A little piece of China-American relations I didn’t know – the story of John O’Donnell. However, happened to be in Baltimore and thought (as an Edgar award winner – did I mention that before??) I’d pop along to Westminster Hall and its adjacent graveyard and see Poe’s grave and monument (see Twitter for those pics @chinarhyming). While there I came across the tomb of a certain John O’Donnell – a new China Hand to me.
So here’s O’Donnell’s story: John O’Donnell (1749-1805) was originally from Limerick but found his way to India. In 1785 he arrived in Baltimore on an East India Company ship laden with Chinese goods, the first such cargo to arrive in the Maryland city. O’Donnell, who had made a lot of money transporting China goods around in the China trade and also claimed (not sure how true it was) an aristocratic Irish lineage, decided to settle in Baltimore. He continued trading China made goods and married a local sea captain’s daughter who had lived in both India and China before. He invested most of his money in developing Baltimore and effectively became a founding father of the city – hence his interment in Westminster Hall’s graveyard.
Interestingly there is a O’Donnell Square and Street in the Baltimore neighbourhood of Canton. This area developed out of the plantation owned by O’Donnell in Baltimore bought from his fortune largely earned in the China trade and then built-out by his son in the late nineteenth century. In tribute to where most of his wealth and goods had originated O’Donnell named his plantation Canton.
There is a statue to O’Donnell in Canton (the Baltimore one, not Guangzhou sadly). The accompanying plaque reads: “Captain John O’Donnell, the founder of the Canton Community was man of great vision and accomplishment. He initiated trade between Canton, China and Baltimore in 1785 operating his own merchant sailing vessels. This public square, once the site of Canton Market, is dedicated in his honor.”