1636 The China Venture – Snippet 01

1636: The China Venture

by Eric Flint and Iver P. Cooper

PART I: 1633

Ship me somewhere’s east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst

Rudyard Kipling, Mandalay



September 1633

“Okay,” said Mike Stearns, “we’ve thrashed out what can and can’t be done right now in terms of trade with the Ottomans, the Mughals, and even the Venetians.” The President of the New United States leaned back in his chair, and sighed. “Are we done for today?”

“I must beg your indulgence a little longer, before you run off to wrestle bear, or whatever other hillbilly pastime you had in mind,” said Don Francisco Nasi, his advisor and spymaster. “We should talk briefly about Ming China.”

“China?” Mike’s eyebrows did a quick pull up and release. “I know that there are a lot of Chinese in the world–“

“Our best guess is about one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty million people in China proper,” Don Francisco interjected. “And there are also Chinese in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, although we don’t know how many.”

“As I said, a lot,” Mike continued, “but how are they relevant to us right now? It’s not as though they share a border with any of our enemies, so the ‘enemy of our enemy is our friend’ principle doesn’t come into play. And the NUS is not exactly a nation of tea drinkers.”

“Even the British aren’t tea drinkers yet,” said Don Francisco. “And it’s just as well, because about the only goods the Chinese wanted from the British in return for tea was opium, and tea sales not offset by opium had to be paid for in silver. And after the British expanded opium production in India to pay for more tea, Chinese opium use increased to the point that the Chinese realized that it had to be banned.”

Nasi sighed. “Leading to the Opium Wars, in which the British literally forced the opium down their throats.

“But in answer to your question, I have had Eric Garlow research the issue. He is a smart fellow–“

“I know,” said Mike, “he’s one of Tom and Rita’s friends from their college days.”

“And he is my liaison to the Army so he was easy to impose upon. He did the library research, and talked to Lolly Aossey and Greg Ferrara, and he indicates that the Chinese might be useful sources for zinc, graphite, mercury, antimony and tungsten. Some of those they produce already, and others we’d have to help them find the ore and extract it.”

“We can’t get those closer at hand?”

“The closer deposits are much smaller, subject to interdiction by our enemies, or both.”

“Humph,” said Mike, stroking his chin. “If I recall correctly, Eric has a degree in Chinese. Are you sure this isn’t a case of a hammer deciding that every problem is a nail?”

“After reading Eric’s report, I checked with Lolly and Greg myself,” said Don Francisco. “Besides, there are other reasons to send a mission to China.”

Mike snapped his fingers. “You know, what about silk? After the Croat Raid, Harry Lefferts gave me an earful about observation balloons. We’re still trying to find a good source for rubber, and I remember one of the Civil War buffs telling me that the Confederates made a balloon out of silk dresses. “

“Dress silk,” said Don Francisco, “not actual dresses. The balloon was inflated with coal gas. No doubt, someone, somewhere, is working on a balloon. Perhaps several someones.”

Don Francisco paused for a sip of coffee. “But even without balloons, there’s plenty of profit to be made on silk from China. In fact, it’s the main export from China to Europe in the here-and-now.

“The China trade is pretty important to the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Dutch, so we do need to keep tabs on it. And the further we get away from the Ring of Fire, the less reliable your up-time histories are as a guide to what’s happening in the world. We should have eyes and ears in China.”

“So have a couple of down-time merchants pay the Chinese a visit,” said Mike.

“I will. I can get people into Portuguese Macao, Spanish Manila, and Dutch Batavia easily enough. Over the course of a year or so. However … merchants won’t have access to the imperial court. The best chance of getting that, any time soon, is to play the ‘people of the future’ card. The Ming emperors, by all accounts, are obsessed with predicting the future. The Jesuits have priests in Beijing because western astronomy is better at predicting astronomical events–which the Chinese consider to be divine portents–than Chinese or Muslim astronomy is.”

“So you want a few up-timers. Preferably including at least one astronomer, or physicist, or mathematician.”

“Yes, with enough futuristic goodies to give some credence to their story.”

Mike laughed. “Well, if Eric Garlow is angling to visit Ming China, he may get his wish. Not that he’d be the right person to head the mission. But I think the mission will formally be on behalf of Confederated Principalities of Europe, not the New United States.” The CPE was a confederation of sovereign states, notably including both the New United States and Sweden, with Gustavus Adolphus as its head of state. “I think that might be a nice plum to throw Gustav Adolf’s way; let him pick the ambassador.”

Mike jotted down something on a pad of paper. “I just added that to the agenda for my next meeting with Gustav Adolf. Give me a detailed proposal covering what we might want from the Chinese that we can’t get easily somewhere closer at hand, and what we can sell to them. See if you can line up some private investors so the USE diplomatic mission can piggyback on a regular trading venture. And think about who would be suitable to go on this mission. Then report back to me.

“Oh, one more thing.” Mike shook his finger at Don Francisco. “Don’t turn your proposal into a PowerPoint presentation.”

Don Francisco shrugged. “You sound like King Canute, commanding the tide to recede.”