Nobody Here But Us Pidgins

coo coo ca choo
coo coo ca choo

In the mid-19th century, Western merchants in China — Americans included — conducted business through ad hoc languages. Under Chinese law, all foreign merchants at Canton were required to to hire “linguists,” but these were usually not language experts, but rather middlemen who, in theory, facilitated business between foreign merchants, native merchants, and the port’s administrative governor.(This rarely worked in practice, at least according to foreign merchants.) Adding to the difficulties, foreign merchants, even if they had the inclination to do so, were forbidden to learn Chinese (or rather, it was illegal for anyone to teach them Chinese, which amounted to the same thing). Certainly, translators existed, but generally trade was conducted through the mediation of a pidgin — a simplified language that usually combines elements of two other languages, usually for commercial purposes.

(The word pidgin, in fact, probably derives from encounters between English speakers and Chinese speakers at Canton. The word is thought to come from a Chinese mispronunciation of the English word “business.” Though hardly the first pidgin, the term for the language used in trade at Canton was the specific case generalized to encompass all languages with similar structures, beginning in the 1850s.)

This pidgin was central to the operations of the trade. What’s odd, though, is how rarely I’ve encountered it in the archives. You’d think it would be all over American merchants’ records, as they often communicated with their Chinese counterparts through letters. But no; instead, they appear to have written all communiques in English, and then had them translated on the spot, perhaps only verbally.

So far, I’ve run across three examples. Collectively, they question the general understanding of this pidgin as a primarily a commercial language, at least in some particular circumstances.

The First, which seems to me to be only using a few pidgin terms, was explicitly a translation; in the same letterbook, there are two versions of the same letter of introduction.  Robert Bennet Forbes, a managing partner of Russell & Co, is introducing his cousin, and new employee of the firm, Paul S. Forbes, to their most important Chinese merchant contact, Hoqua, or Howqua.

Here’s the pidgin version, which RBF provided to PSF (dated Boston, January 2, 1843:

Dear Sir,

I hope this came to you by the hand of my cousin Mr Paul Forbes, he go out in that new ship, belong to my Brother John, & he want to do some good business in China, my have write to R & Co chin chin them to take him & cut me let me go, Russ & Co have now put me down to 1/16, all same four [sic] price new young men, I have my no worth any more, more better they let me go, takee [sic] my cousin. he understand work & by & bye after a little time he can understand that Canton business very well, He have got plenty friend here & [should?] he go into Russ & Co house, or not, I hope you give him your opinion.

My chin chin you & your family now begin new year —

My have put on board this ship two small barrell of Provisions & two Bbl [barrells] Flour counter No 1 thinkg [sic] — my chin chin you accept
Yr friend

RB Forbes”

And here’s the English version, which RBF addressed to Houqua directly (same date):

My dear Friend,

I trust this will be handed you by my cousin, Mr. P.S. Forbes, who goes out in the Paul Jones to endeavour to obtain some good employment in China and I have written to Russell & Co. requesting them to receive Mr. Forbes in my place, they have seen fit to cut down my interest in the new term, commencing this year, to one sixteenth and as they have appreciated me so low I think they had better let me go entirely and receive my cousin who is a good working man and after a little experience of the Canton trade he will no doubt be a very useful member. He has many personal friends in this country and whether he goes into the house or not I ask for him your valuable advice and assistance. With my best wishes on the occasion of a new year to yourself and family,

I remain, dear Sir,

R. B. Forbes

I have put on board the Paul Jones some good Beef and Pork and some fine Flour for you.”

To me, the fact that the letter was quasi-translated seems to  suggest that the introduction was intended to be as legible as possible to Houqua — or perhaps to  enable a quicker translation into pidgin, or Chinese, when it was read to him by a translator.

The Second, is from Houqua to John Murray Forbes, RBF’s brother. It was written at Canton on October 4, 1841. Again, the piece dips in and out of English, so that you can glimpse pidgin terms and structure here and there. I’ve cut the excerpts such that you can get a sense of the straight English as well as the pidginized portions.

My dear friend,

This English business [the Opium War] makes me very unhappy; it has caused me the loss of a great deal of money & as every day it is becoming more Complicated & extended I do not know when it will be settled. …

I am very glad to hear my old friend Mr Cushing is very well; show my can walkee. I like very much to go & in his farm for I hear he has a very large place with plenty fine fruit &c.

Every day I think can come letter telling of the arrival RB Forbes from England. Say he that man so can Keep quiet he all a’same young man. Went for he wife say he walkee not her side?


Interestingly, this letter comes from Houqau’s own letterbook, the rest of which was kept in generally flawless English. My reading of this letter, then, is that here the use of pidgin words and structures is a conscious effort, one that dovetails with the content — friendly gossip about the health of a mutual friend (Cushing), ribbing about why RBF took a wife if he’s not going to stay at home — to reinforce the overall tone of the letter as an exchange between old friends. A bit of skillful relationship maintenance, if you will.

The Third, example is not from or two anyone involved in the trade at all. It’s a party invitation from Gulian Crommelin Verplanck, a prominent New York aristocrat, man of letters, and sometime politician, to the then-Governor of New York, William H. Seward, inviting the latter to a Christmas party, in December 1841. The piece is on a scrap of paper, just a small note dashed off in haste (judging from the handwriting, anyway); this is the full text.

G. C. Verplanck makes ko-tow to the Leang Kwang Seward and rejoices in the hope to eat vice under his countenance on the Chin-chin-gress; called by the outer barbarians Christmas.”

This is, I think, a parody — though by way of what source, I have no idea; neither Verplanck nor Seward were involved directly in the trade, though as prominent New Yorkers, they would certainly have had cause to know men who were. That said, I think the real context here is that China was very much in the news in late 1841 — because of the Opium War — and was thus a reference point that political men, especially those of literary persuasion, which these two were — would have in common.

What I find most interesting about the pieces of pidgin that I’ve run across is that they all take place in what could be considered a social — as opposed to commercial — register. Pidgin is used to create, maintain, and play with relations between rough equals — not as the key medium for business transactions. So however much of that function it had served in the past, by the early 1840s pidgin was being used to signal more than desired goods and prices. Rather akin to how scholars drop German, Latin, or French terms into their works, pidgin was being used as a marker of shared class or interests.

I haven’t done a thorough lit search yet, and there is almost certainly more material on this topic — so I’ll keep you posted.


*“It may be imagined from the name that this individual was learned in the languages, but this was not a necessary qualification.

His duties according to law, were to examine and report on all goods coming and going; he was a runner between the foreign merchant, the hong merchant [Chinese merchant], and the Hoppo’s office [port administrator]; a public servant and slave to all these — and his character in general corresponded well with his onerous task.”
~Robert Bennet Forbes, Remarks on China and The China Trade (Boston, 1844), p.17

Image credit: Jfgornet, “Deux pigeons,” Flickr, CC License

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