Wednesday, June 29, 2005

First Contact Between Britain and China

The first recorded contact between Britain and China occurred on the voyage of Admiral Weddell to Macau and Canton, for the purposes of trade, in 1637. Yesterday was the anniversary of their arrival, as Mr. Mundy records that on the 28th of June, 1637, "...[we] went ashoare in the barge with our Kings Majesties lettre and our Admiralls to the Captaine Generall of Macao." Their sojourn in Macau was diligently recorded by one Peter Mundy, and is unique in that it is the only English record (and virtually any record) of a Macau that had reached its peak.

But it is more important than that. It was also the historic point of "First Contact" between the Chinese and English-speaking civilizations. The experience, it is clear, set the tone for subsequent expeditions and approaches to the Celestial Empire of China. Weddell's voyage consequently deserves greater attention today, given the continuing tectonic friction between the two civilizations and the impact that friction has on the rest of the world.

Mundy and his fellow travellers, not suspecting any double-dealing from the Portuguese or the Chinese, had high hopes initially for their expedition, as he said: "They [the letters of the King] were reaved with much respectt and an Answear promised the Next Day."

On that first day, Mundy and his companions were brought to the Jesuit College of St. Paul's, which he exclaimed, inside, had a "rooffe of the Church aperteyning to the Collidge is of the fairest Arche I ever saw to my remembrance, of excellentt worckemanshippe, Don by the Chinois [also by the Japanese, actually - Ed.], Carved in wood, curiously guilt and painted with exquisite collours..." He also remarked of the facade, which is all that is left today, "Allsoe there is a New Faire Frontispice to the said Church with a spacious ascent to it by many steppes; the last mentioned of hewen stone."

Unfortunately, this honeymoon with the Portuguese of Macau did not last. They were all confined to their boats and not allowed on land, and their only contacts with the Portuguese or the Chinese were the occasional delivery of supplies to their boat, for a considerable sum. They were made to watch as the Portuguese Voyage to Japan made good their preparations and made sail for Japan in July. Peter Mundy remarked in his journal bitterly: "...if wee had Free trading here would allsoe trafficke For Japan, and thatt theirby theirs would Decay and soe consequently proove their utter undooing makes them soe unwilling to Deale with us, or thatt wee should have any Commerce att all with others in these parts."

The British, unaware of the Byzantine niceties that surrounded the ambiguous Portuguese sovereignty of Macau, did not realize that the Chinese wanted the Portuguese there not just for trade, but also as a filter to make sure other barbarians did not come their way. The British were convinced that if only they were able to make direct contact with the Chinese in Canton, they could do their trade, and be on their way. So on July 29th, Weddell moved his ships up the Bocca Tigris towards Canton. Portuguese advice that the Chinese would fire upon them was disregarded as lies to prevent them from trading.

Chinese war junks did follow them, but did not open fire. The British stopped at a village on the Pearl River, where they were offered some simple hospitality. Then, for the first time, a British man tried tea. Peter Mundy gives us this historic moment: "The people there gave us a certaine Drinke called Chaa, which is only water with a kind of herbe boyled in itt. It must bee Drancke warm and is accompted wholesome."

Their trip is a long saga that combined the worst of Chinese official delaying tactics and British frustration that boiled over into depredations taken out upon the countryside of the Pearl River. British merchants, taken as hostages, were eventually released with the Portuguese as negotiators. The British were allowed this once to trade, but were told never to return; the business also cost the Portuguese a great deal to the Chinese for them to allow the Portuguese to keep Macau.

When they finally departed Macau in December, Mundy went to call upon Macau's Captain-General once more. Before he had even made the top step of his office, the Captain-General flew out in a rage, and "hee Fell a Rayling in a Most violent Manner with uncivill and Discourteous language, asking if wee knew where wee were, if wee Did not thincke ourselves in the King of Spaines Dominion, or Did know him to bee generall; whither wee thoughtt our selves in London, Miscalling us by the Name of Picaros, Borachos, Traidores, etts., to say, Rogues, Drunkards, traitors, etts,; and that wee should Forthwith Depart to our Shippes, and thatt whomesoever hee Found ashoare in the Morning, hee would cause him to bee hangued and Confiscate all the goodes Found in the towne."

So ended the first British voyage to Macau. The reaction of the Chinese, while unrecorded by Mundy due to language difficulties, can only be imagined to be ten times worse. The British felt the same way as they sailed away. But the mutual frustration on both sides only boiled over 200 years later, in the Opium Wars...


Anonymous said...


My name is Sophie De Zutter from Belgium. I'm making a thesis on this subject. I'm researching all published Dutch and English travel litterature to China and try to seak what kind of opinion these Europeans had on the Chinese. One of the travelstories is the one of Peter Mundy. I urgently need to find a good biography of this man, could you help me out? If you're interested in my thesis or have questions on the subject, feel free to contact me:
Greetings Sophie

Dave and Stefan said...

I have generally only read passing references to Mundy. I came across his account in Charles Boxer's book entitled Macau 300 years ago, but what he publishes there is simply an excerpt. Austin Coates treats the subject in "Macao and the British", but again it is a summary of Mundy's voyage with Weddell.

I am sure you've got a complete account of the Weddell voyage from Mundy, but I must confess I've never actually seen a biography done on Mundy himself. Perhaps it might be a thesis you should turn into a book, given the high interest in contact between East and West!

Anonymous said...

Loved this account. I'm a Brit living in Macau and this is absolutely fascinating. In fact your whole site is. Great job.

Dave and Stefan said...

Why thank you! Comments from people such as yourselves make this whole endeavor worthwhile...