The wild story of the first known Chinese person to live in Boston in the 1790s

SAMPAN, a Chinese-English newspaper for Chinese and Asian diaspora in New England published by the nonprofit Asian American Civic Association, has a fascinating new post about the first Chinese person to live in Boston.

John Boit, of Boston, was made the Captain of a ship, the Union, when he was only 19 years old. The Union, with a crew of 22, set sail on August 1, 1794, headed to the Northwest, to obtain pelts and other trade goods, and then onto China. After a successful journey, the Union returned to Boston in July 1796. While in China, Boit hired a Chinese servant, called Chou, who was about 15 or 16 years old, and took him back to Boston with him. Chou likely lived with Boit, especially considering they were only in Boston for a month before departing on another voyage.


According to The Boit Family And Their Descendants by Robert Althorp Boit (1915), John Boit wrote, "Took a house on shore, attended by my faithful servant Chou (a Chinese)—kept Bachelor's hall—and in the gay life that is generally pursued by young men on this island passed a few months away in quite an agreeable though dissipated manner."

Chou's grave can still be found in the Central Burying Ground in Boston, with an epitaph that reads:

Here lies interred the body of Chou Mandarien. A native of China. Aged 19 years whose death was occasioned on the 11th Sept. 1798 by a fall from the masthead of the Ship Mac of Boston. This stone is erected to his memory by his affectionate master John Boit, Jr.

(Chou's last name was not actually Mandarien; according to SAMPAN, that was "not intended to be a surname, but simply a term at that time meaning 'Chinese.'")

While this may make Boit seem like a compassionate master (inasmuch as any "master" might be capable of kindness), here's the real kicker: two months after Chou fell to his death from the masthead of the Ship Mac of Boston, Boit and his crew set sail, allegedly for Cape de Verde. But Boit tricked his crew, and instead went to Africa and purchased 270 African slaves, whom he then sold in Havana. Upon their return to the States, the Mac of Boston faced legal charges for "breach of the laws of the United States against the slave trade."

The SAMPAN article is full of other great details about Chou and the Boit family, too.

The First Chinese Person To Live In Boston [Richard Auffrey / SAMPAN]

Image: Matt / Flickr (CC 2.0)