Navigating the foreign quarters: Everyday life of the Swedish East India Company employees in Canton and Macao 1730–1830

PhD defended at: 

Stockholm University

Author: 

Lisa Hellman

Defended: 

2015

This thesis analyses the everyday life of the Swedish East India company employees in Canton and Macao 1730–1830. Through a focus on everyday practices, analysed on the basis of ethnicity, class and gender, I show how the Swedes and other foreigners led their everyday life in a constant interplay between adaptation to and transgression of Chinese rules.

In Canton, many everyday practices taken for granted in Europe, or in European colonies, were changed or made inaccessible to the foreigners by the Chinese authorities. This thesis highlights the daily practices of globalisation in Canton, a place not dominated by Europeans. The sources are a combination of correspondence, travel writings, journals and court protocols written by European, North American and Chinese men and women; this multilingual source material mirrors the multi-ethnic composition of the foreign quarters.

The thesis combines historical studies on everyday life, globalisation, port cities, East India companies, Canton, Macao and intercultural interactions, and does so through five case studies: how the local groups were experienced and formed, the spatial construction of Canton and Macao, the local communication, material practices and the establishment of trust. Interaction between various foreign groups was as important for everyday life as contacts between the foreign and Chinese groups; the fact that the foreign groups were numerous thus had crucial effects on life in the foreign quarters. Furthermore, I demonstrate that Chinese authorities used the segregation between groups on the basis of gender and ethnicity as a control mechanism. In addition, four snapshots focusing on individual traders show how the foreign quarters changed over time. The personal relations went from short-term to long-term and the Swedes were increasingly involved in the lives of local men and women. In the early nineteenth century, the Chinese control was increasingly questioned.

The basis for most restrictions of everyday practices was the Chinese authorities’ will to uphold an ethnic division: that between Chinese and non-Chinese. Additionally, class was constructed both within groups of foreigners and groups of Chinese, sometimes jointly. Gender proved to be a particularly fruitful analytical concept for this thesis. I show not only that the gender segregation and the discursive construction of Chinese and foreign men and women were crucial for how the intercultural interaction was perceived, but also the importance of face-to-face meetings with foreign and Chinese women. Furthermore, many everyday practices were consistently intertwined with the construction of masculinity in Chinese, European as well as North American groups in Canton.

The present study differs from previous research in its focus on everyday life rather than economic and diplomatic aspects; there are no previous studies on groups, space, communication, materiality or trust in the foreign quarters, nor any analyses of class, ethnicity and gender. Previous research has focused on large, colonial actors. In contrast, the Swedish East India Company employees’ time in Canton constitutes a meeting in which the local power far outweighed the foreign one. This study of daily life in the foreign quarters demonstrates a need to rephrase, and rethink, the framework for intercultural interaction between Europe and Asia, the established views of early modern power relations as well as the view of how everyday life was led in homes away from home.

ICAS is an initiative of the
International Insitute for Asian Studies