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‘Keeper at the Gate’
The Question of Hu by Jonathan D. Spence, 1988, Knopf, NY, 187 pages

In the year 1721, Hu, the Keeper at the Gate at the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, was recruited by French Jesuit scholar and rogue theologian Father Jean-Francois Foucquet, to assist him in transporting and translating the library of Chinese books being taken back to France for enhancing a study of Chinese religion so that the catholic faith may better presented to potential Chinese converts. For instance, Foucquet is convinced that such Chinese works as The Book of Changes are remnants of an ancient Chinese Christianity.

Blocked by rival Jesuits in his attempt to hire suitable Chinese scholars to company him home and work for a period in France, the rogue priest makes a deal with Hu, who, though a passable scribe, cannot speak or understand spoken French, which will cause him much heartache and misunderstanding.

After surviving a horrific year-long voyage around the world, led to believe that he will be able to meet the pope, see the Vatican and preach the faith—and get paid in the bargain, Hu is disappointed on all counts. He is repeatedly berated, beaten, confined, horsewhipped, leashed to a carriage and made to run along behind it like horse and eventually committed to an asylum, largely because he insisted on speaking with common people and speaking out against—he sued gestures, a homemade flag and a small drum eh fabricated—mixing genders [nuns and priests] in houses of worship. In China, to get converts, the Jesuits permitted the Chinese to continue gender segregation in religious observation and when faced with this practice in France and the obvious dalliances between nuns and priests, Hu was outraged.

At one point, when a beggar asked for assistance on the wintry road, Hu gave the wretch his own jacket, only to have his French hosts fly into a rage and beat the beggar until he gave the jacket back, which Hu refused to accept. Hu’ story is told primarily by his Jesuit hosts, some of whom were outraged at his treatments and arranged for his passage back to China. Two of his letters are extant, and reveal a man of average intelligence but deep moral convictions and boundless curiosity who was not afraid to fight, even enthusiastically grabbing cutlass and standing ready to repel pirates off the coast of Brazil.

Below are some points which bear on the question and conditions of white and Chinese slavery in 18th Century North America:

-Hu was treated well by some clergy and poorly by others, well by some elite and poorly by others.

-Hu was treated well by the various police, by all of the poor folk and criminals.

-Hu was treated savagely by the slaves of his guests, the bully servants who accompanied their masters everywhere.

-As a Chinese Christian, Hu’s good treatment was a priority of the church, whose officers rescued Hu from his abusers and jailors.

-Hu was not paid for any portion of his contract by his employer, Foucquet.

-Police paramilitary forces, Archers, Horsemen and Port Police routinely scoured the streets and docks for any able-bodied man who was not enslaved, in the military, part of the church, or of the moneyed classes and had them shipped off in chains for sail in Louisiana and other French colonies in the West Indies and North America, as well as to serve in the hellish galleys of the French fleet.

-Organized armed gangs contested control of city streets, including one gang armed with canes topped with steel knobs known to kill with blows to the head.

As to the question of Chinese being shipped directly to the new world, Hu’s story presents four occasions in which he was almost consigned to plantation slavery:

The ship carrying Hu was blown off course while low on supplies, ending up on the wrong side of the Atlantic. In such circumstances, the ship’s offices, invested in their various cargos—including servants such as Hu—might have no choice but to starve or sell off their cargo in the new world.

Hu’s ship was mistaken for a pirate and almost taken by a Portuguese warship. Whether taken by pirates—and this was the age of piracy—or by a warship, captured passengers and slaves would be sold under certain conditions.

When Hu ran away from confinement or just went wandering about like a tourist, he was in danger of being swept up by a pressgang and forced to row on a galley, work on a sailing ship or be sold off as a transport to the plantations. Make no mistake, if Hu had been arrested for vagrancy he would have been a felon, and at least under the English system—liable to serve a double term of 14 years as a convict laborer.

Hu’s contract was violated by his master and he was only saved by his master’ superiors. Had Hu contracted with an independent, secular master, he may well have been resold as a laborer once he proved difficult to communicate with. Since not honoring contracts entered into with people selling themselves as slave laborers and teachers, seems to have been the usual, if not standard practice, once the servant was in the master’s power, it is a fair guess that the handful of Chinese and East Indian slaves found in Maryland and Virginia had been duplicitously acquired by plantation slavers from brokers in England, who had access to educated Chinese servants who had contracted to serve in London, and, either after being defrauded by their masters or having served their time, were then vulnerable to kidnappers, no longer being a member of an affluent household, but fending for themselves on the streets of a strange and barbarous city.

Jonathan D. Spence, in his biography of Hu, preserved a great deal of period nuance and detail and told an ultimately uplifting story of a stranger in a strange land maintaining his identity and convictions in the face of a cruel world order to triumph in a small way.

Stillbirth of a Nation: Caucasian Slavery in Plantation America: Part One

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