"Editor’s note: On May 10, 2022, Naval History and Heritage Command announced its commemoration of the 225th anniversary of the launch of the first of the U.S. Navy’s six frigates, which began the new United States Navy, including: United States (launched May 10, 1797), Constellation (1797), Constitution (1797), Congress (1799), Chesapeake (1799), and President (1800)."
In March 1819, Captain John D. Henley took command of USS Congress. He had joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1799, the same year Congress was launched. Henley performed admirably in the Tripolitan War and the War of 1812. Now he commanded one of the six original frigates of the U.S. Navy, authorized in 1794 to deal with North African corsairs, who were preying on American merchant vessels, taking their crews captive, and holding them for ransom. The conflict with Algiers ended before Congress was completed. But a new conflict, the Quasi-War with France, prompted the completion of the ship to meet the threat. Twenty years later, when Henley received his orders to take command of Congress, Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson instructed him “to proceed upon important service, for the protection of the commerce of the United States in the Indian and China Seas.” Before sailing to Asia, Henley delivered the U.S. Ambassador to Portugal in Brazil John Graham and his family to Rio de Janeiro.
The United States had good reason to send a warship to the Far East. On May 26, 1817, 15 armed Chinese men boarded the Baltimore trading ship Wabash, anchored at the Portuguese colony of Macao on the southeast coast of China, killed five Americans, and looted $7,000 and 35 cases of opium. (In addition to trading furs and ginseng for tea, silk, and other Chinese exports, Americans had joined Great Britain in illegally importing opium from Turkey and India into China.) Another area of concern mentioned in Henley’s orders was the waters around the Dutch East Indies. Vessels traveling east from the Americas, around the southern tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean, faced “hostile attacks of the Islanders and pirates, who infest those seas” in the Sunda Strait between the islands of Sumatra and Java. The United States wanted to secure safe passage for ships headed to and from the Far East, so the Secretary of the Navy sent one of his available frigates.
Sixty-eight days after leaving Rio de Janeiro, Henley steered Congress into Anjer Bay on the west coast of Java. Upon arriving at the Dutch colony there, the Americans were disappointed to find that the only provisions available were rice and water “of the worst quality.” Following orders, Congress escorted a group of merchant ships through the Bangka Strait, between Sumatra and Bangka Islands. In the South China Sea, a heavy gale scattered the convoy.
On November 3, 1819, Congress became the first U.S. Navy ship to visit China when it sailed into the Pearl River estuary near Canton (now Guangzhou), a major port in the country’s south. The unexpected appearance of a foreign warship near Canton provoked an immediate reaction from the Chinese authorities. While they welcomed foreign merchant vessels, they did not want the warships of other nations near their coasts. Henley’s priority was to obtain food and water for his crew, which proved difficult since the Chinese were forbidden from selling to the American man-of-war. The ship received only small quantities of fresh beef and vegetables from nearby Lintin Island. Finally, after a difficult negotiation and with the help of the American consul at Canton, Henley obtained the necessary provisions for his ship. Two months later Congress made history again by becoming the first Navy ship to call at the Philippines, a future American possession. After spending several months patrolling the South China Sea and the straits around the Dutch East Indies, Congress returned to the Chinese coast for provisions before heading home. The ship arrived back in the United States on May 29, 1821, a full two years after beginning its voyage.
The cruise of USS Congress did little to protect American commerce in the Far East. Showing the flag in distant places made a symbolic impact rather than substantive one. A decade would pass before another U.S. Navy warship visited China, because a greater threat arose closer to home in the form of piracy in the West Indies. (Yes, pirates of the Caribbean!) However, Henley’s mission to China foreshadowed the Navy’s future role in the Far East. Today the United States considers the Indo-Pacific region a national strategic priority and the South China Sea an area of tension and concern. And maritime security remains one of the U.S. Navy’s core missions. Ninety-five percent of the world’s goods still travel by sea, and keeping sea lanes open for commerce is just as important now as it was in the early 1800s.
For Further Reading:
Long, David F. Gold Braid and Foreign Relations: Diplomatic Activities of U.S. Naval Officers, 1789-1883. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988.
Paullin, Charles O. Diplomatic Negotiations of American Naval Officers: 1778-1883. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1967. First published in 1912 by Johns Hopkins Press.