A “convivial, noble-hearted Irishman,” James Magee was born in 1750 and appears to have emigrated shortly before the American Revolution. Boston town records for 1768 note the arrival of a James Magee with a group of Irish fishermen from Newfoundland (it’s not clear that that’s the same person).
Captain James Magee, of Boston, rose to eminence in maritime pursuits; he helped establish the first American commercial house in China; and he was one of the first in the East-India trade.
During the American Revolution, Magee commanded the privateer (privately owned armed vessel commissioned to attack enemy ships, usually vessels of commerce) Independence, which captured and brought into Boston harbor the British ship Countess.
From 1779 to 1783 Magee was master of at least three vessels: Amsterdam, Hermione and Gustavus. With the war over, he married Margaret Elliot of Boston in October 1783, the youngest daughter of Simon Elliot, a well-known tobacco and snuff dealer.
Post-war Yankee ships expanded their reach and found their way into the ports of the Baltic, the Mediterranean and even around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indies.
In 1784, as part of this probing operation, Major Samuel Shaw sent the Empress of China to Canton with a cargo of ginseng. The Empress of China arrived at Macao on August 23, 1784, six months out from New York.
Later, after receiving the honorary title of American consul at Canton, Shaw, Isaac Sears and other New York merchants arranged for the ship Hope to both Batavia (Dutch East Indies, present-day Jakarta, Indonesia) and Canton (Guangzhou, China).
Sears chose James Magee to Captain the voyage, and on February 4, 1786 Hope sailed from New York carrying both Sears and Shaw as passengers and established the first American commercial house in China
By summer, Magee was back in Boston, and in September a portion of Hope’s cargo was offered for sale at the store of his nephew, Simon Elliot.
“As the first Boston captain to visit either Batavia or Canton, Magee must have been a source of keen interest among the town’s merchants and his voyage an important stimulant to those mulling the prospects of Oriental trade.”
Although America was outstripping every other nation in China trade, save Britain, she could not long compete with Britain without a suitable medium. The Canton market accepted little but specie (a silver coin, as distinguished from bullion or paper money) and eastern products.
Ginseng, the typical exchange, could be procured and sold only in limited quantities. The ship Columbia was fitted out by a group of Boston merchants who believed the solution of the problem lay in the furs of the Northwest Coast.
The first association of Boston with the Northwest Coast was in 1787, when Joseph Barrell and his co-adventurers sent out the Columbia and the Washington. (Howay) John Kendrick commanded both the expedition and the ship Columbia.
The Columbia left Boston on September 30, 1787; that voyage began the Northwest fur trade, which enabled the merchant adventurers of Boston to tap the vast reservoir of wealth in China.
In the summer of 1789, before a full cargo of skins had been obtained, provisions began to run low. Captain Kendrick therefore remained behind, but sent Gray in the Columbia to Canton, where he exchanged his cargo of pelts for tea, and returned to Boston around the world. Her rivals were quick to follow.
Following this, Lieutenant Thomas Lamb and his brother James, merchants, joined Captain Magee in building the ship Margaret, one hundred fifty tons, which was commanded by Magee on December 24, 1791, “bound on a voyage of observation and enterprise to the North-Western Coast of this Continent.”
The Margaret was under command of Captain James Magee, one of her owners; David Lamb, first mate; Otis Liscombe, second mate; Stephen Hills, third mate, and John Howell, historian.
The Margaret was, says Haswell, “as fine a vessel as ever I saw of her size, and appeared exceeding well fitted for the voyage and I believe there was no expense spared.”
The captain, Magee, was Irish; Mr. Howel was English; there were two Swedes and one Dutchman before the mast; but all the remainder of her officers and crew were American. Including the boys, the total number on board was twenty-five.
About July 19, 1792, the Margaret sailed to the Columbia River in search of furs. On her return she reported little success. Magee got sick, and on August 12, Lamb, the first mate, took command of the Margaret and had sailed in company with the Hope.
Magee got sick to such a degree that he was intensely anxious to put foot on shore, in the hope that change of scene and the land air might prove beneficial. The men were set to work to build a house for his temporary residence.
When Vancouver anchored there on August 28, 1792, he found Captain Magee living on shore with his surgeon and John Howel.
Captain Magee appears to have steadily improved in health after leaving the coast. On November 8, while off Hawai‘i, where the Margaret was busy buying supplies, Captain Barkley of the Halcyon went on board.
Captain Magee received his visitor in a friendly manner and they soon agreed to go in company to Waikiki Bay, Oahu, to procure water. The three vessels, Halcyon, Margaret, and Hope anchored at Waikiki about a mile and a half off shore. The water was so clear that lying in ten fathoms they could plainly see the bottom.
The next night, fearing that the natives had some scheme to capture them, they set sail and, on the morning of 11th, arrived at Kauai. Late that afternoon they anchored in Waimea Bay. On the 13th the Halcyon sailed for China. The Margaret followed her ten days later, and reached Macao January 3, 1793.
Returning to the Islands, Magee wrote the following on behalf of one of his crew who was to stay in Hawai‘i: “Ship Margaret at Anchur, Whahoo, Oct’r 6th 1793. This may certify that the bearer, Oliver Holmes, having ever behaved himself with great propriety, as an honest and active man, towards his duty while on board the Margaret, under my command, and was discharged, by his own desire, to tarry on shore at the Island. James Magee.”
(Holmes became one of the first dozen foreigners (and one of the first Americans) to live in Hawaiʻi (he lived on the island of Oʻahu.) Holmes married Mahi i, daughter of a high chief of Koʻolau who was killed in the battle of the Nuʻuanu Pali. Holmes made his living managing his land holdings on Oʻahu and Molokai, providing provisions to visiting ships. (Oliver Wendell Holmes was born August 29, 1809 in Cambridge, Massachusetts – Oliver Holmes was in Hawai‘i at the time.))
By this time, the trade route Boston – Northwest Coast – Canton – Boston was fairly established. Not only the merchantmen of Massachusetts, but the whalers balked of their accustomed traffic by European exclusiveness, were swarming around the Horn in search of new markets and sources of supply.
To obtain fresh provisions and prevent scurvy, the Northwest traders broke their voyage at least twice; at the Cape Verde Islands, the Falklands, sometimes Galapagos for a giant tortoise, and invariably Hawai‘i (which proved an ideal spot to replenish supplies).
The Northwest trade, the Hawaiian trade, and the fur seal fisheries were only a means to an end – the procuring of Chinese teas and textiles – to sell again at home and abroad. China was the only market for sea otter, and Canton the only Chinese port where foreigners were allowed to exchange it. Magee was part of the origins of the China trade.