Monday, October 24, 2005

Convention of Friendship Between Britain and China

The title sounds rather effusive and warm, doesn't it? Too bad it was the name of the treaty that ended the Second Opium War - like the first, a one-sided affair that ended again in humiliating defeat for China. This convention was signed 145 years ago today, on October 24th, 1860.

I've been through the 2nd Opium War before in these pages - essentially, the British were licensing Chinese merchants wanting to fly a British flag of neutrality during the Taiping Rebellion and allowing them to hoist a Union Jack on their merchant vessels. The Chinese stopped one, the Arrow, in 1856, and took the junk into custody. The colonial authorities saw this as an occasion to make right a number of issues that they had not imposed on the Chinese at the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, and to enforce some of that last treaty's conditions that the Chinese had not upheld. The Second Opium War dragged on for 4 years, with a brief interregnum in the middle where there had been some hope for peace. The coup de grace for the British was their joint attack with the French on Peking, and the razing of the Summer Palace to the ground.

But back to the treaty, the 'Convention of Friendship.' The most important new element geographically for Britain, and certainly for Hong Kong, was the permanent cession of Kowloon to the British. What makes this document seem rather bizarre to modern eyes is the fact that it reads more like a formal declaration of marriage, with China giving up her daughter Kowloon's hand:
"With a view to the maintenance of law and order in and about the harbour of Hong Kong, His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of China agrees to cede to Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland..., to have and to hold [! - Ed.] as a dependency of Her Britannic Majesty's colony of Hong Kong, that portion of the township of Cowloon, in the Province of Kwang-tung, of which a lease was granted in perpetuity of Mr. Harry Smith Parkes,... on behalf of Her Majesty's government... "
And so an extra 3.5 square miles of territory was added to the British crown, including Stonecutter's island in the harbour.

Sir Harry Parkes, incidentally, had started his career as a young orphan who had come to Macau aged 13 during the 1st Opium War to learn Chinese. He was a keen student of the Chinese language, but not of the Chinese culture; according to author P.D. Coates, "to the 25-year-old Parkes the shrill whistling and belching of steam by a high-pressure British steamer at Canton seemed a tangible contradiction of his fusty, malodorous teacher's belief that Confucius was the ruling genius of the world."

Harry Parkes in fact had been the one more responsible than anyone else for the start of the 2nd Opium War. What seemed a very defusable situation regarding the Arrow incident was turned into a crisis when Parkes, in his 1856 position as the British Consul in Canton, demanded a very public, humiliating apology from China. This is what he had to say to his missionary brother-in-law in a letter:
"The finger of One who rules the destinies of races is clearly traceable in the whole affair. It is the cause of the West against the East, of Paganism against Christendom, and what may we not look to see as the result? The opening of China indeed, I trust."
Shades of today's neocon imperialists, I should think, bringing God and manifest destiny to bear on a global scale. And yes, in case you were wondering, Parkes Street in the red-light area of Jordan near Kowloon Park is named after this Victorian political moralist.

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