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Architecture and World History


Rebecca Kinsman and the Architecture of Macao, 1843–1847

Kimberly Sayre Alexander


     In the study of world history, architecture has a resonance that is often lost on scholars who work outside the haunts of the art historian. Yet, the significance of the built environment should not be underestimated. Considerations of structure and design have frequently influenced the nature and development of early global encounters. These matters certainly predisposed the perceptions of those involved in first contacts, both those who traveled to "exotic" lands and those who received them. Consider the classic example of global encounter, an indigenous peoples' first impressions of visitors from abroad, seen in the architecture of the visitors' ships. In the Aztec empire, it was Cortes's floating islands that so astonished Moctezuma's people in 1519; in East Asia, it was Perry's black ships that impressed the Japanese in 1853. Likewise, the ways in which travelers described indigenous architecture often reveal underlying cultural values and assumptions. Examination of both sets of impressions, focused on the built environment, sometimes remind us, too, that the sites in which encounters took place were neither indigenous or foreign, but rather a collage of places of cosmopolitan intermixture – clearly the case with Macao by the nineteenth century.

     After many months of extensive family discussion, Rebecca Chase Kinsman (1810–1882) departed her homeport of Salem, Massachusetts on July 5th, 1843 for Macao and Canton, China, with her husband, Nathaniel Kinsman (1798–1847), and two of their three children, Nattie and Ecca. The ship was the Probus, with Captain John Sumner at the helm. Nathaniel was taking up a position in Canton with the trading house of Wetmore and Company, and the couple had made the decision—unusual in antebellum America—to travel together to what was then an exotic and strange world. Indeed, the diaries and letters shared between the couple offer a rare glimpse into an early American household that challenges conventional interpretations. The written record for the Kinsman family is particularly strong. Not only have a decade of letters between husband and wife and their respective families survived, but also household receipts, diaries, and Nathaniel's ship logs are among the rich collection housed at the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, the Schlesinger Library, the Smith College Library and in private hands.1

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Rebecca Kinsman, c.1842, Charles Osgood (2 views–color & b&w).  

     Rebecca frequently provided detailed descriptions of the domestic, public and religious architecture she experienced in her travels throughout Macao. Seen through her Antebellum Western lens, she was clearly cognizant that her time in China marked an important episode in her life, and indeed, we know almost nothing about her after her return to the United States. Her letters and journal entries are significant on several counts: the majority of the sites she describes in this significant city, Macao, no longer survive; we have few accounts by women travelers and expatriates of the multinational architectural character of Macao during the 19th century (or any time for that matter), and finally, her writing is highly descriptive and largely without racial, ethnic or religious bias. While a handful of excerpts from her correspondence have been used in larger works, little attention has been paid to her writings on architecture, landscape and the experience of place.

     What was this place, Macao, where Rebecca and her children found themselves in late 1843, once Nathaniel had headed to Canton for the trading season? Established as a Portuguese enclave in 1556/1557, the island's built environment by the nineteenth century featured a jumble of Western and Chinese themes. Complicated by local building traditions, Kinsman's Western gaze revealed a hodgepodge of Catholic churches, Buddhist temples, hilltop fortresses, pagodas and Chinese vernacular architecture. The Western enclave was also in close proximity to Macao's Chinese villages. All are mentioned in Rebecca's letters home to Salem.

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Chinese dignitary with architectural views.  

     In February 1845, for example, Nathaniel was in Macao with the family. Rebecca writes: "That evening, Nathaniel proposed by way of varying our walk a little, to visit the Catholic Cemetery which is on the other side of town, and we went consequently through many of the back streets where I had never been before except in a chair, so the scene was quite new to me, and it seemed very like the pictures of old European cities which we see......the facade of an old church (the remainder of which was destroyed by fire) remains standing and is ornamented with many statues, the largest and most prominent of which is one of the Virgin Mother."2 She continues, describing the stone steps, the walls, now grown over with vines and vegetation, and the remains of the altar. Her description is rich and detailed, and, unlike some of her contemporaries, it has no hint of pejorative perspective. Indeed, one may postulate that the active decision by the couple to walk to a Catholic Church via back streets inhabited by local denizens, is indicative of an open, exploratory nature.

     Rebecca's description of the burned out baroque/mannerist St. Paul's Cathedral (constructed by the Jesuits from 1582-1602; elaborate carved stone façade, 1620-1627) and its remaining façade can be paired with the drawings and sketches completed by her contemporaries, such as George Chinnery, to create a full and multifaceted portrait of a key Portuguese Macao building of 16th century origins, now largely lost. Indeed, while not among the many patrons of Chinnery (she rather selected the Chinese artist, Lamqau, to paint her daughter), she acknowledged his skill in sketching the Chinese and their environs: "Went to Mr. Chennery's [sic] rooms by invitation from him. ...Some of the old painter's sketches of Chinese scenery, and groups of Chinese variously occupied, are remarkable true to life, and display great talent. He is a remarkable old man, a very disagreeable one however, on account of his vanity..."3

Figure 3
  Figure 3: Pen and ink sketch of the church steps & façade of San Paolo dated October 18, 1834, shortly before the fire which made it the ruin visited by the Kinsmans, by George Chinnery (1774–1852).  

     In an especially thoughtful and poetic letter to her father, from August 1844, Rebecca described the lives and habitat of the Chinese tanka boat women (also mentioned in her quote regarding Chinnery's sketches above). The bulk of the passage has been included to give a sense of her "travelogue" narrative style, when she has a bit of extra time to write.

     I wish thee could look out with me, my dear Father, on the scene before me, as I raise my eyes from my paper and see this beautiful roadstead, with the numberless boats, so near us, that the voices of the boatmen are distinctly heard, and could we understand their language, we might know (were it worth knowing) what they say. At this moment, a little tanka-boat is before the window, looking almost like an egg shell upon the waters, from its smallness and frailty of appearance. Here lives a family -- here probably they were born, and perhaps will die. The mother has her baby fastened to her back, and as she pulls at the oar, the motion rocks the little one...I cannot see how many this boat contains, as it is covered or roofed over at one end...They are managed entirely by women ...But it is really interesting to watch with what skill they manage these little cockle shells.4

Figure 4
  Figure 4: Chinnery sketches of tanka boat women.  

Figure 5
  Figure 5: Tanka boat woman, detail.  

     The landscape that Kinsman imagined in such passages was something more than the botany of a place or even the charm of the delicate tanka boats. Her landscape was a cultural domain that incorporated the inhabitants of the site and encompassed the experience of encounter. In the passage above, the "beautiful roadstead" was enriched by the "voices of the boatmen" and the tanka women who rowed with their infants gently rocking against their backs. Kinsman's empathetic description of the landscape, human and botanical, reveals much about the nature of this Western woman's encounters.

     Landscape (and seascape) appears throughout Kinsman's writing, and was a common trope of American travel writing throughout the period. Rebecca shared her experiences of Macao's gardens frequently. She wrote fondly of long time Macao denizen James Parkman Sturgis's exquisite botanical garden, extolling its beautiful camelias and tea roses.

     The Macao that the Kinsman's inhabited in the 1840s was not China. That is, the place that they knew as China was a global city that had been colonized 300 years earlier (c. 1556) by the Portuguese. Its population was primarily Chinese, but included Dutch, Spanish, French, British, Armenian, and Parsee merchants, lascar sailors, and a host of other peoples who wafted through. It brought together a remarkable range of humanity. Similarly, the architecture of this most cosmopolitan of places was a creole pastiche, blending European and Asian symbols, styles, and textures. At the time of their arrival in 1843, San Paolo [St. Paul's Cathedral] was a dominant landmark on the peninsula, but was now reflected only in the ruins of its once stunning façade. A jewel in the Jesuit diadem and source of pride for Portugese Macao, the main structure had fallen victim to fire in 1835 (caused by a typhoon) almost a decade earlier. The remains would have presented Rebecca and Nathaniel with a surprising array of carvings and statues: "an image of Virgin Mary flanked by a peony (representing China) and a chrysanthemum (representing Japan), a Chinese dragon, a Portuguese ship, and a demon of indeterminate origins."5

     What makes Rebecca, a Quaker, and her reactions to her new environment less conventional for the time, is that, unlike a number of her expatriate contemporaries (perhaps best known is her contemporary Salemite Harriett Low, 1809-1877), she often found a common ground to share with the local population. For instance, shortly after her arrival in China, she relates, with considerable empathy, her visit to a Chinese burial ground:

     I cannot describe to you the strange feeling which came over me when I first saw one of these burying places – It seemed never to have occurred to me before that these people were subjected to the same fearful penalty with ourselves. I know not how it was but a strange consciousness of a common kindred with them came over me, and I no longer felt myself a stranger among them.6

     Clearly, the happiest times Rebecca spent during her time in Macao are those when the entire family was gathered on the verandah, clad in white: Nathaniel playing with the children, talking among family or visitors, engaging in board games, reading or scanning the horizon for familiar vessels (especially those from Salem) with the looking glass (simply called 'the glass') over the Praya Grande and to the harbor. The footprint of the spacious six columned house far exceeded their Salem townhouse: "Nathaniel was pacing the parlor last evening, and he remarked that the whole floor of our Summer Street house might easily be put into that room, parlours, entries, closet and all.7 Here, architecture and space provide a cohesive element - an anchor- to the Kinsman's life so far from home.

Figure 6
  Figure 6: View of the Verandah & Praya Grande, possibly by Lamqua, c.1843–47.  

     For Rebecca Kinsman, architecture played an important role in "binding" her to that which was familiar and family oriented. She sought connection and commonality with her own home in Salem through various sites, such as the Chinese burying ground, while the oft mentioned verandah -- an extension of the domestic realm into the outside world -- becomes symbolic of her family's unity in Macao. Kinsman's letters frequently referenced home through allusions to Salem architecture and interior furnishings:

     How plainly I can see those dear County Street parlors as thee describes them, and oh! How inexpressible are my longings to look in upon them and their dear inmates . . . the ties that bind us to home, are very strong and not easily severed.8

     Tragically, Rebecca lost both her beloved daughter, Ecca, and her dear husband to her time in Macao, no doubt coloring and casting a pall on the experience. As of this writing, we know of no additional texts or letters by Rebecca Chase Kinsman.

Kimberly S. Alexander, Ph.D. is a museum professional and Adjunct Faculty at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. She earned a Ph.D. in Art History and Architectural History from Boston University. Founding Curator of Architecture and Design at the M.I.T. Museum, she went on to serve as Curator of Architecture and Design at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA and was Chief Curator of Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. Dr. Alexander has published several books and essays. Her current book project is on the Georgian shoe in Colonial America and will be available in 2014.


1 Kimberly Alexander, "'Demure Quakeress': Rebecca Kinsman in China, 1843–1847." Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings, 2006/2007. (Boston: Boston University, 2009): 102-113.

2 Rebecca Kinsman to her sister, 1 February 1845, in "The Daily Life of Mrs. Nathaniel Kinsman in Macao, China," Essex Institute Historical Collections, LXXXVI (1950), 114.

3 Rebecca Kinsman to her sister, 16 May 1844, Essex Institute Historical Collections, LXXXVI (1950), 271.

4 Rebecca Kinsman to her father, 4 August, 1844, Essex Institute Historical Collections, LXXXVI (1950), 139.

5 Courtesy, Dane A. Morrison, True Yankees: Americans, the South Seas, and the Discovery of National Identity, 1784-1844, personal communication from forthcoming publication.

6 This was from Rebecca's first letter home to her family, postmarked Macao, 4 November 1843, in "The Daily Life of Mrs. Nathaniel Kinsman in Macao, China," Essex Institute Historical Collections, LXXXVI (1950).

7 Rebecca Kinsman, letter, 19 March 1844, Essex Institute Historical Collections, LXXXVI, 267.

8 Rebecca to "My best beloved Friend," Macao, Thursday, 7 March 1844, Essex Institute Historical Collections, LXXXVI.

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