Wu Ping-Chien, known as Houqua, lived from 1769 to 1843. As the preeminent hong merchant he amassed one of the greatest fortunes of the early 19th century. Worth $26,000,000 in 1830, he invested in American railroads and other new technology. Renowned in the West, his wax figure was exhibited at Madame Tussaud’s in London and a clipper ship was named after him.

Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Multiculturalism Boston Brahmin Style: A History Lesson

May 14, 2017

Boston and China is an old and complicated story from which there are still lessons to learn. The story comes down to us from the legendary Brahmins of more than a century ago now, whose legacy we still benefit from, and sometimes not, but whose perspective was global – world-open might be a better term – long before that was true of most Americans. 

I've written before of "a speaking aristocracy to a listening democracy." It's a phrase inspired by Perry Miller of Harvard's seminal work on 17th and 18th century Puritans. It characterizes the relationship of their descendants, Boston's 19th-century Yankee Unitarian Brahmins, to the city's middle and lower classes, whether native Yankee Protestants, or Catholic Irish or Italian or Jewish immigrants. It is no mere regional tale: Boston's Brahmins were, so Notre Dame historian James Turner tells us, "the closest thing to an American aristocracy." Anglophiles all, they are widely assumed today to have been most strongly influenced by their British heritage. They were. But it is also a fact that Asia as much as Europe shaped their thinking and our legacy, clearly reflected in the Brahmin Ascendancy, the period from the early 19th century to the early 20th century during which they functioned as Boston's ruling class. 

In New England one occasionally encounters the descendants of Brahmins. Their decline and fall as a ruling caste came in the 1920s when they lost "the mandate of Heaven" (meaning the moral high ground, as the Chinese emperors used to say when a dynasty fell) – the Boston equivalent having been when the Brahmin trio charged by Massachusetts governor to affirm or deny the death sentence in the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, led by Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, came down on the wrong side and supported the death penalty for the pair of Italian anarchists that protesters all over the Western world were sure had not had a fair trial. 

Sometimes one even encounters a throwback, it almost seems, in the case of Brahmin descendants who conspicuously adhere to the old values of the caste, people like Eliot Richardson, the man who resigned rather than carry out President Nixon's designs in the Watergate scandal. Another such, in a much quieter way, was Henry Ashton Crosby Forbes. It was my friendship with "Croz," as his friends called him, that introduced me to the often obscured Asian roots of Boston's old Brahmin culture. 

A born aristocrat who could charm donors out of their most prized heirlooms for Boston's Museum of the China Trade, which he founded, Crosby later became the curator of the East Asian collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. He inherited from his banker father, the legendary Allan Forbes, a love for history, reflected in his father's case by a whole series of distinguished historical booklets over the years and a fine clipper ship model collection, in both cases under the auspices of the State Street Bank and Trust Company, of which Allan Forbes was president. Yet when I asked Crosby once who it was who had most strongly influenced his life and work, expecting him to cite his father, the effective founder of what is now called the State Street Corporation --Boston's foremost bank today and the largest custodian of private wealth in the world -- his son's reply quite startled me: "Houqua," he said, responding to my surprise -- I had never heard of the man -- by sending me a few days later a poem so titled, a verse of which follows: 

You are an intrinsic part of that 

Which, pieced together, forms America; 

The essence of the China Trade, 

Which helped make Boston what it was and is, 

And more than one Bostonian rich. 

Something in-grained, deep-seated, inbred; 

. . . qualities which all who met you 

Took away with them, inspired, 

Disciples to spread your example. 

No man who ever knew you 

Was not a greater one for that acquaintance. 

No one will be surprised to learn that Crosby Forbes wrote this verse as a young lad in prep school. But a half century later, in the 1990s, having gracefully survived the experience of wife and children and a career of very demanding scholarship, and also the trauma, as it must have been, of having served in the World War II with Japan as a naval officer, he had not changed his mind and was eager to declaim his verse in a Commonwealth Avenue drawing room where he clearly still felt the tug of his boyhood hero. Houqua, clearly, was somebody I needed to know about." There was the obvious fact that many of Boston's great institutions had been founded and developed with fortunes made in China. No one made more money there than John Murray Forbes, Crosby's great uncle, for instance, who was on he first Finance Committee of MIT in the 1860s, when its first buildings arose in Copley Square. And no one, I was to learn, was closer to Houqua. But what did Crosby mean by "something in-grained, deep seated, inbred?" Why did he see himself and others as "disciples to spread [Houqua's] example?" 

The Boston end of the China Trade was dominated by Perkins and Company, presided over by Thomas Handasyd Perkins -- himself a sort of mixed blessing, on the one hand a generous civic benefactor (virtually the founder of the Boston Athenaeum) but on the other a determined slave trader in the West Indies -- and by Russell and Company, a New York based firm but dominated by Crosby's great grand father, Robert Bennet Forbes, a splendid man by all accounts, who first went to sea at 13 and captained his own ship to China at 19, and by his brother John Murray Forbes, who excelled at the mercantile life. About Perkins' morality there is a definite doubt; about his sagacity none at all. On his only trip to China he observed carefully the culture he proposed to engage, prompting historian John R. Haddad to observe drolly: "However, the watcher was being watched, by a young Chinese clerk... Houqua." 

Then, as now, a rigidly ethnocentric culture, the Chinese Emperor only very reluctantly sanctioned trade contacts with the West, restricting such "barbarians" and "foreign devils" as sought to enter China to one port -- Canton -- and to compounds within the same to which they were restricted, their activities coordinated by a select group of merchants. Certainly Americans were no less racist in their attitude from the other direction. It was not expected to be an amicable experience on either side. Another historian of the China Trade, John Wong, in his definitive Global Trade in the 19th-Century: The House of Houqua and the Canton System, relates how as the years went by it came to be that one merchant in particular, Houqua, created a "trading network that stretched from China to India to America and Britain." Wong also noted as Robert Bennet Forbes and John Murray Forbes and Thomas Tunno Forbes came to the fore on the American side -- which Houqua distinctly favored as more easy to deal with than the rather imperious British -- 'the Forbes' maintained the most intimate and lasting relationship with Houqua." In consequence, writes Wong, "within the trading network Houqua had developed, the Forbes held a special place." 

How this came about is at the heart of the story. Scholars of the China Trade point to Houqua's "extraordinary ability to balance his interests with those of his partners from America, England and other parts of the world" in the absence "of a universal standard unit of account or a commonly accepted international court of law to validate disputes." Robert Bennet Forbes believed Houqua's success -- he was widely thought to be at his height in the early 19th century to be the richest man in the world -- derived from the fact that he had an unusually "comprehensive mind, and united the qualities of of an enterprising merchant and a sagacious politician." But it went deeper than that. Haddad again: "Houqua's leadership was informed by his Confucian world view, which prized stability above all else," a view reinforced by his "nervous temperament. . .  .Houqua suffered from chronic anxiety attacks and any undue stress made him sick." Probably carefully chosen, certainly carefully chosen, the men the Perkins and Russell firms stationed permanently in Canton to conduct their trade with China soon discovered that, "after all, the world views of the Confucian merchant and the Yankee trader, though different in nearly all respects, overlapped in one area: both prized harmony." The result, Haddad declared, in his America's First Adventure in China was "an unbreakable bond of friendship, loyalty and shared economic interest." 

What was even more astonishing was that despite the rigid morality and probity and, consequent superiority complex that was second nature to Boston's Brahmins (who was it who said the Brahmins chief role in any situation was to judge?) Houqua increasingly came to be seen by them as their moral equal, even their moral tutor. In striking contrast to the increasing unwillingness of Brahmin Bostonians in the late 19th century to tolerate, much less adapt to, the business practices of the New York's' robber barons,' even when it meant financial loss, Crosby Forbes poem makes plain Boston's aristocrats were affirmed and edified as well as enriched by Houqua, even uplifted. Crosby uses the word "inspired". They accepted Houqua as an equal. In his poem, Crosby speaks of the Chinese merchants "scrupulous honesty," even of his "infinite generosity which knew no bounds," qualities which Cosby believed were what everyone who encountered Houqua "took away with them, . . . Disciples to spread your example." 

The point was these virtues were really religious principles according to both the Confucian and Brahmin codes. Brahmins, indeed, are often called "secular Puritans." They would not give way to robber barons, but they embraced, and even learned from, Houqua. Significantly, the Jewish Boston Brahmins who succeeded the Yankee Boston Brahmins by the early 20th century shared this perspective. The greatest of them, Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, was not originally a Zionist. But he became one because he was a fervent admirer of the Boston Brahmin moral code and Brandeis more and more saw the modern Jewish settlement of Israel as akin to the old Puritan settlement of New England . 

Specific examples of Hoqua's characteristic mode of behavior, or anecdotes attesting to it, are hard to find. One example widely talked of was when an American trader, Gordon Nye, decided the China Trade was not for him and began to work towards leaving China and returning home, constrained however by a large debt to Houqua, usually given as $72,000.00. Hearing of this situation, Houqua sought Nye out: "You and I are number one ole flen [meaning old friends; Houqua though a man of wide culture, spoke only very indifferent English] you belong honest man, only got no chance." Houqua then proceeded, then and there, to tear up the note. "Alla finished; you go, you please.Wish you good luck." One begins to understand why Wong insists the "bonds of trust between Houqua and his partners, in particular . . . the Forbes brothers, endured the test of the most trying times." None were more trying than the Opium Wars. 

The China Trade has always been shadowed by those wars. There was an undeniable connection to opium smuggling into China by many Western merchants, American as well as British, and it by no means excluded Boston Brahmins. Where was the morality suddenly? Crosby Forbes dealt well with this issue in behalf of Robert Bennet Forbes. Raising the question of whether or not "addiction to cigarettes currently sold [today] by American manufacturers at home and abroad, is a far more serious cause of illness and death than opium ever was." Crosby used to observe that his great grandfather was "otherwise [my emphasis] a decent. kind and generous individual", concluding that the situation "reminds us not only that the sensibility of each age differs, but also that there is ample opportunity to judge our own age with candor." The fact is that Robert Bennet Forbes shared the general view of his culture and his era that opium was neither more nor less addictive than or harmful than alcohol. This was an age in which opium, though illegal in China, was not only entirely legal in the west, As laudanum, for example, it was a widely used pain killer and anxiety suppressant thought to be medically beneficial and often prescribed then (and sometimes even now) by physicians. 

More interesting is the view of Houqua, who certainly knew that behind the legal trading in tea and spices, there was always opium. He disapproved of the fact. However, about this Wong observes: "One cannot be certain if Houqua's dislike of the opium because the selling of opium offended his sense of morality or because it underscored his anxities about the repeated official condemnation of his inability to suppress the trade . . . . Houqua appeared to have adopted a pragmatic approach . . . with respect to the opium trade, which was all but impossible for him to eradicate." 

That said, I have always felt how telling was Robert Bennett Forbes own witness: "I am aware that Houqua . . . never liked the flavor of opium," Forbes remembered: "one day when I was gossiping with Houqua, he said, referring to the three Forbes -- Tho', John and myself . . . 'Inside three brothers have got only one bad man.' That was an allusion to me as having had [ie.,captained] the opium ship." One sees here Houqua's very clear judgment – "bad" – allied to his unfailing respect for another culture's different point of view, just the sort of combination of honesty and diplomacy Houqua was famous for. 

No wonder Crosby Forbes dream was to erect on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall a statue of the great merchant prince of Canton just opposite John Murray Forbes town house, scene of boyhood Sunday dinners, with its second floor Chinese Parlor (now incorporated into the Robert Bennet Forbes House in Milton) with its portrait of Houqua, which Roy Bongartz, writing in The New York Times, once got quite carried away with, describing "the soft, penetrating eyes in the ascetic face, with its wispy beard and not quite smile" . . . . smile of he who was, in the words of Crosby's poem, "an intrinsic part of that, / Which, pieced together, forms America; / The essence of the China Trade. / Which helped make Boston what it was and is." Alas, Crosby would point out, the statue was unlikely to happen. There were no other statues of Asians in Boston. There still are not.

Douglass Shand-Tucci's latest books are "MIT: An Historical and Architectural Guide", and a new edition of "The Art of Scandal" with a new chapter about Isabella Stewart Gardner's relationship with John Singer Sargent and, in turn, the relationship of both with Thomas E. McKeller, a black bell hop at Boston's Hotel Vendome, whose portrait by Sargent is one of the greatest nudes in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. 

WGBH News is supported by:
Back to top