The Courteen Association to China

The First British Trade Expedition to China, 1637:

Captain Weddell and the Courteen Fleet in Asia and Late Ming Canton

Book Prospectus

By Nicholas D. Jackson, Ph.D.

(Note: Dan Byrnes in his website book online, “The English Business of Slavery”, treats the Courteen Association in Chapters 9, 12, 13. Pls go Google on it.)

As the Ming scholar John Wills wrote in the bibliographical essay appended to his survey of “Relations with Maritime Europeans,1514-1662,” in the Cambridge History of the Ming Dynasty: “There is no fully adequate monograph in any language on any major facet of Ming relations with maritime Europeans. The great stumbling block has been the need to make use of European archival and old printed sources and at the same time to have control of the Chinese sources.” Drawing upon several sets of primary sources in Chinese, Portuguese, and English, I set out to help remedy this historiographical lacuna by constructing a richly-textured narrative and analysis of the first British trade expedition to China in 1637. Not coincidentally, the expeditionary fleet anchored in the Pearl River estuary, the maritime venue that was to host the first battles of the Opium Wars two centuries later. Long before the British “gunboat diplomacy” of the 1830s or Lord Macartney’s famously disappointing embassy to Beijing (1793-1794), a remarkable attempt to establish commercial relations and a permanent trade station in China had been made by a group of Britons authorized and sponsored by the Stuart monarch, King Charles I. In this endeavour of 1637, naval scuffles between British and Chinese ships took place in the same waters that furnished the stage for the opening engagements of the Opium Wars early in the reign of Queen Victoria.

Raids and skirmishes involving the two peoples occurred along the shores of the same waters where the British navy was to carry out Lord Palmerston’s aggressive foreign policy in the Far East. In August 1637, the British stormed a Chinese fort and hoisted the flag of Great Britain to flutter in the breeze above a small island in south China. In September 1637 a fleet of Chinese fire-ships was launched in the middle of the night to annihilate the British fleet. Casualties and deaths were suffered by both Chinese and British in several such engagements. In the autumn of 1637, half a dozen British merchants were detained and imprisoned in the suburbs of Canton for more than three months. Since no comprehensive account of these and other striking episodes in the annals of Sino-British relations has been rendered or published in such detail as they deserve; since no narrative has unveiled and presented all the dramatis personae nor any analysis probed all the events from all the available angles or to such depths as is possible; I will be filling a wide gap in our historical record.

The British venture was undertaken by William Courteen and Associates, an upstart, “interloping,” and formidable rival of the recently (1600) organized and later illustrious East India Company. As L. H Roper, an authority on early British imperial history, recently (2017) noted: “the consistent neglect or dismissal of the Courteen Association in the historiography of the Anglo-British Empire is curious.” All the more odd seems this oversight when the Weddell expedition alone has been described by another scholar, John Appleby, as “an audaciously ambitious attempt to challenge the trading monopoly of the East India Company in Asia.” In the summer of 1637 Captain John Weddell led a Courteen fleet all the way to Macao and then up the Pearl River not far from Canton (Guangzhou). Weddell, a disgruntled ex-employee of the East India Company, was a fierce personality, veteran commander, and an intrepid entrepreneur of the seas. Although he was among the most widely-travelled and battle-hardened of the early EICo sea-captains, he had been treated shabbily and dismissed by the London-based company shortly before he had joined the Courteen Association to command its fleet to the Far East.

 The Weddell expedition of the Courteen Association, in rivalry with and led by several ex-employees of the EICo, was not only authorized but partially funded by the British king, Charles I. The monarch promised to invest £10,000 (or about ‎£2,000,000 in today’s terms). The financing was managed by Sir William Courteen, a London-based merchant magnate. He was a Dutchman who had migrated from Holland, and had become an acquaintance of Endymion Porter, one of the Stuart king’s longest serving courtiers — Porter had been close to Charles since the latter’s years as Prince of Wales, and had even accompanied the heir to the throne on the latter’s failed mission of 1623 to marry the Spanish Infanta. The directors of the Courteen Association hoped that Weddell, blessed with a royal commission, and benefiting from the recent (1635) Anglo-Portuguese accord made at Goa in India, would be able to transact lucrative business in the area stretching in an arc from the west coast of India to the southern islands of Japan. Ideally, he would set up some permanent trading stations (“factories” in seventeenth-century usage) to do a regular and large volume of business. The Weddell expedition of the Courteen Association was animated by an intrepid spirit of exploration, profit-seeking, and conquest. Such lofty, even quixotic, goals as setting up trade stations from the Malabar coast of India to the Malaysian-Indonesian archipelago to the Pearl River Delta of China to the southern islands of Japan; these were not the sum of its aspiration. The prospectus also entertained the notion of launching a contingent to discover the east-Asian outlet of the north-east passage, the route which had been eluding Europeans at least since the time of the anglicized Italian, John Cabot.

My narrative and analysis focuses on the Courteen fleet’s activity in south China, in the province of Guangdong, between Portuguese Macao and the provincial capital, Canton (Guangzhou). The Dragon, Sun, Katherine, and Anne, three large ships and a pinnace, the remnant of the Courteen fleet that had embarked from the Downs in southern England in April 1636, arrived at Macao in July 1637. In revealing and intriguing detail, I relate how CaptainWeddell with his mariners and merchants fared in the next several months spent at Macao and in the Pearl River estuary and its shores and islands, as they endeavoured to forge commercial relations with the Chinese and arrange for a permanent spot from which to conveniently carry out such trade. Besides figuring out what and how things happened as well as what designs and ambitions drove the British, my scholarship aims to explain how and why the Portuguese and Chinese treated the British the way they did. Thus, my story is presented as not only an episode of Sino-British but also one of Anglo-Portuguese relations. Further, it is intended as a contribution to early (or pre-) British imperial history — that is, it provides something along the lines of a record of the British Empire’s birth pangs—or more impishly, and to echo Austin Coates, an earlier student of the British in China: the long and disorderly preamble to British Hong Kong. The series of events sheds unique and fresh light on aspects of Ming China, particularly its imperial and provincial governance, and devices for dealing with foreigners like the British “red-haired barbarians” (红夷). Among other things, the British breakthrough in the Bogue in 1637—marauding and plundering with impunity — exposed the illusory security of the Ming policy (明朝对外政策) of playing off foreigner against foreigner (以夷制夷). Collectively the incidents of the Weddell expedition of the Courteen Association afford us a window through which we can view the workings of the imperial and Guangdong provincial administration in action during the reign of the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen. Much more, and most broadly, this book is a significant contribution to our understanding of the development of Sino-Western relations.

The First British Trade Expedition to China, 1637:

Captain Weddell and the Courteen Fleet in Asia and Late Ming Canton

By Nicholas D. Jackson

Introduction (or Prologue)

1) British in Early Seventeenth-Century Luso-Dutch Asia

2) Enter the Interlopers: The Genesis of the Courteen Association,

Rival of the English East India Company

3) From the Downs to Goa to Malacca:

The Courteen Fleet on the Way to China, May 1636-June 1637


4) Welcome to China, With Portuguese Characteristics:

The Courteen Fleet in Macao Purgatory, July-August 1637

5) The Dragon Enters the Tiger:

The Courteen Fleet at the Bogue and Pearl River Estuary, August 1637

6) Captives at Canton:

The Crisis of the Courteen Fleet in the Boca Tigris and

Retreat to Macao, September-October 1637

7) Negotiation and Liberation:

Restoration and Trade of the Courteens at Macao, October-December 1637

8) Results and Consequences of the First British Trade Expedition to China:

“Anglology” of the Ming and Sinology of the Courteens

Epilogue: Captain Weddell’s Exploits in the Pearl River: Precursor of the Opium Wars? (Ends on Courteen Association)

Author: Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes is an Australian poet, writer, historian, a one-time journalist in Tamworth NSW Australia (or, Country Music Capital, Australia). Born in Sydney in 1948, meaning in late 2018 he is aged 70! He is deeply interested in modern Australian history (since 1788), literature, poetry and music. He had a normal high school education plus several stints at university, ending with a double major in History/Psychology, then with an Honours degree in History. Of late, and as he gets older - in 2019 he will be 71 - he spends time compiling and recompiling old work, adding to this blog, and wondering deeply with the history of Australia since 1788, a relatively new country, which received up to 162,000 convicts from Britain, why there is such apathy to maritime history in general and in particular, such apathy to the question: who owned/insured the convict ships?

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