Monday, December 26, 2005

Major-General Cameron and Local Street Riots

1884 was a year of great turmoil in Hong Kong. After a period of improving race relations between the Chinese and British under Governor Sir John Pope-Hennessy, the peace was shattered soon after Governor George Bowen arrived due to the Sino-French War of 1884 over Annam (today's Vietnam). During that war in which France and China disputed who had the sphere of influence in Vietnam (France won out), French ships were in the harbour for repairs after attacking Chinese interests in Fujian and Taiwan. A patriotic Chinese strike was organized by the local populace against helping the French ships, and eventually led to the police and ultimately the colonial garrison called out to stop the protests at the points of their rifle bayonets.

This naturally led to fears of a general uprising, given the fact that Hong Kong's population was over 90% Chinese. The inefficacy of the Sikh policemen to stop the rioters (hence the calling in of the troops) led the British colonial authorities to conclude that more training had to be given to the civil police force. Although British 'bobbies' did not carry guns or firearms traditionally, the thinking was that the police force would be likened to the Irish Constabulary, which were experts with weapons and often armed to the teeth. Indeed, this was why it was Sikhs or North Indians and not Chinese that filled many of the ranks of the police force in the first place.

So it was in this environment that we find some revealing correspondence from the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in China and the Straits Settlements (Singapore/Malaya), Major-General Cameron (yes, the one Cameron Road in Tsim Sha Tsui is named after) to Governor Bowen. Drilling and musketry had definitely become prime requisites for police duty in 1885, particularly after Britain had wrested dominion of North Burma away from China in that year. Major-General Cameron, already the veteran of the Indian Mutiny (as well as the expedition to Abyssinia, among others) was sanguine about the need for more military support in a city garrisonned only by 1,200 men:
Major-General Cameron, C.B., to Governor Sir G.F. Bowen, G.C.M.G.

Head Quarters,
Hongkong, 13th April, 1885


I have the honour to inform you that, with your permission, I saw the Civil Police at Rifle Practice in Kowloon, on Saturday, the 4th instant [meaning of the same month - Ed.], and I candidly confess that, without the slightest desire to flatter, I was exceedingly pleased at their performance, and more especially considering the small amount of ammunition allowed them.

I understand that the arming of the Civil Police with the Martini-Henry Carbine [a relatively new rifle brand then, only a decade in existence - Ed.] as also their Musketry training are entirely due to your Excellency; and I must say that both for the suppression of civil revolt, or for the protection of the Colony in case of attack by an enemy, such an armed and well trained Police Force is of the highest importance.

To render, however, this force thoroughly efficient in Musketry, it is very important (as has been found in regard to the Military), to practice such rapid firing at close quarters as would be necessary in the field, and in clearing the streets in cases of disturbance. [ quite the euphemism - Ed.]

For such practice the present allowance of ammunition, at the rate of 50 rounds per man, is quite insufficient; and I strongly recommend, considering the value of this Police Force, as an important factor in the defences of the Colony, that the annual allowance be increased to 150 rounds per man, and that the ammunition sent out through error and ordered to be returned, vide correspondence (marginally noted) between the Military and Colonial Authorities, be retained for the aforesaid purpose, instad of the useless expense being incurred of returning it all to England as directed.

I have, &c.,

W. G. Cameron,
Commanding in China and Straits Settlements

P.S. Since the above was written, I have received the Inspection report of the Shanghai Volunteers, who appear to have been unable to complete their musketry course owing to want of ammunition; will your Excellency therefore permit the Municipal Council at Shanghai [the foreigners that governed that city's International Settlement - Ed.] to purchase from the Colony the ammunitiion required to the extent of 50,000 rounds, out of the supply overdrawn for the Police?

W. G. Cameron


Governor Sir G. F. Bowen, G.C.M.G. to Major-General Cameron, C.B.

Government House,
Hongkong, 21st April, 1885


I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 13th instant, and to state that your Excellency's testimony to the efficiency of the Civil Police in their Rifle Practice is very satisfactory to myself and to the Government of this Colony.

With the advice of the Executive Council, I have authorised the increased allowance of 150 rounds per man to the Police as you recommend; and I have decided to retain the whole of the Martini-Henry Carbine Ammunition, recently sent out from home, looking to possibvle contingencies in the present critical state of public affairs, [note his panicked tone here - Ed.] and with the view to be in a position to meet the above, and other demands, such as those of the Hongkong Volunteers; and also fo the Shanghai Volunteers (referred to in your letter).

You state: "I understand that the arming of the Civil Police with the Martini-Henry Carbine, as also their Musketry training, are entirely due to your Excellency; and I must say that both for the suppression of Civil Revolt, or for the protection of the Colony in case of attack by an enemy, such an armed and well-trained Police Force is of the highest importance."

I will explain for your information, what has taken place in this matter. Soon after my arrival in this Colony.... I found, moreover, tha tthe carbines formerly supplied to the Police were of an obsolete pattern, worn out, and practically useless; so I procured from Her Majesty's Government for both the Police and the Volunteers, Martini-Henry Rifles of the best type (the same used by the Royal Artillery,) with an ample supply of ammunition.

As I have already said above, your testimony to the present efficiency of the Police in their rifle practice is very satisfactory to myself and to the Colonial Governemnt. A force of three hundred (300) effective men, equial to one-fourth of the whole, has practically been added, in the event of war, or of internal disturbance, to our Garrison of some twelve hundred men (1,200) of all arms; and that... without increase to the expenditure...

In conclusion, I would observe that I know that you agree with me in the opinion that the drill of the Police, and their rifle practice must not be allowed to interefere with the full and diligent discharge of their civil duties in time of peace. On this point, I will quote a passage from my despatch of June 29th, 1883, in whcih I reported to Her Majesty's Govenrment the arrangements which I had made for the imporved efficiency of the Police:-

"I desire it to be understood that nothing can be further from my wish or intention than to invest a Civil Police Corps with too Military a character. But seeing that the English and Sikh potion of the Police Force at Hongkong is regularly armed with rifles and sword-bayonets; that it is analogous in many respects to the Royal Irish Constabulary; and that it is expected to give efficient support to our weak garrison in the event of foreign attack, or of serious internal disturbance,- it is obvious that it should have the advantage of being drilled by a Military Officer as Adjutant. All experience shows that nothing is more useless, and that nothing may become more dangerous than an armed force under imperfect discipline."

I have, &c.,

G. F. Bowen
Imperfect discipline indeed. Imagine the police of Hong Kong, roaming the streets, with access to the state of the art weaponry. Now imagine the fact that most o fthe police force of that time were more or less corrupt. Why was it that the Chinese populace felt they had little recourse to justice?

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