Or, Flora Goes to China
While he was in Canton in 1838-1840, American China merchant Robert Bennet Forbes kept up an extensive correspondence with his wife, Rose. His letters to Rose took the form of a daily journal, a common way in the period for intimates to maintain a sense of closeness while making the best possible use of irregular (and uncertain) mailing opportunities. In them, Forbes delivers a vivid picture of the world he inhabited, and shows himself to be a (more or less) sympathetic character: funny, ambitious and anxious in equal measure, and, to a surprising degree, self-aware. He smokes cigars, makes deals, observes Chinese life — and misses his wife terribly, worrying constantly about his young family, especially the his infant son, Robert Jr, whom he left behind to take up his post.
His days were busy ones. His position as the managing partner at one of the largest American firms active in China, Russell & Company, during the opening events of the first Anglo-Chinese war, was a demanding one, albeit in the peculiar way that desk jobs of the time and place were — he oversaw huge sums of money and affected the lives of (potentially) hundreds, if not thousands, through the decisions he made about ships, purchases, and opium sales. But it was also boring work, made the more so (for Forbes) by the largely homosocial, catty and jealous world of the foreign ghetto at Canton. The intensity of his days varied wildly; in the off-season, he recuperated from absurdly luxurious private parties at the mansions of wealthy Chinese merchants or at the “factories” of wealthy firms by taking walks around the cramped public square, short pony rides on a local island, or sailing excursions in the Pearl river delta. And sometimes, he likely engaged in a game of leapfrog.
Partly in an effort to keep himself sane while thus occupied so far from his family, he brought a friend with him to China. Her name was Flora, and she was a dog.
She was a good companion to Forbes (at the very least, she liked hunting rats as much as he liked spending idle time dropping sea birds with his rifle). I’m not sure what kind of dog she was — I chose the picture above because I think black labs are the most dog-shaped of dogs, and so that’s what I picture her as — but I do know that she provided some of the more delightful moments of his letters. Following today’s really (truly, honestly, absolutely) unacceptable procrastination and useless note-taking, I figured sharing a few excerpts would be the best way to make the day of some value…So, without ado: some scene’s of Flora’s trip to China.
11 June 1838
[describing his berth on the outgoing voyage] … I busied myself fixing my stateroom, but Allen (the steward) had anticipated almost all my wants & had made my bunk very comfortable — Flora seemed to be the only one that entered into my feelings — she followed me about the deck & when I came below she whined at the cabin stair — I provided her with a mat & a snug corner on deck, for which she was grateful — the night was fine, & the moon almost at full, the breeze fine, the crew & vessel first rate, & I turned in to think of you… my window is just in a position that I can look the whole length of the deck & Flora can poke her nose in & kiss me — when I am not on deck she keeps near the window…
Flora takes great interest in all the evolutions, & watches every man that goes beyond a walk or speaks louder than a pig’s whisper–speaking of this quadruped reminds me that there is one young belligerent who no doubt is looking forward to getting old enough to having to having his bristles made into a tooth brush … this character quarrelling with his other ten or twelve friends, was turned loose on deck & has a laudable desire to come to the quarter deck, but Flora flies at him & drives him forward & seems to have become instantly inspired with a true sense of her dignity, as she takes no notice of the men, except to bark at them & has made friends with the Captain & mates…
22 July 1838
… Caught Flora trespassing in a manner too unsentimental to relate – gave her a gentle castigation, & a tremendous scolding, & forbid her coming into the cabin again, which I shall insist on, for when she pups it would not do, & therefore it would be hard to enforce the law at that delicate crisis – she amuses me much by keeping two small pigs in their proper places that are allowed to run about decks — whenever they come on the quarter deck she goes at them …
24 October 1838
… went to see RS the other night & Flora in chasing a rat ran into his well headlong – I heard her & after a good deal of trouble got her out — when Russell remarked ‘I guess she’ll let well alone next time’ – pretty good –
30 October 1838
… Went to a Portrait painter to day & made Flora sit for her portrait, to fix her in one position a procured a cockatoo which she gazed at fixedly for half an hour, & and I think the fellow has hit her exactly.
Boston 25 November 1840
[written just as his ship returns to Boston harbor (home), and closes his correspondence]
Oh God be praised & may I succeed on getting up to Town in time for tomorrows boat – this is even at most the happiest hour of my life – Good night & love to Bob – Flora is glad too –
~R. B. Forbes, Letters from China: The Canton-Boston Correspondence of Robert Bennet Forbes, 1838-1840, ed. Phyllis Forbes Kerr, 1st ed. (Mystic, Ct: Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc, 1996), 20, 21, 34, 64, 65, 264