Edmund Roberts (diplomat)

Edmund Roberts (diplomat)

His Excellency
Edmund Roberts
Born June 29, 1784
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Died June 12, 1836, age 51[1]
Cause of death
Occupation Merchant; Envoy Extraordinary
Known for Siamese treaty of 1833
Omani treaty of 1834
Notable work(s) Embassy to the Eastern courts of Cochin-China, Siam, and Muscat : in the U. S. sloop-of-war Peacock ... during the years 1832-3-4[2] (posthumous)
Spouse(s) Catherine Whipple Langdon
Children 11 (8 survived parents)
Parents Edmund Roberts, Captain, RN
Sarah Griffiths

Edmund Roberts, appointed by President Andrew Jackson as America's first envoy to the Far East, went in the U. S. sloop-of-war Peacock on two consecutive non-resident embassies to the Eastern courts of Cochin-China, Siam, and Muscat during the years 1832–6. Roberts concluded treaties with Siam[3] and the Sultan of Muscat in Oman,[4] ratified in Washington, D.C. 30 June 1834. He returned in 1836 to exchange ratifications with Oman and Siam; and to Cochin-China for a second attempt at negotiation.[5] He fell seriously ill and withdrew to die in Macao; which precluded his becoming America's first envoy to Tokugawa Japan.[6][7]

Early life

Roberts was born 29 June 1784 to Sarah Griffiths of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and British navy Captain Edmund Roberts,[8] who died 15 November 1787 and was interred in North Cemetery[9] leaving his son a half-orphan in his mother's care. Young Edmund at age 13 received through his congressman a Midshipman's warrant in the United States Navy, but waived the appointment at his mother's wish for him to remain at home while she lived. Roberts put to sea in 1800, eventually residing in London until age 24. Returning in 1808, he married Miss Catherine Whipple Langdon — daughter of Judge Woodbury Langdon and niece of Governor John Langdon ,[10] both of whom were engaged in the New England triangular trade between Portsmouth, the Caribbean and London; and among Portsmouth's wealthiest and most politically connected citizens. Of the couple's 11 children, 8 survived their parents.[6]

Early life in "these united states"

1904 version of New Hampshire state seal with image of the Raleigh and Latin inscription
But in 1784, the united states of America were thirteen newly independent small nations along the Atlantic coast of North America who had recently banded together under the Articles of Confederation. The idea that the USA was a voluntary union of independent states, rather than an indissoluble national entity, died hard.[11]
New Hampshire, with only 16 miles of coast line and its naval shipyard facility in Maine, is credited with shaping Roberts' character.[6] The frigate Raleigh, depicted on the state seal, was one of thirteen ships authorized by the Continental Congress in 1775 for the Continental Navy, which was disbanded in August 1785; Raleigh, having been captured and found to be a fine ship, served on in the British navy.

Formation of an American naval force was a topic of debate for years, with opponents arguing that building a navy would only lead to calls for a navy department, and the staff to operate it. This would further lead to more appropriations of funds, which would eventually spiral out of control, giving birth to a "self-feeding entity". The original six frigates of the United States Navy were funded in 1794 by a reluctant Congress, with a proviso for an abrupt halt to construction should a peace agreement with be concluded with Algiers – which was announced in March 1796. After some debate and prompting by President Washington, Congress passed an act on 20 April 1796 allowing the construction and funding to continue only on the three ships nearest to completion. Congress, laid at Portsmouth shipyard in 1795, was spared the axe due to the Quasi-War and XYZ Affair: in 1819, she was the first U.S. warship to visit China. In fact, from 1798 to 1883 the foreign affairs of the United States were largely the responsibility of those wearing the gold braid of U.S. navy officers.[12]

Roberts the merchant

Roberts entered the New England triangular trade as shipowner and his own supercargo, but never as captain. (Historian Miller says Roberts lost his accumulated wealth in a series of misfortunes, but succeeded in 1823 in being appointed US Consul at Demerara.[13] Miller erroneously places Demerara on the east coast of Africa, and does not mention the Demerara rebellion of 1823: The 1823 revolt had a special significance...[in that i]t attracted attention in Britain inside and outside Parliament to the terrible evil slavery and the need to abolish it. Roberts own account mentions neither Demerara nor the slave revolt, but his palpable aversion to slavery colors his negotiating stance, where subjects act as slaves to the king). By 1827, nearly impoverished by depredations of French and Spanish privateers on his ships in the West Indies, he chartered the Mary Ann to trade in the Indian Ocean. Roberts arrived in the port of Zanzibar in October 1827, and the next year, had an audience with the newly arrived Said bin Sultan, Sultan of Muscat and Oman, who was so anxious to counterbalance British influence that he asked Roberts to escort some vessels to the United States to petition for trade; Roberts promised to bring the matter up with his Government. Upon returning, he wrote Senator Levi Woodbury, a personal friend,[6] of the aggravations endured by American shipping, that might be alleviated by negating commercial treaties.[14]:p.5

To the farthest port of the rich Indies

Latin: Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum
The stage was set for Roberts diplomatic career by Salem's trade with China and the East Indies. Pursuits of members of the East India Marine Society, established in 1799 and composed of those who had sailed beyond the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn as masters or supercargoes contributed to the beginnings of US international relations during the period of 1788 to 1845. From 1826 to 1832, John Shillaber, American consul in Batavia, sent a series of letters suggesting that he be empowered to negotiate trade treaties.[15] Martin van Buren replied in a letter dated 13 December 1830, sent over the signature of clerk Daniel Brent, requesting a more precise knowledge of the nature and character of the governments in question, and more details on difficulties encountered.[13] :p.30 Matters came to a head after Charles Endicott, master of the merchantman Friendship of Salem, engaged in the spice trade on the Sumatran coast, returned to report the brig Governor Endicott, also of Salem, and the James Monroe of New York, had recaptured his ship from pirates who had plundered her, murdering several crewmen.[16]:p.121 In the wake of public outcry, President Jackson ordered Commodore John Downes of the frigate Potomac, which had been preparing to sail for the west coast, to proceed instead on the first Sumatran Expedition, departing New York harbour 19 August 1831.

Subsequent events

Peacock. Alfred T. Agate. Pencil.
Fortune favours Roberts. His friend Woodbury, who as senator had been pressing for increased naval appropriations when he received Robert's letter on the need for trade negotiations, had just become Jackson's Secretary of the Navy and saw an opportunity. As the Potomac was departing the schooner Boxer was nearing commissioning; Peacock, outfitted for exploration but due to lack of funds diverted to duty in the West Indies, had returned for re-fit. Woodbury convinced Jackson to send both 10-gun ships to support Potomac – with Roberts as Jackson's "special agent". Secretary of State Edward Livingston's "Instructions to Special Agent Edmund Roberts" signed 27 January 1832, order him to embark upon Peacock in the guise of the captain's clerk, his mission's purpose concealed except from the Captain and those with a need to know; while in passage he is to gather as much as possible of the knowledge previously requested of Shillaber; his duties as envoy will then begin at Cochin-China. Livingston adds a postscript that Roberts is to receive $6 per diem.[13] :pp.308–9 Jackson later explains to the Senate in his message of 30 May 1834, "The expenses of the agency have been defrayed out of the contingent fund for foreign intercourse".[13]:p.21

In mid-February 1832, Boxer is dispatched to Liberia with orders to join the Peacock off the coast of Brazil, but the ships fail to rendezvous until 5 June 1834 – in the unhealthy road stead of Batavia.[14]:p.327 In March 1832, Peacock sails for Brazil under Commander David Geisinger, with F. Baylies, Esq., appointed chargé d’affaires to Buenos Aires; and secret agent Roberts. His published account follows the general outline of that published two years previously of British East India Company agent John Crawfurd's 1822 mission to Siam and Cochin-China. Roberts, in both his report to State[13]:p.305 and in his journal, cites page 269 of his copy of Mr. Crawford [sic][14]:p.198 – page 414 in Crawfurd's second edition.[17]

Boxer having failed to show by the time appointed, orders were left at Montevideo for her to join up at Bencoolen. Peacock sails by way of the Cape Horn and makes Bencoolen 23 August 1833; the Dutch Resident reports the Potomac had completed her mission,[14]:p.32 thus freeing Peacock to continue Roberts' quest for intelligence.

Roberts' first mission

Pursuant to orders to gather information before going to Cochin-China, Peacock sails for Manila by way of Long Island and Crokatoa, where hot springs found on the eastern side of the islands one hundred and fifty feet from the shore boiled furiously up, through many fathoms of water. Peacock's chronometers proving useless, she threads the Sunda Strait by dead reckoning. Diarrhoea and dysentery were prevalent among the crew from Angier to Manila. After a fortnight there, cholera struck, despite the overall cleanliness of the ship. Peacock lost seven men; many who recovered died of other diseases. No new case of cholera occurred after she got under way 2 November 1833 for Macao. Within two leagues of the Lemma or Ladrone islands, she takes aboard a pilot, after settling on a fee of thirteen dollars and a bottle of rum.[14]:p.65

Macao and Canton City

Americans arriving at the port of Canton City were treated much the same as other foreigners willing to conduct trade through the co-hong, Chinese mercantile houses granted imperial monopolies in foreign commerce. The trade was lucrative, but foreign traders were social and political inferiors, with no guarantees for their lives, property, or rights of trade or residence. While this rankled the English, Americans and others were unwilling to meddle, lest that bring about what they feared most — a trade embargo. Congress under Captain John D. Henley, the first US naval vessel to call on China, arrived 3 November 1819 at Lintin Island. Chinese officials alarmed at the arrival of a warship, commanded her Captain not to enter the Pearl River. Advised by the U.S. consul that no adverse action would be taken, Captain Henley boldly entered to re-provision his ship. In January 1830, sloop-of-war Vincennes under Commander William B. Finch, then on America's first global circumnavigation, remained over a fortnight at Canton, where American merchants advised him that an annual naval visit would be valuable – if their commanders would show "the same deference toward the customs of China, and conciliatory disposition as exhibited by yourself", which Finch duly reports to the Navy department. There is no indication that Finch's report was forwarded to State, or that Roberts had seen it, even though conditions were practically the same in all nearby "Sinicized" tributary kingdoms, i.e., conduct oneself circumspectly, with no guarantees one way or the other.[12]

In the latter months of 1832, Roberts visited Macao and Canton City, where he notes, "The Chinese merchants have a well-earned reputation as shrewd dealers : they have little confidence in each other; every contract of importance must be 'fixed,' and made sure by the payment of a stipulated sum : but they place the most unlimited confidence in the integrity of their foreign customers"(p. 128.) Roberts devotes most of Chapters VI to XVII to history, customs and governance of the "Celestial Kingdom", and leaves it to the reader to conclude why "Celestials" have little confidence in one another. He engages John Robert Morrison as Chinese translator and personal secretary, who was to return by way of Singapore.[14]:pp.72–171


See Minh Mạng's isolationist foreign policy
Six weeks after arriving at Linting, and after enduring several days of rainy and squally weather, Peacock sailed for the bay of Turan ([14]:pp.178ff. Miller says a modern Vietnamese suggests Roberts seemed to lack “diplomatic flexibility,” and his descriptions of the people are “denuded of all goodwill and understanding.”[13][19] It should be noted that Roberts died before publication of his account, without having had a chance to revise it.[1] As published, he reports playing a joke on court deputies when pressed for his titles (which in the usage of the day, were usually quite long.)
I at once concluded to humour them.... The principal deputy having prepared his Chinese pencil and half a sheet of paper, sat down to write. I immediately observed to him, that it was necessary to commence with a whole sheet.... Having determined to give them, in the first place, the names of all the counties, and the two hundred and odd towns in my native state, as well as the mountains, rivers, and lakes, which would supply the places of titles, and then, if they were not satisfied, to proceed in the same manner with all the other states in the Union... &c., would probably occupy them for some days, if they had had sufficient perseverance to proceed to the end of what I intended should be endless. I then commenced as follows, Mr. Morrison acting as interpreter and frequently translator:

Edmund Roberts, a special envoy from the United States, and a citizen of Portsmouth, in the state of New Hampshire. I then proceeded with the counties of Rockingham, Strafford, Merrimack....[14]:p. 217

The opening line subsequently appears above his signature to the treaty he successfully negotiates with Siam.


See Siamese–American Treaty of Amity and Commerce; Thailand–United States relations


Roberts' interest in becoming a diplomat was sparked by an earlier visit around 1827 to Said bin Sultan, Sultan of Muscat and Oman.[6] A treaty with the Sultan was signed at Muscat on September 21, 1833.[1][20]

Second mission

Naval surgeon William Ruschenberger (1807–1895) commissioned on the U. S. Ship Peacock,[21] commanded by lieutenant C. K. Stribling, accompanied by the U. S. Schooner Enterprise, Lieutenant Commanding A. S. Campbell; both under the command of Commodore Edmund P. Kennedy. Since Ruschenberger's volume was put to press, a posthumous work, drawn up from the journals and letters of Mr. Roberts, written during the years 1832-3-4, was published, in which may be found a history of the first negotiations with the courts of Cochin-China, Siam, and Muscat. Both works refer occasionally to the same subjects, but they are distinct, and in no way similar. Though the volume by Mr. Roberts possesses great interest, it will be found that the present one, in relation to the embassy is much more complete, and it is hoped the reader will find it not less amusing.[22]

Aftermath and legacy

A Bill For the settlement of the accounts of Edmund Roberts, late diplomatic agent of the United States to Cochin China, Muscat, and Siam, proposed that his legal representatives be authorized to draw the salary of a chargé d'affaires, without the outfit, less the per diem already paid, from the time of his appointment January 27, 1832, until six months after his death June 13, 1836.[23] Roberts' account of his mission[14] was published posthumously; his papers were placed on deposit by the Portsmouth Historical Society in July 1991.[24] His mission was commemorated in a historical perspective on gifts to the United States of America at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.[25] Roberts is also known for having requested issues of 1804-dated American gold eagles and silver dollars as parts of presentation proof sets, carried on his second mission.

Neither Roberts' nor Ruschenberger's accounts are those of a polished diplomat, but were written, "for a general American audience to acquaint them with the realities of a far-off land and culture" – subsequently collected and re-published as Two Yankee Diplomats In 1830's Siam.[26][27]

Further references

"The Roberts Mission", in Tyler Dennett. Americans in Eastern Asia: A Critical Study of the Policy of the United States with Reference to China, Japan and Korea in the 19th Century. New York: Macmillan, 1922. Reprinted: (New York: Barnes & Noble 1941, 1963), pp. 128–143.


  1. ^ a b c "A Voyage Round the World, Including an Embassy to Muscat and Siam in 1835, 1836, and 1837".  
  2. ^ "Embassy to the Eastern Courts of Cochin-China, Siam, and Muscat".  
  3. ^ Malloy, William M. (Digitized March 7, 2008) [1904]. "Siam.". Compilation of Treaties in Force. Washington:  
  4. ^ Cotheal, Alexander I. (2008-01-17). "Treaty between the United States of America and the Sultân of Masḳaṭ: The Arabic Text" (free). Journal of the American Oriental Society (JSTOR) 4 (1854): 341–343. Retrieved April 5, 2012. 
  5. ^  
  6. ^ a b c d e Wm. Elliot Griffis (August 6, 1905). "Edmund Roberts, Our First Envoy to Japan".  
  7. ^ Cole, Allan B. (July 1941). "Plans of Edmund Roberts for Negotiations in Nippon". Monumenta Nipponica (Sophia University) 4 (2): 497–513.  
  8. ^ "Section 4". Biographical Review. Boston: Biographical Review Publishing Company (at Delaware County, NY Genealogy and History Site). 27 January 2011 [First published in 1895]. Retrieved February 11, 2013. BELL BROTHERS. ...Frances Lear Roberts, wife of Calvin H. Bell, was the youngest daughter of Edmund and Catharine Whipple (Langdon) Roberts, of Portsmouth, N.H. ... The Roberts family are of English ancestry... Their grandfather was Captain Edmund Roberts, of the British navy; and their father was Edmund Roberts, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to several Asiatic courts. He died at Macao, China, June 12, 1836, and was buried there. 
  9. ^ "In Memory of Capt. Edmund Roberts who departed this life Nov. 15, 1787.". Gravestone images. A Very Grave Matter. June 23, 2006. Retrieved May 5, 2012. image © 2004 Gravematter.com 
  10. ^ "Calvin Howard Bell Family". extract from Bell Family History. Access Genealogy. April 23, 2012. Retrieved April 19, 2012. Judge Woodbury Langdon, of Portsmouth , N. H.; Delegate to the Continental Congress, 1779; President of N. H. Senate, 1784; Judge of the Superior Court of N. H., 1782-91....(a) Catherine Whipple Langdon: m. 1808, Edmund Roberts, of Portsmouth, N. H. 
  11. ^ Polycarp (2006-12-29). "The war fought over a verb?". Straight Dope Message Board. Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd. Retrieved 2:07 PM 5/2/2012. 
  12. ^ a b Long, David Foster (1988). Gold braid and foreign relations : diplomatic activities of U.S. naval officers, 1798-1883. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.  
  13. ^ a b c d e f  
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i Roberts, Edmund (Digitized October 12, 2007) [First published in 1837]. "Introduction". Embassy to the Eastern courts of Cochin-China, Siam, and Muscat : in the U. S. sloop-of-war Peacock ... during the years 1832-3-4. Harper & brothers. p. 10.  
  15. ^ Gedalecia, David (Winter 2002). "Letters from the Middle Kingdom : The Origins of America's China Policy". Prologue Magazine (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) 34 (4). Retrieved July 15, 2012. Shillaber was appointed consul on July 23, 1824, and served from February 14, 1825, until October 1832. He officially resigned in China on June 10, 1835. Office of the Historian, Department of State, Washington, D.C., electronic communication, Dec. 17, 2001. 
  16. ^ Trow, Charles Edward (1905), The old shipmasters of Salem, New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons,  
  17. ^  
  18. ^ "Dossier of Xuan Dai Bay (Phu Yen Province) submitted to UNESCO". Vietnam Tours. September 21, 2011. Retrieved June 26, 2012. Vung Lam bay used to be the most bustling trading port of Phu Yen in the past, the door connecting Phu Yen to the outer trading worlds. 
  19. ^ Nguyen The Ahn, Bibliographies Critique sur les relations entre le Viet-Nm et l‚ Occident, Paris: G-P Maisonneuve et Larose, 1967, p. 156, note #611
  20. ^ Cotheal, Alexander I. (2008-01-17). "Treaty between the United States of America and the Sultân of Masḳaṭ: The Arabic Text".  
  21. ^ W.S.W. Ruschenberger, M.D. (1873). "A report on the origin and therapeutic properties of cundurango". Published by order of the Navy Department. Washington:  
  22. ^ Ruschenberger, William Samuel Waithman (Scandate 20070724) [First published in 1837]. A Voyage Round the World: Including an Embassy to Muscat and Siam in 1835, 1836 and 1837.. Harper & brothers.  
  23. ^ 25th Congress, 2d Session, H. R. 359. January 9, 1839.
  24. ^ Portsmouth Historical Society Collection, MS022, Portsmouth Athenaeum
  25. ^ "The Treaty of Amity and Commerce, 1833" (exhibition). Royal Gifts from Thailand.  
  26. ^ Roberts, Edmund; Ruschenberger, W. S. W. (William Samuel Waithman) (2002). Smithies, Michael, ed. Two Yankee Diplomats In 1830's Siam. Itineraria Asiatica. Volume 10. Bangkok: Orchid Press. 232 pages.  
  27. ^  

See also

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