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.
Are you Kidding me?
“The first merchandise direct from the Orient exposed for sale in America was brought to this country by pirates. Arabian gold, pearls from the Indian Ocean and Oriental fabrics abounded in the chief cities of the colonies. The treasure of Captain Kidd that was seized in Boston in 1699, contained a characteristic assortment of piratical plunder: ‘an iron chest of gold, pearls, etc., 40 bails [sic] of East India goods, 13 hogsheads, chests and case, one negro, and Venture Resail, a Ceylon Indian.’ Resail was one of the first Asiatics to visit America.”
~Charles Oscar Paullin, Diplomatic negotiations of American naval officers, 1778-1883, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins press, 1912),157.
There is a lot going on here, and I don’t have any time at the moment to do any more research, but I did want to put a pin in it here for later. In no particular order, some thoughts, then:
- That smuggling should have been the first (direct) source of Asian goods in America is more than appropriate
- The presence of human beings in the “pirate” cargo puts the lie to fantasies of pirate democracy, eh? Or perhaps just reflects the Boston authorities inability to conceive of such a thing…
- Paullin’s archaic language aside, the name “Venture Resail” seems too self-consciously literary to be true. Sure, while it wasn’t unheard of of slaveholders to give slaves ironic names (Caesar, etc), this name seems a bit on the nose even for that — really, 2 puns in one name? — no less for its relation to Kidd’s case, a big deal at the time and a subject of much mythologizing since.
In any case, very curious, and something I’m interested in looking into further, once I have a spare moment again.
Image source: Pyle, Howard “With the Buccaneers ” in Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates: Fiction, Fact & Fancy Concerning the Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main (New York, United States, 1921), Wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pyle_pirates_burying2.jpg
Filed under: Golden Ghetto, History and Historians, Knowledge Droppings, Now in Actual Work | Tags: Frederick Townsend Ward, Platt, Qing, Taiping
Or, Thoughts on Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (Knopf, 2012).
Odd as it is to say, it’s been a long time since a history book completely captivated my attention; and even longer since I lost a night of sleep to stay up reading one. I read history all day, everyday, but rarely for pleasure – one likes to escape, you know? But sometimes something special intervenes. Stephen Platt’s excellent account of the Taiping Rebellion is one such. While by no means an escape – the civil war he takes as his subject was one of the most brutal the world has ever seen – his book is as gripping and analytically sophisticated a piece of historical scholarship as I have ever read.
Platt’s book marries the deft use of “novelistic” tricks of popular historians with a serious and important new analysis of the Taiping civil war to construct a gripping narrative. The careful use of a judiciously chosen cast of characters – drawing from all factions in the war – allows Platt to draw the reader in to personal stories. But these are not just historical excursions for history’s sake, loosely connected. Rather, Platt makes a consistent, and convincing argument that the war should be seen as intimately connected to the other great civil conflict of the period – the American Civil War – by way of British foreign and economic policy. (Basically, he argues that the Brits got involved in the war – decisively, as it happened, on the side of the Qing – to protect their economic interests, partly out of pressure put on them by the loss of the American market).
In what I think is his greatest accomplishment, Platt makes all of these events make sense.* That might sound like the first task of an historian – but believe me when I say that it is quite a feat, especially in this case. The caprice of the British public and the arrogance of some of their officials is paired nicely with the internal politicking of the Qing and Taiping courts. Each on its own is complex enough, but Platt is able to draw out the links between them, to explain the unfolding of events through these wavering intersections (which is not to say that events were rational; like all wars, this one was model of chaos). As someone who has mainly confronted the Taiping war through the garbled accounts of contemporary American observers, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to finally have some glimpse of the Taiping war as a coherent whole. (Okay, well I can: and just did).
I think part of the secret here is that, unlike other books on the war which analyze the particular cultural characteristics that motivated actors – say, Jonathan Spence’s – this book concentrates on making the strange familiar, and not on delineating just how strange the the strange was. Thus we get a portrait of Zeng Guofan, commanding general of the Hunan army (the main Qing force), that depicts him as a deeply conflicted, even tortured scholar trying to follow duty wherever it led. The foreignness of Zeng’s worldview (from our contemporary, Western perspective) is only partially revealed in the denouement, when glimpses of Zeng through the eyes of Western and Chinese observers reveal a brutal, calculating man, working to protect his image and his family’s power from the still-smoking and blood-stained ruins of the rebel capital, Nanjing.
I’m no expert in the Chinese historiography, so I can’t comment on how Platt’s work succeeds of fails in that regard; certainly his pedigree as a China expert is impeccable, and Sinologists who’ve reviewed the book seem pleased. From my perspective as an Americanist with more than a passing knowledge of British and American sources relating to the period, nothing rang false. Sections of the book dealing with British perspectives on the war, or maneuvering in Parliament, or even American reactions to the Taiping all seemed judiciously written, and did not a make any claims that stepped beyond the evidence. The Chinese sections…well, Chinese history, in English, always seems lightly sourced to me – but I think that is an artifact of the available archives and my footnote fetish, not any sort of real criticism.
(If I have one criticism, it is that I wish Platt had refrained from including a poorly-argued NYT op-ed as part of his book publicity efforts. Affecting a Tom Friedman-level of rhetorical analysis is not only historical malpractice – really, is the Taiping rebellion in any way like China today? really? – it does his scholarly reputation no favors. Indeed, had I not already bought the book before I read that article, I would have never cracked the cover).
But if we judged all scholars purely by their malpractice on the op-ed page, then we’d read no one, ever. So, my recommendation is simple: whatever your speciality or your interests, go read Stephen Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, and have your understanding of 19th-century history, the global economy – and perhaps even your ideas about human nature – helpfully revised. And maybe your sleep disturbed, too.
*The petulant jerk who reviewed the book for the NYT seems to lack any sense of how complex this war was – how many people were involved, how difficult the sources are, how much violence deranges neat narratives. His complaints about how difficult his finely-tuned flâneur’s mind found the book reveal more about him, I think, than about the work under review.
Filed under: History and Historians, Our Glorious National Heritage | Tags: Andrew Jackson, College Humor, Too close to a Slate pitch for comfort, War of 1812
Or, A Modest (But Friendly!) Rebuttal
Joe Adelman raised an interesting point on Twitter today: should we commemorate the War of 1812? And if so, on what grounds? Joe’s ably summarized and commented on the conversation that ensued in a blog post here. Take a look!
Now, from that you’ll see that I placed myself firmly in the “War of 1812 isn’t worth commemorating” camp. It’s been a solitary experience.
Filed under: Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage | Tags: Fur trade, Ledyard, Muskrat, Yglesias
Or, America’s Continuing War on the Cute and Fuzzy
Also Known As: No Captain & Tenille Jokes Here, No Sirree
Everything old is new again. At least, so says Matt Yglesias. Slate’s economic analyst reports (base on an entertaining Wall Street Journal article) that muskrat pelts from the Upper Midwest are fetching record prices due to rising demand in China. Historically nimble as always, he notes that fur trapping was a key “motive for early (largely French) white exploration” in the former Middle Ground – and so this is yet more evidence that old patterns appear to be reasserting themselves: ”Asian industrialization seems to be pushing America back to its roots as a natural resource extraction hub.”
He’s not wrong – but I think he misses an important historical trend line by stretching as far back to the heyday of the coureur de bois. Collecting furs was indeed a key part of French colonialism in North America, but the direct connection to Asian markets (specifically, Canton) was not made until the American Revolution.
Filed under: Found Historiography, Our Glorious National Heritage | Tags: Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton Mixtape, In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Or, thoughts on The Hamilton Mixtape by Lin-Manuel Miranda
I’ll be direct: Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius, as a musician, a writer, and possibly as an historian, too. Grand words, no? Admittedly, I tend toward hyperbole – but indulge me and watch the video above, and tell me if it doesn’t ring true.
Filed under: Golden Ghetto, History and Historians, Now in Actual Work, Our Glorious National Heritage
Or, Gibson, Friedman, and #FirstWorldProblems
How evenly distributed was the future, in the past?
Yesterday, Alexis Madrigal distilled novelist Teju Cole’s tweeted critique1 of what’s wrong with #firstworldproblems – as a concept – and it got me thinking.
His post goes into a bit more detail (and explains what #firstworldproblems signifies), but here are the key lines of Cole’s analysis:
I don’t like this expression “First World problems.” It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. …
… people don’t wake up with “poor African” pasted on their foreheads. They live as citizens of the modern world. … the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is–quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone.
Quite so. The approach that twitterers using #firstworldproblems take to the developing world mirrors, in no small part, the approach Europeans (and later, Americans) took to the “new” worlds of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. To assume that no one in Lagos is frustrated with her iPad’s inability to sync properly is to assume that Lagos exists in a different stage of history, a different time – pace Gibson, “[t]he future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” But listening to Cole, it seems the future is actually very well distributed – at least geographically; in our brave new world, wealth forms more of a barrier than oceans.2
The key difference in both usages is history, represented by technological gadgetry (and sometimes infrastructural abundance). Time passed, in this view, is progress achieved — a view echoed, from another vantage point, in a related meme-driven complaint about the lack of flying cars. In this, as in so many ways, our way of seeing the world is an iron Enlightened Victorian imperialist cage, albeit one with some of the sharp edges sanded off.