Goose Commerce


Humblebragging Around the Horn by goosecommerce

Or, Don’t Even Get Him Started on CrossFit

Humblebrag

Richard Cleveland was a sailor, an entrepreneurial merchant, and a well-traveled man – but not a shy one. In his retirement, he published at least three editions of his memoirs, and by the end of the nineteenth century, and he and his children had produced some three different versions of his life’s story, all also in multiple transatlantic editions. Scholars still look to him today for details on Americans’ dealings in the Pacific, and beyond.

He’s a good source, if one we should perhaps examine mainly for its narrative framing and plot elements as much as for specific details. Among other feats, he was, as he explained in the preface to his lengthy autobiography of his time spent on the seas, as good a flinty, thrifty New Englander as Max Weber (or Freeman Hunt) could ever have wished for:
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A Well-Traveled Pooch by goosecommerce
May 6, 2012, 11:28 pm
Filed under: Golden Ghetto, Power At Play

Or, Flora Goes to China

Nate 2 by maplegirlie, on Flickr
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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.
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A Slaughter-Bench, Explained by goosecommerce

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).

YuYuan Garden by Wolfgang Staudt, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  Wolfgang Staudt 

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.

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*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.



The Past is Flat, But the World is Round by goosecommerce

Or, Gibson, Friedman, and #FirstWorldProblems

From Darkness to Light - please read by ecstaticist, on Flickr
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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.

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Freebird!!! Freebird!!! by goosecommerce
November 15, 2011, 12:56 am
Filed under: Golden Ghetto, Power At Play, The Past is a Foreign...Something

Or, Ain’t No Party Like a Synchronized Bird Release Party

Birdcages by melingo wagamama, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  melingo wagamama 

Some folks make it look easy, but really, international commerce can be a lot of work – and mightily dull at the same time (all those currency conversions, ugh!). But let it never be said that China traders didn’t know a good time when it flew at them in a panic.

(Okay, I’m not sure that it has ever been said, and besides, we’ve covered similar ground before — but just go with me here).

While doing business at Canton and Macau during the 1786/1787 trading season, Major Samuel Shaw – revolutionary hero, pioneer merchant in the China trade, and official U.S. Consul – took some time out to party.

A circumstance that occurred at the entertainment given us by the Portuguese ought not to be omitted. The dessert, which was very elegant, was prepared in a room adjoining that in which we dined, and the tables were ornamented with representations, in paper painted and gilt, of castles, pagodas, and other Chinese edifices, in each of which were confined small birds. The first toast was Liberty! and in an instant, the doors of the paper prisons being set open, the little captives were released, and, flying about us in every direction, seemed to enjoy the blessing which had just been conferred upon them.

How’s that for an evening’s entertainment? This flighty soirée comes up in Shaw’s posthumous memoir-cum-biography, as a footnote in a section kvetching about how the English merchants being, well, bitchy. They hadn’t invited Shaw or any other Americans to dinner, you see, and that was breaking some serious social coding (a breach of, cough, cough, food diplomacy, if you will – though I suspect in this case “food” meant “copious amounts of Madeira and/or rum”):

On [the English’s] arrival at Canton from Macao, the usual visits were made to them by us, and by them returned; and while every other nation paid us the customary civility of giving and receiving a dinner and supper, the English alone omitted that attention, not only to us individually, but to the Americans generally.

Shaw was an old hand at the casual snub, and beyond that, a professional – and so he assures his reader that such bad behavior “did not prevent or interrupt that intercourse which will ever exist among gentlemen.” Ahem.

In classic Early American style, though, he adds a final note of paranoia, suggesting that the lack of keggers was an order from on high:

It is true, that the Court of Directors [the governing body of the English East India Company], in their instructions to the supercargoes…enjoined it upon them to use every endeavor to prevent the subjects of Great Britain from assisting or encouraging in any shape the American commerce ; but if this prohibition was intended by the directors, or construed by their servants, to extend to the civilities heretofore paid the Americans, it cannot be denied that such conduct was extremely illiberal.

Illiberal indeed. Given the weight that Shaw and his compatriots back home gave to the treatment of Americans abroad, such behavior probably only confirmed their worst suspicions about Britons’ incorrigible arrogance.

But at least the Portuguese had the courtesy to stockpile pigeons, right?


Source: Josiah Quincy, ed., The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw: The First American Consul at Canton: With a Life of the Author (Boston: Wm. Crosby and H.P. Nichols, 1847), 234. [Bold emphasis mine, rest in original.]



A Brief Account of Cushing’s America by goosecommerce

Or, Contractually Bound, Peaceful, Prosperous, and Surprisingly Plural

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~I~

A portrait can tell you a lot about a person. Especially one done in the older style — before the head shot — where objects and landscapes were visible at the margins of the frame. The value lies, not it its status as as a representative image of a person (though that’s usually approximated), but rather in what it says about both the idealized self of the person pictured and the cultural context within which they lived – the materials from which they pulled together their ideals. In trying to squeeze information from such paintings, a nose for discrepancies – in historical ones, our sense of what’s foreign about the past – are among our best tools, and have long served historians well.

(Of course, the information thus obtained is as much a creation of our own selves as it is of those pictured in the past … but that’s history, folks.)

As luck would have it, the archival record of the first American diplomatic mission to China gives us an opportunity to do the same thing for the United States. From the pen of Caleb Cushing, U.S. minister to China, we have an idealized portrait of the country in the form of a memo he drafted for circulation among Chinese officials and merchants.

He wrote the piece, he explained to his superiors, to correct the “very imperfect and incorrect notions” in China “as to the constitution and character of the United States.” At the end of July 1844, the State Department received a copy of the 1,200-word pamphlet that Cushing, with input from other members of the legation’s staff, had written and translated into Chinese. In his cover letter for the pamphlet, he promised to deliver it “to official and other persons in China” to help achieve the mission’s goals, and further U.S. interests in general. He called the memo “A Brief Account of the United States.”

Cushing’s memo was not the first attempt at American image control in China, of course. The American mercantile community was no stranger to keeping up particular (and peculiar) appearances at Canton. But Cushing’s mission in 1844 was the first instance of an official, organized, and duly deputized national self-presentation to China, and as such should be accorded a bit more weight. He represented more — at least to his countrymen — than the aggregate of a dozen mercantile houses.

More than a PR piece, though, what Cushing had written was, in effect, a snapshot of what he thought the U.S. was, or should be, refracted through some ideas about what he thought would appeal to the Chinese.

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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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