Sustenance and Colonization: Fenimore Cooper’s Culinary Excesses Or, Arare Necesse Est

Signe O. Wegener (University of Georgia)

Presented at the No. 1 Cooper Panel of the 2012 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 29, May, 2012, pp. 6-9.

Copyright © 2012, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

In his paper at the 2001 James Fenimore Cooper Seminar, on “James Fenimore Cooper, Agriculture, and The Crater,” Steven Harthorn responds to Cooper’s “playful invitation” in The Two Admirals to consider certain “insinuations” manifesting themselves in The Crater. In Harthorn’s case, these insinuations lead to his discussion of The Crater in the context of Cooper’s “interest in agriculture and how it affected his worldview, his moral and spiritual ethics” (Harthorn 1). My paper, I have to admit, expresses a similar inclination to explore Cooper’s insinuations. However, The Crater’s wealth of agricultural details, seen in the veritable “seed catalog” Cooper provides, and the intended use of this excess, have led me in a slightly different direction. The 1847 novel, although ostensibly set at the very birth of the United States’ China trade, is more contemporary than historical: it highlights the trade developments and the growing US mercantile, political, and religious presence in the Pacific basin in the 1840s. More importantly, the focus on agriculture, and on American fruits and vegetables at that, makes the foods Cooper discusses emblems of 1) the US/China trade, 2) American expansion/colonization, and 3) religious expansion.

In The Crater, Cooper posits agriculture as an indispensable basis for the novel’s — and the US’ activities. The central one is, of course, expansion and colonization, seen in Mark Woolston’s assiduous terraforming of the barren reef near which the Rancocus has been deposited by the storm. The fertile soil resulting from his activities, the necessary basis for a prosperous colony, are the direct results of his work. It is soil formation and enrichment from the veriest scratch, for, the text reports, “there were no signs of vegetation around the rock”; ocean water, “that was incessantly moistening the surface” made this impossible. Fortuitously, some necessary basics for Mark’s terraforming are readily available: Betts who much prefers fishing to farming and is able to “turn his hand to almost anything” (78), brings back “loam ... found lodged in the cavity of one of the largest rocks” (90). Armed with Betts’s discovery, augmented with a supply of seaweed, the novel’s hero shows himself as a devoted and conscientious farmer, even if he initially knows “very little of gardening” (78). However, the texts shows that he has a firm grasp of gardening’s most basic tenet: “He knew that moisture was indispensable to the growth of most plants, and had taken care to put all his seeds into cavities, where the rain that fell ... would not run off and be wasted ... using his hoe in a way to avoid equally the danger of having too much or too little water” (79). Mark utilizes not only the ship’s cargo of seeds but also the animals that survived the shipwreck to improve the soil; the pigs, for instance, start rooting around in the crater “making a long row of hillocks, of earthy ashes, ... well enough disposed for the nature of the different fruits, could they only be got to grow. Along this irregular row of hillocks did Mark bury his seeds” (80). The results of Mark’s activities exceed basic human needs. His foray into farming leaves him with a spiritual attachment to his crops and lands: they are manifestations “of the bounties of Providence” and “a reward of his industry and forethought” (114), not merely examples of personal achievement and a means of survival.

The prodigious and improbable wealth of seeds available to Mark, ranging from Indian-corn to asparagus, had been stowed with a different outcome in mind: they are intended to facilitate trade and expand American influence in the Pacific. But the private trade so eagerly anticipated in The Crater had, by the 1840s, changed. The Chinese no longer craved American products such as ginseng, silver, and furs, as they once had; the Americans, though, craved Chinese imports. The Americans, like their British counterparts, turned to opium to improve their profit margins, brought in the navy, and the end result was that trade became a political and military issue, not a mercantile one. Like the British before them, the US forced a number of concessions onto the Chinese, as stipulated in the 1844 Treaty of Wangxia (Wang-hsia). The US demanded (and received) access to more Chinese ports and the Chinese granted the US “favored nation status.” This treaty, renewable every 12 years, in addition protected missionary interests, and important issue in the nineteenth century, allowed Americans to learn Chinese and to expand their zone of interest inland from the trading hongs, until then the centers of Chinese-Western trade. The treaty also gave US expatriates “extraterritorial status”: if a US citizen committed a crime in China, he would be tried according to American laws, not local Chinese ones.

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Strange as it may seem, I have the opportunity to contemplate the US/China trade on a daily basis: my English-made dinner plates depict “Historical Scenes of Chinese Export to America.” The centerpiece is the vessel “Friendship of Salem,” a real-life contemporary of the Rancocus, which between her maiden voyage in 1797 and her capture by the British navy in 1812 made 15 voyages, among them to Canton and Batavia. Along the plate’s rim lie images of “Canton Port in 1830” and “New York Harbor,” the two end points of the voyage. The plate also has a Cooper connection: for some reason — the event has no connection to the China trade — the plate shows the “U.S.S. Delaware capturing Le Croyable.” But Cooper writes in his naval history that the event was the first “capture by the present navy under the present form of government” (114). Incidentally, Cooper’s Ned Myers sailed on the U.S.S. Delaware’s maiden voyage. The bread and butter plates stay true to the topic, though: “U.S.S. Constitution engaging Chinese Junks.” The picture is seen from the US vessel, which is firing at the Chinese. Obviously, it is not a peaceful engagement.


Cooper, writing at a time when the China trade has been politically regulated, where most American homes displayed at the very least a few Chinese imports, and when tea had become the drink of choice (Demos 1) and when the US expands its sphere of interest in the Pacific, refuses to applaud the development. As Erin M. Suzuki observed in a paper at the 2005 ALA conference, “The Decision to set the novel in the Pacific ... indicates to me that Cooper was particularly concerned about American involvement in the region” (Suzuki 5). And, as Cooper’s text indicates, his view is particularly pessimistic. He contends, “the commerce between the civilized man and the savage being ordinarily on those great principles of Free Trade, of which so much is said of late years, while so little is understood, and which usually give the lion’s share of the profit to them who need it last” (95). Unlike Herman Melville’s Typee, which presents itself as relevant and contemporary (the events took place some years prior to the actual writing), The Crater demonstrates that the China trade and US expansion in the Pacific predates contemporary concerns: is as old as the United States itself. Another 1847 text, the Journal of Major Samuel Shaw, the first US consul in Canton, and part of the first US trading voyage to Canton, demonstrates this as well. In Cooper’s case, the novel’s colonial efforts start in the 1796, at a time when the US/ China trade, just like the United States, was in the fledgling stage; however, the new state eagerly had eagerly taken up the competition with European powers. The sandalwood trade, the first commodity mentioned in the text, was in the hands of the British, who brought sandalwood from Mysore in India to Canton. The stipulations of the English Navigation Acts of 1660, which demanded that goods from English colonies be transported on English ships or ships from the importing nation, would have precluded American participation in this trade venture. The Navigation Acts were not repealed until 1849.

Cooper, despite his urge towards vraisemblage, adroitly sidesteps this important trade issue — and the political/religious climate of the 1840s — by displacing the start-up date of the sandalwood trade itself. The text gives the American sandalwood trade a slightly earlier date than it had in reality — the Fiji trade, for instance, actually started in 1805, and even then the US was not an important player. Yet Friend Abraham White for some reason is set on this particular trade, despite (or because of) its unsavory implications and religious overtones some 8-10 years ahead of that phase in the historical US/China trade. Cooper also posits sandalwood as the main US trading commodity, yet this was not the case. To give an example: when the Empress of China, the first American trading vessel to do so, reached Canton in 1784 after a voyage around Cape the Good Hope, she was laden not with sandalwood, but with silver and 30 tons of ginseng! And the before-mentioned Major Samuel Shaw, one of the Empress’s supercargoes, opined that ginseng would bring immense wealth (Shaw Journal 123). Another popular American export, prized especially in northern China, was furs. In return, ships brought tea, porcelain, silks, and so on back to Europe and America (The Rancocus is going to load tea). Investors could see a profit upwards of 300 per cent.

After the success of the Empress of China, American traders quickly established a mercantile bridgehead on Chinese soil: the United States’ contingent at Canton soon became the second largest one (Britain had the largest) (Dudden 4). This fact must be put in perspective, though: at no time did the number of American exceed a dozen. However, what is striking about the American activity is that the traders operated singly, unlike the British who until the early 1800s were part of the East India Company, a well-established trading company.

With American presence came the need for American agricultural produce — to sustain both the “permanent” trading population and the crews that arrived, starved for fresh vegetables and fruits — thus Friend Abraham’s seed packets, wheel barrows, and pitchforks so indispensable to Mark’s terraforming activities. Cooper repeatedly indicates that a successful trader, in order to secure a stable supply of provisions, needed to encourage islanders across the region to expand their agricultural basis with produce sailors easily recognized. The text makes these intentions very clear: the seeds so conveniently brought along on the Rancocus, a “considerable quantity of the common garden seeds,” are “a benefit conferred on the natives of the islands he (Captain Crutchely) intended to visit, and through them on future navigators” (78). The Friends, White’s employers, “somewhat oddly blended benevolence with the practices of worldly gain” (78).

White also wanted to “do something towards the civilization of the heathen” (100), which sounds suspiciously like missionary work, another aspect of US activities in the Pacific and along the Pacific Rim. The reason for this lies in White’s worries about his proposed cargo: “sandalwood was supposed to be used for the purposes of idolatry, being said to be burned before the gods of that heathenish people.” And because “idolatry [was] one of the chiefest of all sins, Friend Abraham White had many compunctions and misgivings of conscience touching the propriety of embarking in the trade at all,” yet practically eclipsed active sermonizing (100). Here Cooper adds a dig at other religious groups: “Had he been a Presbyterian merchant, of a religious turn, it is probable a quantity of tracts would have been made to answer the purpose; but, belonging to a sect whose practice was generally as perfect as its theory is imperfect, Friend Abraham White’s conscience was not to be satisfied with any such shallow contrivance” (100-101). Notably, the text specifically links missionary work with agriculture. Like the missionaries of the 1830s and onwards, who saw farming as a means to stop the slave trade, Friend Abraham White has a moral objective: farming might instill in the islanders a good Protestant work ethic: agriculture is a moral, not a merely physical activity. Or, as the motto for the mid-nineteenth century American agricultural magazine The Cultivator states, it exists “To improve the soil and the mind” (Quoted in Harthorn 5). The crops might also wean the islanders of cannibalism, thus “civilizing” them. And if the seed packets alone fail to excite the Fijian king, the wheelbarrows and pitchforks might do the trick. Cooper prudently leaves it at that. Of course, traders, for instance in Hawaii, offered weapons in trade for sandalwood (Resture).

The seeds so carefully stored in the Rancocus are, then, recognizably “American” and designated “for future navigators.” Most also seem intended for warmer climates. Again, the selection is deliberate. With the burgeoning whaling, and trade in sandalwood and beche-de-mer (sea cucumber), the produce will be a welcome and nutritious food supplement to the crews who normally survive on “good hearty beef and shipbread” (Dana Ch. II), plus pork, peas, “Duff” — a porridge made from wheat flour and water, and drenched in molasses (Dana Ch. IV), and “Spotted Dick” — a wheat pudding made with dried currants. John Demos might argue that the whaling crews at Maui gorged on breadfruit and other tropical plants (while enjoying lissome and eager-to-please wahine) (Demos 1), but the relief of having familiar produce should not be underestimated. The variety is impressive: The text mentions “beans, peas, and Indian-corn ... cucumber seeds ... and some onions ” as well as more exotic sorts like “ochre, egg-plants,” “melons, of both sorts” (78), “oranges,” “limes,” “lemons,” and “shaddocks” (grapefruit), “figs” and “grapes” (80), plus asparagus, Mark’s favorite, “of which he was exceedingly fond” (144). On the reef, it grows twice as fast as usual. Cooper’s catalog is a list that seems to be taken from the first American cookbook, which coincidentally was published in 1796, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery.

Although Cooper’s maritime experience did not involve lengthy voyages to the Pacific, he certainly knew shipboard diet. He also knew the universal truth that “happiness of man, the hungry sinner / Since Eve ate the apple, much depends on dinner,” as Lord Byron once commented. Having lived overseas for seven years, Cooper must also have known the value of comfort foods. Doubters of this belief might consult the work of another expatriate, Joel Barlow, whose “The Hasty Pudding,” written in Savoy in the late 1700s. Here, the poet/diplomat suddenly faces Hasty Pudding’s Savoian counterpart, polenta and waxes poetic about this “softer theme” (line 5), “fruitful, rich, well suited to inspire / The purest frenzy of poetic fire” (lines 7-8). In Barlow’s mock epic, “hasty pudding” in its many variants becomes a symbol of the American republic and “Americanness”; it is truly democratic food, available to all and it can be eaten with the most harmless of utensils, a spoon, not with dangerous implements like knives and forks. Dana details a similar scene at the Chilean island Juan Fernandez. Going ashore to refill the water casks, Dana and his companions enjoy various fruits and berries, for instance enormous strawberries and cherries — hardly what a traveler would consider “tropical fruits.” Apparently, the fruit had been brought to Chile by Lord Anson, relative and heir of Lord Byron (Dana Ch. VIII).

The Crater steadfastly argues that agricultural products promote and reinforce trade, colonization, and religious conversion. They provide welcome supplies for traders, secure a stable basis for domesticating foreign soil, and provide indigenous populations with a non-violent livelihood. Also, agriculture ennobles the agrarian, creating a spiritual connection between farmer and produce. But the text also admonishes readers that even if the intentions behind a course of action are benevolent, the end result may not prosper, especially when it comes under public control. Like agricultural products, trying to recreate national ideas on foreign soil is dependent on conditions beyond the cultivator’s control. Yet end results notwithstanding, I propose a new motto for intercontinental trade: Arare necesse est.

Works Cited

  • Barlow, Joel. The Hasty Pudding. Web.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Crater Or Vulcan’s Peak. 1847. Ed. Thomas Philbrick. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.
  • ------. The History of the Navy of the United States of America. 2 vols. 1839. University Press of the Pacific, 2001.
  • ------. The Two Admirals: A Tale. 1842. Albany: SUNY Press, 1990.
  • Dana, Richard Henry Jr. Two Years Before the Mast. [1840]. Web.
  • Demos, John. “Viewpoints on the China Trade: A Young Nation Looks to the Pacific.” Common-Place 5.2 (January 2005). Web.
  • Dudden, Arthur Power. The American Pacific: From the Old China Trade to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Harthorn, Steven P. “James Fenimore Cooper, Agriculture, and The Crater.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art 13 (2001): 57-61.
  • “Milestones: 1830-1860.” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian. Web.
  • Resture, Jane. “Oceania: A Short History of Fiji.” Jane’s Oceania. March 2012. Web.
  • Melville, Herman. Typee; or a Peep at Polynesian Life. 1846. New York: Penguin 1996.
  • Norwood, Lisa West. “Cooper’s Pacific: The Crater and Theories of History in the South Seas.” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 20 (2004): 13-19.
  • Shaw, Samuel and Quincy, Josiah. The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw, The First American Consul at Canton: With a Life Of the Author . Boston: Wm. Crosby and H. P. Nichols, 1847.
  • Simmons, Amelia. American Cookery. Hartford, 1796.
  • Suzuki, Erin M. “Paradise Lost: James Fenimore Cooper and the Pursuit of Empire in the American Pacific.” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 21 (2005): 11-15.