Chinese Dragon

The China Desk

home | the strait scoop | by others | links | downloads

When Eccentrics Ruled the Roost
Arthur Hacker
Month 00, 2004

Arthur Hacker, a longtime resident of Hong Kong, is a historian and artist

Far away from London under the dazzling tropical sun, Hong Kong's first governors turned to treachery, warmongering and not a little backbiting

THERE IS A POPULAR two-dimensional image of the British colonial in the early days of Hong Kong: he is depicted as a crimson-faced, gin-swilling planter or army colonel with a gigantic white mustache who waves a fly whisk and brays "boy" in a loud, plummy voice. Actually, this sort of creature was a rarity in Hong Kong -- though Sir Henry Pottinger, the Colony's first Governor (1843-1844) and previous Administrator (1841-1843), had some of the qualifications. He was a heavy drinker, had once been a colonel in the 5th Bombay Native Infantry and sported an impressive mustache.

That, however, is where his resemblance to the Colonel Blimp stereotype ended. Pottinger spoke with a soft Irish brogue and as a teenager had been a remarkably daring spy. His brush with espionage began in 1810, after London caught wind of a plan by France and Russia to form an alliance to invade British India through Persia. Disguised first as a Tartar horse dealer and later as a holy man, young Pottinger successfully blarneyed his way through Sind and Baluchistan, which were not a part of British-held India at the time. Pottinger's mission was a great success, although in the end the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, gave up the idea of invading India and attacked Russia instead.

On becoming Governor of the new colony, Pottinger was obliged by the Charter of Hong Kong of 1843 to establish two civilian bodies, the Executive and Legislative Councils. Pottinger had a military background and did not take kindly to being advised by civilians. He was able to frustrate the concept of a two-council administration by a simple device: he appointed the same people to both bodies.

The councils were small and -- happily for Pottinger --never met due to the lack of a quorum. One member, John Morrison, a brilliant young Chinese linguist, died within a few days of his appointment. Another councilor, the colorless former Administrator, Alexander Johnston, went on a very long sick leave. As Pottinger was a major-general, and the sole remaining councilor, the redoubtable William Caine, only a humble major, the Governor was able to do exactly what he wanted, often with disastrous results.

Pottinger's cavalier approach to government caused enormous problems. All treaties are unequal, but some treaties are more unequal than others. The Commercial Treaty of the Bogue in 1843 was unique because the English and the Chinese versions were different. The Chinese Commissioner, Keying (Qiying), was alleged to have surreptitiously inserted a number of trade regulations into the Chinese text that were not in the agreed English version. This created chaos in shipping and trade, but Pottinger, although embarrassed at being misled, did not seem to harbor any resentment toward Keying over the incident. He treated it as a part of the political game and they occasionally got drunk together. Pottinger even named his son after the Chinese Commissioner.

Gutzlaff tried to save the souls of those he was poisoning

Keying inserted his secret clauses after the final draft had been approved, but the blame for the incident fell rather unfairly on the shoulders of the interpreter, Robert Thom, who with Morrison had prepared the original document. There was a critical shortage of interpreters at that time because it was a capital offense in China for a Chinese to teach a foreigner the language. Pottinger wanted Thom as his Chinese Secretary. But when Thom was sent to the new northern Treaty Port of Ningpo, Pottinger had to make do with the Rev. Karl Gutzlaff.

A former Pomeranian saddle maker, Gutzlaff arrived in the Portuguese enclave of Macau in 1831. He was a missionary and printed thousands of religious tracts, which he gave to his converts to distribute. These venal "rice-Christians" sold them back to the printer, who resold them to Gutzlaff. This tended to frustrate his hopeless grand design "to evangelize en masse a great nation." Early in his career he had acted as an interpreter on an opium ship owned by Jardine, Matheson & Co., and helped to smuggle the drug into China. With one hand Gutzlaff sold illegal opium and with the other he handed out religious tracts designed to save the souls of the Chinese he was poisoning. When Gutzlaff died he was discovered to be extremely rich.

Incidentally, the opium trade was not confined to the British. The leading American opium firm was Russell & Co. Its taipan was an old sea captain named Warren Delano. He was at one time the American vice-consul in Canton (Guangzhou) and was a staunch Republican. His political philosophy is best summed up by his somewhat bigoted statement, "I will not say that all Democrats are horse thieves, but it does seem that all horse thieves are Democrats." He was rather upset when his daughter married a Democrat, James Roosevelt. Her son, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, became the 32nd U.S. president. He was also a Democrat.

'Like a yelping cur, he at length aroused the lion'

Pottinger had declared Hong Kong a free port. This presented difficulties for the second Governor, Sir John Davis, who ruled from 1844 to 1848. In order to raise revenue, he put taxes on everything he could think of: tobacco, liquor, auctions, marriages, even tombstones. His poll tax caused a mass exodus of Chinese from the colony and had to be repealed. He became so unpopular that when he donated the Plenipotentiary's Cup for a horse race with prize money of $200, not a single horse was entered and the race had to be canceled.

To say that Davis was unlucky with his officials would be an understatement. His colonial treasurer, Robert Montgomery Martin, ran a personal campaign urging the British government to abandon Hong Kong and return it to China because, he said, the climate was unhealthy. When asked to comment, General George d'Aguilar, the army commander, wrote: "Mr. Martin must be mad or something worse." Luckily, the Governor did not have to put up with Martin for long. When Davis sold the Opium Monopoly to George Duddell, a dubious entrepreneur, Martin proclaimed that, "Private vice should not be a source of public revenue" and promptly resigned.

Then there was the postmaster saga. Davis was a man of massive intellect and despised just about everybody. The postmaster, Thomas Scales, got so fed up with the Governor nagging him about the inefficiency of the postal service that he refused to handle the Governor's dispatches. Davis sent an Irish sergeant around to sort the matter out, but Scales continued to be difficult. The upshot was reported thus: "Like a yelping cur he at length aroused the lion and the noble animal's paw was laid upon him." Put another way in classic Victorian English, the sergeant took Scales by the throat and shook him until the wretched postmaster, who "with trembling, acknowledged his own insignificance." This masterful method of dealing with tiresome civil servants seems to have fallen into disuse.

The Governor also quarreled with his Chief Justice, John Hulme. Davis believed in the divine right of governors and Hulme stood for the independence of the judiciary. Unfortunately, Hulme got drunk at a party aboard H.M.S. Agincourt and danced the horn pipe with a mandarin called Tung. It was a great party, but Davis did not see it that way. He accused the Chief Justice of drunkenness. Hulme's unusual defense -- that his occasional unsteady gait was due to varicose veins -- did not impress the Executive Council, and Hulme was dismissed. But Hulme had friends back in merry old England and the verdict was overruled by the Secretary of State in London, leading to the unpopular Davis's resignation.

'The study of chinese warped the intellect'

Sir George Bonham, the next Governor from 1848 to 1854, was a tough, pragmatic realist. He persuaded the Chinese Viceroy of Kwangsi and Kwangtung (present-day Guangxi and Guangdong provinces), who was notorious for his hatred of foreigners, to help the British wipe out the pirates of the Pearl River delta. At that time, the British Admiralty offered financial rewards for the capture of pirates. The campaign was so successful that it had to pay out ?76,690 to local sailors. This resulted in a change of policy, and cash payments were stopped in 1850.

Bonham, for all his common sense, had his eccentricities. He subscribed to the theory that, "The study of Chinese warped the intellect and undermined the judgment." Davis, his predecessor, had been a considerable Chinese scholar and his successor, Sir John Bowring, was also a brilliant linguist and the way they conducted themselves unfortunately tended to support Bonham's extraordinary theory.

Communications in the age of the sailing ship were agonizingly slow: it took six months for a letter to reach Hong Kong from England and six more to return. This gave the governors of Hong Kong considerable autonomy. Successive British governments had instructed their representatives to avoid armed conflict with China. But Bowring, Governor from 1854 to 1859, chose to ignore these instructions. The Canton authorities had arrested some Chinese sailors aboard a British-registered ship called the Arrow. Bowring sent the British fleet up to Canton where it bombarded the city. The Chinese reacted by burning down the foreign enclave, known as the "Factories." This was the beginning of the Arrow War. (Ironically, Bowring had formerly been Secretary of the Peace Society in England.)

When the news reached London, there was a debate in the House of Commons and the Tories succeeded in defeating the Liberals, who supported Bowring, forcing an election. In the meantime, it was discovered that the Arrow's British registration had run out and the ship was not entitled to British protection anyway. This was followed by a period of phony war and the two nations might even have drifted into peace had it not been for the incident of the poisoned bread.

'This noisy, quarrelsome, discontented little island'

On Jan. 15, 1857, Chinese terrorists attempted to murder the entire foreign community by lacing the Colony's bread with arsenic. The theory was that the Chinese ate rice whereas the British ate bread. The plot misfired because the conspirators forgot that the Indian community, who tended to take their breakfast before the British, also ate bread and consequently there were a lot of sick Indians; but nobody actually died. The British were outraged. The main suspect was the Chinese baker Cheong Ahlum. He had left for Macau that morning aboard the steamer Shamrock with his children. He was arrested and brought back to Hong Kong for trial.

It soon became obvious that Ahlum was innocent. It seems, for instance, that his children had eaten the bread and had become violently ill. The not-so-compassionate attorney-general, Thomas Chisholm Anstey, argued that the kids were only suffering from sea-sickness and that, in any case, the baker and his entire staff should be hanged whether they were guilty or innocent. "Better hang the wrong men," he said in open court, "than confess that British sagacity and activity have failed to discover the real criminals." That cut no ice with Chief Justice Hulme, who believed passionately in the impartial administration of justice. But when a jury declared Ahlum not guilty, he was nonetheless forced to submit to "voluntary banishment." Ahlum moved for a time to Vietnam, where he opened another bakery.

Anstey was a Tasmanian, who had formerly been a member of Parliament for Youghal in Ireland. It is claimed that the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, appointed him to be Hong Kong's attorney-general simply to get rid of the troublesome antipodean. Once in the Colony, though, Anstey proceeded to cause trouble there.

From time to time the Hong Kong government passed unenforceable laws. The Buildings and Nuisances Ordinance was one. There were around 70,000 Chinese in the Colony at the time, most of whom lived illegally on crown land. The Chinese inhabitants naturally disliked this ordinance and they were supported by most of the magistrates. This, however, was not good enough for Anstey.

The legal historian James Norton-Kyshe described what happened: "The Attorney-General, placing himself almost in the position of an informer, walked around the Chinese portion of the town, and required the police to issue summonses against those whom he pointed out." These unfortunates were dragged in front of the chief magistrate who fined them heavily. The Chinese reacted by going on strike and closing their shops. William Caine, the acting governor at the time, called out the army to restore order. The Chinese community replied pacifically with a list of grievances and a compromise was soon worked out much to the chagrin of the inflammable Anstey. This incident was known as the "Anstey Riots."

Thanks partly to Anstey, the Bowring era was a time of great unrest in the Colony. The Times correspondent summed up the situation when he wrote: "Hong Kong is always connected with some fatal pestilence, or some discreditable internal squabble, so much so that, in popular language, the name of this noisy, bustling, quarrelsome, discontented little Island may not inaptly be used as a euphemous synonym for a place not mentionable to ears polite."

Hennessy's whole career was one of eccentric strife

In 1859, London sent Sir Hercules Robinson, a tough Irishman, to sort out the mess. He was followed seven years later as Governor by an even tougher Irishman, Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell, who was a hard man; he thoroughly cowed the troublesome merchants and the vitriolic press by the strength of his dynamic, overpowering personality. In turn, he was replaced in 1872 by Sir Arthur Kennedy, also an Irishman, but of the charming variety. Kennedy is credited with inventing the "don't rock the boat" policy, which has been until recently the cornerstone of Hong Kong's political philosophy.

Having bullied, then soothed, the troublesome colonials into a state almost approaching harmony, the British government erred; it appointed Sir John Pope Hennessy in 1877 to replace Kennedy. Hennessy's whole career as a colonial administrator was one of eccentric strife. As Governor of the West African Settlements, he seems to have started one of the later Ashanti Wars. In Barbados, he incited the local populace to riot against his own administration. As Governor of the British colony of Labuan (now part of Malaysia), he attempted to have his father-in-law, Sir Hugh Low, arrested for running a gambling den. Hennessy's reason was that he had found a single dog-eared playing card in the house of Low's Malay mistress; she had used it to wrap silk thread around.

Hennessy's policies were often admirable, humane and ahead of their time. The problem was his personality: he was vindictive, petty and unwilling to take advice except from his cronies. He appointed Ng Choi, a barrister, to be the first Chinese to sit on the Legislative Council. Ng persuaded him to open up an area close to the military barracks for residential use by the Chinese. The general, E.W. Donovan, objected strongly on military and health grounds. In the early years of the Colony, 20% of the British garrison had died from dysentery and malaria and the health of his troops was his responsibility.

The quarrel between the two cantankerous Irishmen soon developed into a vendetta. The general ceased attending Executive Council meetings because he could not stand the sight of the Governor. He refused to allow a military band to play at Government House on the Queen's birthday and organized a rival party in competition to the Governor's. Hennessy, however, telegraphed London and the War Office instructed Donovan to provide a band.

Hennessy left Hong Kong under a cloud after attempting to horse-whip a judge with an umbrella. He had caught the judge in Lady Hennessy's boudoir, showing her a catalogue of the Museo Borbonico at Naples that contained a few engravings of nude statuary. After Hennessy left Hong Kong, he became Governor of Mauritius, where he almost started a second French Revolution, and Sir Hercules Robinson had to be sent there too to clean up the mess.

The poor state of communications between London and Hong Kong gave the governors, traders and missionaries immense independence. Their eccentricities as "the men on the spot" were generally tolerated simply because their masters in London, or elsewhere, could do little to control their actions. However, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the establishment of telegraph links with Britain and the rest of the world changed everything. After that time, the more erratic actions of Hong Kong's citizens and administrators could be contained and controlled from abroad and consequently the colorful colonial characters became less vivid and vibrant.