Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Hart, Robert

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HART, Sir ROBERT, first baronet (1835–1911), inspector-general of customs in China, born on 20 Feb. 1835 at Portadown, co. Armagh, Ireland, was eldest of the twelve children of Henry Hart, a Wesleyan mill-owner and landed proprietor, by his wife Ann, second daughter of John Edgar of Ballybreagh. His ancestor on the father's side. Captain Van Hardt, came over from the Netherlands with King William III, distinguished himself at the battle of the Boyne, and was granted the township of Kilmoriarty. When Hart was twelve months old, his parents moved to Milltown on Lough Neagh, and about a year later to Hillsborough. Hart was sent to school at Hillsborough, then for a year to the Wesleyan school at Taunton, and afterwards to the Wesleyan Connexional school in Dublin. He reached the top of the last school at the age of fifteen, and won a scholarship at Queen's College, Belfast. There he was a younger contemporary of Edwin Lawrence Godkin [q. v. Suppl. II], and he graduated B.A. in 1853 with honours. He was always interested in the affairs of Queen's College, where he proceeded M.A. in 1871 and was made hon. LL.D. in 1882.

In the spring of 1854 a nomination for the consular service in China was given by the foreign office to each of the three Queen's Colleges in Ireland. Hart received without examination the nomination which fell to Queen's College, Belfast, and he left for China in May 1854, being then nineteen years old.

Starting as a supernumerary interpreter, Hart after three months at Hongkong was sent via Shanghai, which was then in the hands of the ‘Triad Society,’ to Ningpo. He was at first supernumerary and in 1855 assistant in the vice-consulate at Ningpo, and acted for some months as vice-consul. In March 1858 he was transferred to the consulate at Canton, and from April held the position of second assistant, acting also for some time as first assistant.

As the result of the Chinese war, which was temporarily concluded by the Treaty of Tientsin, Canton was in the earlier part of 1858 jointly occupied by an Anglo-French force. Hart was made secretary to the allied commissioners, serving in that capacity under Sir Harry Parkes [q. v.] Subsequently his official chief at the consulate was Sir Rutherford Alcock [q. v. Suppl. I].

In May 1854, when the walled native city of Shanghai was occupied by Triad rebels against the Manchu government, the Chinese custom-house re-opened in the foreign settlement of Shanghai. It was resolved to collect there imperial revenue under the joint protectorate of Great Britain, the United States, and France. Each country was represented by its consul, the British consul being (Sir) Thomas Wade [q. v.] It was thus that the imperial maritime customs of China were inaugurated. The American and French representatives soon resigned from the triumvirate, and were not replaced; and Wade was succeeded in the sole charge or superintendence of the imperial customs at Shanghai by H. N. Lay, vice-consul and interpreter in the Shanghai consulate.

The success of the new system at Shanghai led the viceroy of Canton to invite Hart to undertake the supervision of the customs at Canton. With the permission of the British government he resigned the consular service in 1859, and joined the new Chinese imperial maritime customs service as deputy-commissioner of customs at Canton. He remained in Canton till 1861. After the war of 1860 between Great Britain and France on the one side, and the Chinese government on the other, and the conclusion of the convention of Peking in Oct. 1860, the imperial collectorate of customs at the treaty ports was in 1861 formally recognised and invested with regular powers by the Chinese government.

During 1861–3 Lay, who had become inspector-general of the customs, was on two years' leave in Europe owing to injury in a riot. In Lay's absence Fitzroy, previously private secretary to Lord Elgin, and Hart acted for him as officiating inspectors-general. Fitzroy remained at Shanghai, while Hart organised the customs service at Foochow and other treaty ports. He also visited Peking at the invitation of the Tsungli Yamen, and stayed there with the British minister, Sir Frederick Bruce [q. v.] The advice which Bruce gave him stood him in good stead in future dealings with the Chinese. On Lay's return in May 1863 Hart took up the duties of commissioner of customs at Shanghai with charge of the Yangtze ports. But Lay resigned a few months later, and Hart was appointed his successor. Thus at the age of twenty-eight Hart became inspector-general of the imperial maritime customs; and, although he tendered his resignation in 1906, he nominally held the post till his death.

When Hart became inspector-general the Taiping rebellion, which on his arrival in China was at the floodtide of success, was succumbing to the influence of Gordon and ‘the ever-victorious army.’ Hart met Gordon, with whom he formed a strong friendship, in the spring of 1864. He was largely responsible for reconciling Gordon and Li Hung Chang at Soochow in that year, and he was present at the taking of Chang Chow Fu. The rebellion ended in 1864, and Hart had much to do with the disbandment of the ‘ever-victorious army.’ In the same year he inspected the Chinese customs houses in the island of Formosa, and normal times having returned to China and its government, he was summoned to live at Peking, which thenceforward became his headquarters and permanent dwelling-place. There he exercised a genial hospitality, indulging a taste for music by maintaining a private band. He rarely moved from the capital during his long residence in China. A perfect master of the language, he wrote in Chinese, after his visit to Formosa in 1864, suggestions on Chinese affairs under the title of 'What a Bystander says.'

Until he finally left China — nominally on leave — in 1908, he only twice revisited Europe, the first time for six months in 1866, when he took with him some Chinese to see the world, and again in 1878, when he went as President of the Chinese commission to the Paris Exhibition. Though not the first originator. Hart was the practical creator of the imperial maritime customs service of China, 'one of the most striking monuments ever produced by the genius and labour of any individual Englishman' {The Times, 10 Jan. 1899). The working of the system was largely dependent on his personal exertions. To his labours he brought great power of work and organisation, a strong memory and mastership of detail, thorough knowledge of Chinese methods and modes of thought, together with tact and Irish kindliness. As more ports were opened to foreign trade, the scope of Hart's duties extended, and owing to the efficiency of the service other than customs duties passed into its charge. The service included the lighting of the coast and inland waterways of China. The imperial post-office, which was formally established in 1896, became, too, one of its branches, and Hart's title was then changed to inspector-general of Chinese imperial customs and posts. Hart's department proved the one branch of Chinese administration which followed Western lines and was at once efficient and honest. It was worked scrupulously for the benefit of China. Hart's European officers were not drawn exclusively from British subjects, and he never subordinated Chinese to British interests.

Rarely absent from Peking, and taking, in the opinion of some, too exclusively a Chinese view of affairs, especially in later years. Hart long enjoyed the confidence of the Chinese government, and was entrusted by it with many negotiations affecting China's relations with other countries. In 1878 he, acting with Li Hung Chang, settled at Chefoo with the British minister at Peking, Sir Thomas Wade, the difficulty between China and Great Britain arising out of the murder in 1875 of Augustus Raymond Margary [q. v.], the result being the Chefoo convention of 1876. To Hart's co-operation was due the settlement of China's troubles in Formosa and on the Tongking frontier with France in 1885. France acknowledged his services by making him grand officer of the Legion of Honour. He was no less active in dealing with difficulties over the delimitation of the Burmese frontier and China's relations with Thibet. In May 1885 he was appointed by the English foreign secretary. Lord Granville, British minister at Peking in succession to Sir Harry Parkes, but he recognised that the Chinese wished to retain his services as inspector-general, and in August he resigned the position without taking up the duties. He had indeed identified himself too fully with Chinese interests and points of view to fit him for diplomatic work on behalf of another country.

Hart did not anticipate the collapse of China in the war with Japan of 1894-5; but after that war had been concluded by the Treaty of Shimonoseki, he used all his efforts to induce the Chinese government to introduce necessary reforms. He foresaw the Boxer outbreak in 1900, but he held that the movement was 'a purely patriotic volunteer movement, and its object is to strengthen China and for a Chinese programme' (These from the Land of Sinim, p. 52). The crisis came sooner than he had contemplated. He showed gallantry and endurance when the rebels occupied Peking, but his house and papers, including his diary of forty years, were burned (June), and he had to take refuge in the British legation. When the legation was besieged, false reports of his death were circulated in England (July), but he was unhurt. As soon as the rebellion was suppressed by an international force (14 Aug.) Hart resumed his office (21 Aug.), and became as before the friend and adviser of the Chinese government. He organised in 1901 a native customs service at the treaty ports, and he played a large part in the re -establishment of the Manchu djnasty with the empress dowager at its head. Although it was an 'alien government,' he insisted that it had been 'part and parcel of the nation for three hundred years' (ib. p. 96). In 1901 he published, under the title 'These from the Land of Sinim,' essays on the Chinese question, part of which he had written during the Boxer rising. There, while dwelling eloquently on the populousness and fertility of the country, he explains the people's exclusiveness and distrust of foreign races. He optimistically looked for reform, he had written to a private friend in 1896, not from any individual action but from 'the healthy interaction of the forces now coming into play.'

Hart's unchallenged authority was rudely and without warning terminated by the Chinese government in May 1906. The customs service was then subordinated to a board of Chinese officials under the title of Shui-Wu Ch'u. A remonstrance from the British government was disregarded. As a consequence Hart tendered his resignation in July 1906. It was never defmitely accepted, but in Jan. 1908 he received formal leave of absence, and was accorded the title of president of the board of customs. He returned to England for good. During his long sojourn in China the government had been profuse in acknowledgment of his services, and his Chinese honours excelled in number and distinction those bestowed on any other European. They included, brevet title of An Ch'a Ssu (civil rank of the third class), 1864; brevet title of Pu Cheng Ssu (civil rank of the second class), 1869; Red Button of the first class, 1881; Double Dragon, second division, first class, 1885; the Peacock's Feather, 1885; ancestral rank of the first class of the first order for three generations, with letters patent, 1889; brevet title of junior guardian of the heir apparent, 1901.

European governments, to whom he rendered a long succession of services, were also liberal in recognition. In 1870 he was made chevalier of the Swedish order of Vasa, and other high distinctions came from the governments of France, Belgium, Austria, Italy, Portugal, Holland, and Prussia, and from Pope Pius IX. The British government made him C.M.G. in 1879, K.C.M.G. in 1882, G.C.M.G. in 1889, and a baronet in 1893.

A north of Ireland man of retiring disposition, Hart, while he thoroughly assimilated Chinese influences, combined business capacity and courage with untiring patience and tolerance, habits of deliberation, and an Eastern equanimity under good or bad fortune. He had a fine memory and a stock of varied learning in oriental and other subjects. He was Förderer of the Museum für Völkerkunde, Leipzig, 1878; hon. member of the Royal Asiatic Society, Shanghai, 1879; of the Oriental Museum, Vienna, 1880; and of the Institut de Droit International, 1892. He was made an hon. fellow of the Royal Statistical Society in 1890. On his retirement from China he lived for the most part at Fingest Grove, near Great Marlow, where he died on 20 Sept. 1911. He was buried at Bisham on the Thames. On 23 Sept. 1911 an imperial edict was issued at Peking which, after reciting his services and enumerating the various Chinese honours already accorded him, added to these as a posthumous distinction the brevet rank of senior guardian of the heir apparent.

On 22 Aug. 1866 Hart married at Ravannet in co. Antrim, where his parents were living, Hester Jane, eldest daughter of Alexander Bredon, M.D., of Portadown. She survived him with one son, Edgar Bruce, his successor in the baronetcy, born in 1873, and two daughters. A caricature appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1894.

[Sir Robert Hart—The Romance of a Great Career, told by his niece, Juliet Bredon, 1909 (with photogravure portrait as frontispiece); The Times, 10 Jan. 1899, 17 July 1900, 21 Sept. 1911 ; Foreign Office List; Who's Who, 1911.]

C. P. L.