William Wood's handwritten and unpublished Memorandum of Miniatures painted and finished by William Wood lists the present portrait as no. 5727 and records the sitter as 'A Servant of Mr Hotson's.' According to Wood's notes, it was completed in March 1800. A portrait of Mr Hotson is also recorded in Wood's list of sitters as no. 5627 'Mr Hotson of Arniston East Indiaman', completed in December 1790. The Arniston was a ship known as an East Indiaman and was owned by the East India Company, making eight journeys from England to India and China between 1795 and 1815. On its final voyage to England from Ceylon the ship, which was carrying over 400 crew and passengers, hit rocks at the southern tip of South Africa and sunk. Only six people survived the tragedy which was caused by the absence of a key navigational tool: a chronometer.
John Hotson (1770-1828) was a purser (keeper of the accounts) for the East India Company and he worked on board The Arniston between 1796 and 1802. He also served on The Walthamstow (1805/06), The Castle Huntley (1813/14), and The Cabalva (1815/16). His service dates, which are recorded in A. Farrington, A Biographical index of East India Compay Maritime Service Officers 1600-1834, The British Library, 1999, p. 394 suggest that Hotson may have boarded The Arniston on its arrival in China in 1796, half way through its first voyage, and may have left the ship half way through its 4th voyage in 1802, also in China. The East India Company Records in the British Library show that five Chinese men joined the Arniston as seamen at the Cape of Good Hope and a further nine Chinese men joined as seamen in Canton during the ship's 2nd voyage in 1796/97. The sitter in the present portrait may have been one of these fourteen men who are all given the same surname in the captain's log book: 'Chinese'.
Wood painted other members of The Arniston who served on board or were associated with The Arniston: Alexander Pearson (d. 1836), surgeon, painted in 1799; James Jameson (b. c. 1772), who became Captain of The Arniston; and Robert Hudson, who became a Principal Managing Owner.
John Hotson is listed in the ship's paybook in which two payments are recorded: one in May 1797 and another in February 1799. The payments total £37.15.6 after deductions to the Poplar Hospital fund. The captain's log book also records the names of passengers, among whom are 'Mrs Mary Hotson' and 'C.G Hotson, her child, aged 1', who were the wife and eldest child of John Hotson. Hotson was the son of George Hotson (1736-1806) and Ann, née Siebel (b. 1733). John married, in 1798, Mary Field (b. 1771) and they went on to have five children, the eldest of whom was Campbell George Hotson (1800-1819). John Hotson died in Mauritius in 1828. Following his death, Mary received an annual pension of £35 from the East India Company for the remainder of her life. The annual pension for a Seaman's widow was £7 and, for a Commander's widow, £180.
The existence of the present portrait suggests that the sitter may have served under Hotson on the ship, and returned to London with him where he was painted by William Wood, between the first and second of the ship's voyages. The status of the sitter as a servant to John Hotson is likely to have been the reason Wood did not record his full name in his fee book. Until recently, he was known as the Chinese servant to Mr Hobson, owing to the misreading of William Wood's memorandum and erronous transcript of it by Daphne Foskett (op. cit.).
From the 17th century Chinese men were serving on East India Company ships alongside sailors who originated from South East Asia who were known as ‘Lascars’ and were far greater in number. The East India Company ships brought some of the Chinese crewmen to London and Liverpool, where Chinese communities started to grow. In London, a Chinese member of the East India Company, John Anthony, was placed in charge of the board, lodging and welfare of the Chinese seamen of the East India Company. He established a boarding house in Shadwell, near the docks, in London, and became known as the father of Limehouse’s Chinatown. He married and owned a house, Hallowall Down in Leyton, Essex and an Act of Parliament enabled his naturalisation. In 1805, aged 39, John Anthony became a British citizen, but died only a few months later.
According to the Census of 1851, there were only 78 Chinese-born people living in England and Wales, and the 1861 Census puts the number at 147.
There had been a long-standing demand for Chinese goods and materials and trade between Britain and China was tightly regulated through the port of Canton. With the growth of Hong Kong as a British colonial port after 1842, the number of Chinese seamen increased further. In 1865 Liverpool’s Blue Funnel Line was established and became the first direct route for a steamship from Europe to China. It crewed its ships with Chinese sailors.