Friday, September 02, 2005

The Unfortunate Lord Napier in Canton

Today we'll go set our time machine for 1834, just a few years before the founding of Hong Kong (our blog today is extra long, consider it a weekend edition!). British merchants first began arriving in force in China in the late 18th century. And to oversee their trade were the representatives of the British East India Company, self-styled the 'Honourable Company' or John Company. For half a century, they ruled the roost in Macau, more powerful than any other single force or individual in the city, dictating the actions and conduct of all British traders in China, whether they belonged to the Honourable Company or not.

But in 1833, that chapter of history came to and end; for that was the year of the Charter Act, which ended the East India Company's monopoly on British trade in Canton. As the British did not want to see chaos in Canton as a result of unregulated British traders, the government of the day dispatched one William John Napier, the 9th Lord Napier, a blue-blooded aristocrat of somewhat limited means, to China as Superintendent of Trade. His assistants were to be old John Company hands.

Sadly though, Napier did not seek their advice overmuch when he arrived in Macau to ascertain the position of Sino-British trade. At that time, China still did not recognize the representatives of any other country on an equal footing, and had in place a myriad of laws to prevent any diplomat from getting an audience with the Governor of Guangdong, let alone the Emperor. But Napier, upon his arrival, fell rapidly into the orbit of William Jardine and James Matheson, ardent free traders who believed that the current system of trade was untenable and an insult to British authority (never mind that their chief business was peddling illegal opium contraband). They worked him up into a frenzy, and got him to believe that he was on a mission from Britain - nay, from God, Adam Smith and the principles of free trade - to end the Chinese trade restrictions once and for all. It did not matter to him that the rules of trade had been previously been strictly followed by the East India Company, and that he was trying to force an unprecedented change in the status quo.

That was a bad idea, because he had no leverage with which to force the issue. He sent a letter to the Governor of Guangdong, but received no reply. This enraged him further, and he decided to head to Canton without permission and present his petition to the Governor directly, in the name of the British Crown. Unbeknownst to him, the Chinese officials were already very familiar with him and what to do with him. They referred to him in his official title as the 'barbarian eye', and transliterated his name to mean 'laboriously vile.'

This was the letter sent by Governor Lu to the Emperor (thanks to the City University of New York website):
The said barbarian [Lord Napier] would not receive the hong-merchants, but afterwards repaired to the outside of the city to present a letter to me, your majesty's minister Lu. On the face of the envelope the forms and style of equality were used ; and there were absurdly written the characters, Ta Ying kwoh (i.e., Great English nation). . . Whether the said barbarian has or has not official rank, there are no means of thoroughly ascertaining. But though he be really an officer of the said nation, he yet cannot write letters on equality with the frontier officers of the celestial empire. As the thing concerned the national dignity, it was inexpedient in the least to allow a tendency to any approach or advance, by which lightness of esteem might be occasioned. Accordingly, orders were given to . . the colonel in command of the military forces of this department, to tell him [Napier]authoritatively, that, by the statutes and enactments of the celestial empire, there has never been intercourse by letters with outside barbarians . . .
Now it is suddenly desired to appoint an officer, a superintendent, which is not in accordance with old regulations. Besides, if the said nation has formed this decision, it still should have stated in a petition, the affairs which, and the way how, such superintendent is to manage, so that a memorial might be presented, requesting your majesty's mandate and pleasure as to what should be refused, in order that obedience might be paid to it . . . But the said barbarian, Lord Napier, without ever having made any plain report, suddenly came to the barbarian factories outside the city to reside, and presumed to desire intercourse to and fro by official documents and letters with the officers of the Central Flowery Land [i.e., China], and this was, indeed, far out of the bounds of reason.<
The inaction and inability to progress enraged Napier further, and so he proceeded to circulate notices in Chinese throughout Canton explaining how 'perverse' Chinese officialdom was for ruining Chinese livelihoods for wont of trade (sounds like a modern complainant to the SCMP). This naturally pissed off the mandarins further, who shot off this counter-notice in the city, in an even more angry tone:
A lawless foreign slave, Napier, has issued a notice. We know not how such a dog barbarian of an outside nation as you, can have the audacious presumption to call yourself Superintendent (of Trade). Being an outside savage Superintendent, and a person in an official situation, you should have some little knowledge of propriety and law.

You have passed over ten thousand miles in order to seek a livelihood; you have come to our Celestial Empire to trade and control affairs;--how can you not obey well the regulations of the Empire? You audaciously presume to break through the barrier passes [i.e., entrance to the city of Canton; forbidden to foreigners] . . . According to the laws of the nation , the Royal Warrant should be respectfully requested to behead you; and openly expose your head to the multitude, as a terror to perverse dispositions.

Napier, in his final letter to the Foreign Secretary in London, wrote the following:
My present position is . .. a delicate one, because the trade is put in jeopardy, on account of the difference existing between the (governor) and myself. I am ordered by his majesty [the king of England] to "go to Canton, and there report myself by letter to the (governor)." I use my best endeavors to do so; but the (governor) is a presumptuous savage.
. . . Had I even degraded the king's commission [i.e., the orders given him by his government] so far as to petition through the hong-merchants for an interview, it is quite clear by the tenor of the edicts that it would have been refused. Were he to send an armed force, and order me to the boat, I could then retreat with honor, and he would implicate himself; but they are afraid to attempt such a measure. What then remains but the stoppage of the trade, or my retirement? [i.e., withdrawal]. If the trade is stopped for any length of time, the consequences to the merchants are most serious, as they are also to the unoffending Chinese. But the (governor) cares no more for commerce, or for the comfort and happiness of the people, as long as he receives his pay and plunder, than if he did not live among them.
He has clearly lost it at this point - he was sent to be a diplomat, and to ensure that unruly traders did not get out of hand. Instead, Lord Napier, turned rabid by the goading of Jardine and the arrogance of Chinese officialdom, was here actually calling for warships to bombard Canton! (Of course, this forshadowed events perfectly less than a decade later) Trade for all foreign merchants was stopped on September 2, 1834 (yes, today in fact, 171 years ago) and Lord Napier was forced to leave Canton, and on the way back to Macau, he died from fever. The anger and frustration of his stay in China had consumed him. Jardine and Matheson paid for his body being sent back to London, along with his widow and child.

The only reason we should remember the unfortunate Lord Napier today, though, is this: he sent one letter to London that, as far as we know, was the very first to highlight the attractions of the island of Hong Kong as a deep-sea harbour protected from the storms and typhoons of the South China Sea. It seems that letter made a lasting impression...

No comments: