Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thanksgiving 1805 in a Dangerous World

This past Thanksgiving week, American news broadcasts and journals reported the death of missionary John Chau on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean.  It appears that Chau had gone to the remote site in hopes of bringing the Bible to one of the last isolated groups left in the world.  Previous efforts to make contact with the Sentinelese had resulted in violence, as they attempted to protect their island from intrusion.[1]

            This is not the first Thanksgiving disturbed by sensationalist reports from overseas.  Nor is it the first Thanksgiving in which media reports fostered the conceit that the world is a dangerous place for “innocent” Yankees who only seek “peaceful” purposes among “backward” peoples.  On 28 November1805, Thanksgiving Day in the home port of Salem, Massachusetts, Capt. John Carlton anchored the Putnamoff Rhio, a modest port on Bintan Island, off the pepper-rich island of Sumatra. Although the local Malay population had acted suspiciously, Carlton had decided to leave ship anyway to conduct business ashore.  With their commander away, the crew unwisely disregarded his orders and allowed a proa(canoe) to close with the ship and permitted half a dozen Malay men aboard to trade pepper.  By the time Carlton returned, he found half of his crew killed or wounded and his ship vanished.  The Putnamwas never heard of again.[2]

            In the years when Americans were forming a national character and embarking onto a global stage, their newspapers erupted with bursts of sensationalist reports similar to these.  The accounts of atrocities overseas came with frequency and were often painted in such gruesome detail—headless corpses, mutilated bodies, entire ships and crews vanished. The raw power and thrust of early America’s acquaintance with the world contributed to a sense that the world was filled with dangers that threatened American lives, property, and values.  Consequently, a sense of dread covered every voyage that would carry merchants, mariners, adventurers, and missionaries “round the world.”  When missionaries Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons sailed to the Ottoman Empire about Thanksgiving 1819 to preach to the Muslim population there, they expected to be martyred for their cause.[3]  

            Much is missing in these stories of innocents abroad in a dangerous world that would dramatically alter the narrative.  Readers would never learn what actions might have led to the assault on the Putnam.  They would learn nothing of prior contacts between the crew and the indigenous Malays. They would learn nothing of trade practices, local customs, or taboos, and whether these had been honored or breeched. Nor would they learn the history of the pepper trade, in which both sides had practiced a cordial form of commerce underscored by mutual respect.  Consequently, a steady stream of sensationalist, partial accounts contributed to a sense of the wider world as dangerous—and one that must be subdued.

 More about the loss of the Putnam can be found in my forthcoming book, Eastward of Good Hope.

[1]“North Sentinel Island tribespeople believed to have killed trespassing US 'missionary,'” CNN, 22 November 2018;"God, I Don't Want to Die.' Journal Reveals the Final Days of an American Missionary Killed By An Isolated Tribe,” Time, 23 November 2018,

[2]Salem Gazette, 4 July 1806; Phillips, Pepper and Pirates, 31-38; Ardiff 127–130. In locales such as Salem, the lesson had particularly powerful resonance because these events involved family names long associated with the area: the Putnams (of the witch trials infamy), Carltons, Browns, and Petits had inhabited Essex County since the seventeenth century.

[3]For more perspective on missionaries such as Fisk, Parsons, and Chau, see Christine Leigh Heyrman,American Apostles: When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam(New York: Hill and Wang, 2015).

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Cannibals All!

            How often do we find, that when we happen upon a new book—invoking a fresh set of ideas—it changes our perceptions of familiar books?[1]  This has been, once again, my experience over past semester, as I taught an undergraduate course based on my forthcoming book, Early America in a Dangerous World (Johns Hopkins, in process).  In the next few blogs, I will introduce readers to some exciting new texts that have inspired me to reimagine some of the classics in the considerable literature of discovery.  In this piece, we will look at Kelly L. Watson’s excellent study, Insatiable Appetites: Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World (NYU Press, 2016).

            I happened on Watson’s fascinating examination of cannibalism, Insatiable Appetites, and decided to try her ideas out in the undergraduate course.  Watson is interested in the evolving concept of the cannibal, rather than the practice, so there was no need for a trigger warning.  I told my students that they would not find much gore—to the relief of some and the disappointment of others, it appeared.  

      Watson observes that since the time of Herodotus, Western writing has described peoples  
who inhabited the edges of the “civilized world” as man-eaters, and his has framed
“within colonialist literature . . .  an assumption that the binary construction of civilization versus savagery and barbarism defines the world.”[2]  Particularly revealing is her connection between Western assertions of cannibalism and savagery on the one hand and constructions of gender on the other.  As she writes:

            Implicit within ideas about barbarism in the early modern world was the inability 
            of barbarians to conform to the established norms of gendered power and sexual
            practices.  Cannibalism, then, existed alongside the perception of inappropriate 
            cultural practices in the writings of European men. The formation of masculine 
           and, later, racist imperial  power insisted on the perceived presence of 
           cannibalism.  In the early centuries of  conquest, cannibalism above all else
           determined savagery,  and savagery established one’s place within the hierarchy
           on which civilization and imperialism rested.

There is much more to Watson’s study—particularly her ability to situate the construction of barbarism within ideas of gender--and I encourage readers to pick up a copy for themselves.  

            Insatiable Appetites is the kind of book that changes how we might think about the early American Indies Trade and voyagers such as the ill-fated Samuel Patterson, a prominent character in my own work. Patterson (1785-  ) traveled the Pacific on three voyages over six years (1802-1808), touching at Australia in 1808, marooned on Fiji after shipwreck for six months, and raising a family on Hawai’i.  Returning from the sea, broken both physically and psychologically, in 1817 he produced Narrative of the adventures and sufferings of Samuel Patterson, experienced in the Pacific Ocean, and many other parts of the world, with an account of the Feegee, and Sandwich Islands, a text that influenced a whole genre of American travel writing.[3]  Patterson’s text is an important example of how ordinary sailors, rather than ships’ officers or merchants, constructed the Pacific and its peoples and how these experiences entered the consciousness of Americans to create an imagined world of in a state of barbarism populated by cannibal peoples.  

            In giving his readers “an Account of the Religion, and Customs of the People of Feegee,” Patterson focuses on what they would find sensationalist and sordid.[4]  And, so he selects the most damning epithet he knows will lure readers:

            These savages are cannibals, and eat the bodies of their own malefactors, and 
             all those of their prisoners: and as they were continually at war with some of 
             the tribes around  them, and the breach of their own laws, in nearly every case 
            was punishable with death, they generally had a supply of human flesh.[5]  

He paints an image that counters the myth of Yankee enterprise, energy, and initiative as markers of civilization:

            When cultivating their lands, and in their other labours, about noon they 
            generally have a hole dug in the ground, heated by a fire made in it ; and 
           after they clean out  the coals and ashes, they lay in their dead bodies, human, 
           if they have any for eating,  if not, hogs, and also potatoes and yams. On 
           these they place a covering of straw, and then bring on the hot ashes and earth. 
          After a few hours they take out the flesh,  &c, and each one receives his share.[6]  

As historian Konstantin Dierks observes, he “came home with reinforced contempt for the sundry ‘uncivilized’ peoples inhabiting that world.”[7]  Patterson concluded,

            how many of our fellow beings, with the exception of speech, scarcely can 
            be said to be before the beasts of the wilderness in improvements: — naked, 
            uncivilized, and preying on their own flesh. What a change, when the holy 
           principles of the religion of  Jesus shall possess the hearts of all men!

            Watson’s study helps us to interpret Patterson’s Narrative in fresh ways.  While Insatiable Appetites explores an earlier time--North America in the fifteenth- and sixteenth- centuries--her insights carry over into Patterson’s world.  In Watson’s terms, Patterson’s conclusions were prepackaged before he ever left America.  Patterson approached his Fiji Islands passages in a curiously understated style: “The food of this country is, yarns, potatoes, plantains, cocoanuts, bananas, taros, breadfruit, human flesh, an inferior kind of swine which they raise, &c.”[8]  Yet, a distinct cultural agenda informs his Narrative.  As for other Americans, a tradition of western writing about Native Americans and even Catholics had trained him to think about other peoples as lacking the trappings of civilization.  We would expect Patterson to have been appalled by cannibalism and the general disorder and lack of discipline he saw among the Fijians.  Furthermore, his book was written to attract readers and cannibalism was among the most horrific, and enticing, of subjects for the early American public.  As Watson reminds us, travellers do not commonly go into strange lands with open minds; they assume their own cultural superiority and use their own beliefs and practices as benchmarks by which to judge others.  Given that his own country was a new and culturally insecure nation, Patterson’s Narrativeoffered his readers a sense that they belonged within the community of civilized nations.  In doing so, he reinvented cannibalism and savagery for a new generation of Americans.


[1]This title is drawn from George Fitzhugh’s 1857 pro-slavery tract, Cannibals All! Or, Slaves without Masters.  Fitzhugh maintained that the capitalism of the Northern states fostered a kind of ‘moral cannibalism,’ a metaphor for management’s exploitation of workers.  Like most early Americans, Fitzhugh used the term ‘cannibal’ rather cavalierly to suggest conditions of anarchy or savagery.

[2]Watson, 7, 26.
[3]It is likely that Patterson’s book was an example of social writing, perhaps disctated to his minister who then edited the whole.  We see hints in the Biblical epigrams to each chapter, such as:
            With melting heart and weeping eyes,
            My trembling soul in anguish lies;

[4]Patterson’s Elizawrecked on Nairai Island in June 1808.

[5]Patterson, 88.
[6]Patterson, 87-88.
[7]“Globalization of the United States, 1789-1861” (exhibit), Indiana University  Konstantin Dierks’s website is a valuable resource for scholars of early American globalization.

[8]Patterson, 87.

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.