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 

Friday, July 14, 2017

The "New People" in China: Using Historical Newspapers to Analyze America’s First Contacts with Asia

From the Readex Report

The Chinese themselves were very indulgent towards us, and happy in the contemplation of a new people, opening to view a fresh source of commerce to their extensive empire.
—From the journal of Major Samuel Shaw, as reported in Fowle’s New-Hampshire Gazette, 27 May 1785, and other historical newspapers
To the calls and “huzzahs” of astonished merchants, sailors, and dockworkers, the American ship The Empress of China slipped into her berth along the wharves of New York’s East River on 11 May 1785. The Empress was the republic’s first Indiaman—the first American vessel to sail “eastward of Good Hope” into the waters of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Fifteen months earlier, she had departed New York with a cargo of Appalachian ginseng and Spanish dollars. Now onlookers gaped to see the wares she had brought back from the East.
To read more:’s-first-contacts-asia

Friday, January 13, 2017

Public Lecture: Opium Trade and the Opium Wars

Please join me for a talk on the Opium Trade and the Opium Wars at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site (, followed by a book signing for True Yankees.

Free and open to the public
Thursday 19th January 2017

Sunday, March 6, 2016

City of Broken Promises: The Complexities of Expatriate Life

View of the Praya Grande, attributed to Lamqua
         This is a city of broken promises.  I know it.  I was born here.
         It may be that you will try to keep your promise.  If it still
         pleases you to keep me here, I am sure you will. But this
         you must know.  Though I might dearly love to, I would be a fool
         if I believed you.  In Macao we know this, that when the time
         comes it is always otherwise.  Whatever words may have been
         said, whatever promises made, when an Englishman goes, it is

         A few months back, I had the good fortune to meet Patricia Lemos, a journalist based in Hong Kong.  Patti was in Salem, Massachusetts doing research on Harriet Low, a young women from the town who voyaged to Macau in 1829 and resided there for the next four year, whose nine-volume journals provide a marvelous glimpse into expatriate life in China in the early nineteenth century.  Patti had read my chapter on Harriett in True Yankees, wanted to learn more, and so arranged for us to meet at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library, a trove of materials from the East Indies trade.  Our chat was delightful, and I learned much about Low’s life after she left Macau and settled in Great Britain.  Patti’s research will give us a dramatically different idea of the woman that Harriett Low became.

         A month or so after our meeting, an unexpected package arrived in the mail, bearing Hong Kong postage.  Patti had kindly sent a thank you gift—a fascinating piece of fiction entitled City of Broken Promises, a depiction of the Old China Trade from British and Portuguese perspectives.  First published in 1967 (and repeatedly reissued), the book was penned by Austin Coates (1922-1997), an erstwhile British diplomat who spent over a decade in East Asia.  With most of my time committed to research and teaching, I do not have a great deal of time left for fiction; however, reading Coates’s work brought some unanticipated surprises.

City of Broken Promises is a complicated book.  On one level, it is a love story between a British East India Company (BEIC) supercargo and an orphaned Portuguese-Chinese girl/woman.  It is certainly a fascinating literary work, and scholars interested in this aspect of the book will find Rogério Miguel Puga’s review a penetrating analysis.[2]

         On another level, the book recalls the career of Thomas Kuyck Van Mierop, whose tenure in China covered the years 1780 through 1797. Van Mierop’s journal served both as Coats’s primary source of evidence, as little else has survived that would help to recover the tale, and as a literary device that Coats used to provide the fabric for the multiple themes that the book develops.

         City of Broken Promises is especially the story of Marta da Silva, the Luso- Chinese woman who lives at the bottom of Macau’s complicated social structure. Confined between the interstices of race, gender, and class, Martha struggles to find a place in which she can locate her identity and protect her integrity.  We first find her as an orphan who must navigate the close customs of both cultures, as well as that of the English who are beginning to dominate Macanese society and economy.  Van Mierop promises to marry Martha, and to extricate her from the confining web that is his Macau.  But, will he?  More interesting still, as Martha begins to use her own wits to establish a life of independence, did she need him to do so?

         In my first pass at the book, it was the wonderfully complicated constellation of plots, the intricate nuances of expatriate life that I found especially intriguing.  Through Martha and Thomas, Coates explores the dizzying array of customs, laws, mores, and expectations that expatriates were required to navigate in order to survive Macau’s colonial society.  This is an especially fruitful vein for Americanists like myself.  Through Coates’s writing, we are introduced to a different view of the East Indies trade, one that transcends conventional categories such as ‘Americans in the China Trade,’ ‘the British colonial world,’ or ‘the Portuguese in Macau.’  City of Broken Promises carries us into a world that is not just oriental, but, indeed, one that had to be as disorienting for its participants as it can be for historians who attempt to make sense of it.  The novelist Coates reminds historians that our efforts to reveal the past, to recover the voices of the forgotten, requires imagination as well as research. 

[1] Austin Coates, City of Broken Promises (Aberdeen: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), 149.
[2] Rogerio Miguel Puga, “Thomas Kuyck Van Mierop, East India Company
Supercargo in Macau,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch,  51 (2011): 7-30.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

“Onboard the Sch[ooner] Pilgrim at Sea, a Prisoner”

The Perseverance
Courtesy, Skinner, Inc.
These are dangerous times to be an American.  Evidenced by the histrionics of the current presidential campaign, many Americans certainly claim to feel more vulnerable and less safe than in earlier times.  The danger, they assert, stems from abroad—illegal immigrants threatening our jobs and “Islamoterrorists” threatening our lives.  We are, of course, not more threatened now than in previous eras, as Americans who lived through World War II and the Cold War can attest.  But, current mythologies have many Americans believing that this is the case.
Log of schooner Pilgrim, 1803-1805
Courtesy, Drew Archives
During a recent research foray in the beautifully appointed Drew Archives in Duxbury, Massachusetts, I was reminded of how a profound sense of national weakness gripped the country in earlier times.  Set within a mottled brown leather wrapper, the frayed and foxed pages of a logbook for the schooner Pilgrim reveal an episode of national insult.[i]  First mate Samuel Delano recorded the incident on the Pilgrim’s voyage into the Pacific to collect sealskins. The Pilgrim had been sailing as “consort” to the Perseverance, commanded by Samuel’s brothers, Amasa and William Delano when the vessels were separated off the coast of Chile.

“South America, Drawn from the Best Authorities: Regulated by Astron,” by Thomas Kitchin. Observat. [1790?]
            As Delano recorded, the morning of Thursday, May 2, 1805, “began with fresh gales and squalls of Rain.”  At 8:00 a.m., the Pilgrim’s watch caught sight of a ship in their wake, following closely behind:

           She gained fast on us, having all sail yet we lay by for her. At noon she came
            up with us and prov’d to be a Spanish ship of 20 guns. She boarded us and
            sent word for me to come aboard with my Papers which was complied with.

This was a Chilean coast guard vessel.  In a Kafkaesque exercise, the Spanish ordered Delano into the coaster’s great cabin, where they interrogated him for several hours, culminating in a demand that he sign a statement that their translator had produced, despite his plea that he could not read Spanish.  As Delano tells the story, he replied,

            But if it was what I had said and no different, I would sign it. They said it was
            the same. I then signed it. I then asked for a certificate to blank any other Spanish
            vessel I might meet that I had been examined by a king’s ship.

At this point, his captors informed him that he must proceed to Valparaiso. Delano protested that the Pilgrim had left men on St. Phelps, and sought to “use every means to convince them there was a danger 10 men’s perishing on and blank for water,” but he was denied.  Over the next two weeks, the Pilgrim sailed “in company with” the Spanish coaster.  During that time, the commandant, “as they termed him,” repeatedly sent for the schooner’s logbook and charts.  Meanwhile, Spanish sailors boarded the Pilgrim, rifling through the cargo and even the sea chests of the schooner’s crew.  As recorded in the Pilgrim’s log for 10 May 1805:

            In Custody of the Spaniards this day they overhauled everything in all parts
            of the vessel, Ripped up [?], unheaded Casks of Flour and Bread in the hold
            and Bundled things About as mutch as they chose and filled every part of
            the vessels with Spaniards to search as they saw for contraband goods.  But
            more Provable to me for other purposes our people still on board the Coster
            . . . say they have much suffered from since they had been prisoners.

The schooner and her coaster guard reached Valpariso by May 24, where they were reunited with Amasa and William aboard the Perseverence.  Fortunately, Amasa had sailed in these waters previously and has accrued some influence with Chilean authorities. He was able to arrange for the release of the schooner.  However, his efforts to reclaim “articles that the Spanish Sailors had stolen” from the Pilgrim and her crew—clothes, small goods, and cash—were unsuccessful—“all they got was a shrug of the shoulders.”  Samuel Delano recorded a further act of overreach in the ship’s log: The Commodore “sign’d the Back of my Clearance from Boston, [but] forbidding the Pilgrim to Navigate the Pacific Ocean.”

            As I note in True Yankees, Americans considered such incidents, all too common in the new republic’s early years, as insults to the national honor.  The last word goes to Samuel Delano in the Pilgrim’s log:

            I may never Die until I have had Just Recompence for Insults and Injuries
            Receiv’d from Spaniards men.

Special thanks to Carolyn Ravencroft, Research Librarian, Drew Archives, Duxbury, Massachusetts For more,