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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Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Return of Punqua Wingchong

The Readex Report just published a very intriguing article by Dael Norwood about a political controversy in 1808. President Thomas Jefferson had imposed an embargo on American trade as a way to keep the country’s ships from being caught up in the wars between Britain and Napoleon’s France. But he made a special exception for one of John Jacob Astor‘s ships bound for China so that it could return a Chinese businessman who would otherwise be stranded in America.

But who was the man called Punqua Wingchong, who had come to Washington asking to be allowed to sail home? Norwood writes:
The terms used to refer to Punqua lay at the crux of the matter: was he a mere shopkeeper, an important merchant, or a powerful mandarin? In his letter of introduction, Senator Samuel L. Mitchill proclaimed Punqua a “Chinese merchant,” a term that implied both means and gravitas—but no diplomatic status. Secretary of the Treasury [Albert] Gallatin used the same construction in his orders authorizing the Port of New York to allow the Beaver’s voyage to proceed. Jefferson, however, promoted Punqua, naming him a “mandarin”—an official of the Qing Empire. It was the exalted rank bestowed by Jefferson that public supporters and critics alike picked up on when the Beaver’s voyage became more widely known.
Many of those critics and subsequent historians said Astor was behind Punqua’s petition to President Jefferson, grabbing an excuse to send a ship to China when everyone else was stuck on domestic voyages. Astor’s Beaver sailed with large amounts of specie, said to belong to Punqua, and Astor reportedly netted £200,000 after it returned with Chinese goods.

Perhaps Astor (shown above) was sincerely trying to help a fellow immigrant. He himself had been born in Germany, emigrated to Britain, and arrived in New York in 1784 as a flute salesman. But if he could make incredible profits while doing that good deed, Astor would have been all the happier.

TOMORROW: The Massachusetts connections.

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