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...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.
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.
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.