The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam's Twins in Nineteenth-Century America

By Joseph Andrew Orser | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
In and Chun

“Susan, I have two Chinese Boys, 17 years old, grown together they enjoy extraordinary health. I hope these will prove profitable as a curiosity.” So wrote American sea captain Abel Coffin in the summer of 1829, as his ship, the Sachem, approached St. Helena on its way home from Siam to Newburyport, Massachusetts. Aside from the unnamed “Chinese Boys,” the Sachemcarried a cargo of sugar, an international crew of eighteen, and British merchant Robert Hunter, who claimed to have discovered the twins and who, Coffin wrote, “owns half ” of them. (Unmentioned was the presence of another Siamese man who acted as translator for the twins in their first months in the United States and then Britain.) Coffin also carried with him a written plea from English missionary Jacob Tomlin for his “American brethren” to come to Siam and do the work of Christ.1

As the ship’s captain, Coffin saw himself as father to his crew, a role that influenced his relationship with the twins at sea and, ultimately, on land but also with the other men who sailed under him. In good times, Coffin celebrated their successes—he boasted to Susan of a crew member named Ezra Davis who stayed in Bangkok to manage a European business venture. And in bad, he mourned their losses. The drowning of German crew member Henry Monk in late July, before the ship reached Bermuda, served as a grim reminder to Coffin of the responsibility for each of his men that he projected on himself. “All the crew naturally look to me as children to a parent, and when I saw the sorrow of their feelings, it pearsed me to the heart,” he wrote to Susan. Coffin, as captain, was able to articulate the relationships between him and others on the vessel with an authority—or simply a voice—that no one else possessed. He was the parent, and crew members were the children, because he said so. When he and the twins arrived in North America, he would similarly name their relationship.2

For the “Chinese Boys,” later reports claimed, the ship was a playground on which the twins could run and jump and show off an agility that belied their

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The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam's Twins in Nineteenth-Century America
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction - The Monster Now before Us 1
  • Chapter One - In and Chun 9
  • Chapter Two - Under Their Own Direction 37
  • Chapter Three - The Connected Twins 76
  • Chapter Four - Asiatic Americans 105
  • Chapter Five - Southern Curiosities 147
  • Chapter Six - Over Their Dead Bodies 174
  • Epilogue - The Past Rears Its Head 193
  • Notes 203
  • Bibliography 243
  • Index 253
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