James Flint

March 25, 2012 2:52 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

The story of translator and merchant James Flint, who became the first East India Company employee to command Chinese language and in 1759 tried to reach the Qing Emperor with a petition for better trade terms. He also helped introduce soya to North America.

  • Born in 1720.
  • Chennai, India 1739. We watch a few company bosses’ daily lives and get acquainted with the business, the importance of trade and translation. Brutality and accounting. They need to expand to China. Enter 19yo James, left as a teenager in China, first Westerner to learn Mandarin Chinese. Introductions. Opium production that needs to be pushed to China as a trading chip for the Middle Kingdom’s riches. They show him around the opulent properties and maharajah life as absolute masters of the world. He needs to work to expand trade up the Pearl River. He is a nobody in the company but extremely skilled in languages and very dedicated.
  • Macau/HK, 1741. Deeper Chinese studies. We follow James’ daily merchant life, translations, interactions with the local company bosses and local traders. He has no life outside of the company. The British are lagging behind French and Dutch and he is looking for a solution. It’s impossible to negotiate with the mandarins in Guangdong to allow trade. In 1757 after infighting between Canton and Ningbo lords, the Emperor closes Ningbo and allows trade only through Canton. Somehow an idea comes along to bypass the mandarins, reach the emperor in Beijing and negotiate with him. Laughable and impossible. But if anyone can do it, it’s James. He volunteers and is off to Ningbo, cursing the stupidity of Chinese obstruction, together with friend and colleague Samuel Bowen.
  • 1753. First petition written by Flint and a Chinese assistant, resulted in arrest orders for the author. It displayed a complete lack of knowledge of Chinese protocol and was clearly designed to benefit the Company. Same year, Flint received two students of Chinese language, Thomas Bevan and Barton, for trading expeditions up the coast of China to negotiate with local officials. The Chinese authorities did not look kindly on these expeditions. In 1757 an imperial Edict put an end to them and restricted foreign trade to the port of Guangzhou.
  • May 1759. James Flint once again left Canton and sailed north for Ningbo. The boat trip is dangerous and we see how the people overcome many difficulties to serve the Company.
  • Ningbo, 1759. James discusses his mission with local bosses. They try to talk him out of it / An army stops him and tells him to go back. He escapes and hires a local boatsman to take him to the port of Tianjin. It’s another perilous journey at sea against the elements.
  • Arriving at Tianjin, he starts looking for officials who can take him to the Emperor. Officially to complain about unpaid silver (actually a 7-point petition), but really to break the Canton-only trading rule. It’s laughable and they make him stay and wait. Power struggle and outsmarting each other. Stranger in a strange land. Governor-general of Zhili, whose jurisdiction extended over Tianjin, then undertook to report Flint’s complaint to Qianlong (Emperor).
  • Beijing. “This matter concerning a foreigner and the State must be thoroughly investigated in accordance with the clear laws of the Celestial Empire. The emperor went on to say that if Flint’s complaint turned out to be true, Li Yongbiao and the others responsible would be publicly executed.
  • Beijing police arrives in Tianjin and promptly arrests James and the boatsman. They are taken on another perilous journey, this time by land, to Guangdong via Fuzhou. The first foreigner to do so.
  • The General Commanding the Troops in Fuzhou (福州将军), Xin Zhu (新柱), hurried to Guangdong to conduct the investigation. There, he and Qianlong’s chosen official arrested Li Yongbiao and Li Shiyao then confronted them with Flint’s complaint, which listed seven grievances.
  • When the High Commissioner was dispatched to Canton to investigate the Hoppo’s alleged misconduct, his subsequent investigation confirmed that the complaints were largely justified.
  • Meanwhile, the Chesterfield goes to Ningbo to try once again to trade. This raises the Emperor’s suspicion that Flint’s complaint and trade attempts outside of Canton are connected.
  • After deciding that Li Youngbiao had been blackmailed by his relatives, Qianlong stripped him of his position and sent him into exile.
  • Flint’s complaint was written in association with Chinese “scoundrels” – Liu Yabian (document author) was publicly executed as an object lesson in what would happen to Chinese citizens who aided “barbarians”. Despite Lin Huan’s (document editor) remote location, Qianlong secured his return to face punishment and he too was executed.
  • They summarily execute the boatsman and imprison James for 3 years in Macao, by order of the Emperor. Casa Bianca, near Macao, where he was imprisoned, but pretty well treated, though all correspondence was cut off. Thereafter he would be deported from China and banished from the country forever.
  • Bowen’s confinement in China as a prisoner lasted nearly four years, during which time, according to his own statements, he was ‘carried two thousand miles from place to place, through the interior parts thereof.’ From Macao near Canton where Bowen was located, a distance of 2,000 miles into the interior of China would range as far westward
  • as into the Himalayas and Tibet, Mongolia and the Gobi, and northerly beyond K’ien-lung’s capital, Pekin, into Manchuria. Documents in ‘The Case of Samuel Bowen’ stated that the length of time and distance of his travel during his imprisonment in China ‘gave him both leisure and opportunity to consider the improvements and manner of living, of that wise and industrious People.’
  • In dealing with the seven specific complaints in Flint’s petition, the Qing court outlawed the multiple forms of extortion in the form of gifts from merchants to officials known as guīlǐ (规礼) or “customary charges”; Chinese merchants owing the foreign traders silver would be pressured to pay; taxes due on the provisions aboard a foreign ship on departure would be abolished and the system of Chinese merchants standing surety for visiting traders would remain.
  • on 24 December 1759 the Qing Court proclaimed the “Vigilance Towards Foreign Barbarian Regulations” (Fángfàn wàiyí guītiáo, 防范外夷规条), also known as the (Fáng yí wŭ shì, 防夷五事, literally, “Five counter-measures against the barbarians”), which amongst other things forbade foreign trade in the winter and forced western merchants to live in the Thirteen Factories.
  • Had it so wished, the East India Company could have secured Flint’s release on payment of a sum equal to $1,250 today; they chose not to do so since it might encourage further exactions on the part of Chinese officials.
  • By 1790 the Company, which had never seen any utility in studying Chinese culture, and only limited utility in learning the language, had become openly hostile to the training of em- ployees as interpreters. For a generation, the East India Company operated with- out cultural intermediaries in China. Until 1792 and MacCartney’s delegation.
  • An even more drastic consequence of Flint’s diplomatic blunder and lack of understanding of Chi- nese culture was the execution of the Chinese person accused oftranscribing Flint’s petition, which failed, among other things, to respect the elaborate stylistics of Chinese imperial protocol. As a result, all Chinese people were forbidden to act as scribes or teachers for foreigners.
  • November 1762. After Flint’s release he was taken to Whampoa where he boarded the Company ship Horsenden bound for England. In total, he earned £8,500 (£1.5M in 2017) from 1760–66, £6,500 of which was from commission as a supercargo and £2,000 for “hardships suffered” including his imprisonment for three years between December 1759 and November 1762.
  • James moves to North America to visit a friend and brings soya seeds to the continent for the first time. Soy and sago–Stolen secrets of Old China Brought to English Colonial America.
  • Left China forever in 1762, after being released.
  • 1764. Flint teamed up with fellow former East India Company employee Samuel Bowen (wife Jane Bowen), whom he had met on board the Company ship Success back in 1759, to introduce the soybean to North America. Bowen, possibly with funding from Flint, acquired land in Georgia (Greenwich Plantation) where he produced soy sauce and soy vermicelli noodles. In January 1770, Flint corresponded with noted U.S. statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin (they lived in London at the time) on the subject of how the Chinese converted callivances (soybeans) into tofu. This is believed to be the first use of the word “tofu” in the English language. Bonaventure Cemetery established on the grounds of Greenwich Plantation in 1846. Bowen, Samuel RWS-Elbert Co., GA
  • Close friend Bowen named his first son Samuel Flint Bowen (1769, married Martha) and his second son James Flint Bowen (1770, married Elizabeth). He also had a daughter, Elizabeth Ann (1766–1816)
  • Samuel Bowen (b. 1732 Lincolnshire, England, d. 30.12.1777 in London, married Jane “Jeanie” Spencer (1744–1781) on 30 March 1765 in Savannah) was a Savannah planter, who owned Gennwich Plantation at what is now Bonaventure Cemetery.

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