Foreign Service Journal - June 2013 - page 59

the Foreign Service journal
June 2013
A Man with a Mission
Early American Diplomacy
in the Near and Far East:
The Diplomatic and Personal History
of Edmund Q. Roberts (1784-1836)
Hermann Frederick Eilts,
New Academia Publishing, 2012,
$34, hardcover, 255 pages.
Reviewed by Jason Vorderstrasse
Hermann Frederick Eilts’ final book,
completed before his 2006 death but
only recently published, fills a sizable
gap in our knowledge of Edmund Q.
Roberts, a key diplomat during the
administration of President Andrew
Jackson. Any student of U.S. rela-
tions with Southeast Asia, the Arabian
Peninsula or East Africa will greatly
benefit from reading
Early American
Diplomacy in the Near and Far East:
The Diplomatic and Personal History of
Edmund Q. Roberts (1784-1836)
Until now, anyone wishing to learn
about Roberts’ exploits
had to read his own
Embassy to the Eastern
Courts of Cochin-China,
Siam and Muscat; Ben-
jamin Ticknor’s Voyage of
the Peacock: A Journal
; or
W.S.W. Ruschenberger’s
Voyage Around the World
While all three books have
merit, the fact that they are
contemporaneous accounts
deprives them of the historical
perspective found in Eilts’ new
work. He also does an excellent job of
furnishing details on Roberts’ per-
sonal life that is lacking in those other
Edmund Q. Roberts’ family was
active in the shipping industry, and he
traveled widely from an early age. His
time in Zanzibar and friendship with
New Hampshire Senator Levi Wood-
bury led Roberts to propose leading a
mission to Muscat (which controlled
Zanzibar) to conclude a commercial
Woodbury, who had become Pres.
Jackson’s Secretary of the Navy, suc-
ceeded in having Roberts named as a
special diplomatic agent empowered to
negotiate such agreements. The govern-
ment also asked him to pursue treaties
of commerce with Cochin-China (Viet-
nam) and Siam (Thailand). His mission
departed in early 1832.
Drawing on accounts of
previous visits to Cochin-
China and Siam, primar-
ily by Britons and Ameri-
cans, Eilts illustrates
the many challenges
19th-century diplomats
faced. For instance,
Roberts encountered
severe cultural misun-
derstandings because
his information about
the countries he
visited was inaccu-
rate or outdated. Although he
was not successful in Cochin-China, he
did conclude a commercial treaty with
Extremely slow communication
constrained Roberts in his negotiations,
leading him to craft extensive explana-
tions of his work for the ratification
process. These were useful during the
surprisingly active debate over the trea-
ties in several American newspapers.
Following his travels to Southeast
Asia, Roberts continued to Muscat,
where he was able to conclude a treaty
of commerce relatively quickly. Once
the Senate had ratified both treaties,
Roberts was tapped to return to the
same countries to deliver the instru-
ments of ratification. He departed for
Muscat on this second mission, which
also included the possibility of a visit to
Japan, in April 1835.
While the delivery of instruments
of ratification sounds simple, it was
anything but. For instance, because of
the reverence given official documents
in Siam, a special stand was constructed
to hold the box containing the signed
Roberts died in Macau of dysentery
on June 12, 1836, before reaching Japan.
But thanks to his complicated financial
affairs, his death is far from the end of
the saga. Drawing on Roberts’ diaries
and letters and other primary docu-
ments, Eilts concludes this account by
thoughtfully assessing his legacy.
Anyone interested in the history of
U.S. diplomatic relations in the Middle
East and East Asia, or early American
history, will be grateful that Eilts’ fam-
ily pushed for this book’s posthumous
publication as part of the ADST-DACOR
Diplomats and Diplomacy series.
Jason Vorderstrasse, an FSO since 2004, is
currently the Chile desk officer; he previ-
ously served in Hong Kong and Kingston.
In 2009, he successfully nominated Ed-
mund Q. Roberts for inclusion in the AFSA
Memorial Plaques. The views expressed in
this article are his own and do not neces-
sarily reflect the views of the Department of
State or the United States government.
Roberts crafted detailed
accounts of his negotiations for
the ratification process, which
were useful during the debate
over the treaties.
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