Home Arts and Leisure Harriet Low Gets Home With the Courage of a Heroine

Harriet Low Gets Home With the Courage of a Heroine


[jpshare]In one important way, Harriet Low had less freedom in 19th century Macao than she did in her hometown of  Salem, Mass. She depended completely on Chinese workers to take her anywhere in a sedan chair.

Harriet Low, painting by George Chinnery, 1833.

Harriet Low, painting by George Chinnery, 1833.

In 1833, she was 24 years old and had been living in the exotic Portuguese colony of Macao since 1829. One of the first American women to live in China, she was keeping her aunt Abigail company while her uncle, William Low, managed business in Canton for Russell & Company. We know all about her exploits from Her 947-page diary chronicling her years in Asia from 1829-34. The diary, now held by the Library of Congress, is a fascinating glimpse into the China trade in the age of sail.

Harriet’s daughter Katharine in 1900 printed an abridged version of her mother’s diary, 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.”

Harriet was annoyed, though, to have to depend on Chinese workers to get around. Her adventure on Aug. 6, 1833, is a case in point:

August 6.–To-night the rain held up for a while, and Uncle and I went to the opera. We were very much pleased with the music, but, when it was time to go home, we looked out in despair. It was raining in torrents, nothing to be seen but water, and the chairs appeared to be swimming. The coolies with their enormous hats, wading up to their knees, and with lanterns in their hands, presented a curious picture. This was the scene below. Above, the heavens appeared to be one sheet of flame, for the lightning was incessant. What to do we did not know, — it seems the house has sunk, and all the drains were closed up, so that the water was all around it as far as we could see. It reminded me of the descriptions of Venice, and I took the chairs for gondolas. At last, as we despaired of the rain’s ceasing, the gentlemen thought they would try to bring the chairs up the steps and back us down. I must confess I rather trembled at the prospect, knowing the steps were so wet and slippery. However, I presently heard, “Miss L’s chair stops the way,” and I sallied forth with two gentlemen, I forget who, to meet my fate, whatever it might be, with all the courage of a heroine, in the midst of thunder, lightning, rain, and darkness, and the roaring of the Chinamen, which exceeded the thunder, for they all holloa together, and thereby hear nothing. I presently found myself shut up in my box, and going down the steps backwards, rather an awkward predicament, but I knew I must make the best of it, and kept perfectly still. When I got into the streets, I got along pretty well, till I found my lanterns had gone out, and I was left at the mercy of three Chinese coolies in the midst of the dark streets. However, they lighted the lanterns again, and I arrived at home safely, after much tribulation, my face the color of scarlet, and my head aching violently.




Laura A Macaluso August 7, 2014 - 10:09 pm

I love your posts NEHS!

New England Historical Society August 9, 2014 - 9:03 am

^Thank you!

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