“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

The Balestiers: The First American Residents of Singapore

Posted: March 20th, 2017 | No Comments »

I didn’t know this story (despite having walked along Balestier Road many times) – and RE Hale’s The Balestiers is worth a read….

The Balestier family were the first Americans to take up residence in Singapore, where they arrived from Philadelphia in 1834. Although the name Balestier today remains as a road and district, the full story of the family has not been told until now. And what a story it is. Joseph Balestier, aged 46, had received an appointment as United States Consul. He was accompanied by his wife Maria, 48, and their son Revere, 15. On landing, they were shocked to find Singapore closed to American shipping, with no opportunities for earning commissions from the supplying of ships, which Joseph had been banking on for his income. The outlook was grim. But they persevered. A powerful, vivid picture of life emerges, in particular from a newly discovered trove of letters written by Maria to her relatives in America. These letters give us a priceless first-hand view of the family’s daily life, the sometimes absurd customs of Singapore society, the growth of the settlement, the mercantile activity of the port and the colourful characters brought in its wake, and the dangers constantly hanging over their heads – tigers, pirates, malaria, floods. They also reveal, movingly, Maria’s private thoughts – the joys and the heartbreaks. In addition, this volume investigates the Balestiers’ life before they arrived in Singapore, Joseph’s foray into sugarcane plantations in Singapore (at the location which has since come to bear his name), his subsequent travels as US Presidential Envoy, and his life until he died in 1858 – all of which have never before been published in such detail. Combining rigorous historical research with superb narrative skill, author R.E. Hale brings to life the fascinating story of this pioneering family.

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