Harriett Low's Canton Thanksgiving, 1830
Thanksgiving has come to be one of those quintessential American holidays that we imagine with an earlier, purer, gentler and quite mythical America. We imagine it as a time when families came together around an ample meal, then gathered around a crackling hearth to read together, tell stories, and stave off the autumn chill in the glow of mutual companionship.
In early America, this was not always possible, especially for the men and women who participated in the Indies trades, and whose travels took them to India, China, Sumatra, or some other distant port on the far side of the world. At Thanksgiving “eastward of Good Hope,” a sailor might himself wilting beneath the scathing heat of the Indian Ocean, repelling pirates in the Sunda Straits, or battling a typhoon in the South China Sea.
One of the more curious Thanksgivings in the records was that of a 20-year old from Salem named Harriett Low, who spent her holiday in Canton in 1830. Ms. Low had come to China in the company of her uncle, William Henry Low, newly appointed director of the trading firm Russell & Company, and her aunt Abigail. While Uncle Henry traded in teas and opium in Canton, Chinese regulations required non-Chinese women—fan quai—to remain sixty mile downriver in Macao. This was a regulation that their British counterparts traipsed, and the Yankee women were not going to be “behindhand.”
Consequently, on the evening of November 5, disguising themselves as young tars or midshipmen, Harriett and Abigail secreted themselves in the hold of a fast boat, which carried them up to Jackass Point, the quay that opened up to the Western factories. The often-repeated tale that they were immediately discovered when they disembarked, as Harriett forgot herself and extended her supple white hands to accept an escort from the boat, is, of course, a fabrication. Yet, the mandarins had inserted their spies everywhere, and the ladies’ presence was reported soon after they landed on the morning of November 6. Later that day she noted that “the Hong merchants were making a row, and it is doubtful whether we remain long.” Within the week, the mandarins had “disturbed” the Low women’s visit by issuing a chop that warned “that trade would be stopped if one Low did not immediately remove his family to Macao.” Still, on November 17 they were still in Canton. It appears that the mandarins, “good-for-nothing creatures that they are,” were in fact exerting remarkable patience and were waiting for William Henry to announce the departure. Harriett observed, in the event that she and Aunt Abigail were not ready to return to Macao, the Chinese officials would be willing to “putty off a little,” in her mimicking language.[i] In fact, the Lows’ sojourn lasted three weeks, long enough for Harriett and Aunt Abigail to incite further commotion.
And, that is how Harriett came to celebrate her Thanksgiving of 1830, within the walls of the expatriate factories at Canton. On November 27, taking advantage of “a delightful moonshiny night,” a party of Americans strolled through the Hong compound. They drew little attention as they walked in front of the factories, then up and down the byways from Old China Street on the west to New China Street on the east. But, the entourage pressed their luck too far, “were discovered to be Fanquis there; and lights were called for, that the Chinamen might look at us.” Soon, a large but well-behaved crowd formed, stoking lanterns to examine the Western women closely. When the Americans reached the entrances of the factories again, a squad of “gallant tars” on shore leave from Whampoa who filled the promenade chased away the mob, and the party returned to William Henry’s domicile.
For Harriett, the escapade had been a lark, and she described it in the customarily breezy tone that had come to characterize her thoughts about China. Her depiction of Canton’s populace revealed the ambivalence that American travelers felt toward the peoples of the East. One entry in her journal described the onlookers who had formed a gaping “rabble” around the Americans’ strolling party as a step below the civilized men and women of her own country. Yet, in a later entry, Low showed a more philosophical side. The Chinese crowd had been “perfectly civil,” she mused, and their curiosity was no different from what one would expect from the pedestrians of Salem. In fact, the wonder that she saw in the eyes of the Chinese was a trait “of which they have a share in common with their fellow-creatures of more enlightened parts.”[ii]