mentioned,3 and of begging that you will believe me to be, with the most respectful attachment⟨,⟩ Sir Your very obedient humble Servant

Samuel Shaw

Copy, Algemeen Rijksarchief, Liassen Amerika, States-General 7461–7463; letterpress copy, DLC: Jefferson Papers; LB, DNA: RG 59, Domestic Letters.

1For Shaw’s appointment as U.S. consul in China, see Shaw to GW, 2 Jan. 1790. Sailing to Canton on the American merchantman Massachusetts, Shaw arrived in Batavia on 30 Aug. 1790. Shaw’s account of the prohibition of U.S. trade with the Dutch colony at Batavia is the first official report received by GW on American trade with the Dutch East Indies. GW referred Shaw’s report to Jefferson (see GW to Jefferson, 15 June 1791).

2The shabunder of Batavia was the principal customs official of the port and was responsible for overseeing the activities of foreign merchants. In the enclosure Shaw identified this official as one Englehard—possibly Nicolaus Engelhard, later the consulate general for the Dutch East India Company on the northeast coast of Java (Biographisch Woordenboek, s. v. “Engelhard, Nicolaus”).

3Shaw enclosed a copy of his letter to Englehard, written on 4 Sept. 1790: “On my arrival at Batavia . . . I did myself the honor of waiting on you with a report of my cargo, and requested to be indulged with the privileges hitherto accorded to the Citizens of America trading to this quarter of the globe. I have to beg your acceptance of my acknowledgments for your politeness in presenting me to the Governor General and the Council, to request their permission to dispose of such articles as I had provided for this market, conforming myself to the usual laws and customs which I had experienced in my former voyage here in 1786. Judge then, Sir, of my surprise on being answered, that all commerce with the Americans was absolutely prohibited. My acquaintance with and respect for the Law of nations teach me that, in such circumstances, implicit obedience is a virtue—And I shall accordingly, on the morrow, proceed in my voyage, declaring as owner of said Ship and her cargo, that no article of the same has been or will be sold during our stay; and that nothing has been purchased here, except water, vegetables, and other refreshments for our passage to Canton. At the same time that I make this declaration, permit me, Sir, to observe to you, that I have reason to believe this prohibition is laid upon my Countrymen on account of evil reports, which have been propagated to their prejudice by persons unfriendly to both Countries; and I have therefore, as Consul for my nation, taken the liberty of making a Representation to the government here on the subject, which I herewith enclose, and request you will [take] the earliest opportunity of having it presented. As a public officer and a good Citizen, I feel for the honor of my Country—as a Merchant, the prohibition is exceedingly detrimental to my interest. These motives I hope will plead my excuse for troubling you on the present occasion.” In the declaration to the governor general and council that he enclosed to Englehard, Shaw wrote that he was “at Batavia in the month of July 1786, with a Ship from New York called the Hope, whereof he was Supercargo and part owner. That he left Batavia for Canton, remaining there twenty days; during which time he did not in any instance, by himself or any one for him, violate the laws of trade, by a clandestine exportation of pepper, coffee, or spices; or in any manner act contrary to the orders and laws of the government, as signified to him by the then Shabander, Mr Le Clé. That after having resided at Canton as Consul for his nation, during the remainder of the year 1786, the whole of 1787 and 1788, he in the month of January 1789 took passage for America, where he arrived in July following. That as for other ships belonging to Citizens of his nation, which have been at Batavia and China since the aforesaid year of 1786, he believes the same line of conduct has been observed by their respective captains and owners. It may not be improper to observe, that coffee from the Isles of France and Bourbon, pepper from the Coast of Malabar and other places in India, and spices from Batavia may be purchased by Aemericans from English country ships at Canton, as well as from the Chinese, upon such terms as will afford them a reasonable profit in their own Country; and he has just grounds to suppose that the small quantities which from time to time have been carri thither, were procured in that way. The undersigned is sorry to remark that in consequence of reports to the prejudice of his Countrymen, they have not only been prohibited all commerce here, but have been considered in a very unfavorable point of view by the government at Batavia, and classed with smugglers, who instead of conforming themselves to the established customs of civilized nations in matters of commerce, do not hesitate to pursue any measures, however dishonorable, to promote their own advantage; and he feels most sensibly for the honor of his Country, as well as for himself and his fellow Citizens, who conscious of not violating any laws of this government, have come or may yet come to Batavia, not knowing that from such evil reports the administration here have been induced to prohibit all commerce with them. That in his own particular case, he had provided in America sundry articles, not contraband, to a large amount, expressly for the market of Batavia, which, to his great injury he is not allowed to dispose of; but contrary to his expectation, is obliged to proceed with them to Canton where they are not wanted. It becomes in a peculiar manner the duty of the undersigned, as Consul for his nation, to use every means in his power to vindicate it from the unjust aspersions under which it suffers; and he flatters himself that a little time will suffice entirely to remove them: In which event, he confides in the justice of the administration in Holland, and in that of Batavia, that his countrymen will then be admitted to the full enjoyment of all privileges allowed to any other nation—more especially as the connection at present happily subsisting between their Republic and the United States of America has in his humble opinion, the equitable principle of reciprocal good for its immediate object. With these sentiments, and those of the most perfect respect and good will towards the illustrious Republic of Holland, and its establishments throughout the globe, the undersigned has the honor to put his name to this representation, made at Batavia the fourth day of September 1790” (copy, Algemeen Rijksarchief, Liassen Amerika, States-General 7461–7463; the original enclosures were transmitted by Jefferson to F. P. Van Berckel, who apparently forwarded them to Holland. Jefferson’s retained letterpress copies of these enclosures are in DLC: Jefferson Papers; Shaw’s letter to Englehard, along with his declaration to the governor general and council of Batavia, is printed in the appendix to Josiah Quincy, ed., The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw [Boston, 1847], 356–60; these published texts were probably based on Shaw’s retained copies).

GW referred Shaw’s letter and the enclosures to Jefferson for his consideration in June 1791 (see GW to Jefferson, 15 June 1791). On 14 July 1791 Jefferson enclosed Shaw’s letter in a letter to F. P. Van Berckel, resident minister from the Netherlands, in which he wrote that he presumed there had been some misunderstanding in this case. This presumption, Jefferson wrote, “is founded on those sentiments of general amity which subsist between our government and that of the United Netherlands, and also on the whole tenor of our treaty which secures to us always the treatment of the most favored nation. Nevertheless the refusal by the government of Batavia has been so formal, so deliberate and pointed as to render it necessary to ask for some explanation.” Jefferson requested a meeting with Van Berckel as soon as the minister arrived in Philadelphia (Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 20:629–32). No record of this meeting has been found, but Van Berckel apparently forwarded Shaw’s letter to Holland for a formal response. On 31 May 1792 Van Berckel wrote to Jefferson, explaining that the directors of the East India Company objected to the importation of European and American goods in foreign vessels as injurious, and that they had issued orders to the government of Batavia to impede this practice without regard to nationality. Since the prohibition was general, the Dutch government contended that it was not a violation of the commercial treaty between the United States and Holland (ibid., 23:621).

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