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 RogĂ©rio 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,