Sunday, March 18, 2018

Early America in a Dangerous World

Dennis Malone Carter, Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat, 1878
US Navy Museum
Following up a wonderful collaboration with Johns Hopkins University Press on
 True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity, I am delighted to work with JHUP again to publish Eastward of Good Hope”: Early America in a Dangerous World (forthcoming 2019).  A preview:

            In the autumn of 1806, American newspapers were filled with the horrific news of the loss of the ship Essex.  This was not the famous, ill-fated barque that had been “stove by a whale” in 1820, later transformed into an American icon through the pen of Herman Melville.  The reports of this Essex, a merchant ship out of Salem, Massachusetts, was, in fact, more lurid and terrifying:

News is received here that Captain Joseph Orne in the ship Essex had arrived at Mocha, with $60,000 to purchase coffee, and that Mahomet Ikle, commander of an armed ship, persuaded him to trade at Hadidido, and to take on board 30 of his Arabs to help navigate her thither while his vessel kept her company; that on the approach of night, and at a concerted signal, the Arabs attacked the crew of the Essex, . . .  and that the result was the slaughter of Captain Orne, and all his men,. . .   The headless corpse of Capt. Orne and the mutilated remains of a merchant floated on shore and were decently buried.  It was soon after ascertained that the
faithless Mahomet was a notorious pirate of that country. 

            It would have been difficult for Americans in the early republic to escape this tragedy and the thousands of similar reports from around the globe that depicted the world beyond their shores in such dire terms.  News of similar assaults on their countrymen aboard the Boston off Nootka Sound in 1803, the Putnam in 1805, and the Friendship off Sumatra in 1831, the murders of Captain James Cook in 1779 and the men of the US Exploring Expedition in the South Seas in the 1830s, the loss of explorers and traders Joseph Ingraham and the mysterious disappearances of the US Navy sloop Wasp (9 October 1814) and countless other Yankee vessels, the loss of men such as Samuel Shaw and William Henry Low to “tropical fever” assaulted American readers.  Even before stepping onto a global stage in the 1780s, Americans had imagined the world as disordered and dangerous, hobbled by tyranny and oppression or steeped in chaos and anarchy, often deadly, always uncertain, unpredictable, and unstable, and their encounters after independence reinforced their assumptions. As historians assert, “seasons of misery” confronted early Americans in their “barbarous years” and particularly in distant lands among “dangerous neighbors.” This vision of the world, more than anything else, shaped Americans’ ideas of their place in the world. It has been a view shared by Puritans who carried a reformist sense of “a city upon a hill” to American shores, Yankee voyagers who freighted a mission of bringing order to a world that they found “in a constant state of flux” in the early republic, and the many Americans today alarmed by the torrent of news of foreign wars, terrorism, massacres, and refugee crises.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Born in Boston, buried in a ‘foreign devil’ graveyard in China

Pleased to be quoted in the Boston Globe's "Ideas" section on ‪Boston's & ‪Salem's connections to ‪China: 
"The ship’s (Empress of China) return was widely seen in the United States as demonstrating that the young nation was more than a jumped-up set of backwater counties, explains Dane Morrison, a historian at Salem State University and author of the book “True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity.” He writes, “Shaw himself believed that the Congress should recognize the introduction of Yankees at Canton as a great American holiday. . . as historic even as the country’s independence day." For more:

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Yankees Abroad: Early American Encounters in the World

            I certainly found the people very civil & accommodating & they behaved 
            much better than I had any idea of & in fact as well as any people I ever 
            was amongst.  Making proper allowance for the manners & customs.
                                                            -- Capt. Jacob Crowninshield, 
                                                               aboard America III,
                                                                off the coast of Sumatra, 1801
            they are all without exception a set of cheats, & this they will vouch for, 
            if you should doubt their rascality.
                                                            -- Capt. Thomas Ward, aboard Minerva
                                                                 off Canton, 1809
Captain Jacob Crowninshield (1770-1808)
Courtesy, Library of Congress
            It helps to have a historical context in which earlier American responses to the world ground our current questions.  An appreciation for the range of first encounters inspired my writing in True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity ( and I hoped the book would challenge the conventional wisdom that posits an American exceptionalism should rule the world.  Colleagues have told me that they have used the book effectively in their classrooms to raise their students’ awareness of American encounters in the world.  For my next project, I wanted to foreground the travelogues, correspondence, mariner’s journals and other sources that tell these stories.  So, serendipitously, when Hackett Publishing (, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, approached me to develop a textbook, I jumped at the opportunity.
            Yankees Abroad: Early American Encounters in the World will describe the post-Revolution diaspora to regions that lay “eastward of Good Hope,” or, beyond South Africa into the Indian and Pacific Oceans. These American travelers found the world to be a complicated place.  As suggested in the journal entries from Captains Crowninshield and Ward above, Yankees Abroad will explore the range of responses that Americans recorded in their early ‘voyages round the world.’ The book will carry readers vicariously into four of these regions of encounter--the Muslim world of West Asia and North Africa, China, India, and the South Seas.  The book will situate the country’s changing perceptions of the world within their search for opportunities, describing how merchants sought exotic markets and trade goods, captains scouted new routes and discovered new passages, amateur and professional scientists chased new species, artists surveyed imaginative new scenes, and missionaries hunted for “lost” souls ripe for conversion. At the same time, students will share in the fears of Yankee travelers as they encountered the dangers of unfamiliar and distant lands--assaults on their ships from pirates or cannibals, shipwreck on uncharted coasts, and, always, the specter of tropical disease.
Launching of the Ship Fame, George Ropes, 1802
Courtesy, Peabody Essex Museum
I hope the book will enable students to situate our current global relationships within a historical context that sheds light on both earlier American responses to the world and current engagements with it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Kinsmans: Love & Loss in Nineteenth-Century Macau

Adam Matthew Editor's Choice blog, 7 August 2017:

"I leave it for you to judge by your own feelings how utterly forlorn and desolate I felt last evening when I lost sight of the dwelling which contained my precious wife and children."

"Verandah of Nathan Kinsman's Residence in Macao," by Lam Qua, c. 1843. Courtesy of Martin Gregory Gallery.
The words that Nathaniel Kinsman hastily penned to his “dearly beloved Wife” aboard a fast boat that carried him against the current of the Pei-ho River, from Macao (Macau) to Canton (Guangzhou) in China, reveal how Americans experienced China in the nineteenth century. They are emblematic of stories that reveal the human side of the Old China Trade, and lie beneath the conventional narrative that regales in opium sales and opium wars, pirates and typhoons, and, of course, tea, porcelain and silk.
In my research into early American encounters in the East, I find it challenging to locate these tales of love and loss, but occasionally one turns up a special trove; such are the papers of Nathaniel and Rebecca Kinsman. Fortunately, I recently came across such a trove in Adam Matthew’s China, America and the Pacific papers, in which the written record for the Kinsman family is particularly strong and offers a rare glimpse into an early American household overseas.
To read on, please click on the Adam Matthew link:

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

“Contact between Diverse Cultures”—and the Perils of Writing It

            The Portuguese expansion in the Orient ... led to prolonged contact
            between diverse cultures… which resulted in generations of mother-
            tongue speakers of Luso-Asian languages which were spoken in
            negotiating oriental commerce. These languages outlasted Portuguese
            presence in Asia....  Portuguese became the language of colonization… 
So asserts Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya in her recently published study, The Portuguese in the East: A Cultural History of a Maritime Trading Empire (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017) [xiii].  This is an intriguing text, furthering the work of earlier scholars such as Holden Furber and Kenneth David Jackson in early modern Western expansion and Luso-Asian cultural transference, respectively.  There are historiographical lapses in the book, and these are critiqued in penetrating terms in a review by Zoltán Biedermann, lecturer in Portuguese imperial history at University College London.[1]  Biedermann’s concerns reminded me of a review in which the eminent Rhys Richards took me to task for apparently neglecting to cite the work of important earlier scholars in my own True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). As Richards lamented,

            My frustration with this thoroughly researched book, and the plethora of
            soul-searching recent articles that its bibliography reveals, is the near
            absence . . . of references to older American writers like Holden Furber
            and the superb survey of the American fur trade, in French, by

Richards’s observation was uncomfortable, but correct, of course.  While I had consulted some of Furber’s other work (but not Dermigny’s, as my passing ability in the French language was not up to the task), I had not consulted all of it, although I have since rectified this gap.  And, I recalled Richards’s caveat in reading some tweets from the recent meetings of the Society of Early American Historians--one of my favorite groups, but this year featuring some curious comments.  One, for instance, opined that it was “So, so refreshing to have a plenary session with younger scholars who aren’t bound buy older historiographic debates.”  Another called for senior scholars serving as session commenters to withhold their own insights and just let young scholars hold forth.

            Yet, an appreciation of both older and newer literature is important for understanding the world as it was when Americans first encountered it, not occasionally as subjects of a British king aboard East India Company ships or, like John Ledyard, sailing with Captain Cook, but as citizens, representatives of a new nation, and an experimental republic at that.  Conventional “China trade” histories embrace a nationalistic narrative of courageous American men braving the seas to further capitalist enterprise.  Both Furber and Dermigny, and now Jayasuriya, paint a more complicated portrait of a world rife with dangers as well as opportunities, in flux, unstable, and protean.  As Jayasuriya  relates this story, “waves of European influence that washed over [Asia] were never completely obliterated by the subsequent waves.” First came the Portuguese, who “turned the Indian Ocean into a zone for cross cultural contact between East and West,” followed by the Dutch, French, and English ventures and conquests.[3] 

            Jayasuriya’s particular interest is in Portuguese influence on Asia, particularly in areas such as Goa and Sri Lanka (which Americans knew as Ceylon).[4]  Cultural exchange here was rich and fertile, carried by currents of miscegenation, missionary work, and commercial policy.  She observes: “The Portuguese were continually interacting with ‘Others’, peoples of alien cultures, who spoke many languages and who had different religious beliefs and practices. The Portuguese enterprise functioned on interdependence and interactions with other cultures.”[5]  Furthermore, “A Luso-Asian lingua franca served as the medium of communication between the Portuguese and Asians. In Sri Lanka, it served as the bridging tongue between, not one, not two, but three European powers in the indigenous people.”[6]

            For me, the most intriguing aspect of Jayasuriya’s work lies in her interpretation of the Portuguese Empire’s legacy of conquest through her exploration of language, secular and religious literature, and religious and popular music. In the process, Jayasuriya deciphers Portuguese ballads from Ceylon, investigates the fusion of Christian religious and Indian folk music known as Mondo, and explores the incorporation of Portuguese terms into more than fifty languages and dialects.

            Engaging The Portuguese in the East alongside the rich studies of Furber, Dermigny, and other scholars opens a deeper line of inquiry for me, as well.  In my reading of travelogues, journals, letters, and ships logs penned by American travelers into the Great South Sea, I have not (yet) found evidence of their descriptions of Asia as a kind of Portuguese lake.  In this body of writing, the American foray into India appears to have been different from that of the Portuguese.  Although both Americans and Portuguese travelers largely clung to coastal enclaves, eschewing inland forays as dangerous, inconvenient, and unnecessary for their commercial purposes, the Portuguese engaged indigenous peoples directly through a variety of media, including religion, literature, and music.  Some American visitors and expatriates appear to have formed relationships with a few individual merchants, and missionaries worked with Indian converts, but, by-and-large, they avoided the kind of wholesale cultural exchange in which the Portuguese engaged.  In doing do, they followed British models of contact.  American travelers to India, Sri Lanka, Malacca, and other sites do not appear to have utilized the Portuguese language, adhering to the English written and spoken in British enclaves such as Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai).  So, then, if Portuguese was still a lingua franca throughout Asia into the nineteenth century, a “bridging tongue” essential “in trading and empire building,” it is curious that American texts do not mention it.[7]


[1] Zoltán Biedermann, “Long Review of Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East: A Cultural History of a Maritime Trading Empire.” e-Journal of Portuguese History, 9, no. 1 (2011).

[2] Holden Furber, John Company at Work: A Study of European Expansion in India in the Late Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948) and Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 1600–1800, Europe and the World in the Age of Expansion, II, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976; and Louis Dermigny, La Chine et l’Occident: Le Commerce Canton au XVIIe Siecle, 1719 –1833, 3 vols. (Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N., 1964).

[3] Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East, 1, 7.

[4] Jayasuriya sees this history of conquest and colonization as “a two way exchange but in an asymmetrical relationship.”  Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East, xiv.

[5] Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East, 3.

[6] Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East, 6.

[7] Jayasuriya, The Portuguese in the East, 6.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Commemorating Jane Austen: “Perfectly Polite and Agreeable”: Anglo-American Encounters on the Far Side of Jane Austen’s World

In June 1812, just after Jane Austen had completed her inaugural novel, Sense and Sensibility, the US Congress astonished Britons by declaring war on their nation.  Through the War of 1812, Austen would continue to publish, producing some of her best-known works: Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815, though she would write nothing about Americans. 

Read on:“perfectly-polite-and-agreeable”-anglo-american-encounters-far-side-jane-austen’s-world