Business and Labor

Harriet Low Makes Some Fun With a Duel That Didn’t Happen

Harriet Low left out an important detail in her April 30, 1832 diary entry about a duel that almost happened: She was in love with one of the duellists.

Canton in the 1850s

Canton in the 1850s

She was a 22-year-old native of Salem, Mass., living in the Portuguese colony of Macao. She was keeping her aunt Abigail Low company while her uncle, William Low, tended to the China trade in Canton about 60 miles away. William W. Wood, the son of well-known Philadelphia actors, was her uncle's secretary. Wood had edited one of the first English-speaking newspaper in China, The Canton Register. The publication criticized the predatory East India Company and the strict rules of the Chinese authorities. It didn't sit well with the East India Company and Wood was forced to resign. He later started the Courier, which is when he fell in love with Harriet Low.

Harriet agreed to marry him, but her uncle would have none of it. He forbade her to marry the 'penniless adventurer,' and she broke it off. William Wood never married.

On April 30, 1732, Harriet Low wrote:

A melancholy affair I heard of the other day has just been made public, and what do you think was very near taking place? A duel, yes, a duel in China, in this little family, as it were. The two unhappy editors [Mr. W., of the Courier, and Mr. K., of the Register, both of Canton.--Ed) have been sparring for a long time. It was begun by the Register, and the Courier, having all the ability and talent on his side, was able to drive the Register completely from his ground. The latter (finding he was nearly beaten in argument) thought to put the other down by treating him with "silent contempt," upon which the editor of the Courier made some remarks which caused Mr. K. to call on Mr. W. and demand an apology, which Mr. W. refused to make unless Mr. K. would do the same to him; but no, nothing would do but an "unqualified apology." Whereupon, having refused this, Mr. W. received, and immediately accepted, a challenge, and, as his privilege, appointed time and place. Mr. K. made divers objections to fighting in Canton, and finally went off to Lintin, where he has stayed till this time, and Mr. W. is honorably exonerated from the duel. Everybody says that he has behaved like a gentleman, and Mr. K. has not. Much as I hate duelling, and much as I think it should be shamed an put down, I do think there are some cases in which a man must fight, in the present state of society. This is the talk of the place now, as you may suppose. As it did not end seriously, it makes some fun.

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