Daily Archives: 27 March 2005

International Trade in the Sulu Sea, 1791

Amasa Delano accompanied the McCluer Expedition to the Sulu Sea in 1791.

Commodore McCluer’s hope for the Sooloos was to build up a better feeling toward the English. The matter of trade would be looked into of course; but trade would follow the good feeling. The Sooloos offered many useful items for trading purposes–sago, pearls, bêche-de-mer, gold dust, turtle shells, ivory, camphor, birds’-nests, and so on.

The birds’-nests held a special interest for Amasa. While in Canton he had seen mandarins and Hong merchants paying fabulous prices for birds’-nests. They made soup of the nests. In Timor Amasa learned that a tiny bird, small as a small swallow, collected a white, glutinous substance from the foam of the sea as it rolled up on the beach and made nests of it in the caverns and crevices of cliffs beside the sea.

Malays in Timor would dive into the sea to enter the mouths of the caverns where the tiny birds were and collect their nests.

Their example so stirred Amasa that he had himself “lowered fifty feet by a rope into a chasm between the cliffs, and there caught the swallows upon the nests, and plucked their nests. The nests were of the size of a quarter of a large orange peel, they were white like isinglass, and a single nest weighed about an ounce.”

Amasa’s craving for first-hand knowledge of strange customs led him to try out a bird’s-nest soup. He found it “possessing an agreeable aromatic flavour.”

The need of fresh provisions had to be met while at Sooloo. It was known that fat cattle were to be had there for little money–two or three Spanish dollars for a bullock, and take it out in trade. Goats were plentiful. Amasa swapped a knife or a goat. Hogs, sheep, and fowls of every sort abounded. Vegetables and fruits of many kinds and in quantities and fish of excellent quality and in great numbers were to be had for trifles and toys. Green turtles, big ones– five-hundred-pound fellows–could be had for what the buyer felt like paying. And as for rice, a shipload of rice was cheaper than a kettle of salt cod back in Boston.

For trading purposes the [HMS] Panther carried plenty of “cheap cotton goods, white and colored calicoes, also opium, knives, scissors, razors, small looking-glasses, spy-glasses, perfumes, bergamot, essence of lavender and lemon, curious toys, and a few fine goods.”

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