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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Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Servant Left Behind

I’ve been discussing the Chinese businessman Punqua Wingchong, who arrived in Nantucket in 1807 and left New York the following year under controversial conditions. When Punqua came to America, he traveled with a servant. What happened to that man?

According to Frances Ruley Karttunen’s The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, Punqua left his servant Quak Te behind on Nantucket. That man kept “a sleeping bag and a very large wardrobe,” and as of November 1809 still had over $40 in cash. But Quak Te evidently despaired of adjusting to life on the island or getting home, and he hung himself in his rented room.

The probate record referred to him as “Quak Te, of Nantucket, a Black man deceased.” Another record labeled him as “colored.” I wondered if that opened the possibility that Punqua’s servant was actually of African descent; Quaco is an Akan name meaning “male born on Wednesday,” and its derivative Quock was not an uncommon name for enslaved men in America.

However, Karttunen quotes an 1809 entry from the Nantucket Atheneum: “Quack Te a Chinese hung himself it is supposed.” I therefore conclude that the island authorities probably had so little experience with Asian men in 1809 that they didn’t know if “Chinaman” was a legal category. They knew Quak Te wasn’t white or Indian, so they classified him with Negroes. Some laws in the early republic required racial classification, but the boundaries of those classes were slippery.

As for Punqua Wingchong, he returned to his business in China despite the imperial laws forbidding him from traveling abroad. Then again, those laws barred him from trading with westerners outside the authorized area of Canton, and he did that in his shop anyway. Perhaps the Chinese authorities were willing to look the other way if he brought back useful information about the young U.S. of A.

Punqua Winchong kept up his good relations with America. He sent a thank-you letter to the new President, James Madison, and a gift for his wife, followed by two more letters over the next couple of years. In 1811, Punqua advertised his Canton shop in New York newspapers. Dael Norwood concludes that he was in America at that time, but I suspect he was still in China and had an agent place that ad targeting American sailors.

Punqua definitely returned to Nantucket in 1818; Karttunen reports his name is on a boarding-house register. That year the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany also reported:
A Chinese merchant, Punqua Wingchong, of Canton, was lately in New York. The Tuscarora natives, who saw him, were so struck with his physiognomy, that they insisted he was one of their people. They made earnest inquiry who he was, and were astonished on being told that he was a Chinese. Such is the physiognomonical resemblance of these races of Americans and Asiatics.
Other Americans recognized Punqua from the political controversy of the previous decade.

I don’t know if Punqua once again went home to China, or if there are any Chinese sources to fill out his life. But he and his servant exemplify the expanding international trade of the early nineteenth century.

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