Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Chusan, Hong Kong, and What Might Have Been

We mentioned yesterday that in the 1850s, one belligerent American consular official by the name of Dr. Peter Parker had recommended that the United States seize Taiwan upon seeing the success of British Hong Kong. But the choice of Hong Kong itself was never inevitable. On 5th July 1840 (165 years ago) the Royal Navy bombarded, and then attacked, the city of Dinghai on Chusan (today known as Zhoushan). This island, strategically located near the mouth of the Yangtze River, was felt to be an important tactical acquisition during the Opium War. Some historians have regarded it as a bargaining-chip the British took for other concessions, but at least during its first occupation in 1840, it is now clear that the Royal Navy had no intention of passing the island back into Chinese ownership.

The town of Dinghai was defended by a crack garrison of Manchu soldiers. However, while well-trained, they were poorly equipped and were no match for the modern British armaments of the Royal Navy and its Marines. Consequently, the one-sided affair became a slaughter. According to a contemporary reporter for the India Gazette:

"A more complete pillage could not be conceived than took place. Every house was broken open, every drawer and box ransacked, the streets strewn with fragments of furniture, pictures, tables, chairs, grain of all sorts — the whole set off by the dead or the living bodies of those who had been unable to leave the city from the wounds received from our merciless guns. ... The plunder ceased only when there was nothing to take or destroy."

Chusan then was occupied by the British until the end of the Opium War, and then again until 1846. It was also re-occupied by the British during the Second Opium War. However, it was not taken as a permanent cession by the British, even though Lord Palmerston and senior members of the British government had pressed for the use of this island off of Zhejiang province. The reason? The malaria problem on Chusan had been even worse than that of Hong Kong, and Plenipotentiary Charles Elliot disregarded his superior's instructions on keeping the island so as to effect a quick end to the war before the occupying forces had been completely decimated by disease. A memorial stood for a long time on Chusan, and it is believed, according to a Royal Asiatic Society expedition to the island some years before, that it had been replaced by a more plain memorial actually erected by the People's Liberation Army.

By the time Palmerston had gotten wind of the abandonment of Chusan, it had been too late to change course - Hong Kong had already been settled. But for an accident of history though, the history of Britain's easternmost mart of trade might have been very different. What would a Hong Kong with Shanghainese, rather than Cantonese characteristics, have been like?

The Second Opium War though, was not entirely the end of British military personnel on the group of islands around Chusan. In 1942, a Japanese troop ship called the Lisbon Maru was transporting Allied POWs back to Japan for corvee labour. However, an American submarine, thinking it filled with Japanese troops, sank it with a torpedo not far from Chusan. The Japanese on board closed the hatches before escaping, hoping to drown all the prisoners, but 384 POWs, many of them British, managed to escape and were later rescued by the fisherman of those islands. Under entirely different circumstances, men of His Majesty's Service had been returned near to the first British possession in China.


Becky Cheung said...

interesting blog. personally, i have stayed in hk for about the last 12 years and i love this blog

Anonymous said...

Excellent! Well informed and well written!

Dave and Stefan said...

I'm really glad to hear you guys like these posts! I'll keep them coming...