Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Last week (December 8, 1860)


There is in every week, as it passes away, an event which occupies the attention of the English public, almost to the exclusion of all others. It may be the entry of Victor Emmanuel into Naples, or the difficulties of the Bank of France, or the Road murder, or the election of an anti-slavery President for the United States, or a terrible railway accident, as recently in the Trent Valley, but there is always one event which overtops and overshadows all others. If one comes to think of it, fifty-two great events in a year form a considerable total. Take the average business life of a man whose existence is prolonged to the usual term of human life, as consisting of forty years—from twenty to sixty years of age—he will then have lived through upwards of two thousand great public events, independently of those lesser, but perhaps to himself, more interesting incidents which distinguish his own private career. Now, during the Last Week, beyond all question the event which has most been canvassed and discussed has been the capture of certain of our countrymen by the Chinese just as the allied forces of Great Britain and France were about to plant their flags upon the very walls of Pekin.

Lord Elgin’s own opinion seems to be that absolute treachery was not intended. The Chinese had not of malice aforethought laid a plan for the capture of the Plenipotentiaries; in other words, intended a repetition of the treachery at the Taku Forts last year. This time—so it was at first suggested—the idea was not to surprise and slay a parcel of unfortunate seamen, but to kidnap or kill personages of no less importance than the representatives of the two Western nations. Lord Elgin and Baron Gros were to be invited to a meeting with the great Chinese dignitaries appointed to treat with them; there was to be a stipulation that only such and such a force was to be displayed on either side; the Chinese were to hold in concealment troops so numerous that both by their numbers, and by the effect of surprise, they might safely calculate upon bearing down any opposition from the European escort; and then—what? Were Lord Elgin and Baron Gros to be carried about in bamboo cages, and exposed to the scorn and derision of the mob of Pekin, that it might be seen in what small account the Imperial Government held their barbarian enemies? Were they to be well-treated, on the other hand, and brought to admire the clemency and mercy of the Emperor? Were they to be crucified, or cajoled? Was their entry into Pekin to be greeted by an illumination, or an impalement, the Plenipotentiaries being principal actors in the latter ceremony? The hypothesis seemed so probable and so completely in accordance with what we have known of the character of the Chinese, and of the spirit as well as the forms of their dealings with Europeans, that it is no great wonder if it found ready acceptance not only in the Allied Camp—but, even more quickly, here at home. Lord Elgin, however, in a despatch which he addressed to the Foreign Office just after the event, and which was published Last Week, gives it as his own opinion “that in this instance there was that mixture of stupidity, want of straightforwardness, suspicion, and bluster, which characterises so generally the conduct of affairs in this country.” He rests this opinion on the ground that San-ko-lin-sin, the Imperial General, must have already received such substantial proof of the superiority of the Europeans in the field that he would not in all probability have courted a renewal of the contest. It must be said in answer that the conduct of the Chinese has invariably been just what Lord Elgin supposes it is not in this present instance. At what period of active hostilities—or during negotiations for peace—or at its conclusion, has treachery ever ceased not only to be the ingredient, but the distinguishing feature in the dealings of the Chinese with the Western nations? In the present case it is admitted that this Imperial General covered the ground assigned for the occupation of the allies with his guns and troops—and did all that in him lay to put them at his mercy. Whatever his intentions may have been, there were the preparations for his perfidy—and the perfidy itself.

In dealing with such a people it is impossible to say what turn events may take. Your Chinaman is not like what we call a mere savage—the toy and sport of his own impulses and passions. He reasons—perhaps he makes a greater show of reasoning than we do—but from precisely similar facts he draws inferences directly the reverse of those which would occur to the mind of a European. Give an Englishman and a Chinaman similar premises—each will work the matter out in his own way; the appeal, in either case, will be to the logical sense; and yet their conclusions will be different as black from white. The Pekin mandarins might, at any moment, make up their minds that the European prisoners should be sternly dealt with, just at the very moment that the preservation and safe return of the captives would be of the most vital importance to themselves. An idea seems to be projected into the Chinese mind by way of refraction. Still, with all this, the vast weight of presumption is happily in favour of the re-delivery of our countrymen in safe condition. They, or some of them, had been seen in a cart on their way to the city of Pekin—under escort, of course—and not ill-treated. Four days after their capture, intelligence had been received that they were alive and well: the wonder perhaps is that in four days they were not given back. One great element which may be fairly taken into account in estimating their chances of safety, in a favourable sense, is that Mr. Parkes is amongst the number, and he is perfectly well acquainted not only with the language but with the character of the Chinese. Many acts of stupid cruelty, of which we seek in vain for an explanation, must have been the mere result of want of power of communication. The captor cannot come to an understanding with his captive for the simple reason that neither understands a word which the other says, and the executioner’s sword cuts the Gordian Knot. Mr. Parkes, however, has many enemies at Pekin—certainly his old antagonist, the Hoppo—amongst official persons who had been employed at Canton during the Lorcha war, of which, and not without a certain amount of reason, he is considered, in China, as the originator and cause. His old opponents may consider that the present moment is an apt one for avenging the griefs of Commissioner Yeh, and their own losses and anxieties, upon Mr. Parkes, and for his sake upon all his companions in captivity and misfortune. Speculation can go no further. Lord Elgin has informed the Chinese authorities that he will neither treat with them, nor suspend military operations until the prisoners are restored to liberty. Let us look forward to the arrival of the next mail from China, with reasonable expectations of good tidings as to the fate of our countrymen.

This untoward occurrence does but furnish fresh evidence that the attempt to deal with these strange samples of humanity as we would deal with the governments of the Western world, will simply end in disappointment. If such be the spirit which presides over their negotiations even now, when they have received a few broad hints from the Armstrong gunners, what hope would there be that they would adhere to any conditions which might be imposed upon them, and which were to be fulfilled at a future day, as soon as military pressure is withdrawn? The intelligence of Lord Elgin’s policy, immediately after the first engagement, in which the Tartar troops had been routed in so ridiculous a way, was not received in this country with any peculiar satisfaction. The private letters which have come to hand by the last mail prove that the impression upon this point in this country is identical with that which was stamped upon the minds of our countrymen, being residents in China, as soon as they heard what had been done in the North. The opinion of the leading commercial houses engaged in the China trade is, that it would be better if the trade were entirely stopped for a while, rather than that it should be exposed to these constant interruptions, which paralyse the foresight of the merchant, and confound his most carefully devised calculations. “Let us know, once for all, where we are, and what we are about,” is the cry from Shanghai to Hong Kong. The ruling men at Pekin, whoever they may be, must be convinced at length that they are dealing with a Power which, as far as they are concerned, is irresistible. It does not, happily, seem necessary, in order to ensure this end, that any system of sanguinary operations should be carried out. There is wanted such an armed demonstration at Pekin as should not leave the smallest shadow of doubt in the mind of any inhabitant of that city—and chiefly in the mind of any person connected with the present system of administration—that the days of blustering at Europeans, and rejecting their overtures for intercourse upon an equal footing, are at an end. Whether it be sufficient for this purpose merely to enter Pekin in military triumph—or whether it will be necessary for a period to retain possession of a part of the city—we, at this distance, are unable to say; but it is clear that such an impression must be produced as will make the mandarins think better of it, before they court a second visit, or visitation, from European troops.

As far as we may judge from the very interesting state papers which fell into the hands of our countrymen some months ago, China, at the present moment, is ruled by a Tory clique, composed of men whom in our country we should call Lords Eldon and Ellenborough, but China must have her Peels and Palmerstons, aye, and her Cobbetts, O’Connells, and Brights. As far as Europeans are concerned, no form of Government could be more unfriendly than the present. If the presence of the European forces in Pekin should lead to what we should call a “ministerial crisis,” and an “infusion of young blood” into the administration, both Englishmen and Chinamen would be much the gainers.

After all, it is time that the Chinese question should be divested of its grotesque and absurd conventionalities of thought. Life in China is not passed as it is represented upon that famous plate with its pagoda, and its bridge, which is so familiar to us all from our earliest years. It is a very grave event in the history of the human race that one-third of the human beings now crawling upon the surface of the planet should at length be brought really into contact with the vigorous and scientific thought of Europe. The Chinese are pre eminently an industrious, a persevering, and an ingenious race. That they would ever assist in promoting scientific discoveries, or that China could under any circumstances produce men of superior intellect, it is not for us to say. The evidence upon this matter is not before us. We do not even know what has been in China. Who shall say what may be, if the labours of this vast hive of human beings should ever receive a proper impulse and direction? The peasantry of China seem to be quite upon a par with the French or English peasant, and they are numerous as the sands upon the sea-shore. We may well suspect that if access had ever been obtained to those vast and flourishing towns of the interior, which are scarcely known to us even by name, it would be found that the burgher of Soo-chow-foo was quite as intelligent a man as his brother of Derby, or Blois. We are talking at our ease, now we have enjoyed a few years of railroads, of the electric telegraph, of a free government, and of a free press. But what was the state of England, and what the state of France, forty or fifty years ago, when compared with what it is at the present time. These myriads of Chinamen, or at least as many as knew of our existence, are by all accounts not only desirous, but eager to accept our offers of commercial intercourse; and so they find their profit in it, be sure that they will not be the first to break the bond. The only point which can yet be affirmed with certainty of John Chinaman is, that he is a keen and shrewd trader. This is not a bad basis upon which to build the intercourse of nations.

As important work as ever was taken in hand since history has been written, is now being carried through in the North of China. Let us not be led astray by the idle cries of the pseudo-philanthropists. The time has arrived when Europe and China must be brought together, and all the ridiculous shams and caricatures of government, which have hitherto interfered with this result, be swept away, peacefully if possible—if not, by the strong hand of power. We have not tolerated the misgovernment of thirty millions—why should we stand by quietly and witness the degradation and oppression of three hundred millions, if we have the power to prevent it, and that without a violation of the canons of public policy and right which regulate the intercourse of nations even in the Western world?

Before we take leave of these distant Eastern regions, it is pleasant to think that by intelligence received Last Week from Japan, our intercourse with the Japanese seems to be proceeding in the most friendly manner. Mr. Alcock, our envoy at Jeddo, had not only succeeded in obtaining from the Government facilities for travelling in the interior, but he had actually gained permission to visit the sacred mountain of Fusi-jama. This is almost as though one should say in the old days of Turkish bigotry that a Christian had been admitted to profane the famous Mosque of Omar with his infidel tread. Matters must have been shrewdly enough managed at Jeddo; and there can, at the bottom, exist no very unfriendly feeling towards the Europeans at Japan when such a concession was made. It would no doubt have been much easier to have moved the Japanese Government to yield a far more important point. The Alpine Club would not do amiss to turn their attention to Fusi-jama, now that they seem pretty well to have exhausted the catalogue of Schrekhorns and Wetterhorns, and reduced the ascent of Mont Blanc pretty much to the dimensions of a vulgar stroll.

True, the height of the mountain is only guessed at 14,000 feet above the sea-level by the English visitors, although the Japanese themselves place it at 17,000; but the marvellous beauty of the scenery—so it is said—more than atones for any deficiency in mere altitude. Mr. E. B. De Fonblanque has forwarded home an account of the ascent which, though written under date Sep. 20, from Kanagawa, in Japan, was only received and published in London Last Week. After writing with enthusiasm of the beauty of the scenery, which, as he writes, cannot be equalled within the same compass in any part of the world, he speaks with delight of the cordial and gentle manners of the people. The travellers, who were of course to the Japanese villagers, just what Japanese travellers would be to us, were not pressed upon or annoyed even by the curiosity of the people. In the course of their journey they did not see either a drunkard or a beggar. The houses were clean, and in good repair; the little gardens were well cultivated, and decorated with ornamental flowers. Everywhere signs of peace and prosperity were seen. The journey thus undertaken was not an inconsiderable one, for the party had to travel six days before they reached the foot of the mountain, and under the auspices of the priests, commenced the ascent. At every half-mile, until the real rough scrambling began, they found seats for repose, and were presented with quaint little cups of tea, just as in Switzerland: at various unexpected turns, there are found little sheds where Alpine-strawberries and cream are displayed before the not ungrateful tourist. When the top of the mountain was attained, Mr. Alcock displayed the British flag. The party fired twenty-one rounds from their revolvers into the crater of Fusi-jama, and Queen Victoria’s health was drunk in champagne, to the astonishment of the Japanese, who seem to have considered the firing and the bumpers of champagne as elements in a religious ceremony. It appears wonderful that, amongst the hundreds and hundreds of enterprising young Englishmen who are in want of an occupation, the idea has not occurred to some one or other of the number to make Japan his own in a literary sense. A few years ago it would have been as impossible to raise the veil which had hung over these islands for centuries as it would have been to penetrate, unchallenged, into a fortified town in time of war. All the efforts of Sir Stamford Raffles and of other marking Englishmen to effect an entry into this mysterious empire had been paralysed in the presence of Japanese obstinacy and Japanese traditions. The Dutch pedlars might come to Nangasaki if they would, leave there what merchandise they might judge fit for the Japanese market, and receive such Japanese wares as were assigned to them in exchange by the Japanese authorities—but there was an end of European intercourse with Japan. Now, matters are changed. The entry into Japan and the rupture of the old traditions have been effected.

If an Englishman—a young man, with a few years of life to spare—wanted to go to Jeddo, there take up his residence, learn the language, and so recommend himself to the “best society,” that all suspicion of his intentions should be removed, he might, in all probability, before a couple of years had elapsed, have the run of the country. It would be like a glimpse of Mexico or Peru, when the Spaniards for the first time landed upon the shores of America. Here is a high civilisation, with which Greece, Syria, and Rome have not been concerned. Religion, policy, laws, agriculture, war, manufactures, literature, the drama, the manners of the people, would furnish a chapter in “The Japanese at Home,” which would certainly be read with deep interest. There would be no hardships, or fevers, or sickness, such as infallibly fall to the lot of the African traveller, and such as Dr. Livingstone recently endured. If a man’s inclinations lead him towards either Pole, into the Arctic or Antarctic regions, where so many of our countrymen have found their icy graves, he must at the very least make up his mind to months of dreariness and despondency, ungladdened by the rays of the pleasant sun. Leichardt and his companions had their Australian troubles—but a ramble in Japan would be a mere pleasure excursion.

The facilities for travel—railroads excepted—appear to be quite equal to those which we find in Europe; the hotels or guest-houses, as our own landlords would say, “replete with every comfort the most fastidious taste could desire.” Within two months, a traveller starting from the London Bridge station might be in Jeddo, and so he chose the proper season of the year, the voyage itself would be but a yachting excursion of the most delightful kind. Why will not one or more young Englishmen, with sufficient means, and ample time at their disposal, give three, four, or five years to Japan? At thirty years of age they might be famous, and never would the Temple of Fame have been approached by a more flowery path.

An event of some importance in the last days of this month, which has just expired, has been the return of Sir James Brooke to Borneo. The illness which for a time had paralysed the exertions of this great Englishman has passed away, and he has now returned to the seat of his government with energies renewed, and, as it is to be hoped, with a better understanding with the authorities at home, than at any previous period of his career. Now that the importance and real significance of the exertions of this noble life are better understood in our Government offices, English statesmen are coming round to the opinion, that the judgment of the country with regard to Sir James Brooke has been wiser than their own.

The Indian Archipelago will soon be the theatre of great events, for the Dutch even now are engaged in a conflict with their native subjects, which, for intensity, and sanguinary incidents, may well be compared with the mutiny of our own Indian troops. The turn which affairs may take is quite problematical, and the greatest apprehensions as to the event exist at Amsterdam and the Hague.

The results and intelligence of the Last Week warrant an especial notice of recent occurrences in those distant eastern regions, which, but a few years back, were known to us in so imperfect a manner that any one who from his own personal experience could tell us something about the British Factory at Canton, or the custom of merchants at Batavia, was looked upon as a very remarkable man. Still we must not forget what is passing nearer home. By the continental mails of Last Week we hear that the political agony of the young King of Gaëta is still prolonged, and that Pio Nono—Priam-like—is still brandishing his now headless spear in the face of his many foes. The news from Hungary and Austria is, perhaps, of the highest significance.

The Austrian Empire is in extremities, and the government of the country, and the chief authority upon all propositions for change, are practically vested in a few old gentlemen, a few old ladies, and the Court confessors. These strange representatives of statesmanship are just now suggesting concessions which are indeed no concessions at all, but rather aggravations of the old misrule. The strongest discontent—discontent so strong that it bids fair to produce fruit in action—is felt even in the Tyrol, and the Tyrolese mountaineers have hitherto been the most staunch, the most unswerving, and the most bigoted partisans of the Hapsburghs. In Styria, Carinthia, Salzburg, it is the same thing, and whilst the Empire is really in danger of dissolution, the effete advisers of the young Emperor are engaged in defining with curious precision who shall, and who shall not, be admitted to the ecstatic privilege of wearing a red coat with gold lace. Bad as all this is, it is nothing to what is occurring in Hungary, where, in very truth, Francis Joseph must conquer in the field if his resolution is taken on the side of despotism. But the very soldiers on whose fidelity he must place his reliance would, to all appearance, be the first to rejoice at his defeat.

Three hundred thousand men in arms constitute the force which has been arrayed for the defence of Venetia should the Austrians be attacked there i in the forthcoming spring. It is a mighty army if the troops were but faithful and well fed; but neither of these conditions are fulfilled. The i Austrian officers are engaged in executing their own soldiers for insubordination and mutiny, and it seems more than doubtful what their conduct would be if they were led into the field. Judicial blindness has struck the Austrian Emperor and his advisers, and they will not see the writing on the wall, although to all eyes but their own it is written in a reasonably firm text-hand. Politicians in London tell you that before the conflict is actually commenced, the Austrian court will not refuse to part with Venetia, as old Trapbois would have said, for a consideration—but as they are called upon to sell not only Venetia, but their revenge upon that Italian race which they have so bitterly scorned, it seems questionable if they will be brought to terms before another sharp lesson has been administered to them at the bayonet’s point. It may well be that the best thing which could happen to the Italians would be to be called upon to join in a common enterprise, which would cause them to forget for a while their sectional antipathies, and break them into those habits of discipline and self-control, without which a nation never yet was great.

Meanwhile the French Emperor is playing fast and loose with the Italians, as always since the peace of Villa-Franca. But for the orders issued to his naval commanders the Sardinians would now be in Gaëta. But for the presence of his troops in Rome, the Pope would now be far enough away from the Eternal City. It seems to be his policy to allow the Holy Father to drift down into a condition of insolvency, although what his next step will be, when the bankruptcy of the Vatican has been declared, is not so clear. The French regiments are steadily reinforced within the limits of the Patrimony, and there is nothing in the military movements to show that the French have the remotest idea of giving up the capital of this country to the Italians. As long as foreign troops remain in any portion of the Italian Peninsula the spirit of the people can never be what it should be amongst a nation of free men. The French drum, as it rolls whilst the regiments of the French Emperor pass in and out of Rome by the Porta del Popolo, marks that Italy has not yet attained her independence. To use the old form of expression—if the heart of an Italian patriot could now be opened, the word “Rome” should be found marked upon its core.

But whilst Louis Napoleon is so busy in Italy, he is not forgetting to keep the attention of his own subjects alive. He, too, has promulgated his phantom of a constitution, which just seems to amount to this, that in the French Chambers—elected as they are known to be—a certain amount of discussion upon the measures introduced by the Imperial Ministers may be allowed.