Europe in China/Chapter 5

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Dissensions and a Quiescent Policy

A.D. 1834 to 1836.

The expulsion of Lord Napier and the indignities deliberately heaped upon him (in 1834) were but the premonitory symptoms of a thunderstorm of Chinese Imperial, official and popular wrath, which was to burst over the heads of the British community at Canton five years later (in 1839). For the present, this precursory brief disturbance of the peace was succeeded by a temporary lull. During this interval, however, internal dissensions sprang up among all the parties concerned, in the British Cabinet, among the Superintendents who succeeded Lord Napier, among the British merchants and among the Chinese.

Mr. J. F. Davis (later on better known as Sir John Davis, Sinologue and Governor of Hongkong) succeeded to the post of Chief Superintendent of British trade in China (October 12, 1834), Sir George B. Robinson acting as Second and Mr. J. H. Astell as Third Superintendent. When announcing to Lord Palmerston the changes that had taken place, Mr. Davis declared that an unbecoming and premature act of submission to the Chinese Authorities would not only prove fruitless but mischievous, and that therefore 'absolute silence and quiescence' seemed to him the most eligible policy to pursue, until receipt of instructions from the Cabinet.

But the British Cabinet was not in a position, for years to come, to form any definite policy with regard to China. Lord Palmerston was temporarily (November 14, 1834, to April 10, 1835) out of office and when the Whig leaders resumed the reins of the Government (April 10, 1835, to September 16, 1841), they felt the ground under their feet too unstable to risk their existence by adopting a definite policy with regard to China. The Duke of Wellington personally adopted the views of the Chinese officials and did not shrink from applying them to the past, in condemning Lord Napier's action, or to the future in approving of Mr. Davis' proposed policy of inaction. As to the British public, it took the attitude of stolid apathy, caring nothing for these things, so long as the supply of tea and silk was forthcoming at the usual prices. Accordingly, when Mr. Davis, fearing lest he be left without any instructions, forwarded positive suggestions, they were, though good enough to be taken up and acted upon in subsequent years, quietly shelved for a good while by the Government.

Mr. Davis recommended (October 24 and 28, 1834) not to send out another cumbrous and expensive Embassy, but to appeal to the Emperor of China by means of a dispatch to be delivered by a small fleet at the mouth of the Peking River (Peiho), and, if such an appeal should fail, as he expected it would, to use then measures of coercion. Mr. Davis recommended this course on the ground that the Imperial Government of China sincerely desired to ameliorate the condition of British, merchants, but that the Cantonese Authorities, by their misrepresentations, kept the Emperor in the dark as to the real position of affairs. Mr. Davis, at the same time, stated that the Mandarins at Canton were anxious to keep the control of British merchants in the hands of the Hong Merchants, because this system enabled them to lighten their own responsibilities and to practise their heavy exactions on the trade with greater impunity.

In these views Mr. Davis was cordially supported by the whole British community of Canton and Macao, who forwarded (December 9, 1834) a petition signed by sixty-four British subjects and addressed to the King's Most Excellent Majesty in Council. Their unanimous opinion was that the long acquiescence in the arrogant assumption of superiority over the monarchs and people of other countries, claimed by the Emperor of China, had caused the disabilities and restrictions which had been imposed on British trade in China, and that Lord Napier's not having the requisite powers, properly sustained by an armed force, had put British merchants in their present degraded and insecure position. Accordingly they suggested to the King in Council, that a determined maintenance of the rank of the British Empire in the scale of nations was the proper policy to adopt, and they recommended the plan which was actually carried out seven years later in the so-called opium war, viz., that a Plenipotentiary, with an armed force, proceed to a convenient station on the east coast of China and demand of the Emperor ample reparation for the insults offered to Lord Napier, to the King and to his subjects, and to propose the appointment of Imperial Commissioners to arrange with the British Plenipotentiary a basis for regulating British trade, so as to prevent future troubles, and to extend trade to Amoy, Ningpo and Chusan.

The fact that at the close of the year 1834 ample reasons existed for making this demand and for taking this action, which without coercive measures was impossible, is important. Equally important is the other fact that the subsequent war of 1841 did no more than what was needed and demanded in the year 1834. For these facts show that the subsequent expulsion of the British community from Canton (in 1839) and the whole opium question, as connected with the war of 1841, were merely accidental accessories to the fact already patent in the year 1834 to every resident in China, the foreign merchants and the British Superintendents, that the necessities of British trade, combined with British national and individual self-respect, were so irreconcilable with Chinese contempt of trade and Chinese notions of supremacy and autocracy, as to make war between Great Britain and China an absolute necessity. In no other way could the Chinese Authorities be induced to make reasonable concessions to the merchants, whom they had themselves invited and whom they desired to continue their commerce with China. Nothing short of an armed demonstration of force could induce the Chinese Mandarins to grant foreign trade a dignified modus vivendi. War with China was, at the close of the year 1834, a mere question of time. Strictly speaking it was simply a question of arousing public opinion in England to a recognition of the actual necessities of the case. But it took years to accomplish this, and meanwhile affairs in China were in a state of transition, which made the position of the British merchants and their Superintendents extremely awkward.

British merchants in Canton, at Macao and at the anchorage of Lintin, were nominally under the control of the British Superintendents. But the Chinese Authorities persistently protested against their claim of an official status, and the British Cabinet left their political authority unsupported and their jurisdiction over British subjects undefined. Moreover it was asserted by many British merchants that their own Government had broken faith with them in the matter of the dissolution of the East India Company's trade monopoly. For the Government had by Act of Parliament thrown open the trade with China and thereby invited them to operate at Canton, and yet the Government appeared to tolerate and sanction a survival in Canton of the East India Company's trade monopoly in the form of a Financial Committee of bill brokers who, with the resources of the Indian revenues at their command, hampered, and domineered over, the commercial operations of British free traders. This yoke was the more chafing, because the Chinese Authorities increased their exactions on British trade almost from month to month, ever since the East India Company's charter had ceased.

Consequently, headed by Jardine, Matheson & Co., R. Turner & Co., J. Innes, J. McAdam Gladstone, A. S. Keating, J. Watson, N. Crooke, W. S. Boyd, J. Templeton & Co., and Andrew Johnstone, the British Chamber of Commerce at Canton protested against the continuance in China of any part of the East India Company's factory, even for the purpose of selling bills on India and purchasing bills on England, by making advances on the goods and merchandise of individuals intended for consignment to England. They pleaded that this practice was an infringement of the Act of Parliament which required the East India Company to abstain from all commercial business; that it raised the prices of Chinese produce; that it encouraged improvident speculation; that it shut out British mercantile capital through occupying the field with the revenues of India; and that it formed, through an understanding with the Hong Merchants, a close monopoly of the most desirable teas.

Meanwhile the Chinese Authorities continued their previous tactics. They had not the slightest wish to kill the goose which laid the golden eggs; only the goose must have no aspirations above a goose and remain in their own exclusive grasp. As soon as they heard of Lord Napier's arrival in Macao, they re-opened trade (September 29, 1834) and rescinded the prohibition against pilots bringing foreign vessels up to Whampoa. Trade forthwith re-commenced and proceeded as briskly as ever, both at Canton and at Lintin. But the Cantonese authorities and the Hong Merchants scrupulously avoided recognizing the British Superintendents as having any official status whatever, whilst they used every possible means, fair and foul, to persuade individual British merchants to disavow the authority and jurisdiction of the Superintendents. They even attempted to induce the Chamber of Commerce to nominate 'a trading tai-pan' (a Chief-Supercago) to be officially recognized by the Chinese Government as responsible for the personal conduct and for the commercial transactions of every foreign merchant, and especially also for the Lintin opium trade. To the invitation to nominate a trading tai-pan, specially ordered by the Governor (October 19 and 20, 1834), the British merchants, having been particularly warned by the Secretary to the Superintendents to remain loyal (November 10, 1834), replied in a body, that no authority of the kind could be held by any British merchant without the authority of the British Crown.

Nevertheless the British community did not disguise to the Superintendents that, if the suggestions they had both made to the British Government were disregarded, the mercantile community would have no faith whatever in the quiescent policy of the Superintendents, and that, unrecognized as the Commission remained in relation to the Chinese Authorities and unable to assert their claims to political and judicial authority, they ought not to expect the British mercantile community to look to them for guidance, direction or protection. One of the merchants, Mr. Keating, having a petty dispute with the firm of Turner & Co. concerning a claim of three hundred dollars, preferred against him by that firm, went so far as to deny the jurisdiction of the Superintendents altogether, on the ground of the undefined character of their functions and of their want of power to enforce their decisions. On the same grounds Mr. Innes, another British merchant, when wronged by the Chinese, deliberately threatened the Superintendents with taking the law into his own hands and making independently reprisals upon the natives.

Whilst these and similar disputes divided the foreign merchants and their Superintendents, the Chinese Authorities and the Hong Merchants were not in any more amicable relations. The Hong Merchants were severely censured by their superiors for having failed to bring the foreign merchants under a responsible foreign head and for the consequent failure of any means of inducing them to stop the trade carried on at Lintin by the opium receiving-ships. Moreover, free trade principles began to assert themselves on the Chinese side. The Hong Merchants' own monopoly began to crumble down. For some time past the Senior Hong Merchant, who alone was solvent, had virtually been acting as the sole holder of the monopoly, but lately the other Hong Merchants, tempted by their indebtedness to the foreign merchants and to the Mandarins, had taken to the practice of sub-letting some of their privileges to private Chinese traders and shopkeepers, to whom they individually issued licences to deal in foreign goods under the names of the respective Hong Merchants. In this way it had come to pass that the neighbourhood of the factories at Canton was gradually surrounded by a colony of Chinese free traders and shopkeepers. At the sight of this inroad of free trade principles, the Mandarins waxed wroth and a series of fulminating edicts went forth against the Hong Merchants and the sub-licensees.

Such was the state of affairs in January 1835, when Mr. Davis, seeing himself unrecognized, powerless and without prospect of an early change of policy, prudently vacated his post as Chief Superintendent and returned to England (January 21, 1835). Sir George Best Robinson now assumed office as the Head of the King's Commission, declaring his intention to follow the quiescent line of policy initiated by Mr. Davis. Mr. J. F. Astell acted as Second and Captain Ch. Elliot, R.N., as Third Superintendent, but when Mr. Astell resigned soon after (April 1, 1835), Captain Elliot succeeded to the post of Second and Mr. A. R. Johnston to that of Third Superintendent, whilst Mr. E. Elmslie acted as Secretary and Treasurer.

Dissensions now multiplied on all sides. Sir George Robinson conceived an insuperable antipathy against the British free traders whom he falsely represented to the Foreign Office as having caused Lord Napier's failure by their bitter party strife, as being possessed of an anxious wish, aiding and abetting therein the Chinese Authorities, to avoid any reference to the Superintendents, and as divided among themselves by virulent dissensions to a fearful extent. Sir George was, however, equally at variance with his colleagues in the Commission. He differed from the other two Superintendents on matters of policy, so much so, that he not only separated from them, leaving them at Macao or Canton while he established himself (November 2, 1835), with the Secretary and the archives of the Commission, on board the cutter Louisa at Lintin, but wrote from thence to Lord Palmerston (January 29, 1836) recommending to reduce the Commission to one member 'because disunion and opposition inevitably results from the existence of a Council or Board of three.'

At Lintin Sir George remained enthroned in the very centre of the hated opium traffic, which the other Superintendents equally loathed as a source of disgrace and danger. Sir George, though residing in the midst of the opium dealers, was no admirer of the opium trade. On the contrary, he expressly applied to Lord Palmerston for orders to authorize him to prevent British vessels engaging in this traffic. Sir George fondly imagined then that he would be able to enforce such orders. But the opium consumption had by this time already assumed such dimensions and gained such popularity on the Chinese side, that no power on earth, whether British or Chinese, could have stopped either the demand by the Chinese people or the supply by the foreign shipping. Very properly, therefore, Sir George further advised Lord Palmerston (February 5, 1836) that 'a more certain method would be to prohibit the growth of the poppy and manufacture of opium in British India.'

Throughout his tenure of the office of Chief Superintendent (January 22, 1835, to December 14, 1836), Sir George B. Robinson had no communication with the Hong Merchants nor with the Cantonese Authorities, who rigidly adhered to their determination not to recognize the presence of any foreign official. When the crew of the Argyle were seized on the Chinese coast and detained (January 25, 1835), Captain Elliot went to Canton (February 4, 1835) and demanded their liberation. He was curtly ordered to leave Canton, but the crew was set at liberty (February 18, 1845). On February 23, 1835, the Canton officials made a public demonstration of their determination to carry out the Imperial edict (of November 7, 1834) and, having seized some chests of opium, burned them in public. In private, however, they continued to connive at and to foster the opium trade, and commerce continued quietly throughout the year. In autumn (October 16, 1835) Sir G. B. Robinson wrote to the Duke of Wellington, to whom he looked as his patron rather than to Lord Palmerston, that he had never in the slighest degree perceived any disposition on the part of the Chinese Authorities to enter into any communication, or even to permit any intercourse with the officers of this Commission and that Elliot's attempts to open up communication with them had only involved him in additional contumely and insult, thereby greatly impeding the prospective adjustment of existing difficulties. The words which the Duke of Wellington penned (March 24, 1835) in condemnation of Lord Napier's mission, 'he (the Chief Superintendent) must not go to Canton without permission, he must not depart from the accustomed channel of communication, but he must have great powers to enable him to control and keep in order the King's subjects (the free traders), and there must always be within the Consul-General's reach a stout frigate and a smaller vessel of war,' seemed to be always ringing in Sir George's ears and formed the keynote of what he loved to call his 'perfectly quiescent policy.' He regarded himself as a Consul-General, unaccredited indeed to the Chinese Government, but specially commissioned to keep the free traders in order where they most needed it, at Lintin. There he remained, out of touch with the leaders of the legitimate trade at Canton and Macao, unrecognized by the Chinese Authorities and separated from his own colleagues in the Commission who desired to follow an active policy. Until the close of the year 1836, Sir George practically did nothing except signing ships' manifests and port clearances and writing dispatches to Lord Palmerston, in which he triumphantly reported from time to time that trade continued to flourish without disturbance, thanks to his own perfectly quiescent line of policy, and persistently dinning into the Minister's cars that he was 'waiting for His Lordship's positive and definite instructions as to future measures.'

In one point, however, Sir George went beyond the lines of the Duke of Wellington's policy. He was constantly on the look-out for a place where British trade might be conducted without being shackled with the extortions and impositions of the Mandarins, and where the Chief-Superintendent might be beyond the dissensions and virulent party strife of the Canton free traders. At first he thought only of a passive demonstration (April 13, 1835) to be made, against the Canton Authorities, by a temporary removal of all British subjects to merchant ships to be stationed 'in some of the beautiful harbours in the neighbourhood of Lantao or Hongkong.' Next he recommended (December 1, 1835) that the Commission should be permanently stationed at Lintin, and later on (January 29, and April 18, 1836) he informs Lord Palmerston, that the Chinese Authorities seem to have but one object, viz., to prevent the Commission establishing themselves permanently at Canton, and that without intimidation and ultimate resort to hostilities no proper understanding can be established. Accordingly he suggested, that 'the destruction of one or two forts, and the occupation of one of the islands in the neighbourhood, so singularly adapted by nature in every respect for commercial purposes, would promptly produce every effect we desire.' If Sir George B. Robinson had been a prophet, he could not have anticipated more distinctly the future origin of our Colony, the battle of Chuenpi and the occupation of the Island of Hongkong as accomplished seven years later, in January 1841.

Lord Palmerston, however, was not prepared yet to express an opinion as to any suggestion leading up to the permanent establishment of a British station or colony in the East. Neither did the Duke of Wellington's ideas go beyond the establishment of a Consul-General in a Chinese port, backed by a stout frigate and a smaller vessel of war. Lord Palmerston had all along been little inclined to listen to Sir George Robinson's expositions of the Duke's notions or to pay any attention to his monotonous dithyrambics on the subject of the quiescent line of policy. As to the positive and definite instructions regarding future measures, for which the Superintendents were waiting in vain from 1834 to 1836, it was not until Lord Palmerston's views had gained the ascendancy in the public mind over those of the noble Duke, that the Minister vouchsafed to give Sir George any instructions <is to his policy. And when (June 7, 1836) he at last did so, he curtly informed Sir George that there was no longer any necessity for maintaining the office of Chief-Superintendent which was hereby abolished, and that Sir George's functions should cease from the date of the receipt of this dispatch. Accordingly he instructed Sir George to hand over the archives of his office to Captain Elliot whom he requested to consider himself as Chief of the Commission. Sir George, nothing daunted, remained at his post and appealed for reconsideration (probably looking to the Duke of Wellington for rescue), but it was all in vain. The Cabinet had begun to see that the quiescent policy had failed. Four months afterwards Lord Palmerston repeated his instructions and Sir George returned to England.

Thus ended the reign of the quiescent policy of Mr. Davis, and Sir George Robinson. A more active policy was to be inaugurated as soon as public attention in England could be aroused to a sense of the dishonour heaped upon British merchants and officers by Chinese autocracy.