Crime and Government at Hong Kong

Crime and Government at Hong Kong  (1859) 
by Thomas Chisholm Anstey















Returning to England from Hong Kong, upon sick leave, within the last few days, I have had my attention called to some observations of the Times newspaper of the 15th ultimo, upon the case of that Colony, as disclosed in certain Petitions to Parliament from several towns corporate in the north, also presented during my absence from these shores, and praying enquiry into the same.

I thankfully acknowledge the kind and flattering terms in which my part in the affair is treated. But I find myself under the obligation to point out some facts, in which, except as witness, I am personally unconcerned, and which, not having before him the papers which relate to them, or even a simple statement of their contents, the writer has very much misapprehended.

In doing so, I am actuated by the merest sense of what is due to public justice. The course of justice cannot but be much impeded by the prevalence of an erroneous opinion, as to the nature and gravity of the accusation; and public opinion, as it is called, is but the reflex of the opinion of the public journalist. If his eye be dark, how great is the darkness!

I purpose, therefore, in the brief compass of these pages, to present a clear, concise, and truthful statement of the main points in that much bruited case of the colony of Hong Kong, which call for the enquiry proposed by the Parliamentary Petitions. I shall state nothing which will not be established, if Mr. Edwin James, M.P. for Mary-le-bone succeeds in obtaining the papers; of his intention to move for which, I am glad to see he has given notice.

But, before I do so, let me notice one preliminary error, suggested, doubtless, by those who fear exposure, and which, unless removed, may render enquiry impracticable.

It has been urged on the British public, that the quarrels and bickerings of a little community ought not to occupy the attention of Parliament.

I do not understand the position.

If it be meant that the case is one of quarrels and bickerings, I do not hesitate to say, that the objection argues an entire unacquaintance with the facts of the case, or else the conscious and deliberate purpose, of averting enquiries, by misleading the public as to their nature.

It is a case of crime; not of constructive, but of direct and positive crime, in its most familiar acceptation. It rests upon evidences sworn and unsworn, documentary and oral, official and private.

If established, it inculpates of extortion, bribe-taking, corrupt alliances, malversation, resetting of pirates, felons, and murderers, and other offences of no speculative or uncertain character, a number of English people, in the Government employ abroad, filling offices of rank in a British colony, and even representing to the eyes of foreign powers the majesty of British empire.

If disproved, it inculpates the witnesses, of conspiracy and falsehood.

To treat such a case as one of mere provincial brawling and discord, is as preposterous as it would be for the Times' reporter of the Crown cases on the late Circuit, to describe them in like manner, and to lament the unhappy prevalence of all kinds of misunderstandings, between the prisoners on the one side, and the prosecutors, witnesses, juries, and judges, on the other.

But, if it be meant that the relative importance or unimportance of the community, which suffers the wrong, and witnesses the disgrace, is to determine the question, whether the one and the other are or are not to receive redress and chastisement, at the hands of the Parliament and the British people, I am sure that the good sense of every right-thinking man, will repel the unworthy suggestion.

If England will plant, she must cherish, her "little communities."

If Hong Kong was thought of so much importance, as that its cession by the Court of Pekin, was made the price of the Peace of Nanking, in 1842—3, and its wellbeing the main pretext of the second Chinese War, in 1856, surely the demeanour of those, to whom England has confided the care and management of that position, is not a "little" matter, nor one in which England ought to feel no manner of concern.

If the objects which, as we may still read in the despatches of the period of that cession, were the protection of the persons and property of the English and foreign merchants trading with China, and the affording, to China herself, an opportunity of learning and appreciating England and her institutions, from a "little" model of both, to be exhibited from Hong Kong, were then thought of sufficient weight and value, to necessitate our persisting, in our demands of the cession, upon the reluctant Chinese Plenipotentiaries, it may not be altogether idle now, in 1859, to ascertain whether it be indeed true, as asserted, that the design is already, after a sixteen years' trial, effectually frustrated, and this by the rapacious, corrupt, and felonious actings, of the very men to whom the experiment had been entrusted.

And, to put it on the lowest ground, that of personal grievance,—if it be indeed the fact, that men of honour, after having been tempted by Government to quit their proper sphere at home, and to take their part in the administration of justice to that "little community," upon the faith of being supported in their performance of that important branch of the model experiment, have been insulted, degraded, and deprived of their bread, through the influence of pirates, and other criminals, in the councils of the local Government—is it too much to expect, that their cause will be judged, and avenged, by the great community which sent them forth, upon a mission so requited?

But then, it is said, (and an honourable member who borrows the thought, quotes, in its favour, to his constituents, the supposed precedent of the Ceylon case), why not hold your enquiry at Hong Kong? Why trouble the mother country? Why demand a judgment upon evidence not laid before the judges?

The objection answers itself.

Any one, who knows the routine of Downing Street, is aware, that, in all cases like the present, the accused Colonial official has the last word.

And not only the last word, but the further advantage of being able to conceal his defence,—(generally consisting of unfounded recrimination),—from the party demanding justice at the hands of the Secretary of State.

For no communication, from the party complainant, is so much as perused by the minister, unless forwarded open through the Governor;—the intention being, that the latter shall have the opportunity of perusing, and, if he can, of refuting it.

Every such communication, forwarded otherwise than according to that rule, is returned to the writer, without comment.

But, this being the close privilege of the local Government alone,—no such opportunity is accorded to its victims or opponents.

They know nothing of the case stated by the accused, unless, perchance, after the final decision of the controversy, when the knowledge comes much too late.

Therefore, if it be indeed true, that the inculpated officials of Hong Kong, after having once a fortnight from the 10th May, 1858, until the 10th March, 1859, despatched to Downing Street, their allegations and proofs, in disculpation of themselves and those whom they protect from the vengeance of the criminal law, failed so egregiously, in their endeavour, as this last objection supposes,—surely they should, now at least, and without more enquiry, (particularly such enquiry as one conducted by a Hong Kong executive is shown to be), be declared unfit to hold their present offices.

Incapacity at least is fully made out. What graver charge remains against them, may be matter for the consideration of my successor, and of the Crown side of the Supreme Court. But that is a question which does not belong to the Executive.

Nor is the Ceylon case any precedent for this.

There, the enquiry was commenced in Parliament. Here, neither Parliament nor Downing Street began to interfere until after the close of the investigation at Hong Kong.

There, the chief witnesses were in the colony, and the bulk of the documentary evidences in the archives of its Secretariat. Here, the whole of the latter, if the Hong Kong Government are to be believed, after being by that Government publicly twice produced and read at Hong Kong, are now in Downing Street;[1] and many of the former, including myself, have left the Colony and are in England.

There, no decision consequently had been arrived at. Here, the Secretary of State has arrived at a decision; has announced it in Parliament; and has carried it into effect.

And yet, even there, the recognised fitness of a partial enquiry at Ceylon before a Commission, was not allowed to supersede or even to suspend the inquisition ordered by Parliament. Contemporaneously the two enquiries went on, and the final Report of the Commons' Committee combined the results of both.

In the present case, it will be found unnecessary to adopt either proceeding.

The facts are salient on the pages of the papers, which embrace, I am glad to see, the judge's notes of the trial hereafter referred to, and for which the member of Marylebone has asked.

I proceed briefly to classify those facts under their proper heads.

  1. Letters from Acting Colonial Secretary Bridges to the Attorney General (Nos. 303 and 478), dated Hong Kong, 25th May and 9th August, 1858.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.