1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hart, Sir Robert

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HART, SIR ROBERT, Bart. (1835-  ), Anglo-Chinese statesman, was born at Milltown, Co. Armagh, on the 20th of February 1835. He was educated at Taunton, Dublin and Belfast, and graduated at Queen’s College, Belfast, in 1853. In the following year he received an appointmemnt as student-interpreter in the China consular service, and after serving for a short time at the Ningpo vice-consulate, he was transferred to Canton, where after acting as secretary to the allied commissioners governing the city, he was appointed the local inspector of customs. There he first gained an insight into custom-house work. One effect of the Taiping rebellion was to close the native custom-house at Shanghai; and as the corrupt alternatives proposed by the Chinese were worse than useless, it was arranged by Sir Rutherford Alcock, the British consul, with his French and American colleagues, that they should undertake to collect the duties on goods owned by foreigners entering and leaving the port. Sir T. Wade was appointed to the post of collector in the first instance, and after a short tenure of office was succeeded by Mr H. N. Lay, who held the post until 1863, when he resigned owing to a disagreement with the Chinese government in connexion with the Lay-Osborn fleet. During his tenancy of office the system adopted at Shanghai was applied to the other treaty ports, so that when on Mr Lay’s resignation Mr Hart was appointed inspector-general of foreign customs, he found himself at the head of an organization which collected a revenue of upwards of eight million taels per annum at fourteen treaty ports. From the date when Mr Hart took up his duties at Peking, in 1863, he unceasingly devoted the whole of his energies to the work of the department, with the result that the revenue grew from upwards of eight million taels to nearly twenty-seven million, collected at the thirty-two treaty ports, and the customs staff, which in 1864 numbered 200, reached in 1901 a total of 5704. From the first Mr Hart gained the entire confidence of the members of the Chinese government, who were wise enough to recognize his loyal and able assistance. Of all their numerous sources of revenue, the money furnished by Mr Hart was the only certain asset which could be offered as security for Chinese loans. For many years, moreover, it was customary for the British minister, as well as the ministers of other powers, to consult him in every difficulty; and such complete confidence had Lord Granville in his ability and loyalty, that on the retirement of Sir T. Wade he appointed him minister plenipotentiary at Peking (1885). Sir Robert Hart, however—who was made a K.C.M.G. in 1882—recognized the anomalous position in which he would have been placed had he accepted the proposal, and declined the proffered honour. On all disputed points, whether commercial, religious or political, his advice was invariably sought by the foreign ministers and the Chinese alike. Thrice only did he visit Europe between 1863 and 1902, the result of this long comparative isolation, and of his constant intercourse with the Peking officials, being that he learnt to look at events through Chinese spectacles; and his work, These from the Land of Sinim, shows how far this affected his outlook. The faith which he put in the Chinese made him turn a deaf ear to the warnings which he received of the threatening Boxer movement in 1900. To the last he believed that the attacking force would at least have spared his house, which contained official records of priceless value, but he was doomed to see his faith falsified. The building was burnt to the ground with all that it contained, including his private diary for forty years. When the stress came, and he retreated to the British legation, he took an active part in the defence, and spared neither risk nor toil in his exertions. In addition to the administration of the foreign customs service, the establishment of a postal service in the provinces devolved upon him, and after the signing of the protocol of 1901 he was called upon to organize a native customs service at the treaty ports.

The appointment of Sir Robert Hart as inspector-general of the imperial maritime customs secured the interests of European investors in Chinese securities, and helped to place Chinese finance generally on a solid footing. When, therefore, in May 1906 the Chinese government appointed a Chinese administrator and assistant administrator of the entire customs of China, who would control Sir Robert Hart and his staff, great anxiety was aroused. The Chinese government had bound itself in 1896 and 1898 that the imperial maritime customs services should remain as then constituted during the currency of the loan. The British government obtained no satisfactory answer to its remonstrances, and Sir Robert Hart, finding himself placed in a subordinate position after his long service, retired in July 1907. He received formal leave of absence in January 1908, when he received the title of president of the board of customs. Both the Chinese and the British governments from time to time conferred honours upon Sir Robert Hart. By giving him a Red Button, or button of the highest rank, a Peacock’s Feather, the order of the Double Dragon, a patent of nobility to his ancestors for three generations, and the title of Junior Guardian of the heir apparent, the Chinese showed their appreciation of his manifold and great services; while under the seal of the British government there were bestowed upon him the orders of C.M.G.(1880), K.C.M.G.(1882), G.C.M.G. (1889), and a baronetcy (1893). He has also been the recipient of many foreign orders. Sir Robert Hart married in 1886 Hester, the daughter of Alexander Bredon, Esq., M.D., of Portadown.

See his life by Julia Bredon (Sir Robert Hart, 1909).