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The Fur Trade


Storms out of the west foreclosed any coastal survey of the Japan Islands. The ships made only brief sightings: the tiny Kuriles on October 13, a landfall of a main island--possibly the northeast tip of Honshu--then Mount Fuji-San, and in mid-November, having been driven well off-track, a glimpse of Iwo Jima.

At about the 22nd parallel, safe from the gales, Gore decided to make directly for Canton. The ships followed a track south of Taiwan, the faulty maps made by Byron and Dalrymple causing them to miss a sighting of the Bataan Islands north of Luzon, and on November 28 they hauled upon a wind for Macao. Because a busy roadstead with faster homebound ships lay just over the horizon, Gore and King carried out the expected Admiralty regulations. They had all the journals, charts, and drawings gathered up and both ships were searched by the marines for hidden manuscripts. Every scrap of paper was locked away, or so it was thought, lest a resourceful seafaring writer should sneak his handiwork over the side to sail ahead into the hands of some eager London printer, thus embarrassing their Lordships with a premature publication.43 Although the hour was late on November 20 when the ships dropped anchor, the sailors stayed up for the pinnace to return with the first news in three years of what was happening in the outside world, for three years almost to the day had elapsed since they had last been in touch with European ships at Cape Town. England and France were at war, and the sailors were surprised to learn that the Americans were still causing trouble.44


King, sent to treat with the local officials for supplies, learned to cool his heels. Accustomed as he was to the respectful attention of island potentates and imperial governors, he imagined he had only to snap his fingers and supplies would materialize. But he was just another European in Macao, which had seen three-masted ships before. The Chinese, suspicious of two armed British ships in their waters, were inclined to dally. And the Portuguese magistrate was taking a sick day. Anyway, proper papers must come from Canton, and that would take some time.

The explorer of islands and coasts was left at a stand. What to do? His guide politely asked him if he did not intend to visit the local English representative. A capital suggestion, thought King. His own countryman would cut the red tape. In a transport at the brilliance of it, he hurried to present himself. But the Englishman was not accustomed to having strangers turn up on his doorstep without a proper introduction, without funds, and wearing patched-up clothes. The reception was cool and correct. King's story about a voyage of Discovery somehow sounded hollow in that center of commerce that was Macao. But after ten days of mortification, Gore found a way to spirit his colleague by sampan up to Canton where he informed the English officials of the East India Company that he wished to return with his supplies the next day. "Patience was an indispensable virtue in China," King was advised. When a timely letter arrived from Gore saying that supplies had been procured, albeit unofficially, King therefore cut short his Canton visit, especially when sudden illness and fatigue came over him; he could not help but recall with apprehension the mysterious malady that had decked him at Kealakekua Bay. In fact he was mortally ill.45


But the Canton visit was not in vain. King had brought with him twenty sea otter furs which had belonged to Cook and Clerke. Gore, showing a streak of Yankee savvy, had said that the furs would fetch a better price at Canton. A merchant there offered $300 Spanish for the lot, and because Chinese policy required that foreigners take part of their payment in local produce, he offered to sweeten the deal with a quantity of silks. But King adamantly refused, demanding $1,000 Spanish in cash. They settled for $800. He returned to Macao to find that the fur market was bullish aboard ship. One sailor sold his stock of pelts for $800. A single, prime skin went for $120. The highest reported price was $300 for a single pelt that midshipman Trevenen had traded for a broken belt buckle at Nootka Sound, or at any rate he was able to buy the equivalent amount of expensive silks for his relatives. In a similar mark-up, Bligh had paid twelve beads at Prince William Sound for six skins which brought him fifteen pounds each. The transactions totalled two thousand pounds sterling.46

The sailors were staggered. They had bought those furs with no idea of their value, only as curiosities for mere trifles; many were already worn out at the time of purchase, and the sailors had used them casually, often as bed clothes or even to wipe their feet on. At Avacha Bay they had not tumbled to the possibility of riches when the Russian merchant came to buy. But at Macao the implications of the fur trade struck the ships like a thunderclap. "The rage with which our seamen were possessed to return to Cook's River, and, by another cargo of skins to make their fortune, at one time, was not far short of mutiny," wrote King. In the dead of night two sailors made off with the great cutter of Resolution, to be seen no more, evidently intending to sail across the Pacific to seek their fortune.47

And so began the fur trade that would transform the economy of the entire North Pacific. The publication in 1784 of the official account of the voyage was a blueprint for international commerce--reports of the Sea Otter in huge numbers, accurate sea charts to show the way, and identifications of the major outlets in the China market and at Avacha Bay. King in fact included a plan for a fur-trading voyage. Trevenen with his belt buckle had inadvertently inaugurated the three-way trade of the future: manufactured goods going out from Europe and New England, furs going from the northwest cost to China, and silks and tea returning home from China. Leading the way were two veterans of the third voyage, George Dixon and American-born Nathaniel Portlocke, who were on the northwest coast in 1786. Ships came from Calcutta, England, France, Macao, and Boston. The voyage of the French navigator, the Count Jean François de Galaup La Perouse, was mounted in 1785 in part to seek a French share in the fur trade. Entrepreneurs and sea captains, most of them well-meaning and kind, a few inevitably mean and vulgar, hunted and traded from Puget Sound, along the coasts of Vancouver Island and Alaska, through Bering Strait, and into Avacha Bay and Macao. The Russian monopoly was brought to an end; until the 1917 Revolution businessmen of the American and Canadian northwest were even active in eastern Siberia. The fur trade brought much needed hard currency to the new American nation and led to the whaling and tea trades of the nineteenth century.48

Naturally Enhydra lutris barely survived the onslaught. At the time of the Cook voyages the playful Sea Otter flourished along the entire 6,000-mile littoral crescent from California to Japan. Today it is found only in isolated preserves. The destruction of the bulk of the American whaling fleet by the British during the Civil War probably saved the whale in Arctic waters, and by the close of the nineteenth century the market for walrus was also coming to an end.49 The third voyage had a profound impact on the economy of the Pacific northwest and on the strategic claims of the Russians in the Far East.


At Canton, King learned that the French government had issued a directive to all French sea captains exempting Cook from military action on his way back to England. "...it is the King's pleasure, that Captain Cook shall be treated as a commander of a neutral and allied power..." This magnanimous act brought honor not only to Cook but to the nation from which it came, the nation that even then was engaged in a military struggle with England.

James King also heard a rumor that the American Continental Congress had issued a similar order. The fact was that on March 10, 1779, just a few days before the French initiative, Benjamin Franklin, who at age seventh-three was the Congress' Minister Plenipotentiary at the Court of France, had himself issued a similar directive to the captains of American ships. Referring to "the most celebrated Navigator and Discoverer Captain Cook," he recommended that on meeting Cook's ship (he thought there was only one):

...you would not consider her as an Enemy, nor suffer any Plunder to be made of the Effects contain'd in her, nor obstruct her immediate Return to England, ... but that you would treat the said Captain Cook and his People with all Civility and Kindness, affording them as common Friends of Mankind all the Assistance in your Power...

Franklin, apparently on his own authority, sent his letter to all American vessels in French ports, and he had the text published in newspapers in Holland for American sea captains to read when they sought sanctuary there; a copy was also sent to the Royal Society of London. Franklin's gesture of good will toward Cook was not least among the honors he brought to his fledgling country. In the event, Gore met neither French nor American ships on the way home.50

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