A penny sent 'round the world

Now that China is more promient in the larger world, I should recall that my earliest charity was one cent a year to alleviate the distress of the Great Famine in that land. no doubt many present-day Chinese will want to thank me for sustaining their ancestors back when times were tough. Every fall after school began, our teachers would ask us each to bring one cent to school, to buy rice for the starving Chinese. China seemed to have a permanent famine, but I lost touch with it when I went into high school. The cent, our teachers repeated each year, would buy enough rice to feed a hungry family for a long time. It seemed unreasonable that so many people were hungry when rice was so cheap, but we laid our coppers on the desk and felt smug in our generous philanthropy.

The teachers did turn the joggerfy lessons, so our penny's interest in the Orient enlarged our knowledge. We knew about the Great Wall, and that the Chinese people would never march past a given point. Besides, a down-Maine coastal town was by no means unaware of China, which was "out East." That was a far piece. Our highest adventure was in "the Islands.c To Maine sea captains, the West Indies were local waters, and to voyage there for trade was "coasting." Vessels that went up and down our Eastern Seaboard, port by port, were called coasters, and the islands of the Caribbean (pronounced carra-BEE'n, then) were considered in coasting range -- not deep water. But in the early W. I. trade (grocery stores in Maine would have signs that said "W. I. Goods.") there was risk in the Islands. French and English privateers amounted to no more than recognized pirates, and there were also plenty of uneuphemized pirates in the Caribbean anyway. Boys who had no intention of following the sea would make a voyage or two to the Islands just to toughen themselves up and get some experience.

One Main captain had his vessel and cargo seized by Toussain L'Ouverture right after the Haiti massacre. Brought before the Libertor, our captain quaked in his boots and saw no great future up ahead. But because of the privateers and pirates, all ships in those days carried government letters addressed to other governments generally, asking for assistance if in distress. Our captain thus brought out this letter, pointed to the signature of George Washington, and told Toussaint he had a personal letter for him from the American President. With your permission, he said, I would like to read it to you. So our captain read this letter while a sergeant translated, and Troussaint was delighted with the extremely complimentary remarks Washington made about him -- these remarks being inserted extemporaneously by the captain as he went along. Our captain had his ship and cargo returned, and completed an extremely profitable voyage.

If such were deemed "coasting," then the real blue-water voyages from maine ports were high adventure. "Our East" meant Australian, East Indian, and Chinese ports. Out West, as a Maine expression, came later, after the Civil War , when boys homesteaded the prairie territories. In Maine, "out West" never meant the west coast of South America, where tin, guano, and copper were taken on. California, to us, was the Pacific Coast, and the differences still hold over in coastal Maine speech. The Pacific Coast was reached, then, by long and hectic voyages by Good hope, and until the Gold Rush of '49, trade was not brisk. In 1848 only two Eastern Seaboard vessels came to San Francisco; in 1849 only two Eastern Seaboard vessels came to San Francisco; in 1849, 775. Then came the sharp ships, including the clippers, and the Pacific Ocean was added to the front dooryard of Maine sailors.

As trade with China grew, the Yankees found the silver dollar mighty important. The opium trade got a lot of play and ended with the Opium War, but other goods were carried and the Chinese merchants seemed to prefer coins to barter. Because these coins were picked up in Mexico before kiting across the Pacific, the Chinese always called our dollars "Mexican dollars." And these were the things we youngsters knew because we lived in a Maine coastal village, where retired deepwater captains were handy to tell us stories. Each fall when it came time to look again at China, we would bring our pennies, and some children would bring pieces of silk and all manner of Oriental souvenirs. One little lady always brought a box of jade -- priceless, but merely a dust catcher on the parlor organ. Even chopsticks came to school, but we didn't really believe anyone could eat rice that way.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.