Wednesday, November 02, 2005

George Bowen and Britain's Colonial Plan

Apologies for the absence of a blog entry yesterday, on All Saints' Day. I must plead illness and exhaustion due to a rather late night (and early sunrise) at the office.

It seems fitting then, that today I retell the story of Hong Kong's 9th Governor, Sir George Ferguson Bowen, who had to bow out after just 2 years on the job on account of ill-health. He was born November 2nd, 1821, and took office in Hong Kong in 1883 after a long stint in the Colonial Service (Hong Kong was his last assignment); although his tenure officially stretched to 1887, he had left Hong Kong and his job after 1885 in the hands of William Marsh, because of his illness. It is perhaps ironic that the road named after him in Hong Kong, Bowen Road, is the one most favored by runners and the athletic set of Hong Kong as a (mostly) pedestrianized 5 kilometer running path.

There was little time during his short term in office to accomplish a great deal of lasting value - he is best remembered for establishing the Royal Observatory, an institution that continues to exist in Tsim Sha Tsui to this day. Despite its celestial-sounding pre-occupations, it served a vital purpose in helping to chart the arrival of typhoons that devastated the Colony from time to time.

But an episode from his time in Hong Kong is perfectly illustrative of the secular nature of Hong Kong's colonial plan. In the 19th century, it generally demonstrated some hostility towards other colonizers that tried to bring religious conversion with the administrators, particularly the Catholic colonial powers. In 1885, an Australian Catholic priest-cum-geologist was commissioned by the Straits Settlements Governor Weld to do research on the mines of Malaya, and he came to Hong Kong to give a talk. Governor Bowen introduced the priest in a rather surprising way (audience reaction is as was recorded):
Here we have practical proof that religion has no longer any fear of science. We see a Roman Catholic clergyman about to lecture on what was once considered the dangerous science of geology, and I am surprised we have not the Bishop ready to applaud him, but I am sure it must be owing to some accident that my friend Bishop Raimondi is not here today. (applause) In the sixteenth century, as we all know, the great astronomer Galileo was persecuted because he contended that the earth goes round the sun, and until quite lately geology was considered a more irreligious science than astronomy. This feeling was not confined to the Church of Rome. At the end of the last century an eminent Bishop of the Church of England ridiculed the pretensions of geologists - and we know that ridicule is often a more dangerous weapon than hatred;... by saying that for a man crawling on the face of the earth to pretend that he knew what was going on in the interior of our planet was like a gnat on the shoulder of an elephant pretending that it knew what was going on in the bowels of the huge animal. (laughter) But behold what progress! Here we have Mr. Woods, at the end of the nineteenth century, about to tell us living in Hong Kong what is going on in the bowels of the Malay Peninsula.
Surely the Catholic Church must have caught wind of these anti-Papal rumblings... It serves to remind that Victorian England was very much the product of the Enlightenment, and of a secular society bound morally by religion, but wedded more in mind to science and Progress with a capital P.

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