Tensions of Trade and Migration: The Origins of Transoceanic Steamship Companies and China-u.s. Exchange

Open Access
Stephens, Ryan Michael
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Dr Grace Delgado, Thesis Supervisor
  • Michael James Milligan, Honors Advisor
  • Amy S Greenberg, Faculty Reader
  • Chinese Exclusion
  • Pacific Mail Steamship Company
  • Subsidy
  • Immigration
  • Burlingame-Seward Treaty
  • Exclusion Act of 1882
“Tensions of Trade and Migration” examines U.S. relations with China from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. It explores the paradoxical political and economic environment in which the United States fostered diplomatic relations with China. During the nineteenth century, American steamship companies and their owners gained a foothold in the transpacific trade by transporting goods and people from China into the North American Pacific region. The Burlingame-Seward Treaty (1868) advanced positive economic relations with China, yet the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 conveyed a message of exclusion and marginalization. From one point of view, strong U.S.-China relations were necessary to sustain the flow of Chinese labor and raw materials for North American industries and economies, yet white, working-class interests were focused on restricting Chinese migration into the United States and Canada. In this complex Pacific world, competition for economic dominance between the United States, England, France, and Germany fostered the growth of steamship technology that brought China closer to Western societies. As the flow of Chinese immigrants and goods arrived into the United States and Canada, concerns over the status of white labor prompted both nations to enact exclusionary immigration policy. However, the overwhelming economic benefit from trade with China, particularly for businesses in Canada and the U.S. East Coast, propelled both nations to ensure that immigration restrictionism would not hinder economic relations with China. As a result, immigration laws in both Canada and the United States were class-based, allowing for the admission of Chinese merchants and the prohibition of laborers. However, these provisions did not effectively prevent Chinese laborers from entering the United States. American responses to illegal Chinese immigration from Canada as well as the 1905 Chinese boycott of American goods, led to an overall deterioration of U.S.-China relations that persisted well into the mid-twentieth century.