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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Singer

Robert Bennet Forbes and the Museum of Chinese in America

Early nineteenth century China trader and Massachusetts native, Robert Bennet Forbes, spent many years in Asia and lived in Canton from 1838-1840. He was already a ship captain when barely into his twenties. He was in Canton in the lead up to and during the break out of the First Opium War.

Last night, the Museum of Chinese in America held its first "Treasures of the Road" webinar. The topic was Robert Bennet Forbes and a deep dive into two objects in the family collection in the Forbes House Museum at the Captain Robert Bennet Forbes House in Milton, MA. Speakers were Dr. Robert Pierce Forbes, RBF's great-great grandson, and China expert Don Cohn.

The first object is a vibrant oil portrait of Houqua, the lead Chinese merchant liaison for foreign traders in China at the time. The painting was a gift from Houqua to RBF in 1840 when the latter left China. Reputed to be the richest man in the world, Houqua developed a close relationship with RBF and his family, so close in fact that he gave Robert's brother a huge sum of money (reputed to be between US$500,000- $1,500,000) to take to America to invest shortly before he died in 1843. The money was invested in railroads and played a role in funding America's development and made a nice return on investment to Houqua's heirs in China.

The second object is the coral hat finial that can also be seen in the painting. This prized possession symbolized that Houqua had achieved the second-highest rank for a civilian official in the Chinese hierarchy. Houqua's descendants gave the finial to the Forbes family after his death, and it too is now preserved in the Museum collection.

Captain Forbes wrote extensively to his wife, Rose, in Boston while in China. His correspondence has been published in Letters from China, Phyllis Forbes Kerr, Ed., Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., 1996.


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