Thursday, July 13, 2006

April Fools' Day, 1899

The British authorities, clearly having no sense of auspicious timing when deciding when to officially take possession of the New Territories recently leased from China, decided upon April 1st, 1899, as the day to hoist the flag. Negotiations had been ongoing about whether or not Shenzhen was to be included as part of the bargain. As the Viceroy in Canton had refused the request by the Governor of Hong Kong, the matter was forwarded to the British legation in Peking, who then asked the head of the Tsungli Yamen.

Here was the response, as recorded by the Governor of that time, Sir Henry Blake, as well as a foreboding of alarm about events in the New Territories:
1st April, 1899, Telegram to Secretary of State.

Inclusion of Sham Chun refused by Chinese authorities. The people near the boundary decided upon have threatened our workmen employed in the erection of Police matsheds. An inflammatory placard which had been posted in the New Territory has been brought in to me. I propose to proceed this evening to interview the Viceroy at Canton, with a view to having Chinese troops sent to preserve order until we take over the territory - which will be as soon as the matsheds are ready.

He clearly did not want to go into detail in the telegram.He sent this, the following note, in a more detailed form to the Secretary of State, Joseph Chamberlain, via post:
I have this moment a quarter of an hour before the starting of the mail received a report that the party, sent by the Public Works Department to erect the posts on the boundaries settled upon by the Chinese Commissioners and Mr. STEWART LOCKHART, were stopped by the people who informed the party that if they attempted to erect a post they would kill them. The party returned. [A beautiful example of British understatement. - Ed.] At the same time I received from Mr. WEI YUK, a member of the Legislative Council, a copy of a placard that has been posted in the district to be taken over, the translation of which I enclose.


Enclosure No. 1:

We hate the English barbarians who are about to enter our boundaries and take our land, and will cause us endless evil. Day and night we fear the approaching danger. Certainly people are dissatisfied at this and have determined to resist the barbarians. If our fire-arms are not good, we shall be unable to oppose the enemy. So we have appointed an exercise-ground and gathered all together as patriots to drill with fire-arms. To encourage proficiency rewards will be given. On the one hand we shall be helping the Government; on the other we shall be saving ourselves from future trouble. Let all our friends and relatives bring their fire-arms to the ground and do what they can to extirpate the traitors. Our ancestors will be pleased, and so will our neighbours. This is our sincere wish. Practice takes place every day.

First prize:-One gauze coat. A packet of 1,000 crackers.
Second prize:-One pair of brown gauze trousers. A packet of 500 crackers.
Third prize:- One straw hat.
17th Day 2nd Moon. 25th Year of Kwong-sui (28th March, 1899).
A placard issued by the Yuk-on Hin ("Wish for Peace" library) of Pingshan.


[Blake continues]
2. It is of the utmost importance that this movement shall be nipped in the bud. I have determined to proceed to Canton to-day to see the Viceroy and induce him to send troops forthwith to secure and punish the ringleaders and to protect the parties sent in to erect the posts. If this be not done there may be serious trouble. Should I not be successful in having it done, I shall probably proceed to take over possession without delay.

I have the honour to be,
Your most obedient,
humble Servant,


So there was the gauntlet thrown down by the local population. It is a myth sometimes held by the people of Hong Kong that the native inhabitants of the area of Hong Kong accepted British occupation supinely, or even happily as being in their own self-interest. These passages hopefully go some what to redress this perception, for the people of the villages of the New Territories were sufficiently suffused with patriotic fervor that they were to issue this challenge against the British, against overwhelming odds.

And how could anyone miss out on the third prize promised of a straw hat?

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