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, 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

True Yankees: 2015 Americana Lecture, 22 November

Please join me for a talk about “True Yankees” at the annual
Americana Lecture
Hamilton Hall, Salem Massachusetts
Sunday 22 November 3:00 pm

Proceeds support this important 1805 Samuel McIntire designed National Historic Landmark.

For further information, see

Thursday, July 9, 2015

SHEAR 2015 Features Two Exciting Maritime Sessions

The annual conference of the Society for Historians for the Early American Republic (SHEAR) is coming up and the event features two exciting panels on early American voyages beyond the Atlantic world.  As readers of this blog and my book True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity know, the first U.S. travels beyond the Cape of Good Hope opened opportunities for Americans to encounter lands, peoples, and cultures that they had known only second-hand in the narratives of Cook and Dampier and in fiction (Robinson Crusoe, The Arabian Nights).  With independence from Great Britain, Yankee travelers began to explore the world and in the process to construct new ways of thinking about their national identity.  In the past decade or so, scholars have begun to turn their attention to this area and to situate “America and the World” as an essential aspect of the American experience.  The papers in these sessions offer some of the latest research in this important new subfield.

To quote from the program:

"The 37th annual meeting of the Society for Historians for the Early American Republic will meet Sheraton Raleigh Hotel from July 16 to 19, 2015 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Over the years, SHEAR has developed a reputation for welcoming all scholars and history practitioners to its annual meetings. We gather with old friends and new, discuss ideas and share resources, and inspire each other. Our programs—from panels to plenary to presidential address—are created with attention to quality and variety. We have something for everyone! Our 2014 meeting in Philadelphia was our largest ever, and we take this as a sign that we are doing something well. So please plan to join us in 2015."

FRIDAY, JULY 17 10:30-12:15 AM
Capital Room

PRESIDING • Gene Allen Smith, Texas Christian University
An Empire of Commerce: “Merchant Navigators” in the Pacific before Manifest Destiny
Michael D. Block, University of Southern California
“A Judicious Exhibition of Maritime Strength”: American Naval Expeditions in the South Pacific and East Indies as Indian Warfare, 1830-1842
Michael Verney, University of New Hampshire By a Lady: An American Sea Captain's Wife and Moral Authority in Nineteenth-Century Fiji
Nancy Shoemaker, University of Connecticut COMMENT • Dane Morrison, Salem State University

Hannover II
PRESIDING • Timothy Marr, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Antebellum Coral
Michele Navakas, Miami University
Hemispheric Archipelagoes
Lindsay Van Tine, Columbia University
Islam and Barbary
Jason M. Payton, Sam Houston State University COMMENT • Timothy Marr

You can find out more details on the upcoming SHEAR meetings on the SHEAR website at:

You can also read some of the papers and follow the sessions on Twitter at: #SHEAR15

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Amasa Delano, the Tryal, and the Problem of Racism in the Early Republic

In the past three years or so, we have witnessed the crumbling of the promise of a post-racial society, an idea introduced with the inauguration of Barack Obama as President in November 2009.  The murders of unarmed young black men by a white vigilante, volunteer deputy, and sanctioned police officers, and the recent horrific massacre of African Americans at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina prayer meeting have exploded this myth.  Certainly, the complications and conflicts that attend racial, ethnic, and cultural matters in this country are not new—indeed, they have been woven into the fabric of our national identity and have been concretized as the political issues of the day.
            For historians who specialize in the study of America and the world, the disturbing developments that have shattered our national sensibilities recall similar racial, ethnic, and cultural complications and conflicts at the moment when American mariners first sailed into the wider world following the American Revolution.  These events challenge us to re-examine the writings of those first global Americans, and to weigh their thoughts about race, at home and abroad, in an effort to find some deeper meaning about our society’s today.  Certainly, we can trace the markings of racism and ethnocentrism in the journals and books of Samuel Shaw, Amasa Delano, Edmund Fanning, Harriett Low, and Robert Bennet Forbes.  But, what we find here is curious; not racism or ethnocentrism in their modern guise, but often a conversation about race, embedded in offhand reflections, as Yankee travelers struggled to make sense of the diverse peoples--Muslims, Hindus, Confucians, Buddhists, and Parsees--they encountered.

            One intriguing example can be found in the pages of Amasa Delano’s 1817 Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. As a Bostonian, we might take Delano’s views as a measure of northern ideas of black Americans, Africans, Chinese, Sumatrans, Indians, and other peoples of the world, as well as the emergent national (white) character.  His American, or “true Yankee,” is opposed to tyranny and repression, whether in Peru or China.  Yet, his views of the Other are complicated. 
            In April 1791, Delano landed at Batavia, and found that the capital of the Dutch East Indies hosted a remarkably cosmopolitan population of some 200,000 Chinese, Japanese, Africans, and indigenous Malays.  His description incorporated a wide range of opinion. The Chinese shopkeepers and customs officials were “enemies to idleness,” but “deceitful to the last degree.” The Javanese would “apply themselves” in farming and shipbuilding. The Amboynese constructed elegant houses with split cane windows “very neatly wrought in different figures.” At times, others seemed to violate the republican principles that Delano extolled. He found Malaysian peoples “notoriously treacherous” and “void of morals.”  By June, he had reached the Palau islands and found the people there were specimens of “interest, cordiality and happiness,” a “truly amiable people.” They demonstrated a blitheful curiosity and even “lively sympathy,” particularly their King, Abba Thulle, a figure of “wisdom and benevolence.” 
One incident, in particular, stands out in his Delano’s Narrative that complicates his facile construction of the American national character.  The encounter with the Spanish slave ship Tryal, under Captain Benito Cereno, would bring to the surface fundamental contradictions within the persona of the “true Yankee.”  On the morning of 20 February 1805, after two months of cruising the Pacific shoreline and collecting seal furs, Delano’s Perseverance was sailing in light airs when the watch sighted a ship that “acted very awkwardly.” Ascertaining that she was a Spanish slave ship, the Tryal, and that she was in trouble, Delano sent out his boats, “well manned, and well armed,” to recapture the slaver.  He brought the Tryal into Conception six days later, having provided the Spanish crew “every possible kindness.”
            Delano’s tale of the Tryal, festooning the newspapers of the day, was presented through the voice of the philosophical world citizen. Throughout 1806 and 1807, readers could find versions of the story, as well as letters from Delano, the Spanish Consul in Boston, and the Spanish Minister Plenipotentiary in the Newburyport Herald and Salem Gazette; Portsmouth Oracle; the Vermont Centinel (Burlington); New York’s Mercantile Advertiser, Public Advertiser, Republican Watch-Tower, and Spectator; the Democratic Press and Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser of Philadelphia, and Alexandria’s Daily Advertiser and Richmond’s Enquirer. The Perseverance and crew hailed from New England, but the journals constructed the “humane and spirited exertions of [Delano] and his brave crew . . . in the Pacific Ocean” as an American enterprise, carried out by an “American ship.” For most readers, also, the Yankee values that were celebrated--the King’s gift of a “Golden Medal” and “Tribute of Respect’-- redounded to the credit of Yankees from across the country. Significant as tokens of European acceptance, Delano applauded the “kind and generous treatment” and “most sincere friendship and benevolence” he received from Spanish officials. The story resonated with an American public that applauded acts of heroism by their countrymen, especially for those who operated on a global stage, and decades later, it would attract the attention of Herman Melville, who adapted Delano’s account for his most notable short story. [i]
            Yet, in describing the American as a liberator of disadvantaged peoples and in using the Spanish Pacific as a setting, Delano was curiously indifferent to the plight of the Tryal’s human cargo. Instead, he accepted the Spanish assessment of the mutiny as “those heinous and atrocious actions” rather than as a spirited struggle for freedom. He was not ignorant of the fate of the mutineers. Six were condemned to “the common penalty of death,” and “the heads of the five first be cut off after they are dead, and be fixed on a pole, in the square of Talcahuano.” Others were sentenced to ten years of hard labor. What accounts for Delano’s failure to liberate the slaves of the Tryal or to decry harsh sentences imposed on men and women who had attempted to take back their liberty, not unlike the actions that he and his countrymen had taken twenty years earlier?  Like the majority of white Americans in the early nineteenth-century, his concept of liberty did not extend to African or Asian peoples. It exposed a cruel paradox at work in Delano’s America. His 1817 publication came at an historic moment when working class and middle class white men were becoming more vocal in demanding expansion of the vote and elimination of property qualifications, even as they sought to eliminate these rights for women and African Americans. The new “ladies journals” that had begun to appear advised Yankee women to subsume their energies into the domestic sphere of child raising, and budding abolitionists could go as only as far as joining colonization societies that promoted the emigration of black Americans to Africa.[ii]  Within a decade, however, inaugurated in the work of another Bostonian, David Walkers Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), the currents within this literature that called for a more accepting view of others peoples both at home and abroad would be appropriated by a new generation of militant abolitionists who demanded equal rights. 
            So, what do we make of this?  How do read the writing of an Indies trade literature within the context of racism at home.  Delano was a rather ordinary middle class mariner.  He worked his way up the ladder and, it appears, down again to die in a measure of respectability, but not wealth.  We could easily reject him as racist, or ethnocentric, or backward.  A close reading of Delano’s letters and Narrative suggests something else.  On the cusp of contact with the peoples beyond the Atlantic—Chinese, Indians, Sumatrans, Parsees, it appears that he was trying to work out what all this meant.  As a man inspired buy the rhetoric of the Enlightenment and a participant in his country’s recent revolution, he aspired to fashion himself as a citizen of the world, tolerant and cosmopolitan.  Regarding slavery, it was the debate over diversity that played out in this Indies trade literature, and not so much one side of an issue or the other, that defined American identity in the early republic. 

[i] Delano, Narrative, 496-497, 318, 329. Some of these accounts were reprinted from the Gazette of the United States. Newburyport Herald, 21 August 1807; Salem Gazette, 21 August 1807; Portsmouth Oracle, 22 August 1807; Mercantile Advertiser, 24 April 1806 and 27 August 1807; Public Advertiser, 22 August 1807; Republican Watch-Tower, 1 September 1807; New-York Spectator, 26 April 1806; Democratic Press 28 August 1807; Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, 25 August 1807; Vermont Centinel (Burlington), 2 September 1807; Alexandria Daily Advertiser, 28 April 1806; and the Enquirer of Richmond, Virginia, 6 May 1806. Melville published “Benito Cereno” in serial form in Putnam's Monthly in 1855, and a year later revised it for The Piazza Tales. A number of literary critics have wrestled with the problematic moral ambivalence they find in Melville’s classic short story. See, for instance, Andrew Delbanco, Melville: His World and Work (New York: Knopf, 2005); Rosalie Feltenstein, “Melville's Benito Cereno,” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography: 19, no. 3 (1947): 245-255; Dan McCall, Melville's Short Novels: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism (New York, NY: Norton, 2002); Lea Bertani Vozar Newman, “Benito Cereno,” in A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville, ed. Lea Bertani Vozar Newman (Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1986); Maggie Montesinos Sale, The Slumbering Volcano: American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Sterling Stuckey, “The Tambourine in Glory: African Culture and Melville's Art,” in The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, ed. Robert S. Levine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998): 37-64, and Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge, MA.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993).
[ii] Delano, Narrative, 89, 64-65, 347-348.