Letter from Joseph Strawbridge to His Mother from China, 1802

In the family records are several letters written by Joseph Strawbridge, the youngest son of John Strawbridge. For more background on Joseph and these letters, see the long family-history letter written by Joseph’s sister, Jane Ledyard. These letters are fascinating documents, but very fragile and fairly hard to read. (For example, he used the old-fashioned “s” that sometimes looks like an “f”.) I have plowed through one letter, and managed, over a number of hours of study, to make out just about every word. There are a few gaps because of tears in the old paper, and one or two places where I just could not decipher the writing. Anyway, this account of his 1802 trip to China is worth including here. As time goes on, I hope to transcribe the several other letters that exist. Following is the text of the letter:

Addressed to: Mrs. Strawbridge, Wilmington, Del.

Postmarked: New-York April 22 (year not legible)

Canton December 10, 1802

Dearest Mother

Having written two letters by the Ship Tyre who still remains, to sail in Company with the Ship George Barclay, I rather expect you will have a number of Letters, arriving about the same Period, & tho our extreme hurry & Impatience to expedite our Return is very little favorable to writing much or frequently to Friends, yet am resolved no American shall depart without having information of our progress and wellfare.

Our whole Time and Attention is so much engaged by the variety of our business, that I can yet give very little Information or Idea to you of the Singularity of the manners and Customs of the Chinese.

Every thing however particularly at first sight, reminds You, of your being an Antipodean to America, they are generally very attentive & polite to Strangers, tho there is no other Intercourse than that of business. The mode of living here is entirely European, & Foreigners are separate from the natives in their Houses, tho the Servants are generally Chinese & very active & Faithfull — We have a very delightful Factory or Residence, with every Accomodation a most excellent & well furnished Table & number of Servants, altogether quite an Establishment.

Notwithstanding the plenty & variety of things & the luxury of the Principal Persons, we are constantly shocked with the most disgusting Figures or moved with the most distressing spectacles, who here extort money from the Chinese, by sticking close to them till removed by a few cash. We see more ?, blind & miserable wretches in one hours walk thru the streets than in a twelvemonth at home.

The Country as far as we can see, especially in our passage from Whampoa (?) about 12 miles distant where the Shipping lay, is very pleasing, the richness of the Landscapes, the variety of Trees, shrubs, & birds, you see, is quite exhilarating to an Eye wearied with contemplating an unbounded waste of Nature.

In your approach to the City, the boats which since you made the Land are constantly in motion, become for miles to throng, that they are divided into squares or rows like houses, where thousands of the Poor reside, scarcely ever putting their foot on shore during their Lives, where business of all kinds is conducted & every thing is like a town, some are handsome & capacious, having one or two rooms, like ? ‘s back parlor in size, but generally they are small, with a cover higher tho resembling in appearance the Tub of an old Fasticone Cradle, where in the space of ca. 4 feet by 3 a whole family constantly live, the mother, having her youngest child slung on her back, sculling the boat or house & the other children if very small having Cords tied to them, to support them in case of falling overboard. They live principally on Rice or Fish, both of which Providence has supplied them with in great abundance, tho an occasional Scarcity produces the most dreadfull Consequences.

We learn much of their Rogueary at home, which to be sure, is not always exaggerated tho said to be much more general than I believe. They are Capital Artists, every thing that is shown them, they can imitate exactly & their Shows display the most astonishing variety, suited to the Taste or Caprice of all Nations — Here we are a curious Assemblage all in harmony, pursuing our disparate interests, besides the Variety among the Chinese, Americans, English, Swedes, Danes, French, Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch, Italians, Armenians, Moors, Malays, & an endless variety more who are bringing to the Chinese the Supply of their wants, are received with equal Indifference.

A Person having no business to attend to, might spend a month very agreably, notwithstanding the limited space, we are circumscribed in, as you meet, besides the paucity of every thing, with a number of very gentle or agreable People — There are still a few American Ships here, but suppose all of us will be ready to sail before about the 1st February, at which period, the Resident Agents Supercargoes & ? go down to Macao, which is a very pleasant place, somewhat under the Portuguese Authority, to remain till the next season for business generally commencing in August. Altho like other Young Men, apt to regard Wealth, as an object of much desire, & independant of any affection or Friendship at home, I should very little covet residence for some years in this place, tho as a certain consequence, I should be wealthy as a Nabob. It is generally the case that their Constitutions are somewhat impaired, which is a poor reward for their Labors. The Weather since our Arrival has been truly delightfull, ? our month of October & we have still the greatest Variety of Fruits & Vegetables, which are here in constant succession. I have made it a point to request some seeds for you, the Possession of which, will make us almost rival ? exotics. I rather despair of much success, as the Experiment has failed, and I do not intend for some time, to raise my Elegant / never to be sufficiently admired hot House / which I defer as have often told your dear friend Susan Read, till I can retire. “Otium cum Dignitate.” A period notwithstanding her unbelief, I hope not very far distant, I made an assurance of paying my homage to that Lady from this place, which I shall undoubtedly fullfill by this or the next opportunity & “not when more important business permits” for what can to me be a more delightfull Employment.

We are generally very healthy, excepting very slight Indispositions, no where can there be better Health, in so great a number. Our business is progressing & we hope to sail about the 1st of February. Every thing is very scarce & high, I fear our Owners will not make much, tho we will exert ourselves, for their Interest to the utmost & hope at all events to give satisfaction.

The Anticipation of seeing all Friends well, makes me allmost indifferent about my own. As regards what it is or what it sells for, tell George, if he should choose to go behind the Counter, I will give him employment, to sell —– provided he gives good security that neither, Friends, you or —- self, will plunder any, as I think I shall be too much of the Fine Gentleman to do any thing but overlook. I would be pleased to put something in any young man practicing his way. My Duty to Gran & Aunt B, embrace the Children, say all of of my constant & lively affection & how happy I shall be by any little in my power, to reward their Diligence & good Conduct —

If time permits, I will write to Uncle or George by this Vessel. Remember me in much sincerity to Mr. Stockton & all the Family & their friends, & may Dear Mother, every blessing be your remaining portion. I am your affectionate Son, J.S.