Transcribing archival documents at the RAS: a volunteer’s perspective

Thomas Bloomfield has been volunteering at the Society over the past months assisting us with the transcription of some historical documents from our archives while he is on his gap year. Below, Thomas describes his experience of engaging with original archival material for the first time.

The title page of the first document I was given to transcribe read: ‘Instructions of the Chinese Government to the Merchants trading with the Russians, presented by Sir G. T. Staunton December 6th 1823’. Although this title didn’t seem to hold much promise for excitement or intrigue, the fact that I had been assured that the document hadn’t been examined for many years, and the heading ‘Secret’,  alleviated much of my concern, and I was eager to see what revelations such an old, exotic text might contain.

The first thing I noticed as transcriber was, as one might expect, the style of handwriting. Although superficially extremely neat, in places it was thoroughly inscrutable. When I had gotten used to this, the next difficulty was the archaic language used – the text was filled with plenty of ‘herewith’s, and ‘thereby’s , and in some places it was difficult to glean any meaning at all – though it had been  translated from Chinese to Russian before being translated to English, so I suppose some difficulty was inevitable.

What I was able to understand of the text was initially fairly dreary – as might be expected in a document of this type. The first portion was given over to descriptions of how certain aspects of supply and demand should be conducted by Chinese traders operating in Russia, details of ‘principles of commerce’, etc.  Perhaps all this sort of thing is of some historical importance, though as I say, I found it a bit dry.

As the text went on, it did become more interesting, especially a section intriguingly entitled ‘Punishments’, which contained this sort of thing:

‘Whosoever betrays to the Russians Secrets of the Government that are not to be known by the Russians shall be beheaded, however not without the sanction of the Emperor; and whosoever conceals from the above mentioned Congress of Merchants anything he has heard of his countryman having committed a crime against the law or what he has seen himself is to suffer the same punishment as is fixed to the crime committed.’

This paragraph was especially interesting, as it made me wonder how it was that the original secret document sent from the Chinese government to Chinese traders working in Russia, got into the hands of the Russians in the first place – for the document came from Russia – and whether there is any interesting history behind it.

Thomas Manning's account of a riot in Canton, 1807
Thomas Manning’s account of a riot in Canton, 1807

The next document I was given seemed very interesting indeed – it was an eyewitness account by Thomas Manning of a riot in Canton in 1807 involving the crew of a ship called the Neptune, which resulted in the death of a Chinese man. Also included was an account of the subsequent trial.

Well, the handwriting was certainly slightly less easy to understand than the previous text, and the language used much less familiar; it included words like ‘plounced’ and ‘reprobated’ and the intriguing phrase ‘in the twinkling of a tipstaff’.

Once figured out, the subject matter was highly interesting however. It started by describing the riot in detail, and stating that there were certainly no fatalities. It then describes rumours circulating a few days later of a man dead. Then it describes the Chinese attempting to discover the culprit, by means of a lengthy legal process, of which the account is very dismissive. Here is an interesting extract which sums up this part of the account:

‘1st solemn & lofty words by a herald – then a lengthened resounding cry of hou….! (meaning tyger) from a long avenue of attendants – then a loud sonorous & aweful clangour of gongs. – But what is the examination that succeeds? In one word, nonsense.  Each man is asked to say that he is guilty, or to accuse some of his companions. Each man refuses, & denies having had any hand in the riot … lying and denying was the order of the day.’

Eventually a man was identified as the culprit. In the next year he was released on payment of about £4, the penalty prescribed by Chinese law for accidental killing.

One of the most damaging results of the episode was the stress it put upon English-Chinese relations, for all trade with English ships was stopped for the duration of the investigation.

We are very grateful to Thomas for his hard work transcribing these documents, and for sharing his reflections on his time here. We look forward to being able to share the transcriptions of these documents via our website in the new year.

Thomas Bloomfield
Thomas Bloomfield