Although China had much to offer European customers, there was little Chinese interest in European trade goods, with the exception of silver from “New Spain”, until furs from the Pacific Northwest started to arrive by ship. The soft, rich fur of the sea otter was popular for use in making Chinese state robes and caps. All grades of beaver pelts were imported for a wide range of common and luxurious fur garments needed during the cold Chinese winters.
In 1779, Captain Cook’s expedition was under the command of Captain Gore following Cook’s death. They sailed to Asia where they traded the pelts they had brought aboard at Nootka in exchange for Chinese goods that would earn high prices upon their return to England. The crew, thrilled that the pelts that had cost them a few nails were now earning gold, immediately wanted to trade more furs from Nootka Sound and neared mutiny in their zeal to return. In 1787, French Captain Jean-François De Galaup, known as La Pérouse, explored the Pacific Northwest on behalf of King Louis XVI. With 1,000 pelts in his hold, he turned east, crossing the Pacific to see what he could learn about the Chinese trade. The North West Company also began to trade furs with China. They avoided the British trade restrictions, which also applied to goods coming from Canada, by sending shipments out of ports such as Boston in the United States.
Foreign traders were not permitted to enter Chinese territory beyond Macao and Canton, so European and American vessels visited these ports to trade furs and fill their holds with Chinese silks and tea before sailing for home. The Portuguese trading base of Macao was located on an island leased from China. It functioned as a free port on the South Chinese Sea, not far from the walled city of Canton. Traders like John Meares, who sailed the Nootka and the Sea Otter across the Pacific in the late 1780s, brought their pelts to this centre to avoid the British trade monopoly of the East India Company. Americans vessels, primarily from eastern ports such as Boston, began to dominate the Cantonese trade in sea otter pelts. Russian traders could use the center of Kyakhta, a frontier city established in 1728 between Siberia and the Mongolia territory of the Chinese Qing Empire.