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