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The Kinsmans: Love and Loss in Nineteenth-Century Macau

"I leave it for you to judge by your own feelings how utterly forlorn and desolate I felt last evening when I lost sight of the dwelling which contained my precious wife and children."

"Verandah of Nathan Kinsman's Residence in Macao," by Lam Qua, c. 1843. Courtesy of Martin Gregory Gallery.


The words that Nathaniel Kinsman hastily penned to his “dearly beloved Wife” aboard a fast boat that carried him against the current of the Pei-ho River, from Macao (Macau) to Canton (Guangzhou) in China, reveal how Americans experienced China in the nineteenth century. They are emblematic of stories that reveal the human side of the Old China Trade, and lie beneath the conventional narrative that regales in opium sales and opium wars, pirates and typhoons, and, of course, tea, porcelain and silk.

In my research into early American encounters in the East, I find it challenging to locate these tales of love and loss, but occasionally one turns up a special trove; such are the papers of Nathaniel and Rebecca Kinsman. Fortunately, I recently came across such a trove in Adam Matthew’s China, America and the Pacific papers, in which the written record for the Kinsman family is particularly strong and offers a rare glimpse into an early American household overseas.

After months of fraught family discussion, Rebecca Chase Kinsman (1810–1882) departed her homeport of Salem, Massachusetts on 5 July 1843 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. 

Letters from Nathaniel Kinsman to Rebecca Kinsman. © Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

To see this document in the collection, click on the image.

There is a faithful constancy that runs through the four years, correspondence, 1843-1847. Nathaniel writes to “My dearly beloved Wife”; Rebecca writes to her “beloved Husband.” He tells her of his “utterly forlorn and desolate” sense of loss from his “only true and dear friend” on his frequent trips to Canton; she tells him of “the petty details of my daily life.” He shares Bible readings and hopes that she had been reading the same passages. They just as frequently lament how little they think they have to convey. “I am most happy to have such frequent opportunity two forward letters to you,” Nathaniel pens on 1 November 1846. “My only regret is that they contain so little that can be of interest to you other than that they serve to convince you that my thoughts are always with my darling precious wife.” When he had to sail to Hong Kong: “I should pity a dog that felt more lonely and forlorn than I did when I was dressing. My gloomy room seemed like a prison.” And, always, Nathaniel inquires about the children. 

Nathaniel’s frequently expressed hope that Rebecca “and the darlings” were well and happy was not to be. In the summer of 1846, they sent six-year old Ecca, showing the woeful symptoms of tropical fever, home to Salem. Later that autumn, word came back that Ecca had died aboard ship, one month from home, some eight months after her departure. Rebecca recorded: “Yesterday the mournful tidings reached me of the departure of my loved—idolized child.” 

While the family dealt with their loss and made plans to return to Salem as Nathaniel’s term in Canton drew to a close, his condition worsened throughout the spring and was critical by April of 1847; he succumbed to what was termed pylorus on or about May 1 of that year. In one of her last missives from Macau, Rebecca wrote home, ‘I have just returned from my parting visit to the grave of my beloved husband--the dearest spot on earth to me. Tomorrow I expect to leave this place, endeared, I may almost say, sanctified to me by no small amount of suffering-- no common afflictions. … I have to get ready, both bodily and mentally, but am now near in readiness.” Rebecca was now thirty-seven, with three surviving children. Twenty years would elapse before she remarried.

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China, America and the Pacific: Trade & Cultural Exchange is available now. Contact info@amdigital.co.uk for more details or view a short video about the collection here.





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