Lord Palmerston to the Minister of the Emperor of China

Lord Palmerston to the Minister of the Emperor of China (1840)
by Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston

From: Morse. International Relations of the Chinese Empire, Vol. 1, Appendix A

1370537Lord Palmerston to the Minister of the Emperor of China1840Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston

F.O., London, February 20, 1840.

THE UNDERSIGNED, Her Britannick Majesty’s Principal Secretary for Foreign Affairs, has the honour to inform the Minister of The Emperor of China, that Her Majesty The Queen of Great Britain has sent a Naval and Military Force to the Coast of China, to demand from The Emperor satisfaction and redress for injuries inflicted by Chinese Authorities upon British subjects resident in China, and for insults offered by the same Authorities to the British Crown.

For more than a hundred years, commercial intercourse has existed between China and Great Britain; and during that long period of time, British Subjects have been allowed by the Chinese Government to reside within the territory of China for the purpose of carrying on trade therein. Hence it has happened that British Subjects, trusting in the good faith of the Chinese Government, have fixed themselves in Canton as Merchants, and have brought into that city from time to time property to a large amount; while other British Subjects who wished to trade with China, and who could not for various reasons go thither themselves, have sent commodities to Canton, placing those commodities in the care of some of their fellow Countrymen resident in China, with directions that such commodities should be sold in China, and that the produce of the sale thereof should be sent to the Owners in the British Dominions.

Thus there has always been within the territory of The Emperor of China a certain number of British Subjects, and a large amount of British Property; and though no Treaty has existed between the Sovereign of England and the Emperor of China, yet British Subjects have continued to resort to China for purposes of trade, placing full confidence in the justice and good faith of The Emperor.

Moreover, of late years the Sovereign of Great Britain has stationed at Canton an officer of the British Crown, no wise connected with trade, and specially forbidden to trade, but ordered to place himself in direct communication with the local Authorities at Canton in order to afford protection to British Subjects, and to be the organ of communication between the British and the Chinese Governments.

But the British Government has learnt with much regret, and with extreme surprise, that during the last year certain officers, acting under the Authority of The Emperor of China, have committed violent outrages against the British Residents at Canton, who were living peaceably in that City, trusting to the good faith of the Chinese Government; and that those same Chinese officers, forgetting the respect which was due to the British Superintendent in his Character of Agent of the British Crown, have treated that Superintendent also with violence and indignity.

It seems that the cause assigned for these proceedings was the contraband trade in Opium, carried on by some British Subjects.

It appears that the Laws of the Chinese Empire forbid the importation of Opium into China, and declare that all opium which may be brought into the Country is liable to confiscation.

The Queen of England desires that Her Subjects who may go into Foreign Countries should obey the Laws of those Countries; and Her Majesty does not wish to protect them from the just consequences of any offences which they may commit in foreign parts. But, on the other hand, Her Majesty cannot permit that Her Subjects residing abroad should be treated with violence, and be exposed to insult and injustice; and when wrong is done to them, Her Majesty will see that they obtain redress.

Now if a Government makes a Law which applies both to its own Subjects and to Foreigners, such Government ought to enforce that Law impartially or not at all. If it enforces that Law on Foreigners, it is bound to enforce it also upon its own Subjects; and it has no right to permit its own Subjects to violate the Law with impunity, and then to punish Foreigners for doing the very same thing.

Neither is it just that such a Law should for a great length of time be allowed to sleep as a dead letter, and that both Natives and Foreigners should be taught to consider it as of no effect, and that then suddenly, and without sufficient warning, it should be put in force with the utmost rigour and severity.

Now, although the Law of China declared that the importation of Opium should be forbidden, yet it is notorious that for many years past, that importation has been connived at and permitted by the Chinese Authorities at Canton; nay, more, that those Authorities, from the Governor downwards, have made an annual and considerable profit by taking money from Foreigners for the permission to import Opium; and of late the Chinese Authorities have gone so far in setting this Law at defiance, that Mandarin Boats were employed to bring opium to Canton from the Foreign Ships lying at Lintin.

Did the Imperial Government at Peking know these things?

If it did know these things, it virtually abolished its own Law, by permitting its own officers to act as if no such Law existed. If the Chinese Government says it did not know of these things, if it says that it knew indeed that the Law was violated by Foreigners who brought in opium, but did not know that the Law was violated by its own Officers who assisted in the importation, and received fixed Sums of money for permitting it, then may Foreign Governments ask, how it happened that a Government so watchful as that of China should have one eye open to see the transgressions of Foreigners, but should have the other eye shut, and unable to see the transgressions of its own officers.

If the Chinese Government had suddenly determined that the Law against the importation of Opium should be enforced, instead of remaining, as it long had been, a dead letter, that Government should have begun by punishing its own Officers who were the greatest delinquents in this matter, because it was their special duty to execute the Law of their own Sovereign. But the course pursued by the Chinese Government has been the very reverse; for they have left unpunished their own officers, who were most to blame, and they have used violence against Foreigners, who were led into transgression by the encouragement and protection afforded to them by the Governor of Canton and his inferior Officers.

Still, however, the British Government would not have complained, if the Government of China, after giving due notice of its altered intentions, had proceeded to execute the Law of the Empire, and had seized and confiscated all the opium which they could find within the Chinese territory, and which had been brought into that territory in violation of the Law. The Chinese Government had a right to do so, by means of its own officers, and within its own territory.

But for some reason or other known only to the Government of China, that Government did not think proper to do this. But it determined to seize peaceable British Merchants, instead of seizing the contraband opium; to punish the innocent for the guilty, and to make the sufferings of the former, the means of compulsion upon the latter; and it also resolved to force the British Superintendent, who is an officer of the British Crown, to become an instrument in the hands of the Chinese Authorities for carrying into execution the Laws of China, with which he had nothing to do.

Against such proceedings the British Government protests, and for such proceedings the British Government demands satisfaction.

A large number of British Merchants who were living peaceably at Canton, were suddenly imprisoned in their houses, deprived of the assistance of their Chinese servants, and cut off from all supplies of food, and were threatened with death by starvation, unless other persons, in other places, and over whom these Merchants so imprisoned had no authority or control, would surrender to the Chinese Government a quantity of Opium which the Chinese Authorities were unable themselves to discover or to take possession of, and a portion of which was at the time not within the territories and jurisdiction of China. Her Majesty’s Superintendent, upon learning the violence which was done towards these British Merchants, and the danger to which their lives were exposed, repaired, though with some risk and difficulty, to Canton, in order to enquire into the matter, and to persuade the Chinese authorities to desist from these outrageous proceedings. But the Imperial Commissioner did not listen to Her Majesty’s Officer; and in violation of the Law of Nations, and in utter disregard of the respect which was due by him to an officer of the British Crown, he imprisoned the Superintendent as well as the Merchants, and, continuing to deprive them all of the means of subsistence, he threatened to put them all to death by starvation, unless the Superintendent would give to other persons, not in Canton, orders which he had no power or authority to give, for delivering to the Chinese Authorities a fixed quantity of Opium.

The Superintendent, in order to save the lives of his imprisoned fellow Countrymen, gave at last the orders required of him, and the parties to whom these orders were addressed, although by no means bound to obey them, and although a great part of the property demanded, did not belong to them, but was only held by them in trust for others, yet complied with these orders, wishing no doubt to rescue the British Merchants in Canton from death, and trusting that the Queen of Great Britain would at a future time cause them to be indemnified for their loss.

The British Government cannot condemn the steps which were taken by Her Majesty’s Superintendent under the pressure of an over-ruling and irresistible force, to rescue from the barbarous fate which awaited them, so many of Her Majesty’s Subjects for whose special protection the Superintendent had been appointed, and the British Government highly applauds the readiness with which the persons to whom the orders were directed surrendered the Property demanded, and showed themselves willing to submit to the destruction of their Property, in order to prevent the destruction of the lives of so many of their fellow countrymen. But the British Government demands full satisfaction from the Government of China for these things. In the first place it requires, that the Ransom which was exacted as the price for the lives of the Superintendent, and of the imprisoned British Merchants, shall be restored to the persons who paid it, and if, as the British Government is informed, the goods themselves, which were given up to the Chinese Authorities, have been so disposed of, that they cannot be restored to their owners, in the same state in which they were given up, then the British Government demands and requires that the value of those goods shall be paid back by the Government of China to the British Government, in order that it may be paid over to the Parties entitled to receive it.

In the next place, the British Government demands satisfaction from the Government of China for the affront offered to the Crown of Great Britain, by the indignities to which Her Majesty’s Superintendent has been subjected; and the British Government requires that in future the officer employed by Her Majesty to watch over the commercial interests of Her Subjects in China, and to be the organ of communication with the Government of China, shall be treated, and shall be communicated with by that Government, and by its officers, in a manner consistent with the usages of civilized Nations, and with the respect due to the Dignity of the British Crown.

Thirdly.- The British Government demands security for the future, that British Subjects resorting to China for purposes of trade, in conformity with the long-established understanding between the two Governments; shall not again be exposed to violence and injustice while engaged in their lawful pursuits of Commerce. For this purpose, and in order that British Merchants trading to China may not be subject to the arbitrary caprice either of the Government at Peking, or its local Authorities at the Sea-Ports of the Empire, the British Government demands that one or more sufficiently large and properly situated Islands on the Coast of China, to be fixed upon by the British Plenipotentiaries, shall be permanently given up to the British Government as a place of residence and of commerce for British Subjects; where their persons may be safe from molestation, and where their Property may be secure.

Moreover, it appears that the Chinese Government has hitherto compelled the British Merchants resident at Canton to sell their goods to certain Hong Merchants, and to no other persons, and the Chinese Government, by thus restricting the dealings of the British Merchants, has become responsible for the Hong Merchants to whom these dealings were confined. But some of those Hong Merchants have lately become insolvent, and the British Merchants have thus incurred great pecuniary losses, which they would have avoided, if they had been allowed to trade with whomsoever they chose. The British Government therefore demands that the Government of China shall make good to the British Creditors the Sums due to them by the insolvent Hong Merchants.

The British Government moreover has recently heard of further acts of violence committed by the Chinese Authorities against British Subjects; and it may happen that before this Note reaches the Chinese Minister, other things may have been done in China, which may render necessary further demands on the part of the British Government. If this should be, the British Plenipotentiaries are authorised to make such further demands; and the Undersigned requests the Chinese Minister to consider any additional demands so made, as being as fully authorised by the British Government as if they had been specified in this note.

Now as the distance is great which separates England from China, and as the matter in question is of urgent importance, the British Government cannot wait to know the answer which the Chinese Government may give to these demands, and thus postpone till that answer shall have been received in England, the measures which may be necessary in order to vindicate the honour and dignity of the British Crown, in the event of that answer not being satisfactory.

The British Government therefore has determined at once to send out a Naval and Military Force to the Coast of China to act in support of these demands, and in order to convince the imperial Government that the British Government attaches the utmost importance to this matter, and that the affair is one which will not admit of delay.

And further, for the purpose of impressing still more strongly upon the Government of Peking the importance which the British Government attaches to this matter, and the urgent necessity which exists for an immediate as well as a satisfactory settlement thereof, the Commander of the Expedition has received orders that, immediately upon his arrival upon the Chinese Coast, he shall proceed to blockade the principal Chinese ports, that he shall intercept and detain and hold in deposit all Chinese Vessels which he may meet with, and that he shall take possession of some convenient part of the Chinese territory, to be held and occupied by the British Forces until everything shall be concluded and executed to the satisfaction of the British Government.

These measures of hostility on the part of Great Britain against China are not only justified, but even rendered absolutely necessary, by the outrages which have been committed by the Chinese Authorities against British officers and Subjects, and these hostilities will not cease, until a satisfactory arrangement shall have been made by the Chinese Government.

The British Government in order to save time, and to afford to the Government of China every facility for coming to an early arrangement, have given to the Admiral and to the Superintendent, Full Powers and Instructions to treat upon these matters with the Imperial Government, and have ordered the said Admiral and Superintendent to go up to the Mouth of the Peiho River, in the Gulph of Pechelee, that they may be within a short distance of the Imperial Cabinet. But after the indignity which was offered to Her Majesty’s Superintendent at Canton, in the course of last year, it is impossible for Her Majesty’s Government to permit any of Her Majesty’s Officers to place themselves in the power of the Chinese Authorities, until some formal Treaty shall have been duly signed, securing to British Subjects safety and respect in China; and therefore the Undersigned must request that the Chinese Government will have the goodness to send on board the Admiral’s Ship the Plenipotentiaries whom the Emperor may appoint to treat upon these matters with the Plenipotentiaries of The Queen of England. Those Chinese Plenipotentiaries shall be received on board the Admiral’s Ship, with every honour which is due to the Envoys of The Emperor, and shall be treated with all possible courtesy and respect.

The Undersigned has further to state, that the necessity for sending this Expedition to the Coast of China having been occasioned by the violent and unjustifiable acts of the Chinese Authorities, the British Government expects and demands, that the expenses incurred thereby shall be repaid to Great Britain by the Government of China.

The Undersigned has now stated and explained to the Chinese Minister, without reserve, the causes of complaint on the part of Great Britain; the reparation which Great Britain demands, and the nature of the measures which the British officer commanding the Expedition has been instructed in the first instance to take. The British Government fervently hopes that the wisdom and spirit of Justice for which The Emperor is famed in all parts of the World, will lead the Chinese Government to see the equity of the foregoing demands; and it is the sincere wish of Her Majesty’s Government that a prompt and full compliance with those demands may lead to a speedy re-establishment of that friendly intercourse which has for so great a period of time subsisted between the British and Chinese Nation, to the manifest advantage of both.

The Undersigned, in conclusion, has the honour to state to the Minister of The Emperor of China that he has directed Her Majesty’s Plenipotentiaries to forward to His Excellency the present Note, of which he has transmitted to the Plenipotentiaries a copy; with instructions to cause a Translation of it to be made into the Chinese language, and to forward to the Chinese Minister the Translation at the same time with the original Note.

The Undersigned avails himself of this opportunity to offer to His Excellency the Minister of The Emperor of China the assurances of his most distinguished consideration.


This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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