Wednesday, August 17, 2005

They Call Me Bruce on Elgin Street

No no, this won't be another Bruce Lee post. The subject of today's write up are the successive 7th and 8th Earls of Elgin, otherwise both known as Lord Elgin. We'll also explain the origins of Elgin Street, known to most of you Hong Kongers as one of the two main drags of Hong Kong's SoHo (South of Hollywood Road) district.

Now many of you may have heard of a certain Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin) that was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. During his tenure, he happened to visit the ancient city of Athens; on it, he saw the horrors that had been inflicted a century earlier on the great classical columns of the Parthenon by warfare between the Venetians and the Turks. Determined to preserve these fabulous treasures, he had then shipped, at enormous expense to himself, back to the United Kingdom.

We've all heard the tired debates about whether or not this was heritage theft, or in fact an enlightened effort to protect antiquities of inestimable value. Obviously there are merits to the arguments of both sides. The Elgin Marbles, as they were known, were being horribly taken care of by the Ottoman Turks whilst they ruled Greece. Lord Elgin's removal of these treasures, at great cost to himself, out of an increasingly restive area that soon was to experience the War of Greek Independence, seemed like an entirely reasonable thing to do. But what happens centuries later, when a country that sees its civilization as being the heirs to the Parthenon, feels they can take care of their own treasures and they'd like it back, thank you very much? It is an argument made more difficult by the destruction of fabulous treasures of Babylon that, for instance, were held in a heavily-bombed museum in Berlin during the Second World War. You also hear no end of such arguments about the European adventurers on the Silk Road if you go to Dunhuang. I am sympathetic to the repatriation of treasures to countries now far more wealthy and able to take care of their treasures than before, but I really don't think there is a right answer. My view is - if the nations are wealthy enough, the museums of the former colonial powers should set prices, and the colonized should just buy the artefacts back.

Speaking of buying things back, as I mentioned Lord Elgin, the 7th Earl of Elgin, repatriated the Elgin Marbles at considerable personal expense. He also had a lousy time of it in the East, losing his nose to a wasting disease. His wife, repelled by him, left for England separately and became the lover of her escort. Lord Elgin tried to sue this lover for the money he spent transporting the Parthenon treasure, to no avail. He eventually married a much younger woman, with whom he had a son called James.

Now, unfortunately for you, Elgin Street has nothing to do with the 7th Earl of Elgin, but does have everything to do with his son the 8th Earl of Elgin, James Bruce. So bear with me! Elgin Jr. was also a participant in public service - he was Governor of Jamaica in 1842, and later became Governor-General of Canada. How did he enter the picture in Hong Kong? Well, he was appointed High Commissioner to China in 1857 - after the Arrow War, later known as the Second Opium War, had started, and in the year the Chinese tried to poison Hong Kong's entire European population with arsenic in the E Sing Bakery incident.

So he arrived in Hong Kong and in China just in time to oversee the mostly successful campaign waged against China, starting with the siege and taking of Guangzhou (Canton). He teamed up with the French, who, desirous of territorial and economic concessions from China, used the killing of a French missionary as the excuse to attack the Qing empire. When the Chinese reneged on the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858 that gave Western powers the right to send ambassadors to Beijing, Lord Elgin ordered the resumption of war. In 1859, he landed a joint Anglo-French expeditionary force not far from Tientsin (Tianjin) and eventually surrounded Peking. There he and his generals consulted, and decided to burn down the Emperor's Summer Palace.

What an irony for the son of the man accused of stealing the world's most famous heritage treasure in the name of preservation, to burn down ans sack a priceless site of Imperial China! His rationale for the vandalism was that he wanted to discourage the Chinese from using kidnappings of Westerners as a tool of warfare, and in retaliation for the Emperor's forces reneging on a white flag of truce. His successful prosecution of the war led Hong Kong's authorities to name a street in his honor, even though he famously loathed Hong Kong and its stuffy, rigid colonial society (he much preferred Jamaica or Canada). He died shortly after the war ended (1860), in 1863.

So next time you amble drunkenly down Elgin Street, headed for the escalator, think of the man who hated Hong Kong, destroyed the Summer Palace, and forced the legalization of opium in China...and think about what you'll need to do to get a street named after yourself!

No comments: