Chinese Junk Keying Medals

The Chinese Junk Keying Hand-colored Lithograph N. Currier, 1847 MCNY
The Chinese Junk “Keying” (N. Currier, 1847)
Hand-colored Lithograph | MCNY

The Keying was a three-masted Chinese trading junk that sailed from Hong Kong in December 1847 with a mixed crew of Chinese and British sailors. The vessel had been purchased surreptitiously by a conglomerate of enterprising English businessmen. It was placed under the command of Captain Alfred Kellett with the intention of carrying curiosities and merchandise to England and thereafter serving as a kind of floating museum. The avaricious Kellett neglected to tell the Chinese crew members that they were embarking on such an extended journey, and by the time the Keying rounded the Cape of Good Hope, they were more or less mutinous. After some bad weather and with supplies running short, the vessel was forced to make an unscheduled stopover in New York City. When the Keying sailed into the harbor on July 9, 1847, it created a sensation. Since at least the late eighteenth-century, Americans had exhibited a fascination with China that only increased as trade relations expanded in the nineteenth century. Tea was of course the most coveted commodity, but Chinese porcelain, silk, and other luxury goods were also much sought after. The Keying brought the “romance of China”  to New York City, and the public lined up to pay fifty cents to tour the vessel and peruse its displays.

"The Bay and Harbor of New York" by Samuel Waugh | MCNY
“The Bay and Harbor of New York” by Samuel Waugh | MCNY

This watercolor by Samuel Waugh shows the Keying anchored just offshore from Castle Garden, where it remained for several months in 1847. Kellett was coining money, but the Chinese crew used the opportunity to take him to court for his duplicity and general meanness. Although they received a favorable ruling and many of the crew elected to head back to China, Kellett skipped town to escape his obligations, making first for Boston and then crossing the Atlantic the following spring.

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Google Books

In late March 1848, the Keying arrived in London to great fanfare, and several different medals were struck to commemorate its appearance and to sell to the public as souvenirs. If anything, the Chinese junk created an even bigger sensation in England, where it was visited by the Queen, Charles Dickens, and other luminaries. The Keying remained a popular attraction for several years, but later fell into disrepair and it was eventually dismantled. For a description of the vessel, the voyage, and the objects it contained, click on the image at left to page through the promotional pamphlet that Kettell published in London.  The slideshow below reproduces some of the plates from the same:

Of course, the reason we are noting it here is that its story lives on in medallic form. And to that end, the American Numismatic Society holds five Keying medals or medallions. Laurence Brown’s British Historical Medals (1987) lists eleven different types, but a casual look through auction catalogs at the ANS suggests there are even a few more than that about. Broadly speaking, there is not much variation in their design, with the obverses generally featuring an image of the Keying at sea, the only exception being a medal that has a bust of “MANDERIN [sic] HESING.” The reverses simply consist of as much descriptive text as size allowed. Four of the medals held by the ANS and the balance of the series were produced in Birmingham. They were engraved by either Thomas Halliday or his former apprentice Joseph Moore, who had formed his own firm as Allen & Moore. The large size white metal type struck by Halliday is probably the most technically accomplished of the series.

ANS, 1932.999.738
ANS, 1932.999.738

Its reverse reads: THIS REMARKABLE VESSEL IS A JUNK OF THE LARGEST CLASS, AND IS THE FIRST SHIP CONSTRUCTED BY THE CHINESE WHICH HAS REACHED EUROPE, OR EVEN ROUNDED THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE. THIS JUNK WAS PURCHASED AUGUST, 1846, AT CANTON BY A FEW ENTERPRISING ENGLISHMEN. SHE SAILED FROM HONG KONG 6TH DECEMBER, 1846, ROUNDED THE CAPE 31ST MARCH, 1847, ARRIVED IN ENGLAND 27TH MARCH, 1848.

The ANS has another of this same type in bronze. The other large-sized medal in the collection is one by Allen & Moore with a slightly different view of the Keying and a more precise descriptive legend about the vessel itself on the reverse. The smaller (27mm) Allen & Moore medal is a reduced version of the former with an abbreviated legend on the reverse. The smallest of our Keying medals (24mm) is a bronze type of unknown origin (BHM 2243):

ANS, 1918.999.238
ANS, 1918.999.238

As far as I know, there were no similar numismatic souvenirs struck on this side of the Atlantic. For more about the Keying‘s compelling history, see Stephen Davies’ new book East Sails West: The Voyage of the Keying 1846-1855 (2014). There is a surfeit of excellent scholarship on the history of relations between the United States and China. John Haddad’s The Romance of China: Excursions to China in U.S. Culture: 1776-1876 (2008) is notable for being freely available online and for devoting a chapter to the Keying episode. For an engaging and deeply researched look at the history of Chinese people in New York City, see John Kuo Wei Tchen’s New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882 (2001). I should also note that there is presently an exhibition exploring this very subject at the New-York Historical Society. Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion closes April 19 so make a plan to see it soon if you haven’t already.

Matthew Wittmann

Postscript: One of the many fascinating objects on display at the NYHS is this beautiful decorative fan on loan from the Atwater Kent Collection. It commemorates the 1784-1785 voyage by the Empress of China from Philadelphia to Canton that inaugurated the Old China Trade.

1_EmpressFan-7-39-PhilHistMus