James Flint

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

This is 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.

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James Flint was adopted at an early age by the East India Company in 1736, trained in Chinese language and enlisted as staff translator in 1746. His skills brought independence from the Portuguese hosts in Macau and the Chinese translators in Guangdong.

It was a time of mistrust and corruption, when the company tried to expand its operations in the Middle Kingdom, in order to import tea to England. But it was at the mercy of the Cohong, a syndicate at the Pearl River Delta, the only gateway to China. Other routes further East were forbidden for Westerners. The Celestial Empire was proudly self-sufficient and considered the British a nuisance. The officials in charge were the Mandarins (local feudal rulers), viceroy and governor of Guangdong province Li Shiyao and general Xin Zhu, commander of the troops in Fuzhou.

By the 1750s, the Company had reached supremacy in India and expanded rapidly. Half of the ships approaching Guangdong were British. They were subjected to inspections and were not free to dock anywhere except Whampoa (Huangpu, upriver near Guangzhou), where they had to wait for permission to trade and had to follow strict regulations. The company tried to exploit other means of access to the Chinese market, but were sent away. Samuel Bowen arrived from England to join Flint in the company and in 1759 they boarded the Success and set off to Ningbo, where the delegation was sent away once again. Instead of returning to Macau, they commissioned a Chinese guide and sailed north to Tianjin, in the vicinity of the Forbidden City. They were hoping to deliver a 7-point petition of grievances to the Emperor. Together with a couple of Chinese accomplices, Flint had worked on this petition for 5 years. It listed a complaint that the merchant Li Guanghua hadn’t paid  back loaned silver and requested better trading conditions.

The petition’s writing style was crude and, along with the bad etiquette, made a diplomatic scandal. The document was taken by the governor-general of Zhili to Emperor Qianlong (the Qing Emperor), who admitted it had some merit and ordered an investigation. The General Commanding the Troops in Fuzhou, Xin Zhu, promptly arrested Li Yongbiao, the Guangdong Customs Supervisor. Meanwhile, another British ship, the Chesterfield, tried to bypass the trading ban in Ningbo and news quickly reached Beijing. The Emperor suspected foul play and ordered the arrest of Flint and Bowen. Flint was escorted overland to Macau (first Westerner to do so), where he was imprisoned for 3 years. His Chinese guide was executed. The co-authors of Flint’s petition, Liu Yabian and Lin Huan also received death sentences. It became clear that Li Yongbiao had been blackmailed into corruption by his family and was stripped of his position and banished. Samuel Bowen was exiled and taken to many corners of China, where he used his time to learn about local agriculture.

Beijing outlawed the multiple forms of extortion in the form of gifts from merchants to officials, made Chinese officials return the silver owed to the Company and introduced a set of rules for dealing with Westerners, known as the Vigilance Towards Foreign Barbarian Regulations:

  1. Trade by “foreign barbarians” in Guangdong is prohibited during the winter.
  2. “Foreign barbarians” coming to the city must reside in the foreign factories under the supervision and control of the Cohong.
  3. Chinese citizens are barred from borrowing capital from “foreign barbarians” and from employment by them.
  4. Chinese citizens must not attempt to gain information on the current market situation from “foreign barbarians”
  5. Inbound “foreign barbarian” vessels must anchor in the port of Whampoa and await inspection by the authorities

In late 1762 Flint returned to London, where he sued the company for damages and received a large sum of money for his work and troubles. The merchant invested in Samuel Bowen’s plantation in the American colony of Georgia, where his friend had settled after marrying the daughter of the customs official. Bowen founded the Greenwich Plantation and planted soybeans brought from China, for the first time in the West. In honour of James Flint, Samuel named his sons James Flint Bowen and Samuel Flint Bowen.

The British eventually forced China into trading via the Opium Wars (1839-1860) and today the largest US export to China is soybeans.

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This post was written by rado

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