Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

By Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. Massachusetts played an interesting role in many of the first relationships and cultural exchanges between the US and Asia and the Pacific Islands. Some of these relationships were mutually fruitful while others favored American interests. After the American Revolution, ships from the ports of Boston and Salem sailed across the globe, many entering ports for the first time flying the new and unknown American flag. What these captains and merchants did upon arrival set the tone to cultivate relationships not only with Massachusetts but also for the US–in both good and bad ways. Representatives of the United States entered these negotiations with the intention of establishing trade routes, opening markets, and securing the US as a global player.

The MHS is fortunate to hold treaties, medals, letters, and artifacts documenting trade routes as well as Asian and Pacific Islanders visiting Boston, many seeing the US for the very first time.  Though the narrative found in the archives is often told by white Americans, there are some Asian American and Pacific Islander voices.

Below is a selection of artifacts and documents in our collection that illuminate AAPI history.


This oil painting of the harbor at Hong Kong is attributed to Lam Qua, a 19th-century artist from the Canton province in China. Also known for his portraits of Western and Chinese merchants, as well as medical subjects, Lam Qua was one of the first Chinese painters exhibited in the West. For further reading about this painting and a companion view of the Harbor of Macao, visit www.masshist.org/database/2277.

view of the Hong Kong Harbor
Harbor at Hong Kong, attributed to Lam Qua, [1850s]
John B Trott, an agent for John D. Sword & Company in China during the 1840s, gave the MHS a beautifully detailed manuscript map of China with a Star Chart on top. The combination of the celestial and physical worlds on one map provides wonderful perspective. He also donated The Foreign and Chinese almanac for 1844, Primer of the Shanghai dialect, two copies of the Treaty of Tien Jin, along with other Chinses pamphlets.

There are many collections that center on trade with China housed at the MHS. A description of these collections can be found in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Manuscripts on the American China Trade at the Massachusetts Historical Society on JSTOR, and many of these items have been digitized and are searchable from home through the online database China, America and the Pacific, a publication of Adam Matthew Digital, Inc.


After Commodore Matthew Perry’s Mission of Peace and Goodwill opened commerce with Japan, an Embassy or mission lead by Iwakura Tomomi visited Europe and America to improve the unequal terms given to Japan by Western countries and to learn about the West. In 1872 Boston, the Boston Board of Trade  hosted a lavish banquet at the Revere House with speakers including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. The latter composed a poem for the occasion that begins with the line, “We welcome you, Lords of the Land of the Sun!” Take a look at a lovely dinner menu from the grand affair and read more here: MHS Collections Online: Banquet to the Ambassadors of Japan, by Members of the Boston Board of Trade: Bill of Fare.

menu for a farewell dinner held 2 August 1872
Banquet to the Ambassadors of Japan, by Members of the Boston Board of Trade: Bill of Fare, broadside on silk, 2 August 1872.

This, along with many other items on the relationship between Japan and America can be found in our online catalog Abigail. At the time of the banquet there were only an estimated ten men of Japanese origin living in Boston.

By 19 February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 placing more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans in “Protective Custody” in Internment Camps. Artist Estelle Ishigo documented the hardship of life in the Internment Camps in paintings such as one titled “Mess Hall, Bathroom, Barracks, Japanese Relocation Center, Heart Mt. Wyoming”. Read more about Estelle Ishigo and the Internment Camps: Massachusetts Historical Society: “We searched its gaunt face for the mysteries of our destiny …”: Estelle Ishigo’s Scenes of a Japanese Internment Camp.

Painting of Heart Mountain, Wyoming
“Mess Hall, Bathroom, Barracks. Japanese Relocation Center. Heart Mt. Wyoming.” by Estelle Ishigo, March 1943, 7 P.M.


Although American trade with India preceded the Revolution, it was formalized when George Washington sent Bostonian Benjamin Joy as the first US Council to India in 1794. The British East India Company refused to recognize his status. The MHS holds a fascinating object from that exchange, a Sea Chest, made in India, that accompanied Joy on his voyage back home. Read more about Joy and the Sea Chest here: MHS Collections Online: Sea chest belonging to Benjamin Joy.

Sea chest
Sea chest belonging to Benjamin Joy, circa 1795.

The MHS also houses the Papers of the American Ramabai Association, a charitable organization that helped fund two home for widows in India. The papers are found in two collections and include correspondence both to and from India and America: the Judith Walker Andrews correspondence, 1887-1911 and the Daniel Dulany Addison Collection.

Another fascinating item in the collection is a biography by Caroline Healey Dall.  The Life of Ananabai Joshee: A Kinswoman of Pundita Ramabai (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1888) is about the life of the first Indian women to come to America for the purpose of attending medical School.

There are many items in our collection that illustrate trade and cultural exchange between India and Massachusetts. You can search our online catalog Abigail and read past blog posts: Happy Diwali! and Boston to Bombay*: Historical Connections between Massachusetts and India.

Pacific Islands, specifically Hawai’i

The Pacific Islands were still subject to colonialism by US and European ships into the late 19th century. The arrival of missionaries and merchants endangered the survival of the culture of the Islands. Pamphlets debating the annexation of Hawaii (along with Chinese Immigration in 1878) can be found in the Papers of Congressman George Frisbie Hoar.

Engraving of Hilo, Hawaii
Hilo, Hawaii, engraving by Kepohoni, after Edward Bailey

This engraving of Hilo, Hawaii was made by Kepohani from a drawing by Edward Bailey. Lorrin Andrews successfully created a copper plate printing press in Lahainaluna, and printed the first Hawaiian Language newspaper in 1834. Read more about Andrews, the Hawaiian engravers, and the Lahainaluna Seminary here:  MHS Collections Online: Hilo, Hawaii.

In 1875, the last king of Hawai’i, Kalakaua, visited Boston on a tour of good will to negotiate tarrif-free trade between the Kingdom of Hawai’I and the United States. The visit was strategic as New England sugar interest was at stake. The banquet held on 2 January 1875 was a success for Hawai’I and secured the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875. Read more about the King Kalakaua’s visit to Boston and view a beautiful bill of fare featured at the banquet in this blogpost: King Kalakaua’s Tour of the United States.

These are just a few examples of items in our collection that illustrate the histories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Look for a companion blog post in the coming weeks that feature more primary sources to bring Asian American and Pacific Islander voices to light.