Sunday, February 16, 2014

Salem Letters: Quaker Rebecca Kinsman Ponders the Architecture of Macao, 1840s

Architecture and World History

World History Connected
University of Illinois Press

Rebecca Kinsman and the Architecture of Macao, 1843-1847
Kimberly Sayre Alexander, Ph.D.

            In the study of world history, architecture has a resonance that is often lost on scholars who work outside the haunts of the art historian.  Yet, the significance of the built environment should not be underestimated.  Considerations of structure and design have frequently influenced the nature and development of early global encounters.  These matters certainly predisposed the perceptions of those involved in first contacts, both those who traveled to “exotic” lands and those who received them.  Consider the classic example of global encounter, an indigenous peoples’ first impressions of visitors from abroad, seen in the architecture of the visitors’ ships.  In the Aztec empire, it was Cortes’s floating islands that so astonished Moctezuma’s people in 1519; in East Asia, it was Perry’s black ships that impressed the Japanese in 1853.  Likewise, the ways in which travelers described indigenous architecture often reveal underlying cultural values and assumptions.  Examination of both sets of impressions, focused on the built environment, sometimes remind us, too, that the sites in which encounters took place were neither indigenous or foreign, but rather a collage of places of cosmopolitan intermixture – clearly the case with Macao by the nineteenth century.
 Rebecca frequently provided detailed descriptions of the domestic, public and religious architecture she experienced in her travels throughout Macao. Seen through her Antebellum Western lens, she was clearly cognizant that her time in China marked an important episode in her life, and indeed, we know almost nothing about her after her return to the United States. Her letters and journal entries are significant on several counts: the majority of the sites she describes in this significant city, Macao, no longer survive; we have few accounts by women travelers and expatriates of the multinational architectural character of Macao during the 19th century (or any time for that matter), and finally, her writing is highly descriptive and largely without racial, ethnic or religious bias. While a handful of excerpts from her correspondence have been used in larger works, little attention has been paid to her writings on architecture, landscape and the experience of place.

Rebecca describes the burned out Baroque/Mannerist St. Paul’s Cathedral (constructed by the Jesuits from 1582-1602; elaborate carved stone fa├žade, 1620-1627), among many other sites, many long disappeared or altered.

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