Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Captain Caine, the "Big Man" of Hong Kong

Many of you Mid-Levels denizens of Hong Kong must be familiar with Caine Road, the traffic artery that carries a great deal of traffic from Central's hills towards the University of Hong Kong and the Western part of the island. But how much do you know of the stern, authoritarian miliary man that whose reputation for tough punishment dovetailed nicely with his name? Captain William Caine became Hong Kong's very own Dirty Harry, patrolling the streets of Hong Kong at night, arresting offenders, sentencing them to prison in his second role as magistrate, and then punishing them with rod, whip and prison, and if necessary, stringing them up to the noose in his third role as Superintendent of the Gaol. When Chinese were asked who was in charge of the Colony of Hong Kong, the 'Dai Yun', or Big Man, they would answer immediately: 'Caine'. In their excellent 1982 book, Colin Crisswell and Mike Watson had this to say of the man:
Captain Caine, an officer experienced in the maintenance of army discipline, took the conventional view and accepted that the vigorous employment of the lash and the noose was the best, if not the only means, of impressing the criminal class with the majesty of the law.
The more observant of you may have noted that: 1) the Central police station, the Magistracy and the Victoria Gaol are located together on the same block; and that 2) the entire complex is built like an armed fort, incongruous near the bars on Hollywood Road; and 3) that the southern edge of the square compound adjoins Caine Road. All three have everything to do with this notorious Captain Caine, and the fact the highest point of the complex touches a road named after him is fitting indeed. Because he was the magistrate, the head police officer and jailer, and he selected the complex's position for its ability to resist Chinese rioters and armed conflict.

He was born in 1798 to a poor family, and at the age of 6 apparently became a drummer boy. He apparently participated as a teenager with the 26th Cameronian Regiment of Foot in the Peninsular War against Napoleon in Spain. Later with that Regiment, he shipped out to China to participate in the Opium War in 1839. In 1841, the British authorities were impressed with this disciplinarian and his devotion to duty and he agreed to leave his life-long military career to become the first Magistrate of Hong Kong (thanks to HK-lawyer for the Caine Photo!), as well as head up its first police force.

Now this was a ratty lot, mostly cast-offs from the army, unemployed sailors, Western drunkards and other ne'er do wells. And somehow, he had to make this lot of 35 officers a reputable bunch on a total collective salary of 1,400 pounds a year in a climate where Westerners were literally dying like flies; this naturally was impossible.

So this corrupt, lazy lot was particularly ill-suited to deal with a population that largely only spoke Cantonese, many of whom were from the lower ranks of Chinese societies (First Treasurer of Hong Kong, Montgomery Martin, described the first Chinese as: "There is, in fact, a continual shifting of a Bedouin sort of population whose migratory, predatory, gambling and dissolute habits utterly unfit them for continuous industry and render them not only useless but highly injurious subjects, in the attempt to form a colony.").

Nevertheless, Captain Caine took to his task with relish. Allow me again to quote Crisswell and Watson:
Caine had set about his arduous task with his usual vigour and efficiency. He was to be found working at all hours of the night and frequently patrolled the streets himself. In demeanour he was gentlemanly and dignified; in the application of justice, impartial and severe. It was doubtless true that imprisonment was no deterrent to the criminal element so Caine resorted to the wholesale application of corporal punishment. …even one local paper observed that the magistrates ‘mete out justice according to the judgement which God has been pleased to grant them; equitably in their own opinion no doubt…law, there is none.’ Caine did not manage to check the crime wave to any marked extent but he did succeed in instilling some fear into the hearts of lawbreakers.
It is no wonder that Caine patrolled the streets in the early days, when his office was a mere hut:
Caine’s first office was only a matshed. It was immediately adjacent to the site of the present Central Police Station on ground about 300 feet above sea level. One of the fears of the authorities was of rioting by the Chinese and it was considered that this site, protected by rocky ravines on two sides with a ridge to the front running down to the harbour, was relatively secure from attack. The main European quarter grew up below it. After a few months the matshed was replaced by a granite gaol. The building contained one large room where the chain gang was confined at night.
Caine was later elevated to Colonial Secretary and Auditor General and relieved of his patrolling duties (his jobs were later broken up and appointed to different successors), but continued to voice strong opinions about law enforcement. He remained in service until 1859, when he finally retired and returned to England. One of the last Governors to enjy his services, Sir John Bowring, evidently felt a mixture of admiration and revulsion for this unreconstructed authoritarian. Allow me to quote from Crisswell and Watson one final time:
Governor Sir John Bowring said of [Caine], not long before his retirement in 1859, that ‘though he shakes his head and perceives infinite difficulties, it is always with good humour.’ He added that Caine was ‘of the old – the very old – school’ and was ‘uninformed of what is passing and has passed in England,’ presumably a reference to the more humane and liberal system of law enforcement and of government generally which by that time was being introduced in Britain.
How effective was he? Crime did not fall much under his watch. But the Colony of Hong Kong also grew remarkably during his tenure as both enforcer and senior civil servant, and he created order when the potential for chaos was very high. Today one views his discriminatory measures against the Chinese with some distaste; but in a way, he was doing his best to carry out the initial British promise to govern the Chinese according to Chinese laws and customs. I wonder how many others would have done better when placed in his position?


Anonymous said...

I've lived in the Caine Road area all my life and I thought Mr Caine was a former governor, like Robinson, Seymour, McDonnell, etc! Thx for the info!

Dave and Stefan said...

Not at all Christine. His story is much more exciting than most Governors. There were several accusations of corruption against him, but nothing was ever proven...

chris said...

This is coming very late (nearly two years late!) into the discussion but if you believe what the then editor of the Friend of China in 1861, William Tarrant, has to say about Caine's illustrious career you might need to reassess your good opinion of him and perhaps it might also explain why crime did not drop as much as it ought. Tarrent accused him of severe abuse of his position and provided evidence. Caine understandably took offence, and fearing the loss of a state pension dragged him to court.

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