Introducing Thomas M. Larkin

Sorry that it took us a while to resume our publishing routine! This week we have Bristol’s very own Thomas M. Larkin to tell us his fascinating research. Supported by the Augustine Heard Studentship within the Hong Kong History Project at University of Bristol, Thomas works on Anglo-American relations in 19th century China, and aims to find out how trade competition between the two communities influenced the development of Hong Kong society.



Thomas Larkin

I sort of side-stepped into the study of Chinese history. York University, where I completed my BA and MA, has a strong multidisciplinary community of scholars focusing on South and East Asia, so I was spoiled for choices on what to study. I was originally drawn to Edo-period Japan and the Dutch trade at Dejima. I was gently nudged by my professors, however, into the study of China. This new focus quickly developed into a wide range of interests, spanning from the early Qing Empire to the rise of the Chinese Communist Party. Identifying just one topic to focus on within such a vast timeframe has been the real challenge.


The choice was made a bit easier by my undergraduate experiences. In the course of my studies I had to opportunity to take a year in Hong Kong. Like many before me, I became swept up in the distinctly Hong Kong culture, food, and aesthetic. I inevitably met a number of expatriates during my brief time in the city. Each time I felt the urge to ask what has become a nagging question whenever I see expatriates in any part of the world to this day: “How and why did you end up here?” This fascination in the origins and legacies of expatriate communities has expanded more broadly into an interest in how cultures interact and selectively borrow from each other, and how prejudices and socio-cultural hierarchies are developed, maintained, or transcended.

The Augustine Heard Studentship at the University of Bristol has offered the perfect opportunity to explore some of the themes outlined above. My topic, investigating nineteenth century Anglo-American (and to an extent Sino-American and Sino-British) relations in the Pearl River Delta, addresses the ways distinct expatriate communities interacted in Canton and Hong Kong in a shifting regional and global context. The project aims to understand the ways expatriate communities were shaped by their uniquely cross-cultural experiences, and how they conformed to or deviated from the political, cultural, and social norms of their home countries. The stipulations of the studentship necessitate the use of the Augustine Heard archives at Harvard University, and as such I hope to demonstrate that commercial entities such as a company can provide windows into the social histories of places of contact such as Hong Kong.

The purpose of the Augustine Heard Studentship is to promote the study of Anglo-American relations in China, making use of the Augustine Heard records in the Baker Library Special Collections at Harvard Business School. This is a vast (almost too vast) archive of material containing the business records of the American company Augustine Heard & Co., the Forbeses, and the various captains, free traders, and partners associated with the firm. The collection holds thousands of records from the family and their associates, touching upon everything from orders for tailored pants from a favourite shop in Boston to gunboat diplomacy and trade with Hong Xiuchuan and the Taiping. The company operated in Canton, Hong Kong, Japan, and many of the treaty-ports in China, and the Heard brothers were first-hand witnesses to just about every major event in 19th century Chinese history. Continued work with these archives has the potential to augment our understanding of Sino-Western interaction, offering a fresh perspective to a narrative typically approached through a British lens.

By studying a company like Augustine Heard & Co., we gain crucial insight into the ways commercial practices influenced societal norms. The most visible of company employees were the partners, who occupied an elite place in society and tended to spend lavishly. But China-trade companies were also made up of clerks, accountants, compradors, shroffs, and coolies. They employed captains, sailors, architects, builders, pilots, and supercargos. Their Western employees brought their families over, kept mistresses, formed strategic business ties (or rivalries) and generally became an integral part of the social fabric of Hong Kong. The study of a company, not as an empirical unit of commercial success or failure, but as a system peopled by individuals of various ethnicities and classes, reveals the ways society and culture in a place such as Hong Kong were at least partially the products of these seemingly impersonal entities.