Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Hated Colonial Sinologists

Sir John Francis Davis, the Second Governor of Hong Kong, was a principled man, Sinologist, and friend of the Chinese - he had translated several Chinese classics into English. He would brook no nonsense from opium dealers or others that questioned his authority. For those traits, he was loathed by Hong Kong's expatriate community. Endacott quotes historian Norton-Kyshe on Davis:"Sir John Davis had gone home branded as a libeller two years before the usual term of office, having been permitted to resign. An unexampled career of oppression had rendered miserable the existence of his subordinates;... and he had left these parts without having a single friend."

This was a fate shared by other British officials that took a stand against poor, unfair treatment of Chinese, or that believed that equality of treatment was an option with Chinese government officials or Hong Kong's burgeoning Chinese population. John Carroll, who wrote the introduction to a recent reprint of George Endacott's classic historic text, A Biographic Sketch-Book of Early Hong Kong, had some interesting observations about the colonial mindset with China. Specifically, he discusses why the British took pains to learn Indian languages and dialects, but not Chinese:
Readers familiar with the British colonial experience in India may be surprised by how little interest most British officials seem to have taken in Chinese culture. Certainly there were exceptions. Before coming to Hong Kong as governor, Endacott tells us, John Davis had been one of the few East India Company officials who bothered to study Chinese. Davis helped found the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, which continues today to promote interest in Hong Kong history. John Bowring believed that learning Chinese and maintaining more personal contact with local Chinese residents and officials in China would help him solve problems in Hong Kong and improve Anglo-Chinese relations - a task at which his predecessors had failed. Included in Chapter 17 among "Some Other Officials" is Thomas Wade, the linguist and diplomat who served as assistant Chinese secretary to the Superintendent of Trade. Wade later became Professor of Chinese at the University of Cambridge, where he helped devise the Wade-Giles system for romanizing Chinese...

But such men were rare in Hong Kong. Whereas in India learning local languages and cultures was considered essential for conquering and controlling Britain's "Jewel in the Crown," most British officials in China and Hong Kong did not share this concern. Unlike in India, Europeans in China and Hong Kong communicated with Chinese almost completely in English or pidgin. Shortly after his arrival in Hong Kong in 1859 - verynearly twenty years after the British first occupied the island - Governor Hercules Robinson complained that not a single senior colonial officer in his new administration could read or write Chinese. When Robinson offered financial incentives to encourage officers to study Chinese, only three responded to his offer. [Undoubtedly because of pronouncements like previous Governor Samuel Bonham that studying Chinese would affect one's brain - Ed.] Not until two years later, in 1861, did the British make plans for training (including Chinese language instruction) cadets for the Hong Kong Civil Service.

This lack of interest in Chinese culture among British officials and colonists has never been explained adequately. One possibility is that because Britain acquired Hong Kong primarily for commerce rather than for settlement, most Europeans in early Hong Kong were sojourners who had no intention of staying in the colony for more than a few years. The difference between China and India may also have been a matter of timing. Whereas in the late 1700s and early 1800s the East India Company encouraged its employees in India to learn local languages and customs, most of the traders in early Hong Kong were private traders who arrived after the East India Company had already lost its monopoly on the China trade. These private traders were interested mainly in making a quick fortune, rather than in learning about Chinese culture. By this time, even in India the old generation of British 'Orientalists' interested in India culture had been replaced by the new 'Anglicists,' and the East India Company no longer promoted the study of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. Finally, India may have been the exception rather than the rule. As D. K. Fieldhouse has argued, British colonial officials often had little knowledge of local conditions in their empire.
All interesting thoughts. I suppose that a theory held by my old, late professor of colonial history, Robin Winks, applies here - the theory of first contact. The dynamic of relations between races is often determined by first contact, and for instance, he felt, explained why the first contact of Australian penal colonial felons with Aborigines made for poor race relations in Australia, whereas the well-educated, Presbyterian settlers of New Zealand got on substantially better with the Maoris.

While recorded contact had been made between the British and Chinese since 1637 (which, it must be said, did not go particularly well!), it was the trading system of Canton, and the subsequent opening of treaty ports by the First Opium War, that really defined the relations between China and Britain - an adversial one that involved the Chinese, who were in a desperately poor strategic position, using intransigence on the one hand, and the British, with superior firepower who simply used force when overly frustrated, on the other. The British of early Hong Kong - soldiers, opium traders, itinerants, adventurers, prostitutes and beachcombers - were not exactly of an enlightened class. Nor were the semi-piratical early inhabitants of Hong Kong, many of them quite uneducated. This dynamic of corrupt, venal and impatient British officials, many of them who could not understand a word of Chinese, working with a lower-class Chinese population used to living at the fringe of the Qing empire naturally led to poor race relations, one that continued even as more educated and enlightened men (and women) came to Hong Kong on both the British and Chinese sides.

Which brings us back to our original quote - is it any surprise then that men such as Davis, Hennessy, or even Elliott were despised by their colonial contemporaries? To me, it seems, Hong Kong never entirely got over the first real sustained national contact between the British and Chinese civilizations - forged in the fires of War.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

It has been my experience, during the 20th century, that the second any White Hong Kong civil servant became the slightest bit interested in improving the lot of the local Chinese population, they would be hounded out of office by businessmen and other versted interests.

A trait that was not merely limited to the white interests, but also extended to the Chinese who were at the top of the pile seeking to keep down the Chinese who were at the bottom of the pile.

ACB

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Anonymous said...

It has been my experience, during the 21st century, that the second any Hong Kong civil servant becomes the slightest bit interested in improving the lot of the local Chinese population, they are hounded out of office by businessmen and other versted interests.

Dave and Stefan said...

I quite agree. The Chinese in Legco in the 19th century were vehemently against change in most senses for the Chinese population, believing that any improvement would generally cost money, and that would result in an increase in costs that would be allegedly tough on the Chinese coolie, but more likely, for the bottom line of wealthy Chinese merchants that depended on a virtually limitless supply of cheap, disposable Chinese labor. (sound familiar?)

Anonymous said...

"The British of early Hong Kong - soldiers, opium traders, itinerants, adventurers, prostitutes and beachcombers - were not exactly of an enlightened class."

Why call the traders 'opium traders'? Their goal, after all, wasn't primarily to sell opium to the Chinese - it was to trade for tea, silk, etc. The Manchurian officials didn't want trade, so they set up all kinds of restrictions, the worst being that they only wanted to accept gold as payment. In other words, they were willing to export but not import.

The traders didn't have unlimited amounts of gold and were determined to trade, so they looked for something that they could smuggle into the country. Given the long tradition of opium use in China, it was easier to smuggle opium than, say, clocks or safety matches.

So, while it's true that they traded opium, they weren't primarily 'opium traders'. The Manchurians could have easily stopped the trade in opium by forbidding that but allowing other types of trade. They didn't do that because their primary goal was to prevent opening up to foreign influences.

I'm not trying to defend Britain - it shouldn't have gone to war to force trade on China. Still, it wasn't about opium.

Dave and Stefan said...

I believe the historical record entirely justifies labelling the merchants as opium merchants. While the exchange of payments issue was a problem for the British East India Company in the early 19th century, because it traded in tea and was not permitted by company statutes to carry tea to China, a middleman appeared on the scene by the 1810s. This was the country trader, who was not bound by the statutes of the East India Company, and could carry opium grown in Bengal directly to China.

What then grew around this trade was a neat triangular trade. The East India Company had cash in London from its tea sales, but was perennially short of specie in the Far East. The opium dealers, which were the country traders, were cash rich, but wanted a safe way to repatriate their funds to Europe or America. So the East India Company, while not stricly carrying opium to China, gave bills of exchange to the country traders in exchange for their silver, and the Company then used the silver to buy their tea.

Everyone did well under this system except for the Chinese. The right of the East India Company to supervise the trade with China, though, kept most of the country-traders at least nominally in-bounds.

But things got out of hand when the British East India Company lost its monopoly by 1833, within the space of a few years, the Company grew meaningless as a trading power or an enforcement agent in Canton or Macau. Then the trading of opium was unrestricted by external influence, and volumes consequently grew dramatically. This alarming rise in the opium trade is what concerned the Emperor so much and spurred him to send Lin Zexu to enforce statutes on the books already banning opium.

To say that the biggest traders of the day (Jardine, Dent, Russells) were not opium traders is historical fallacy. That was by far their major import to China in the 1830s and 1840s and to call them anything else would be disingenuous.

Dave and Stefan said...

I believe the historical record entirely justifies labelling the merchants as opium merchants. While the exchange of payments issue was a problem for the British East India Company in the early 19th century, because it traded in tea and was not permitted by company statutes to carry tea to China, a middleman appeared on the scene by the 1810s. This was the country trader, who was not bound by the statutes of the East India Company, and could carry opium grown in Bengal directly to China.

What then grew around this trade was a neat triangular trade. The East India Company had cash in London from its tea sales, but was perennially short of specie in the Far East. The opium dealers, which were the country traders, were cash rich, but wanted a safe way to repatriate their funds to Europe or America. So the East India Company, while not stricly carrying opium to China, gave bills of exchange to the country traders in exchange for their silver, and the Company then used the silver to buy their tea.

Everyone did well under this system except for the Chinese. The right of the East India Company to supervise the trade with China, though, kept most of the country-traders at least nominally in-bounds.

But things got out of hand when the British East India Company lost its monopoly by 1833, within the space of a few years, the Company grew meaningless as a trading power or an enforcement agent in Canton or Macau. Then the trading of opium was unrestricted by external influence, and volumes consequently grew dramatically. This alarming rise in the opium trade is what concerned the Emperor so much and spurred him to send Lin Zexu to enforce statutes on the books already banning opium.

To say that the biggest traders of the day (Jardine, Dent, Russells) were not opium traders is historical fallacy. That was by far their major import to China in the 1830s and 1840s and to call them anything else would be disingenuous.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps one might venture the thought that Chinese society during the Qing was so patently a disaster as to rather repel the notion that it deserved close attention? What was Chinese culture then anyway? A mongrel combination of a decaying Manchu autocracy, Confucian confusian and a downtrodden, brutalized peasantry. Similarly, travelers to today's Sudan or Somalia might not be especially inspired to study those societies' without a strong prospect of reward. Which by definition, given the chaos those 'countries' inhabit, would not be forthcoming. In contrast, India was a magnificent civilization for much of the period Britain dealt with it.

Ann said...

It's certainly true that Jardine, Dent, Russells, etc. were traders who handled opium. But the fact that opium was their chief import into China was entirely the choice of the Manchurian rulers, not the choice of either the traders or the Chinese people.

The British government was wrong to go to war to force trade on another country, and the Chinese government was wrong to withhold from their people the benefits of trade and the freedom to buy what they would have wanted to buy.

But its downright silly to suggest that the main goal of the traders was to sell opium to the Chinese - they would have received far less pressure from the politicians at home if they had been allowed to instead sell clocks, broadcloth, matches and other products. Their goal was to trade, and the demand in Britain was to buy tea, not to sell opium.