J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

“He is no more a Mandarin than one of our shopkeepers”

Yesterday I noted Dael Norwood’s article about a Chinese businessman named Punqua Wingchong, who got special permission from Thomas Jefferson’s administration to sail home during the embargo. Jefferson’s critics complained that Punqua was just a front man for John Jacob Astor.

Punqua had come to the U.S. of A. on his own, however. In 1807 he arrived on Nantucket on the Favorite, accompanied by a servant. In The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, Frances Ruley Karttunen writes that the local diarist Keziah Fanning described him as: “a Chinaman that came with Mr. Whitney last fall from Canton. He is a merchant there. He is the color of our native whites.”

After Punqua’s return voyage in August 1808 became a political controversy, a New Yorker wrote to Secretary of State James Madison under the pseudonym “Columbus” to warn the administration that they had made a mistake:
Mr. Winchong who is represented as a China Mandarin I know well and knew him before he left Canton. He is no more a Mandarin than one of our shopkeepers is for that is his occupation. That he came away from China and must return by stealth I am sure of, as it is the only way a Chinese can visit a foreign country in a foreign vessel and Mr. Winchong has frequently told me that he came away from Canton without any Mandarin knowing it and he expected to return the same way, and I believe that should the Mandarines become acquainted with his visit to this country when he returns they would strip him of every cent he is worth. . . .

Since I left NewYork (my place of residence) on my Journey to this place I have had continual enquiries respecting the great Chinese Mandarin and I have in several instances related what I knew concerning him and I have just learnt that the Ship Beaver of near 500 Tons is permited to carry him and his property to Canton. This the Feds & Tories with a sneer observe is another proof of the wisdom of Mr. Jeffersons administration. I have sir now only to add that the Ship Beaver belongs to the bitterest opposers of the present administration and should they succeed with their tool Winchong in accomplishing their object they will laugh at those that granted the favor by way of showing their superior wisdom.

That Winchong does not possess 5000 Dollars in this country is my opinion for some time ago I recievd a letter from Mr. S. Whitney the gentleman that bro’t Winchong to this country stating that he wished me to be friendly to Winchong as he had not exceeding $500 Dollars with him and surely he ought to know. That Winchong holds notes of Shaw & Randall’s to a large amount and that he came to this country for the express purpose of collecting the same, is certain, but that House became bankrupts several years ago. Shaw is since dead and Randall with hard labour can scarcly support his indigent family. Therefore not a cent has been collected from them.

It would be cruel to the highest degree for any person to object to Mr. Winchong and the other chinese having permission to return to their native country but why is a ship of five hundred Tons necessary to carry them (and to return with a full Cargo). A small vessel certainly would be more expeditious (and particular at this season when they will have to take a circuitous and difficult route) and perhaps equally as comfortable.
By the time this letter reached the capital, Punqua’s ship had already sailed. But it points out some more connections between Punqua and Massachusetts.

When “Columbus” wrote, “the Ship Beaver belongs to the bitterest opposers of the present administration,” Norwood says he probably meant brothers James Perkins (shown above, courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum) and Thomas Handysyd Perkins, who were partners in that ship with Astor. The Perkinses were indeed Federalists—which is probably why they kept quiet and let Astor handle arrangements with his friends in the Jefferson administration.

Punqua’s “notes of Shaw & Randall’s” also have New England roots. Samuel Shaw had grown up in Boston and become an artillery officer during the Revolutionary War. He helped open the China Trade, first as supercargo on the Empress of China in 1784 and then as a trader and first American consul in Canton from 1786 to his death in 1794.

Thomas Randall’s background is harder to pin down, in part because there’s a prominent New York merchant of the same name. He was a lieutenant in the Continental artillery regiment as early as October 1775, when he was court-martialed for stabbing an enlisted man. (The panel recommended a reprimand.) In 1784 Shaw insisted that “Captain Randall, with whom he had formed an intimate friendship in the course of the American war, and who was as destitute of property and employment as himself, should be united with him and share with him the profits of the agency” in China.

That enterprise failed after Shaw’s death at the age of thirty-nine, and the notes Punqua hoped to collect on were worthless. No wonder he needed help to get back home.

TOMORROW: But what about his servant?

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