Andrew C. A. Jampoler. Embassy to the Eastern Courts: America's Secret First Pivot toward Asia, 1832-37. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015. Illustrations. 256 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61251-416-1.
Reviewed by James Bonk (College of Wooster)
Published on H-War (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The history of US relations with Asia in the first decades of the nineteenth century has received little scholarly attention. Andrew C. A. Jampoler’s book, a study of two US diplomatic missions to Asia from 1832 to 1834 and 1835 to 1837, contributes to our understanding of US efforts to establish trade relations with Asia during the 1830s and the considerable obstacles to their success.
The fate of US diplomacy to Asia in the 1830s rested on the unlikely shoulders of Edmund Roberts, a former merchant from Massachusetts who proposed and led both diplomatic missions. Roberts, introduced in the first chapter of the book, had little experience in diplomacy and even less in Asia. In the 1820s, he had been appointed to, but never occupied, the post of US consul of Demerara (in Guyana). His experience in Asia was limited to a single voyage to the Indian Ocean in 1828. A personal connection in the US administration and a chance encounter in Zanzibar with Sayyid bin Sa’id, the ruler of Oman and Zanzibar and an influential figure in the Indian Ocean trade, seem to have been his main qualifications to lead the two missions.
Roberts, who died while at port in Macao in 1837, achieved only modest diplomatic success. He negotiated and ratified two treaties: one with Siam and the other with the sultanate of Muscat. However, as Jampoler points out, the treaties had little direct impact on US trade with Oman or Siam, neither of which offered commodities of interest to US merchants. Other ambitions bore even less fruit. Negotiations with Cochin China (Vietnam) broke down, Chinese officials ignored Roberts entirely, and the ship never made it to Japan.
Roberts is the main actor in the book, but the narrative is structured around the movement of the USS Peacock, the ship that carried him on both diplomatic missions. The book focuses as much on the journey of the ship from port to port as on the final destinations in Asia. Jampoler’s decision to write a ship-centered account of US diplomacy has its tradeoffs. On the plus side, he is able to provide a detailed account of life at sea and in port in the 1830s. Jampoler uses a rich set of primary sources—from ship logs to the diaries of medical officers—to shed light on both the mundane discomforts and moments of peril that confronted transoceanic travelers. These details, interesting for their own sake, are perhaps more important for what they say about the limits of human agency in the early history of US diplomacy. The book makes it clear that the outcomes of US diplomacy in Asia during the 1830s were decided less by the skill of negotiators or schemes of politicians than the contingencies of travel. Negotiations with Cochin China, for instance, appear to have been stymied in part by strong winds that had blown the Peacock more than 120 miles south of its intended port. Roberts’s death of severe diarrhea, another not infrequent peril of travel at the time, brought the entire diplomatic mission to an abrupt end in 1837. Jampoler includes a picture of Roberts’s grave in Macao, one of many illustrations in the book.
On the down side, the focus on the movement of the ship means that the book offers more breadth of coverage than depth of analysis. The book provides numerous historical vignettes to contextualize the reception of the Peacock in such ports as Macao, Batavia, Rio de Janeiro, and Honolulu. These vignettes are, in most cases, completely necessary for understanding local responses to the unexpected arrival of a US naval vessel. But they distract from the main topic of the book—America’s diplomatic pivot to Asia. Jampoler might have spent more time considering the larger political context in which this pivot took place, the personal or political agendas driving this pivot, and the ways in which the pivot to Asia fit into the larger picture of US diplomacy.
These shortcomings aside, the book has much to commend it. In addition to its rich portrayal of life aboard ship and many fascinating historical details, such as the arrival of an Omani ship in New York harbor in 1840, the book provides important insight into the nature of US diplomacy in the 1830s. Two characteristics stand out from Jampoler’s account. First was the shoestring budget that often hampered US diplomatic efforts. Jampoler points out, for instance, that until the 1850s, the US relied on a network of unpaid and untrained consuls. Roberts, one of these consuls, occasionally had to use his personal funds to pay for gifts and other costs associated with his mission. The second characteristic was the use of violence rather than negotiation to protect the economic activities of American merchants. In chapter 2, Jampoler describes an act of excessive and likely misdirected vengeance perpetrated by US forces at the Sumatran port of Kuala Batee. Armed sailors and marines from the USS Potomac, responding to a reported pirate attack on the US merchant ship Friendship, burned down an entire village and killed as many as 150 residents before investigating the veracity of the reports. This was, Jampoler argues, the first of a “pattern” of responses to violence against US merchants and whalers by the US Navy. He writes, “landing parties and long guns would be the usual ... response to crimes committed against US ships and crews in distant waters.... Assaults on ships and crew members [were] parried by attacks on villages on shore” (pp. 35-36).
While Jampoler does not draw the connection, these two characteristics seem to go hand in hand. Rather than investing in a robust navy and experienced diplomatic corps, the US government in the 1830s relied on more economical means: an ad hoc contingent of amateurs backed up by occasional bursts of spectacular violence. In Asia, at least, it would appear that these amateur diplomats performed little useful function at all. Jampoler suggests that the presence of US naval vessels, bearing with them the threat of violence, would ultimately prove more effective than diplomatic efforts in maintaining the security of American merchants.
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James Bonk. Review of Jampoler, Andrew C. A., Embassy to the Eastern Courts: America's Secret First Pivot toward Asia, 1832-37.
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