Our Glorious National Heritage, The Past is a Foreign...Something

Bigger, Faster, Stronger…Pianos?

Or, Thank God We Solved That Problem


This from a Charleston, South Carolina newspaper:

A New Article of Trade to China, in the shape of Pianos, is about to be tried.

The great difficulty of preserving pianos in the climate of Canton, owing to its extreme dampness has deterred many from importing them. Messrs. Dubois, Bacon & Chambers, however, Piano Manufacturers of this city, have just completed two, which, from the strength of their construction, a better mode of securing the parts, and great care in the selection of the materials, will, they confidently believe, resist the climate.

They are, moreover, instruments of great sweetness, compass and delicacy, and have been pronounced by eminent pianists of superior quality – N.Y. Amer.

~The Southern Patriot (Charleston, SC), 28 May 1838, p.2, col. 3

I’d say this is just more evidence that Americans were interested in East Asia far sooner than we give them credit for, but I think the Southern Patriot and the NY American were motivated more by boredom, than anything else, to run this story.

I say that, partly, because in the former’s case, the entire front half of the front page was taken up with this:


Talk about being the voice of the community. I wonder if they reminded you to pick up some milk at the store, too…

Image cite: Sashamd, “We have a map of the piano,” Flickr, CC License

Now in Actual Work

Eureka! Er, sorta.

in small doses
in small doses

I often begin these posts with some kind of appreciation of the serendipity of the archives; much of what’s appeared here are things I didn’t expect; or, more often, things that don’t fit into the project I’m working on as my main occupation, but that were just too interesting (for a given value of interesting) to forget completely. All well and good, I suppose.

But sometimes … sometimes you find what you’re looking for. Yesterday was one of those times. Continue reading “Eureka! Er, sorta.”

Golden Ghetto, Power At Play

Remember, all work and no play makes the British Empire a dull…er, boy?

Leap Frog

While writing to his wife, Sarah, about what he’d been getting up to while earning the family fortune at Canton, John Murray Forbes, China trader extraordinaire (and later, railroad magnate), happens to mention one of the more curious aspects of the Anglo-American community at Canton:

I have very little national feeling, and indeed I used to think the English our superiors, but faith I am changing my mind fast the more I see and know of them. They are almost as much governed by old custom as the Chinese are, while we are daily advancing. … The English have one trait in which they differ widely from us; they keep up their boyish games through life. Cricket and Ball of all sorts is played in England by men of all ages, and in this part of the world they esteem nothing childish which gives zest to exercise; thus, as I have told you, the gravest people of Canton may often be caught playing leap frog, and ’tis not logn since, at Macao, one of our cricket players was a judge from Bengal.

They are quite right. Where there are a thousand modes of exercising as in England and at home, other modes might be preferable, but there is surely no occasion for so much attempt at rubbing up our dignity by grave demeanor and consequential deportment — in fact a man can only forfeit the respect of others by mean actions; those who are wanting in real dignity of character are much the most disposed to stand upon ceremonials. So endeth the first lesson…”

Very “upon the playing fields of Eton,” no? Though it’s rather difficult to imagine leap-frog as preparation for world dominion.

Why these games? Well, first and foremost, because there was nothing to do at Canton. Work took up most available hours, and when it didn’t foreigners were restricted to their small neighborhood (what one scholar has called the “golden ghetto”). Second, the homosocial environment: the foreign merchant community at Canton was almost entirely male, the result of a Chinese ban on Western women living in the foreign ghetto (they wanted to keep the Westerners from getting too comfortable, you see — not a terribly effective anti-colonial policy, as it turns out), and, one imagines, no small amount of wifely resistance to being dragged across the world to sit in a counting house in a pestilential sub-tropical port. Third, the traders, at this point, tended to be younger men, usually in their twenties and thirties (one generally made it rich quick, and then either retired or, like JMF, ran the operation from a nice office in downtown Boston); lots of excess energy after a day stuck in a cramped, dusty, and hot “hong” (office/warehouse).

Also, I should note that, leap-frog aside, the “games” the merchants and their clerks usually got up to were of the more upper-crust sort — horse riding, boat races (both crew and yachts), that sort of thing — competitive sports where discretionary income, as well as physical skill, could make a difference. (Incidentally, fifteen or so years earlier, JMF’s older brother, Thomas, died while sailing his yacht near Macao).

Still, this type of activity, under such conditions, is part of what makes the experience of the commerce in China exceptional, if not unique.

But what to make of how these games changed JMF’s ideas about Britons? I’m not sure. On the one hand, close association with the advance guard of the British empire has greatly decreased his respect for British claims to superior civilization and refinement; but on the other, he admires how, at least in the ritualized social space of certain types of games of sports, British customs for enacting status distinctions are allowed to fall away (or be covered up) — a classic move of American democracy, particularly the Southern variety. More than anything, it makes me think of the drinking parties (barbecues) the great planters of the slave south threw whenever they were running for office — I suspect a similar sort of strained camaraderie was performed here, albeit with a different sort of power underlying the performance — cash money, not direct control over labor.

Thoughts on other instances of power at play? Were the blue-bloods up to similar shenanigans in the Raj?

In any case, weird enough for the blog, I think.

Cite: John Murray Forbes to Sarah Forbes, Canton, 25 March 1836, Letters (supplementary) of John Murray Forbes, edited by edited by his daughter Sarah Forbes Hughes, 3 vols.(Boston: George H. Ellis, 1905), I:26-27.

Image Credit:VTDarkStar, “Leap Frog,” Flickr, CC License.


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.

Continue reading “Nobody Here But Us Pidgins”


John Murray Forbes and the Coolie Colony on St. John’s River, Part I

Write Your Congressman!

JMF is aware of all plantation traditions
JMF is aware of all plantation traditions

The other day, while flipping through some files looking for something else entirely (isn’t that always the way?), I came across this letter (transcribed below).

It’s a bit of lobbying, from a wealthy China trader and powerful railroad investor, John Murray Forbes, to one of his local congressmen, Thomas D. Eliot. Long story short, JMF asks Eliot to kill a bill prohibiting the “Cooley Trade” — that is, the conveyance of Chinese emigrants to the U.S., mostly to recently acquired West Coast states and territories. Forbes would prefer to see the trade regulated.

Now, the letter is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but the reason I’m posting it is because of the colonization scheme JMF mentions. Apparently, a few years previously, Forbes and his buddies had tossed around the idea of importing Chinese coolies (low-caste laborers), and their families, to Florida to staff a plantation estate; the idea was to prove the viability of free labor in tropical regions, and set up a nice vacation home for retired China traders.

According to Forbes, he was only dissuaded from this plan because a planter friend of his observed that the local slaveholders would go nuts over having free labor in their backyard. This, Forbes tells Eliot, is the real reason why southern pols want to ban the coolie trade — it posed a threat to their peculiar institution.

If all this sounds a bit familiar, well, it is — as Forbes had cause to know, such an experiment in émigré free labor had been tried before. Historians know this episode best from Bernard Bailyn’s account of it in Voyagers to the West, where he discusses Andrew Turnbull’s disastrous Minorcan colony on the St. Johns River.* (Incidentally, JMF’s plantation was to have been on the St. Johns, too.**)

But enough introduction; here’s the letter. I’ll have some more to say about all this soon, but I’d be interested to get all y’all’s reactions to this — and especially what questions it raises in your minds. It certainly blew mine.

John Murray Forbes to Thomas D. Eliot, Boston, April 1860

My Dear Sir,
I see you have got in charge a Cooley Trade Bill. I hope it is not too late for me to put in a word on the subject.
I never owned a vessel which was used in this trade and have used what influence I had to discourage it, but it is my conviction that it it ought to be regulated and not prohibited.
There ought to be and there will be found some means of bringing the admirable labor of over populate China to the new soils of other countries eventually including our own.
I think it would be as bad political economy to prohibit it as it would have been to cut off immigration from Europe to this country.
With improvements in steam, and a return towards civilization on the part of the South, the future may have a great work to be done through the Cooley Trade.
I admit the abuses of the present system, but I want to see them corrected, not merely for the interest of our commerce, but of Civilization and Freedom.
If you give our pro-slavery Senate and Executive a chance, they will surely avail of it through the Treaty making power or otherwise, to fix upon us such legislation as cannot be changed–until we reform the House of Lords (Senate, I beg its pardon) ten or fifteen years hence.
When Humphrey Marshall was in China as Minister, he made no secret of his enmity to the Cooley trade, nor of his reasons for it. These were not the interests of humanity so much as the interests of the slave-holders, whose power he foresaw would one day be endangered by the introduction of free tropical labor. I am credibly informed that he boasted of his intention of coming home and breaking up the Cooley trade. Why it has not been done I cannot understand, unless the advocates of Christianizing Africa by the slave trade, think the Cooley trade in its present shape a good apprenticeship for our seamen and a good entering wedge with the community for that new branch of commerce.
I would most strongly urge your attention upon the means of regulating the Cooley trade.
The Emigrant ships from Europe are none too good now – they were perfect Hells – yet they are gradually becoming ameliorated. There must be means by which the Cooley trade may be put in train for becoming a great engine of civilization.
Prohibit it now on our ships and to our ports, and you simply drive it into the hands of the Portuguese, French, and Dutchmen. Regulate it and you will work those feeble maritime nations out of it, and establish a system that will in the long run improve the condition of the Chinese, and show in our tropics the benefits of free labor, besides benefitting our commerce – a minor object, but not unworthy your attention.
Before the South had proclaimed their great discovery of the heresies of Washington and others, and the mutual benefits to Black and White of slavery, I had organized a plan for a Chinese colony in Florida, where two or three friends had agreed to join me in sending 100 to 200 Chinese men and women to try a model plantation upon free labor principles and at the same time secure to ourselves a winter interest in that delicious climate surrounded by the comforts and safety of civilization which can alone be enjoyed in the midst of free labor. The right spot was selected and could be bought for very cheap, and one of the parties after many years residence in China, was about to return (with an ample fortune) and give his winters to the colony. We did not expect much profit but we hoped to make a pleasant experiment, which might, if successful, lead others to repeat it on a larger scale. I need not say we meant to have no slave Cooleys, but to bring selected men with leaders whom we personally knew, and either immediately on a larger scale, or gradually, to have the Cooleys accompanied by their wives.
When all our plans were laid, before taking the irretrievable step of buying a large tract of land, I thought it prudent to consult an acquaintance, a planter of that neighborhood of great experience and great liberality. He assured me that the public sentiment would be against it, and he gave me good reasons for abandoning the whole plan, growing out of the jealousy which the planters have of any scheme of labor outside of their ‘peculiar institution.’
I mention this plan merely as an illustration of what might, and what may yet, grow out of Chinese labor. Humphrey Marshall and my planter friend were right – there might be and would be danger to the value of slave property from Chinese labor, but that is no reason why we Republicans should lend ourselves to their prohibitory schemes.
Very truly yours,
J.M. Forbes”

~Folder 14, Box 1, Forbes Family Records, Historical Collections, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

*Bernard Bailyn, “Failure in Xanadu,” in Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1986)

**The St. John’s River flows north, which may help explain why such crazy schemes were dreamt up for its banks.