O'Conor, Nicholas Roderick (DNB12)

O'CONOR, Sir NICHOLAS RODERICK (1843–1908), diplomatist, born at Dundermott, Co. Roscommon, on 3 July 1843, was youngest of three sons of Patrick A. C O'Conor of Dimdermott by his wife Jane, second daughter of Christopher Ffrench of Frenchlawn, co. Roscommon. Educated at Stonyhurst College, and afterwards at Munich under Dr. Döllinger, he entered the diplomatic service in 1866, passed the necessary examination, and after some months of employment in the foreign office was appointed attache at Berlin, where he attained in 1870 the rank of third secretary. After service at Washington and Madrid, he returned to Washington on promotion to be second secretary in 1874, and was transferred in 1875 to Brazil, where he was employed on special duty in the province of Rio Grande do Sul in November 1876. In October 1877 he was removed to Paris, where he had the advantage of serving for six years luider Lord Lyons. In December 1883 he was appointed secretary of legation at Peking, and on the death of the minister. Sir Harry Parkes [q. v.], in March 1885, assumed charge of the legation for a period of fifteen months. He found himself almost immediately involved in somewhat awkward discussions with the Chinese and Korean governments in regard to the temporary occupation of Port Hamilton, a harbour formed by three islands at the entrance to the Gulf of Pechill, of which the British admiral had taken possession as a coaling station, in view of the apparent imminence of an outbreak of war between Great Britain and Russia. The Chinese and Korean governments were not unwilling to agree to the occupation for a pecuniary consideration on receiving assurances that no permanent acquisition was contemplated, but were threatened by Russia with similar occupations elsewhere if they gave their consent. The question was eventually settled, after the apprehension of war with Russia had disappeared, by the withdrawal of the British occupation in consideration of a guarantee by China that no part of Korean territory, including Port Hamilton, would be occupied by any foreign power. The annexation of Upper Burma to the British Indian empire, proclaimed by Lord Duflerin in 1886, gave rise to an equally embarrassing question. The Chinese government viewed the annexation with great jealousy. The new British possession was, along a great portion of the eastern frontier, conterminous with that of China, while on the north it abutted on the vassal state of Tibet. China claimed indeterminate and somewhat obsolete rights of suzerainty over the Burmese, which were still evidenced by a decennial mission from Burma charged with presents to the Emperor. The country contained a considerable and influential Chinese population, and China could easily create trouble by raids into the frontier districts. A friendly arrangement was almost imperative. After a tedious negotiation O'Conor succeeded in concluding an agreement on 24 July 1886, making provision for the delimitation of frontiers by a joint commission, for a future convention to settle the conditions of frontier trade, and agreeing to the continuance of the decennial Burmese mission, in return for a waiver of any right of interference with British authority and rule. Though this agreement was only the preliminary to a series of long and toilsome negotiations, it placed the question in the way of friendly solution. On its conclusion O'Conor, who had been made C.M.G. in Feb. 1886, was created C.B.

After a brief tenure of the post of secretary of legation at Washington, he in Jan. 1887 succeeded (Sir) Frank Lascelles as agent and consul-general in Bulgaria. The principality was at the time in a critical situation. Prince Alexander, whose nerve had been shaken by his forcible abduction, having failed to obtain the Czar's approval of his resumption of power, had abdicated in September 1886, and the government was left in the hands of three regents, of whom the principal was the former prime minister, Stambuloff. For the next few months, in the face of manoeuvres on the part of Russia to prolong the interregnum or procure the selection of a nominee who would be a mere vassal of Russia, vigorous endeavours were made by the regency to obtain a candidate of greater independence, and on 7 July 1887 Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg was elected, and Stambuloff again became prime minister. O'Conor, who united great shrewdness with a blunt directness of speech, which, although not generally regarded as a diplomatic trait, had the effect of inspiring confidence, exercised a steadying influence on the energetic premier. Excellent relations were maintained between them in the course of five years' residence. Among other results was the conclusion in 1889 of a provisional commercial agreement between Great Britain and Bulgaria.

In April 1892 O'Conor was again appointed to Peking, this time in the position of envoy to the Emperor of China, and to the King of Korea. A notable change in the etiquette towards foreign representatives was made by the court in his reception at Peking; he was formally received with the staff of the legation at the principal entrance by the court officials and conducted to a personal audience with the Emperor in the Cheng Kuan Tien Palace. In July 1894 the disputes between China and Japan as to the introduction of reforms in the administration of Korea led to open war between the two countries, and O'Conor's responsibilities were heavy. The Chinese forces were routed by land and sea, and in April 1895 the veteran statesman Li-Hung-Chang concluded the treaty of Shimonoseki, by which the Liao-Tung Peninsula, the island of Formosa, and the Pescadores group were ceded to Japan, China agreeing further to pay an indemnity of 200 millions of taels. Popular excitement in China ran high during these events. The Chinese government provided the foreign legations with guards of native soldiers, who, though perfectly well behaved, did not inspire complete confidence as efficient protectors. The British admiral gave the British legation the additional safeguard of a party of marines. Almost immediately after the ratification of the treaty of Shimonoseki a fresh complication occured. The French, German, and Russian governments presented to Japan a collective note, urging the restoration to China of the Liao-Tung Peninsula on the ground that its possession, with Port Arthur, by a foreign power wovdd be a permanent menace to the Chinese capital. The course pvirsued by the British government was not calculated to earn the gratitude of either of the parties principally interested. They declined to join in the representation of the three European powers, but they did not conceal from Japan their opinion that she might do wisely to give way. Japan with much wisdom assented to the retrocession in consideration of an additional indemnity of 30 millions of taels. In recognition of O'Conor's arduous labours he received the honour of K.C.B. in May 1895. Meanwhile the signature of peace was followed by anti-foreign outbreaks in several provinces of China, in one of which, at Kucheng, British missionaries were massacred. The Chinese government, as usual, while ready to pay compensation and to execute a number of men arrested as having taken part in the riot, interposed every kind of obstacle to investigation of the real origin of the outbreaks and to the condign punishment of the officials who secretly instigated or connived at them. In the end, after exhausting all other arguments, O'Conor plainly intimated to the Tseng-li-Yamen that unless his demands were conceded within two days the British admiral would be compelled to resort to naval measures, and a decree was issued censuring and degrading the ex-viceroy of Szechuen.

In Oct. 1895 O'Conor left China to become ambassador at St, Petersburg. In the following year he attended the coronation of the Emperor Nicholas II, who had succeeded to the throne in November 1894. He received the grand cross of St. Michael and St. George and was sworn a privy councillor in the same year. He was as popular at St. Petersburg as at his previous posts, but towards the close of his residence our relations with Russia were seriously complicated by the course taken by the Russian government in obtaining from China a lease of Port Arthur and the Liao-Tung Peninsula. The discussions, which at one time became somewhat acute, were carried on by O'Conor with his usual tact ; but a disagreeable question arose between him and Count Muravieff, the Russian minister for foreign affairs, as to an assurance which the latter had given but subsequently withdrew that Port Arthur, as well as Talienwan, should be open to the commerce of all nations. This incident and the manner in which Count Muravieff endeavoured to explain it made it on the whole fortunate that in July 1898 an opportunity offered for O'Conor's transference to Constantinople. He had been promoted G.C.B. in 1897.

O'Conor's last ten years of life, which were passed in Constantinople, were very laborious. He worked under great difficulties for the policy of administrative reform, which was strenuously pressed whenever possible by the British government. He succeeded, however, in winning to a considerable extent the personal goodwill and confidence of the Sultan and of the ministers with whom he had to deal, and by persistent efforts cleared off a large number of long outstanding claims and subordinate questions which had been a permanent burden to his predecessors. Among more important questions which he succeeded in bringing to a settlement were those of the Turco-Egyptian boundary in the Sinai Peninsula, and of the British frontier in the hinterland of Aden. His health had never been strong since his residence in China, and in 1907 he came to England for advice, and underwent a serious operation. The strain of work on his return overtaxed his strength, and he died at his post on 19 March 1908. He was buried with every mark of affection and respect in the cemetery at Haidar Pasha, where a monument erected by his widow bears with the date the inscription 'Nicolaus Rodericus O'Conor, Britaimise Regis apud Ottomanorum Imperatorem Legatus, pie obiit.' O'Conor succeeded in May 1897, on the death of his surviving elder brother, Patrick Hugh, to the family estate of Dundermott. He married on 13 April 1887 Minna, eldest daughter of James Robert Hope-Scott [q. v.], the celebrated parliamentary advocate, and of Lady Victoria Alexandrina, eldest daughter of Henry Granville Howard, 14th duke of Norfolk; by her O'Conor had three daughters.

[Burke's Landed Gentry; The Times, 20 March 1908; Foreign Office List, 1909, p. 403; Cambridge Modern History, vol. xii. p. 509; papers laid before Parliament; Annual Register, 1895].