Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Hong Kong Under the Lion's Paw

Today marks the beginning of the first recorded English newspaper on the China Coast, entitled the Canton Register; it was founded on November 8th, 1827. It conveyed the news of the day, and sometimes had information about the movements of ships, but it was best remembered for its fulminating, passionate columns about how trade should be conducted between Britain and China. It was published in Canton, and later in Hong Kong, until 1843.

Who was its founder? None other than the great opium trader James Matheson. It was a biweekly publication, and had much useful information about the prices, quantities and trade shipments from a man in possession of a great deal of commercial intelligence - after and his partner William Jardine had acted on it first, of course.

I shall remember it best for its prescient prediction of Hong Kong being the place upon which Britain would set up its stall. Perhaps that is not difficult to fathom though, when British military policy in China had been wholly guided by the maps and advice of his partner Jardine. The actual author is unknown, but James Matheson certainly played an active role in the writing of the Canton Register, and was certainly one of the best educated Westerners on the China coast. The quote:
"If the lion's paw is to be put down on any part of the south side of China, let it be on Hongkong; let the lion declare it to be under his guarantee a free port, and in ten years it will be the most considerable mart east of the Cape. The Portuguese made a mistake: they adopted shallow water and exclusive rules. Hong Kong, deep water, and a free port for ever."
The only problem with the quote from the perspective of it having come from the hand of James Matheson is - Matheson was a Scot. Might he not have used the analogy of the unicorn instead? But it was after all going to be mainly English firepower that would overwhelm the Chinese defenses.

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