Europe in China/Chapter 16

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A Brief Survey.

A.D. 1634 to 1854.

The period covered by the administration of Sir G. Bonham clearly marks, when compared with the preceding epochs, a turning point in the history of Hongkong. The reader who cares only for a detailed record of the most noteworthy facts and events connected with the history of Hongkong, will readily dispense with this chapter and hurry on to the next. But he who would understand that history in itself, discern its inner workings and decipher its deeper import, so as to study the history of Hongkong in the light of cause and effect, may well pause at this point for a brief survey of the facts presented in the preceding chapters.

The Island of Hongkong, it will have been observed, was even in its pre-British times an eccentric vantage point. It never was so much of an integral portion of Asia as to be of any practical moment to the Chinese political or social organism. Its very name was unknown to the topographers or statesmen of China and men had to come from the Far West to give it a name in the history of the East. Its situation at the farthest south-east point of the Chinese Empire, in line with the British Possessions in Africa, India and North-America, constituted it a natural Anglo-Chinese outstation in the Pacific. Hongkong never belonged naturally either to Asia or to Europe, but was plainly destined in God's providence to form the connecting link for both.

As the place so its people. Ever since the first dawning of its known history, Hongkong was the refuge of the oppressed from among the nations. The Hakkas ill-treated by the Puntis, the Puntis Tie-chius and Tan-ka people weary of the yoke of mandarindom, as well as the Chinese Emperor fleeing before the ruthless Tartar invaders, the industrious Chinese settler as well as the roving pirate, and finally the British merchant self-exiled from Europe finding his personal and national selfrespect trampled under foot by Manchu-Chinese tyrants—all turned, with hesitating reluctance but impelled by resistless fate, to the Island of Hongkong as the haven of refuge, the home of the free.

It was not in the nature of things that Hongkong should at once become a paradise of liberty. It was not to be expected that the seekers of liberty, self-expatriated from the antipodes of the West and the East yet with the love of their respective national homes fresh in their hearts, would either be left undisturbed from without or consolidate otherwise than by years of internal friction into one political and social organism within the Colony. A stormy career, war without and dissensions within, yet real though slow growth withal and eventual power radiating from a healthful centre of innate Anglo-Saxon vitality, was what the seer gifted with power to look into the future might have predicted as the fate in store for this phenomenal Anglo-Chinese Colony in the Far East.

Searching deeper still into the underlying causes of this Eurasian phenomenon, it will be seen that the evolution of the Colony of Hongkong was in reality the product of a quasi marriage-alliance between Europe and Asia, concluded at Canton (after 1634 A.D.) between the East India Company and the Chinese Government. But this international union carelessly entered upon was characterized, in the course of the next two centuries, by a deep-seated and growingly manifested incompatibility of temper, such as made Anglo-Chinese international life at Canton a burden too heavy to be borne by either nation. British free trade notions based on the assumption of international equality could not remain in wedlock with China's iron rule of monopoly based on the claim of political supremacy over the universe. The crisis came when that claim was confronted (A.D. 1833) by an Act of Parliament establishing British authority in the East and by the substitution (A.D. 1834) of an independent community of lusty free traders for the servile and effete East India Company. The domestic alliance contracted after A.D. 1034 between Europe and Asia on terms so humiliating for the former, was bound to result in a temporary divorce. That divorce was solemnly and emphatically pronounced, though with patent unwillingness, by Commissioner Lin (A.D. 1839) acting on behalf of Asia, whereupon Captain Elliot, acting as the representative of Europe, secured Hongkong as a cradle for the offspring of that unhappy union (born A.D. 1841), that is to say for the Colony whose divine destiny it is to reconcile its parents hereafter in a happier reunion by a due subordination of Asia to Europe. The elder shall serve the younger and be taught to love and obey—such is the historic problem which Hongkong has to solve in the dim future.

This conception of Hongkong as the vantage point from which the Anglo-Saxon race has to work out its divine mission of promoting the civilization of Europe in the East, and establishing the rule of constitutional liberty on the continent of Asia and on the main of the Pacific, is not a mere fancy. However imperfectly the problem may have been stated here, the foregoing remarks undoubtedly contain an approximate formulation of a true historic lesson which he who runs may read. Now this lesson, however it may be modified and amended by a critical reader, provides the student of the history of Hongkong with n definite standard by which he can measure the progress of the Colony and judge the merits of its Governors at any successive period. If the reader is once clear as to what it is that the past history of Hongkong shews the purport of the establishment of Hongkong to have been in the providence of God, he will have no difficulty in determining, with regard to the public measures or public men of any period, whether they marred or promoted the Colony's progress towards fulfilling its divine mission.

It appears then from this point of view that the Colony of Hongkong, the offspring of a union between Europe and Asia, ushered into the world in the year 1841, was nursed by brave Captain Elliot in the cradle of liberty and free trade, solemnly christened at Nanking, in 1842, by the despotic autocrat, Sir H. Pottinger, weaned from 1844 to 1848 by pedantic Sir J. Davis amid an amount of tempest and strife which made the empoverished Colonial nursery resound with cries for representative government and with groans condemnatory of monopoly, until Parliament stepped in (in 1847) and laid down the programme on which the schooling of the young fledgeling was accordingly conducted by Sir G. Bonham, who gave the Colony its first common-sense instructions in the A-B-C of constitutional government. In other words, of the first four Governors of Hongkong only Captain Elliot and Sir G. Bonham appear to have read aright the lessons of the past history of British intercourse with China and to have applied those lessons correctly to the establishment of the Colony of Hongkong.

To begin with Captain Elliot, he seems to have recognized or at any rate acted upon the following principles—(1) that Hongkong must be regarded in the first instance as a point from which should radiate the general influence of Europe upon Asia; (2) that it is therefore of primary importance to maintain at Hongkong British supremacy vis à vis Chinese mandarindom; (3) that the settlement on Hongkong must be treated rather as a station for the protection of British trade in the Far East in general than as a Colony in the ordinary sense of the word, that is to say that Hongkong is in truth neither a mere Crown Colony acquired by war nor a Colony formed by productive settlement; (4) that the Colony of Hongkong can be made to prosper only by keeping sacredly inviolate its free trade palladium and by governing the colonists on principles of constitutional liberty. Unfortunately Captain Elliot was recalled before he could give full effect to these fundamental principles. But that he established the Colony on this basis redounds to his honour.

It was even more unfortunate that Captain Elliot's successors, Sir H. Pottinger and Sir J. Davis, pursued a policy which, while theoretically accepting the first of those propositions, virtually ran counter to all of them. It is quite possible that the recall of Captain Elliot implied a condemnation on the part of the Colonial Office of the above stated propositions rather than of his Palmerstonian war policy, and that the contrary principles adopted by Elliot's successors originated with the Downing Street Authorities rather than with themselves. But if so, it is remarkable that both Sir H. Pottinger and Sir J. Davis appear to have carried out con amore those pernicious instructions and to have personally identified themselves with the autocratic and protectionist spirit that must have governed the authors of those instructions whoever they were. Sir H. Pottinger, indeed, gloriously maintained, while the British army and navy were at work, the ascendancy of Europe in Asia, but, the moment the sword was sheathed, he allowed Mandarin duplicity and arrogance to cajole him so as to surrender one and all of the principles established by Captain Elliot. Sir H. Pottinger thought so highly of Chinese officials and so badly of British merchants that, for very fear of furthering the interests of opium dealers and smugglers, he shrank from maintaining free trade principles. In result, he preferred to allow the Cantonese Authorities to frame regulations for Hongkong's commerce which effectually strangled it. Moreover, whilst thus sacrificing the liberty and prosperity of British commerce. Sir H. Pottinger, though in the Nanking Treaty he had defined Hongkong as a mere naval station for careening and refitting British ships, governed the settlers as if Hongkong were a regular Colony bound to maintain by taxes an extravagantly expensive official establishment, and yet refused to give them any representation or voice whatsoever in a Council which autocratically disposed of the taxpayers' money. Sir J. Davis, specially selected as the trained tool of Mandarin autocracy and monopoly, not only followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, but went even farther in violation of the principles which had guided Captain Elliot. By his Triad Society's Ordinance he sacrificed the rudimentary principles of European civilization and the British axiom of the liberty of the subject to a cringing subservience of the aims of Mandarin tyranny in its most barbaric aspects. By his buccaneering expedition of April, 1847, he injured British prestige in the East even more than his predecessor had ever done. By his monopolies and farms and petty regulations he hampered and injured the foreign and native commerce of the Colony and nullified the freedom of the port. The result of the misgovernment, initiated by Sir H. Pottinger and continued by Sir J. Davis, was that Parliament had to step in to warn the Colonial Office against the mischievous policy pursued at Hongkong, and to rescue the Colony from plainly and imminently impending ruin by a return to the principles established by Captain Elliot. Let the reader who doubts the soundness of the above analysis of Hongkong's early history ponder the incontrovertible fact that the policy of autocracy, monopoly and protectionism, pursued by Sir H. Pottinger and Sir J. Davis, not only drove commerce away from Hongkong and made the Colony contemptible in the eyes of the Chinese, but brought the settlement to the verge of commercial and financial ruin and delivered British commerce at Hongkong, under the shadow of the British flag, into a bondage of Chinese mandarindom, as effective, as despicable and as galling as that tinder which the East India Company and the British free traders ever groaned whilst located at Canton. What staved off the impending ruin was a reversion to the principles of Elliot.

The foregoing remarks may serve to show that the formulation, by the Parliamentary Committee of 1847, of the programme essential for Hongkong's prosperity, was but a comprehensive re-statement of the principles which led to and guided the original establishment of the Colony. Those principles, discarded for a while by Sir H. Pottinger and Sir J. Davis to the Colony's manifest injury, were re-introduced by Sir G. Bonham who conformed his administration to those principles, though he did not agree with all the propositions which the Parliamentary Committee had deduced therefrom. Sir G. Bonham's administration stands thus connected positively with that of Captain Elliot and negatively with that of Sir H. Pottinger and Sir J. Davis. This view comprehends, in one organic process, the whole period from 1841 to 1854 as the first epoch in the pragmatic history of Hongkong. It also gives its due importance to the administration of Sir G. Bonham which, as it was with regard to the misrule of his two predecessors, the grave of the past, was at the same time, by the restoration of Elliot's vital, principles, the cradle of the future.

What constitutes, therefore, the close of Sir G. Bonham's administration as one of the great turning points in the history of the Colony is this, that by this time both the colonists and the Colonial Office had attained to the clear consciousness of Hongkong's mission as the representative of free trade in the East and of the need of some sort of representative government. An equally clear apprehension of the difficulties standing in the way of a practical realisation of this ideal was not wanting. But the recognition of the ideal itself was now established. This was for the young Colony what the first effulgence of personal self-consciousness is in the evolution of the human mind. Autocratic despotism, protectionism and monopoly, were now doomed, in principle at least. The commercial and financial prosperity of Hongkong was now, though not perfected yet, virtually established. A definite prospect of the Colony becoming soon absolutely self-supporting, was now looming within measurable distance. And as to Hongkong's exercising, on behalf of Europe, a civilizing influence upon the adjoining continent of Asia, the colonists and their rulers could well trust to the natural course of events to work out that problem. A British Colony thus firmly established in Asia, on the root principles of European liberty, was and is sure to play, in the drama of the future, such a part as will illustrate, in the sight of Asia, the superiority of British over Chinese forms of civilization and government and make Hongkong for all times the bulwark of the cause of Europe in the East.