Goose Commerce


Remember, all work and no play makes the British Empire a dull…er, boy? by goosecommerce
April 8, 2009, 5:27 pm
Filed under: Golden Ghetto, Power At Play | Tags: , , ,

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.

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