Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Queen Victoria and the Founding of Hong Kong

Yesterday, 20th June, marked the 132nd anniversary of the ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne of Great Britain. The Victorian era represents to historians the high watermark of British global power. As for Hong Kong, it was a young Queen in 1840 that made a speech from her throne in Westminster, according to historian Austin Coates, that "referred to events in China that affected the interests of her subjects and the dignity of the Crown". She apparently followed the Opium War with great interest.

She was nonplussed, however, after being advised by Lord Palmerston of chief British negotiator and Plenipotentiary Charles Elliot having obtained Hong Kong and a quick end to the war. She had said that "it appears that our man Elliot has attempted to get the lowest terms possible from the Chinese", and that, again according to Coates, she "expressed surprised amusement that her representative in China should have presented her with a scarecely-populated, barren granite rock." Elliot was soon summarily dismissed - he, along with last governor Patten, are the only ones without any street or building named after him (actually, the street known as Glenealy was initially known as Elliot's Vale, but was quickly changed after opinion shifted against him).

So, Elliot ended up in the dock for trying to make peace between the great nations of China and Britain. But he was not the only one. Also in hot water was Keying, the Chinese negotiator that had given away Hong Kong with the Treaty of Chuenpeh (superceded a year later by the Treaty of Nanking).

To quote Coates again (and for any who have not read it, Austin Coates' Macao and the British: Prelude to Hongkong 1637-1842 is excellent) for an amusing anecdote with which to wrap up proceedings today:

"The striking similarity between the positions of Elliot and Kishen has already been noted. It did not end there. Elliot was 'banished', first to Texas as British Consul-General, and subsequently to Bermuda, Trinidad and St. Helena successively as Governor. He knew nothing of what had become of Kishen, and when the latter's name came up Elliot would reflectively say in so many words, 'Poor fellow! I suppose they cut off his head.'

But Kishen too had been 'banished', and years later the Abbe Huc was received by him at Lhasa, where Kishen was the Emperor's representative. There the last strange similarity came out. Kishen, whose regard for Elliot was as Elliot's regard for him, with a sigh presumed that Queen Victoria must have had Elliot beheaded."

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