Europe in China/Chapter 6


The Search for a Colony.

Sir George B. Robinson was by no means the first discoverer of the need of a British Colony in the East. Nor was Lord Palmerston the only statesman that shrank from the idea and found himself unable to form hastily a final opinion upon such a suggestion until the force of events had actually accomplished it.

So far back as 1815, Mr. Elphinstone, then President of the Select Committee of the East India Company's Supercargoes at Canton, recommended to the Court of Directors, that they should establish a high diplomatic Plenipotentiary 'on a convenient station on the eastern coast of China,' and as near the capital of the country as might be found most expedient. He further recommended that, this Plenipotentiary should be attended by a sufficient maritime force to demand reparation of the grievances from which the trade was suffering. The Directors of the Company, with all their statesman-like sagacity, did not see their way to follow up this suggestion, the carrying out of which would have anticipated the sound basis of commercial relations which was eventually obtained some thirty-six years later, by the very course of action first recommended by Mr. Elphinstone.

The next person to take up and develop Mr. Elpinstone's idea of a station on the east coast of China as a point d'appui for a naval demonstration, intended to compel China to redress grievances and to make some commercial concessions, was Sir George Staunton, the famous translator of the original statutes of the Tatsing Dynasty (Penal Code of China), who had also been a trusted servant of the East India Company in China. Having returned to England, he entered Parliament. In the course of a debate which took place in the House of Commons (June, 1833) concerning the arbrogation of the East India Company's trade monopoly, Sir George Staunton moved a series of resolutions, one of which (No. 8) ran as follows: 'That, in the event of its proving impracticable to replace the influence of the East India Company's Authorities by any system of national protection, directly emanating from the Crown, it will be expedient (though only in the last resort) to withdraw altogether from the control of the Chinese Authorities, and to establish the trade in some insular position on the Chinese coast where it may be satisfactorily carried on beyond the reach of acts of oppression and molestation, to which an unresisting submission would be equally prejudicial to the national honour and to the national interests of this country.' Whilst this important subject was under discussion, the House was counted out, and on a subsequent resumption of the debate the resolutions were negatived without a division, indicating the general indifference as regards Chinese affairs which then prevailed in England.

At the time when Sir George Staunton drafted the foregoing resolution, the project of stationing in Canton three Superintendents of British trade in China was definitely placed before the country by the Bill above mentioned which passed into law two months later. In speaking of 'a system of national protection directly emanating from the Crown,' Sir George Staunton referred to Lord Napier's proposed mission, the failure of which he appears to have foreseen. In suggesting a remedy for this expected failure, the establishment of the Commission 'in some insular position on the coast, beyond the reach of acts of oppression and molestation,' Sir George Staunton may not have had in his mind more than the establishment of a trade station after the fashion of the East India Company's factories, but he evidently came very near the idea of a British Colony. He had to advantage studied the history of the East India Company and drawn from it lessons which Cabinet Ministers failed to master. Speaking before the House of Commons in support of the above resolution, he argued that the port of Canton was one of the least advantageous in the Chinese dominions, either for exports or for imports, that the trade of Canton was wholly abandoned to the arbitrary control of the Local Authorities, and was by them subjected to many and severe and vexatious burdens and to various restrictions and privations of the most galling and oppressive nature, and finally that those evils were wholly attributable to the nature and character of the Chinese Government.

About the time when these sage counsels were urged in the House of Commons upon an apathetic audience, another former servant of the East India Company, Sir J. B. Urmston, who had been at the head of the British Factory in Canton in the years 1819 and 1820, published (London, 1833) a pamphlet under the title 'Observations on the Trade of China' (printed for private circulation only). In this pamphlet, Sir J. B. Urmston impressed upon the British Government the necessity of removing the trade entirely from Canton to some other more northern port of the Empire. His argument was that British trade at Canton had always been at the mercy of the caprice and rapacity of the Cantonese Authorities and their subordinates, and that Canton was one of the worst places in the Empire which could have been chosen as an emporium for the British trade. Accordingly Sir J. B. Urmston named Ningpo and Hangchow as central and convenient places for British commerce, but gave it as his decided opinion that an insular situation, like Chusan, would be infinitely more so. We see, therefore, that Mr. Elphinstone, Sir George Staunton and Sir J. B. Urmston were of one and the same way of thinking, having correctly drawn the lessons of the past history of British trade in China, but that, as former employees of the East India Company, they thought of a factory rather than of a Colony. It is remarkable, however, that Cabinet Ministers profited so little from the advice thus tendered in Parliament and in the Press, as to commit the blunders which characterized, a few months later, their design of Lord Napier's mission and the instructions by which they frustrated it.

When an echo of the foregoing discussions reached Canton at the close of the year 1833, a writer in one of the local publications, signing himself 'A British Merchant,' made some further suggestions. Canton, he said, should no longer be the base of operations, be they of negotiation, of peace, or of war. An Admiral's station should be selected, and, for the sake of resting on some point, Ningpo might be adopted or the adjacent island of Chusan. The writer then goes on discussing the annexation of Formosa, the seizure of the island of Lantao (close to Hongkong), the cession of Macao to be obtained from the Portuguese, but finally rejects the seizure of any portion of Chinese territory as impolitic and the cession of Macao as impracticable. The author of this letter thereupon labours to recommend the idea of negotiating a treaty with China under which some port of the east coast of China should be opened to British trade, free from the restrictions in force at Canton. A treaty port with a British Consulate seemed to him preferable to a Colony, but how such a treaty could be negotiated without compulsion by force of arms, he did not explain.

The honour of having first discerned and directed attention to the peculiar facilities afforded by the Island of Hongkong belongs to Lord Napier. In a dispatch addressed to Lord Palmerston (August 14, 1834), in which he urged the necessity of commanding, by an armed demonstration, the conclusion of a commercial treaty to secure the just rights and interests of European merchants in China. Lord Napier distinctly recommended that a small British force 'should take possession of the Island of Hongkong, in the eastern entrance of the Canton River, which is admirably adapted for every purpose.' It is possible, however, that Lord Napier, as subsequently Captain Elliot, thought of Hongkong as a future Chinese treaty port rather than as a British Colony. The next advocate of a similar policy was Sir George B. Robinson, who, as stated above, urged upon Lord Palmerston (in 1836) to withdraw from Canton and to occupy 'one of the islands in the neighbourhood (of Lintin) so singularly adapted by nature in every respect for commercial purposes.' At the same time when Sir George Robinson sought to impress upon the Foreign Office the advantages of an island station, away from Canton, another former resident of China appealed to the British public, commending the same policy, seeking to arouse public opinion in England and to turn it in favour of the project first advanced by Mr. Elphinstone. In a pamphlet, entitled 'The Present Condition and Prospects of British Trade with China,' and published in London in 1830, Mr. James Matheson of Canton, expounded and expanded Mr. Elphinstone's advice of sending a Plenipotentiary to China, who should take his station on one of the islands on the east coast of China and thence negotiate, by the demonstration of a small naval force, a commercial treaty, the object of which should be to secure for British trade in China an insular location beyond the reach of Chinese officialdom. This clearly pointed to a British Colony to be established on the coast of China.

Mr. Matheson, however, was no advocate of war with China. Neither did he imagine that China would readily consent to the establishment of a British Colony at her very gates. Mr. Matheson argued that a state of preparedness for war is the surest preventive of war, especially in our dealings with a nation like China, and that a firm policy, plainly supported by a strong rieet, ready for war, might, if judiciously pressed home, be all that would be absolutely necessary. Thus Mr. Matheson struck, in 1836, the key-note of the policy which eventually procured the establishment of the Colony of Hongkong.

What Mr. Matheson thus urged upon the home country as a whole by his pamphlet, he impressed especially also upon the various Associations and Chambers of Commerce within reach of his influence in England and Scotland. In the course of the year 1886, several memorials were accordingly presented at the Foreign Office from various parts of Great Britain, requesting that immediate and energetic measures should be adopted for the extension and protection of commerce in China. Among them was a memorial of the Glasgow East India Association, addressed to Lord Palmerston. This document suggested, no doubt at the instigation of Mr. Matheson, 'the obtaining, by negotiation or purchase, an island on the eastern coast of China, where a British factory may reside, subject to its own laws and exposed to no collision with the Chinese.' When the Glasgow merchants thus recommended to seek, by negotiation or purchase, the cession of an island for the establishment of a factory, they did not mean a factory like the trade stations of the East India Company, but a factory of British and notably Scotch free traders, in the Canton sense of the word. They forestalled thus in principle the future cession of Hongkong, although their thoughts then turned, with Mr. Matheson, more in the direction of Chusan than of Hongkong.

The idea which Mr. Matheson thus prominently brought, by his pamphlet, before the general public, and by the Glasgow memorial before the Cabinet, to desert Canton and to seek, somewhere on the east coast, an island where British trade with China might be conducted under the British flag, on British ground, and under British government, was not left without its opponents. Mr. H. Hamilton Lindsay, also a former Canton resident and ex-member of the East India Company's Select Committee, published, in 1836, a Letter addressed to Lord Palmerston under the title 'British Relations with China.' In this pamphlet, whilst recommending the adoption of a belligerent policy in opposition to Mr. Matheson's armed peace procedure, Mr. Lindsay advocated the formation, on the coast of China, of two or three depots with floating warehouses, like the above mentioned hulks anchored at Lintin. Each of those depots, he suggested, should be guarded by a stout frigate and thrown open for the resort of merchant vessels to trade there. As to the project of forming a Colony, Mr. Lindsay added that he would on no account advocate the taking possession of the smallest island on the coast.

Another opponent of the Colonial policy came forward anonymously, by a pamphlet published in London, in 1836, by a resident in China, under the title 'British Intercourse with China.' The anonymous author of this pamphlet represented the Missionary view of the question and suggested that the Government should choose a pacific policy towards China on grounds of expediency, humility and generosity, and confine its political action to the establishment of a Consulate at Canton together with a small fleet for the protection of trade.

To combat the foregoing opponents of his scheme, Sir George Staunton now came forward again and published, in 1836, a pamphlet entitled 'Remarks on British Relations with China.' Sir George had, however, but little to say that was new. He argued, as before, that Canton was the very worst station to select for trade purposes, but he now advocated the occupation of an island on the coast without previous negotiation with the Chinese Government. He stated that there were many islands on the coast over which the Chinese Government exercised no act of jurisdiction, and that such an island might easily be taken possession of with the entire consent and good-will of the inhabitants if there were any. Moreover he now pointed very aptly, to the precedent afforded by the Portuguese Colony on the island of Macao, the original occupation of which was an act precisely of that description which Sir George Staunton advocated, and not the result of any previous authentic cession by the Chinese Authorities, as pretended by the Portuguese.

So far, however, this general search for a Colony in the East was more a groping about for an island on the east coast of China than in the neighbourhood of Canton. Chusan was most in favour. Next came Ningpo and Formosa. But other places also were mentioned. At the close of the year 1836, when this war of the pamphleteers was transferred from England to Canton, the general divergence of views was increased. Mr. G. Tradescant Lay, a naturalist who had accompanied Captain Beechy's Expedition to the Bonin Islands, strongly advocated, in the Canton newspapers and by a pamphlet published in 1837, the occupation of one of those islands for the purpose of a British Colony. Hongkong was almost out of the running.

However, the annexation of Hongkong was under the consideration of the Canton free traders early in the year 1836, when a correspondent of the Canton Register made the following prophetic remarks (April 25, 1836). 'If the lion's paw is to be put down on any part of the south side of China, let it be Hongkong; let the lion declare it to be under his guarantee a free port, and in ten years it will be the most considerable mart east of the Cape. The Portuguese made a mistake: they adopted shallow water and exclusive rules. Hongkong, deep water, and a free port for ever!' This anticipation of the future was but the view of a minority at Canton. Most of the British merchants continued to cling to the notion that the inner waters of Canton afforded a special vantage ground, that the lion's share was there where their trade was acknowledged by the Chinese Authorities, that at Canton therefore the British representative should reside and that, unless he were to reside there, he would be simply nowhere, whether for the Chinese Government or for his countrymen. At the time when the discussion as to the best location of the British trade waxed hottest in the Canton papers, there was published in the same papers (December, 1836) a detail description of the coast of China for the benefit of mariners, and in these papers, entirely unconnected with the above-mentioned search for a Colony, we find Hongkong referred to in the following words:—

'On the west of the Lamma channel is Lantao (about 60 miles S.E. of Canton) and on the east are Hongkong and Lamma. North of Hongkong is a passage between it and the main, called Ly-ee-moon, with good depth of water close to the Hongkong shore, and perfect shelter on all sides. Here are several good anchorages. At the bottom of a bay on the opposite main is a town called Kowloon and a river is said to discharge itself here (a statement the incorrectness of which is palpable, unless by the word river a little creek is meant). On the S.W. side of Hongkong, and between it and Lamma, are several small bays, fit for anchorage, one of which, named Heang-keang, probably has given name to the island. Tytam harbour is in a bay on the S.E. side of the island, having the S.E. point for its protection to the eastward, other parts of the island on the N. and W. and several small islands off the entrance of the bay to the south. It is roomy and free from danger.'

It was unfortunate that the search for a Colony had met with opposition in Canton and developed in England into a war of pamphleteers. This conflict confused instead of forming public opinion. At any rate nothing definite was accomplished. Parliament would not take up the question, and Lord Palmerston, whose mind was by this time made up, preferred to wait until he was sure as to the drift of public opinion.

No one, it will be observed, took a share in this search for a Colony except persons directly connected with the China Trade past or present, unless we except a crude concoction by a writer of the East India House (a Mr. Thompson) who, in a pamphlet published under the title 'Considerations representing the Trade with China' (London, 1836), deprecated war for commerce only. Neither public opinion nor the Cabinet approved of or took more than a languid interest in the measures discussed. However, attention had been called to the subject in prominent places, and the public mind was now, in some measure at least, prepared to accept, reluctantly though it be, the idea of establishing a British Colony in the East, when, four years later, this project was suddenly presented to the nation as an accomplished fact by the news of the cession of Hongkong brought about by the force of events rather than by any continuation of this search for a Colony.