Thursday, July 18, 2013

From Salem to Macao: The Letters of Rebecca Kinsman in China, 1843-1847

Rebecca Chase Kinsman, c. 1840s
Charles Osgood
Courtesy, Peabody Essex Museum

In Our Own Words: New England Diaries, 1600 to the Present, Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings, (Boston: Boston University, 2009): 102-113        
How plainly I can see those dear County Street parlors as thee describes them, and oh!  How inexpressible are my longings to look in upon them and their dear inmates . . . the ties that bind us to home, are very strong and not easily severed.

— Rebecca to “My best beloved Friend,” Macao, Thursday, 7 March 1844 

In July 1843, Rebecca Chase Kinsman (1810–1882) departed her home port of Salem, Massachusetts for Macao and Canton, China, with her husband, Nathaniel Kinsman (1798–1847), and two of their three children, Nattie and Ecca.  Nathaniel was taking up a position in Canton with the trading house of Wetmore and Company, and the couple had made the decision—unusual in antebellum America—to travel together to what was then an exotic and strange world.  Indeed, the diaries and letters shared between the couple offer a rare glimpse into an early American household that challenges conventional interpretations.
The pillared verandah where the Kinsmans spent many hours during their time in China
Courtesy, Martyn Gregory
The written record for the Kinsman family is particularly strong.  Not only have a decade of letters between husband and wife and their respective families survived, but also household receipts, diaries, and Nathaniel’s ship logs are among the rich collection housed at the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, the Schlesinger Library, the Smith College Library and in private hands. However, in order to place the family’s personal and professional lives in a larger antebellum New England context, this article will focus on Rebecca’s diary entries, in contrast to her letters, providing a special opportunity to investigate the issue of the domestic lives of early American women travelers and expatriates.

Rebecca used her diary in a number of ways and was clearly cognizant that her travel to China marked an important episode in her life: indeed, after her return to the United States, it is exceedingly difficult to unearth any subsequent information about her.  She used her diary to record her experiences in Macao, Canton and Manila, and on her voyages to and from China; as a day book tracking household expenses; as a place to record her detailed observations and her daily frustrations with not only the management of a household staff whose language she did not understand, but also a medium to vent the longing for her “dear absent hubby;” a place where she recorded what she was currently reading, what letters and packages have been received (or not) from home and her thoughts on the local denizens: dress, habits and so on, as well as her reactions to sermons and visits, social events, and walks.  When compared to her letters home (detailed and chatty, but also reflecting homesickness and concern over the current divisive nature of Quaker meeting, local politics, and health of absent friends) or her letters to Nathaniel (she was more open in these regarding daily struggles and concerns for his health and well-being of their children), her diary operates in a middle arena.  It is sporadic commentary which “spikes” for important events and trails off when life is “routine” in Macao or Canton.

Chinese dignitary & attendants
From c. 1840s view
Collection of author
The letters and diaries shared between Rebecca and Nathaniel offer a rare glimpse into an early American household that challenges conventional interpretations.  They reveal Nathaniel as a sensitive, romantic figure, who was ill at ease in the public sphere of business and who sought solace in the private sphere of family, while Rebecca, on the other hand, was the stronger partner, supervising a household of Chinese servants, arranging travel, and even organizing a reception for visiting Plenipotentiary Caleb Cushing in 1844 for the signing of the first trade treaty between China and America.

This article is part of a larger study of the Kinsman family in China, situated within two strains of recent historiography—family history and travel narratives.  A number of studies have examined marriage in the new nation, most recently Anya Jabour’s Marriage in the Early Republic: Elizabeth and William Wirt and the Companionate Ideal (1998) and Timothy Kenslea’s The Sedgwicks in Love: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage in the Early Republic (2005).  Over the last decade historians have focused on travel narratives of both men and women.  However, this exploration into the lives of the Kinsmans provides an unparalleled opportunity to marry both themes—investigating travel narratives and domestic life simultaneously and placing them within the context of an antebellum New England family and their experiences abroad.

Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D.
History Department
University of New Hampshire

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.