Business and Labor

Harriet Low Enters a Forbidden City During the China Trade

Harriet Low, a 21-year-old Puritan from Salem, Mass., tried to topple the barriers to American women in Canton, China. Canton, the epicenter of the China trade in 1830, barred all foreign women from the trading port.

But Harriet and her aunt stole into the city dressed as boys. They caused a considerable ruckus with their three-week challenge to the Chinese authorities.

Harriet Low, painting by George Chinnery, 1833.

Harriet Low, painting by George Chinnery, 1833.

It was an improbable adventure for a young Puritan from the dull and provincial town of Salem. We know it happened, though, from Harriet’s 947-page diary chronicling her years in Asia from 1829-34. The diary, now held by the Library of Congress, provides a fascinating glimpse into the China trade in the age of sail.

China Trade

America launched its China trade at the end of the Revolutionary War on Feb. 22, 1784. The Empress of China left New York Harbor for Canton that day. Soon, American seamen in small, fast ships were competing with the established European traders.

Chinese merchants wanted bullion from America, as well as ginseng and furs. In exchange, Americans brought back tea, porcelain, silk and other luxury goods.

The fortunes built during the China trade still prop up some of America’ s most prominent families. Politicians such as former Secretary of State John Kerry and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had ancestors tied to the China Trade. So did New York Mayor Seth Low – Harriet Low’s nephew.

The China trade was essential to the commercial expansion of the young United States. In its early years, it generated capital to bolster the new nation’s industry and infrastructure. Later, clipper ships and the transcontinental railroad developed to speed travel between China and America.

The Hongs of Canton

Americans, like all foreign traders, were restricted in their trading activities to one section outside the walls of one city – Canton. There, 13 factories, or hongs, served as trading posts, warehouses and living quarters for foreigners. The foreign trade area was called the Thirteen Factory System or the Golden Ghetto.

Empress of China

Empress of China

Harriet Low came to China for a simple enough reason. She was the daughter of shipping merchant Seth Low. In 1829, her uncle William Henry Low and his sickly wife Abigail planned to move to China for five years on business. They asked Harriet to accompany Abigail. William would manage business in Canton for one of the great American trading companies, Russell & Company. Harriet would keep Abigail company in Macau, a Portuguese colony 60 miles and several days away.

The Chinese banned women from Canton to discourage permanent colonies. Without wives, sisters and daughters, foreigners would do their trading and then leave. They’d then make room for another group of ‘dissatisfied bachelors.’  The dissatisfied bachelors, however, wanted to change this rule, and Harriet and her aunt became part of their plan.

A Bewildering Change

Harriet’s daughter Katharine in 1900 printed an abridged version of her mother’s 947-page diary titled My Mother’s Journal: A young lady’s diary of five years spent in Manila, Macau, and the Cape of Good Hope from 1829-1834. Katharine Hillard introduces us to her mother’s adventures by observing,

It must have been a bewildering change at first from the quiet and rather Puritanical regime of home … to the ceaseless round of dinners, balls and Sunday visiting in Macau, from being one of the many superfluous females in Massachusetts to occupying the dazzling and somewhat hazardous position of the only “spinster” where men were so numerous and for much of the time so unoccupied.

In Macau, Harriet and her aunt lived in a fine house with a garden atop a hill. At first they were confined to the property because their sedan chairs weren’t ready. Soon, however, Harriet was out visiting – but never unaccompanied. She records her surprise that Chinese junks had eyes painted on the bows so the boats could see, and her shock at the sight of Chinese women walking easily on bound feet, “with little canes.”

Though she enjoyed the formal and luxurious society of mostly English expatriates, she began to resent the gilded cage of Macao. “I could not help audibly wishing that I was a man, that I could take up my bundle and go where I please,” she wrote. When an English acquaintance, Mrs. Baynes, left in February 1830 with her three children for Canton – ostensibly because her husband was ill there – Harriet decided she wanted to go, too. She eagerly waited to hear if Mrs. Baynes would be allowed to stay. Mrs. Baynes did stay.

A Hundred Armed Sailors

Chinese painting of the factories at Canton, 1820.

Chinese painting of the factories at Canton, 1820.

On Oct 27, 1830, Harriet wrote, “We are still in Macao, and, for all that we can see at present, here we are likely to be; for the Chinese are making a great fuss about us poor harmless Fanquis (foreign devils) and say, and persist in saying, that “that lady” (meaning Mrs. Baynes) “must got down,” but “that lady” is very obstinate, and will not go. They have threatened to send soldiers to take her away, upon which Mr. B. has had up a hundred armed sailors from the ships, and anon placed at the gate of the factory. For the last fortnight we have been in a great state of excitement, but it is thought generally that it will blow over, and though the Chinese will never consent to ladies going to Canton, that they will wink at it.”

Perhaps influenced by the British woman’s ability to stay in Canton, Harriet’s uncle agreed to let her and Abigail follow. The British were a bigger presence in Canton than the Americans by a factor of six.  Americans wanted to be treated equally, and Harriet wrote that ‘everyone’ urged her uncle to take them to Canton.

A Sister Lends a Hand

It was a young Chinese woman who gave Harriet Low a helping hand in escaping the restrictions of Macau.

On Nov. 5, Harriet and Abigail tried to board a little brig called the Terrier, but the Chinese men refused to give them any help.

“Except,” she wrote, “one boat-girl, more courageous than the rest, who lent us a board to step on as we got into the boat, for which she was liberally rewarded with a dollar.”

They sailed up the river by moonlight, and Harriet stayed up on deck admiring the pagodas and the endless variety of boats, “thousands and thousands at rest in a small space… The tea-boats are immense, and ranged along in such order that they form complete streets upon the water. There are also houses built upon boats, and forming streets.”

The two women wore velvet caps and cloaks to disguise themselves as boys. Once ashore, they walked directly to the American factory, a series of houses built one in back of the other with a passage under the house.

Visiting Dissatisfied Bachelors

Harriet and Abigail managed to stay in Canton for three weeks, though they were discovered quickly. The mandarins told them trade would stop with Russell & Company “if one Low did not immediately remove his family to Macao.”  Harriet felt they had to leave rather than hurt her uncle’s business.

But before they left, Harriet and her aunt took a walk in front of the factories on a ‘delightful moonshiney night.’ They were discovered to be Fanquis. “Lights were called for, that the Chinese could look at us,” she wrote. “They kindled up fires in an instant to behold our fair faces, and we had quite a rabble around us before we reached the front of the factories again, though they were all perfectly civil, and made no noise, but only showed a little curiosity.”

The women also visited some of the ‘dissatisfied bachelors’ in Canton. “You have no idea how elegantly these bachelors live here,” Harriet reported. “I don’t wonder they like it.”

Harriet, on the one hand, was happy to leave Canton, as she and her aunt weren’t feeling well. On the other hand, she resented being told what to do by the Chinese. “They will not allow any innovation upon ‘old custom,’ and will ding those words into your ears forever if it is not for their interest to violate it,” she wrote. She thought it unfair that Mrs. Baynes was allowed to stay, but she, too, left Canton soon after; her husband was called back to England by the East India Company.

Back Home

Harriet Low left Macau in 1833 after a thwarted romance with William Wightman Wood, a young naturalist from Philadelphia. He founded and edited the Canton Register, one of the first English-language newspapers in China. Her uncle called him a ‘penniless adventurer’ and made her break off the engagement.

She returned to Salem in 1834. In 1836 she married John Hillard, a Richmond, Va., native who had English parents. They had five girls and three boys; only the girls lived to adulthood. The Hillards moved to London, where John worked for a large bank until it failed. Unstable and sick, John Hillard could no longer work, and died in 1859. Harriet Low Hillard was supported by her wealthy family until she died in 1877. A bronze drinking fountain commissioned by her granddaughter and dedicated to Harriet Low Hillard stands in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

This story was updated in 2021.

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