Europe in China/Chapter 7

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Change of Policy.

1836 to 1838.

In June 1836 a marked change commenced in the policy of the British Cabinet. Previous to that time the Duke of Wellington's Memorandum of March 24, 1835, had, as above mentioned, suggested that the British Chief-Superintendent of Trade in China should not proceed to or reside at Canton, that he should not adopt high-sounding titles, that he should not depart from the accustomed mode of communication with the Chinese Government, that he should not assume a power hitherto unadmitted, but keep, by the support of a stout frigate, the enjoyment of what little had been got, and leave it to the future to decide whether any effort should be made at Peking or elsewhere to improve our relations with China, commercial as well as political. This quiescent line of policy initiated by the Duke and expounded in China, after Lord Napier's defeat, by Mr. Davis and Sir George Robinson, ended on June 7, 1836, for it was now to be substituted by Lord Palmerston's own diplomacy, hitherto restrained by the indolence of public opinion and by the divergent views of the Duke of Wellington.

The merchants at Canton, though disappointed in their expectation that the Government would take steps to obtain redress for the insulting treatment accorded to Lord Napier, soon had reason to perceive that a different policy was about to be inaugurated. When the firm of Jardine, Matheson & Co. introduced (September 20, 1835) the first merchant steamer Jardine to ply on the Canton River, Captain Elliot, then still under the sway of the quiescent policy, protested against such a proceeding as contrary to the laws and usages of China, and, under the orders of Sir George Robinson, placed an interdict on the employment of the steamer in Chinese waters. Bat now (July 22, 1836) Lord Palmerston wrote to Captain Elliot warning him that, whilst avoiding to give any just cause of offence to the Chinese Authorities, he should at the same time be very careful not to assume a greater degree of authority over British subjects in China than that which he in reality possessed.

Another indication of the change of policy that had now taken place, was a direction Lord Palmerston gave, plainly intimating that free trade and free traders were now viewed by the Cabinet in a light different from that in which the Duke of Wellington had looked at them. What had constituted in the eyes of Canton merchants the most galling element of the Duke's quiescent policy was his determination, expressed in his Memorandum, 'to control and keep in order the King's subjects,' implying that the British community at Canton consisted of a set of smugglers, pirates and ruffians, requiring that the Superintendents be armed with the strongest powers for their coercion rather than protection. Mr. Davis, Sir George Robinson and even Captain Elliot, had hitherto been under the impression that all the powers and authorities formerly vested in the Supercargoes of the East India Company, including the power to arrest and deport to England unlicensed or otherwise objectionable persons, might be lawfully exercised by the Superintendents of British Trade in China; but now (November 8, 1836) Lord Palmerston informed Captain Elliot that, as no license from His Majesty was now necessary to enable His Majesty's subjects to trade with or reside in China, such power of expulsion had altogether ceased to exist with regard to China.

To avoid recurrence of the difference of opinion between co-ordinate Authorities, which had hampered the Commission during Sir George Robinson's tenure of office, Lord Palmerston abolished the office of Third Superintendent, and, whilst confirming Captain Elliot as Chief, and Mr. Johnston as Second Superintendent, now (November 8, 1836) placed the latter under the orders and control of the former. The suite, salaries and contingent, allowances of the Commission were also reduced at the same time, and the two Superintendents were given to understand that their appointments were only provisional and temporary. This was unfortunate, for it caused doubts, both among the British community and among the Chinese Authorities, as to the official status of the two Superintendents. Some years later Captain Elliot, with a view to control the conduct of lawless British subjects, carrying on (in daily conflict with Chinese revenue cruizers) a forced contraband trade between Lintin and Whampoa, established (April 18, 1838) a system of police regulations exclusively applicable to the crews of British-owned vessels under the British flag. Lord Palmerston, after keeping the Regulations submitted to him unnoticed for a whole year, wrote at last, on the day when the whole foreign community were already under rigorous confinement in consequence of those lawless doings, a dispatch in which he suddenly came forward with notions of international law which ought to have entirely vetoed the former mission of, and Privy Council instructions given to. Lord Napier. Lord Palmerston then (March 23, 1839) informed Captain Elliot that the Law Officers of the Crown were of opinion that the establishment of a system of ship's police at Whampoa, within the Dominions of the Emperor of China, would be an interference with the absolute right of sovereignty enjoyed by independent States, which could only be justified by positive treaty or by implied permission from usage. Accordingly Captain Elliot was instructed to obtain, first of all, the written approval of the Governor of Canton for those Regulations. By the time this curious dispatch reached Elliot, British trade had been driven out from Canton, thanks to Lord Palmerston's inaction.

But, whilst thus curtailing the powers and restricting the official standing and jurisdiction of the Commission, Lord Palmerston sought to uphold their position in other respects in relation to both the Macao and Canton Authorities.

It appeared to British observers that the Macao Governors had, ever since Lord Napier's arrival, played into the hands of the Chinese Authorities and secretly professed themselves as their allies against the British. Latterly, when the Chinese Government, and even some of the British merchants, openly disowned and defied the authority and jurisdiction of the British Superintendents, the Macao Governor had the hardihood of declining to recognize His Majesty's Commission, going even so far as to omit returning answers to their letters. After making strong representations on this subject to the Government of Portugal and causing proper instructions to be sent from Lisbon to the Governor of Macao, Lord Palmerston now (December 6, 1836) informed Captain Elliot that measures had been taken to recall the Governor of Macao to a proper sense of the respect which is due to Officers acting under His Majesty's Commission, and that orders had been issued for a ship of war to be stationed in Chinese waters with special instructions to watch over the interests of British subjects at Macao.

The firm attitude thus assumed towards the Government of Macao, Lord Palmerston desired also to apply to the regulation of Captain Elliot's relations with the Cantonese Authorities, In direct opposition to the Duke of Wellington's Memorandum, Lord Palmerston repeatedly (July 22, 1836, and June 12, 1837) instructed Captain Elliot to decline every proposition to revive official communication through the customary channel of the Hong Merchants, to communicate with none but Officers of the Chinese Government, under no circumstances to give his written communications with the Chinese Government the name of petitions, and to insist upon his right, as an Officer commissioned by the King of England, to correspond on terms of equality with Officers commissioned by any other sovereign in the world. 'It might be very suitable,' wrote Lord Palmerston, 'for the servants of the East India Company, themselves an association of merchants, to communicate with the Authorities of China through the Merchants of the Hong, but the Superintendents are Officers of the King, and as such can properly communicate with none but Officers of the Chinese Government.'

It seemed at this moment as if the British Lion was beginning to wake up, but the Chinese cared nothing for his growl from a distance. When Lord Palmerston, however, discovered (November 2, 1837) that Elliot could not possibly communicate with the Chinese Authorities otherwise than as a tributary barbarian petitioner, he shrank from the simple expedient of a naval demonstration which, by the destruction of the Bogue forts, would, in a couple of hours, have prevented years of misery. Nevertheless, Lord Palmerston once more enjoined Captain Elliot to continue to press, on every suitable opportunity, for the recognition, on the part of the Chinese Authorities, of his right to receive, direct from the Viceroy, sealed communications (not orders) addressed to himself without the intervention of the Hong Merchants. Whilst anxious that Elliot should have a distinct official position and gain it by the logic of plausible arguments, he left him unsupported by a sufficient fleet to apply the only logic the Chinese would have respected, the demonstration of power. When Elliot urged (November 19, 1837) that Lord Palmerston should at least write a letter to the Viceroy of Canton, as the Directors of the East India Company had done on several occasions, or send a Plenipotentiary to present, at the mouth of the Peiho, an autograph letter of Queen Victoria, claiming a settlement of all the grievances of British trade in China, Lord Palmerston explained that, in such a case, the question of the opium trade would have to be taken up, but that Her Majesty's Government did not yet see their way towards such a measure with sufficient clearness to justify them in adopting such a course at the moment.

What hampered Captain Elliot, next to his want of a fleet, was the undefined state of his jurisdiction which prevented both the Chinese Government and the foreign community in Canton understanding or recognizing his authority. Lord Palmerston sought to amend this defect by means of the China Courts Bill which was before Parliament at the end of the year 1838, but it was arrested in its progress, mainly in consequence of objections raised by Sir George Staunton.

The British community of Macao and Canton were, under these circumstances, very much thrown upon their own resources. They established (November 28, 1836) a General Chamber of Commerce, but the mixture of nationalities in it caused a good deal of friction. Nevertheless the Committee (re-elected, November 4, 1837) succeeded in redressing sundry grievances by arbitration, built a clocktower, arranged a Post Office, fixed the regulations of the port and supervised the sanitary arrangements of the factories. An attempt was made (January 21, 1837) to form a representative Committee of British merchants for the purpose of providing an official channel of communication between the British community and their Superintendents, and also in order to ensure joint action in any emergency, but the attempt failed for want of unity among the leading British merchants. However, they were not wanting in loyalty. On the demise of William IV, a public meeting was held (November 27, 1837) and an address was agreed upon, expressing condolence with Queen Victoria, and praying that Her Majesty's reign might be long and glorious and that Her Majesty's name might be associated to the end of all time with things religious, enlightened and humane.

What troubled the peace of British merchants in Canton most of all at this time, was the insolvent condition of most of the Hong Merchants. The foreign free traders had not, like the East India Company, the command of an unlimited treasury, enabling them to give long credits and to sustain a long privation of large portions of their trading capital. Nor were they in a position to adopt the former policy of the East India Company's Select Committee and distribute their business among the different Hong Merchants in proportion to their respective degrees of solvency and thus maintain a command of the market. Nearly all the thirteen Hong Merchants were more or less involved at the beginning of the year 1837; four were avowedly insolvent; one, Hing-tai, was formally declared bankrupt, his indebtedness to foreigners amounting to over two million dollars; and another, King-qua, was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Viceroy of Canton sanctioned, in the case of Hing-tai's bankruptcy, an arrangement to be made with his foreign creditors, but the latter rejected the terms offered. As the Chinese Government had originally appointed the Hong Merchants on the principle of mutual responsibility, had repeatedly insisted upon the payment of such debts, and imposed for many years past a special tax on foreign commerce in order to create a guarantee fund for their liquidation, the British merchants had both law and prescription on their side. Moreover, on a similar occasion (A.D. 1780), an officer in the service of the East India Company (Captain Panton) had succeeded, by means of a letter addressed to the Viceroy of Canton by a British Admiral (Sir Edward Vernon) and forwarded by a frigate (the Sea-horse), in obtaining (October, 1780) an Imperial Decree ordering partial repayment of a similar debt. Naturally enough, therefore, the British creditors of Hing-tai now argued that the simple intervention of the British Cabinet with the Imperial Government at Peking would facilitate the adjustment of the whole of their claims against the bankrupt Hongs. In this sense a memorial was addressed (March 21, 1838) to Lord Palmerston, signed by the following, firms, viz.: Dent, Turner, Bell, Lindsay, Dirom, Daniell, Cragg, Layton, Henderson, Stewart, Rustomjee, Fox Rawson, Nanabhoy Framjee, Eglinton Maclean, Bibby Adam, Gibb Livingston Gemmell, Macdonald, Wise Holliday, Kingsley and Jamieson How. Nevertheless, foreseeing the unwillingness of Lord Palmerston to press their claims with due promptitude upon the Chinese Government, the above-mentioned firms meanwhile applied directly to the Cantonese Authorities, without the intervention of Captain Elliot. A long and exasperating correspondence ensued, the upshot of which was that the British merchants obtained payment of their claims against the Hing-tai Hong at a reduced rate but by instalments secured by the Chinese Government, and further the Viceroy sanctioned, at their request, the liquidation of King-qua's debts. In fact, through firmness of purpose combined with a nominal submission to the absolutism of Chinese officialdom, the British merchants gained concessions which the British Government conld not have gained for them, whilst claiming international equality, except by an armed demonstration.

Captain Elliot's relations with the Cantonese Authorities were, throughout his whole tenure of office, characterized by an unceasing battle for a formal recognition of his official status and for the ordinary courtesies of official intercourse, which China never conceded until they were wrung out of her at the point of the bayonet by the Nanking Treaty. On the ground of what on the surface seemed to be petty questions of official etiquette, Elliot had, single-handed and unsupported, to fight the battle between China's stubborn assertion of supremacy over all barbarian potentates, Queen Victoria included, and England's quiet but deliberate claim of international equality. Elliot's position in this conflict was extremely difficult.

On the one hand, the Cantonese Authorities argued that for two centuries British merchants had acknowledged, with abject servility, China's claim of supremacy and consented to take the orders of the Governor or the Hoppo at the hands of the Hong merchants; that Lord Macartney and Lord Amherst had brought tribute from the Kings of England; that Imperial Decrees, which admitted of no alteration, had fixed the mode of governing foreign trade at Canton; and that there was no intelligible difference between a Royal Superintendent like Elliot and a Supercargo of the former East India Company, the latter having wielded, in the experience of Chinese officials, more authority and power over their countrymen than Lord Napier or Captain Elliot ever possessed. On the other hand. Lord Palmerston, with equal justice, persisted in giving Captain Elliot reiterated instructions, based on an assumed equality of the British and Chinese nations, and, on account of the barbarities of the Chinese Penal Code, virtually amounting to a claim of extra-territorial criminal jurisdiction over British subjects trading at Canton. The mistake was that he, at the same time, left Elliot without a sufficient fleet to enforce these just and proper claims. It is bard to say what Captain Elliot ought to have done under the circumstances. Had he carried out Lord Palmerston's instructions literally, had he adopted the unusual mode of communication enjoined upon him, and assumed the high-sounding title of the King's Officer, boldly insisting upon equality of official intercourse, be would have courted the fate and condemnation that fell on Lord Napier. Had he informed Lord Palmerston the thing was impossible without having recourse to arms, and advised him to adopt the only remaining alternative of retiring from Canton and establishing a British Colony on one of the beautiful islands in the neighbourhood, say Hongkong, he would probably have been dismissed with as little ceremony as Sir George Robinson.

What Captain Elliot actually did remains to be told. He commenced his duties with the determination not to protract the interruption of official communication between the Superintendents and the Cantonese Authorities by any demand of redress for the insults offered to the King and the country by the treatment accorded to Lord Napier, but to exhibit a conciliatory disposition, by respecting Chinese usages, and refraining from shocking the prejudices of the Chinese official mind. Accordingly, in his first communication to the Viceroy of Canton (December 14, 1836), he did not refer to the events connected with Lord Napier's death, but on the contrary explained that all he desired was 'to maintain and promote the good understanding which has so long and so happily subsisted.' This letter, written at Macao and delivered at Canton by the hands of two Agents of the East India Company (J. H. Astell and H. M. Clarke) and two British free traders (W. Jardine and L. Dent) to the Hong Merchants, was conveyed to the Governor of Canton as a humble petition of the barbarian headman Elliot. Looking to the tenor of this letter and to the form of its delivery, the Viceroy justly concluded that the old policy of the East India Company was to be resumed by the cowed barbarians. To make sure, he sent a deputation of Hong Merchants to interview Elliot at Macao, to question him as to his official status and policy, and to impress upon him that he must first of all send a humble petition begging for a passport, and then remain at Macao until Imperial permission had been obtained for him to visit Canton, from time to time, during each business season. The result of the interviews that took place was that Elliot did as he was told. He applied, in form of a petition, for a passport and dutifully waited at Macao until a report had been sent to Peking stating that the hatchet had been buried in Napier's grave, that Elliot was virtually but a Chief-Supercargo with a different name and a smarter uniform, and that things would go on as of yore. Accordingly, three months later (March 18, 1837) the Hoppo informed the Hong Merchants that 'Elliot having received a public official commission for the control of foreign merchants and seamen, although his title be not the same as that of the Chief-Supercargoes (tai-pan) hitherto sent, yet in the duty of controlling he does not differ, and that therefore it is now the Imperial pleasure that he be permitted to repair to Canton, under the existing regulations applicable to Chief-Supercargoes, and that on his arrival at the provincial capital he be allowed to take the management of affairs.' In forwarding a passport for Elliot to the Hong Merchants, he instructed them to give Elliot particular orders that 'as regards his residence, sometimes at Macao, sometimes at Canton, he must in this also conform himself to the old regulations, nor can he be allowed to loiter (at Canton) beyond the proper period.' Thus the official status of the King's Officer was fixed: subject to the control of the Hong Merchants and under the orders of the Hoppo, let him obey tremblingly!

Captain Elliot accepted this humiliating position, without further remonstrance and promised (December 28, 1836) to remain in Macao until further instructed. In March 1837 an Imperial edict was received at Canton authorizing Elliot's proceeding to Canton. Accordingly he removed (April 12, 1837) to Canton with Mr. Johnston, the Second Superintendent, and took with him his whole suite, consisting of a Secretary (Mr. Elmslie), two Interpreters (Mr. Morrison and Mr. Gützlaff), two Surgeons (Mr. Colledge and Mr. Anderson), and a Chaplain (the Rev. Mr. Vachell). On arrival at Canton, Captain Elliot at once set to work to obtain a modification of his official status. He commenced (April 22, 1837) by protesting that he could not possibly continue sending any further communications to the Viceroy through the Hong Merchants, but, on meeting with a curt refusal, yielded this point five days later, on being graciously allowed to send his petitions through the Hong Merchants under a sealed cover addressed to the Viceroy. But the Canton Authorities communicated with Elliot only through the Hong Merchants, to whom they addressed their orders. Thus things went on, quietly enough, for about seven months, whilst the Viceroy (September, 1837) repeatedly instructed the Hong Merchants to order Elliot to send the receiving ships away from Lintin, and Elliot persisted in declaring that he had no power to do so, although he had informed the British merchants (December 31, 1836) that Macao and Lintin were included in his jurisdiction over British subjects and ships. On receiving, however, renewed instructions from Lord Palmerston to maintain the dignity of an Officer of the British Crown, Captain Elliot humbly informed the Viceroy of Canton (November 23, 1837) that, with all respect for His Excellency's high dignity, he must discontinue the use of the character Pien on his addresses to the Governor. When the Viceroy peremptorily declined making the slightest concession on this point, Elliot plucked up courage, hauled down his flag and retired to Macao (November 29, 1837). The Canton Authorities, not in least moved by this proceeding, took no notice of Elliot's departure, but recommended to the Emperor (December 30, 1837) to stop the regular foreign trade until the receiving ships at Lintin had taken their departure. Meanwhile all official intercourse with Captain Elliot remained suspended. Lord Palmerston approved of Elliot's proceedings (June 15, 1838) and sent Admiral Maitland, who arrived on July 12, 1838, in H.M.S. Wellesley, to cheer him up. Here was an opportunity for Captain Elliot, and the Chinese unwittingly improved upon it by foolishly firing on a boat of the Wellesley. But Captain Elliot missed his chance and allowed the Chinese to cajole him. Admiral Maitland was satisfied with a mild apology by the Chinese Admiral and the usual exchange of empty civilities between the two Admirals took place. Thus the commander of the Wellesley was induced to sail away peacefully (September 25, 1838), but under circumstances which justified the assertion on the part of the Chinese that they had ordered him off. This palpable mismanagement of the Admiral's visit to China also met with Lord Palmerston's unqualified approval. But the Chinese Authorities, having by this time taken the measure of Captain Elliot's position, now reduced his official status to an even lower level. They induced him actually to yield (December 31, 1838) the very point for the sake of which he had struck his flag a year before, and to communicate with subordinate officers of the Governor of Canton, by means of humble petitions. The British newspapers in Canton now overwhelmed him with a torrent of abuse, and even meek Lord Palmerston regretted it and mildly suggested, six months later, (June 13, 1839) as a remedy, that Elliot should not omit to avail himself of any proper opportunity to press 'for the substitution of a less objectionable character than the character Pien.' But the real degradation in this move Lord Palmerston did not understand. The concession which Captain Elliot made, in December 1838, and the price he paid for the re-opening of official communications, involved far more than the use of an objectionable character. For the official status now assigned to Her Majesty's Commission and accepted by Elliot (December 26, 1838) was this: whilst previously receiving, from the lips of the Hong Merchants, the orders of the Viceroy and the Hoppo, the latter being next in rank to the Viceroy, he was henceforth to receive through the Hong Merchants the orders of the local Governor's subordinate officers, the Prefect of Canton city and the Commandant of the local constabulary. Well might the English newspapers of Canton cry shame at the fresh indignities, heaped upon British honour by placing the Queen's Commission in China on a level below that of subordinate police officers, in a position far lower than that of the former Supercargoes. But, on the other hand, it must also be considered that Elliot made these concessions at a time when, through the lawless proceedings of foreigners engaged in the opium traffic between Lintin and Whampoa, the life and property of the whole foreign community had been placed in jeopardy and a dreadful catastrophe was believed to be impending. Elliot believed that this humiliating mode of communication with the Chinese Government would only be of brief duration, pending the succour he expected to receive from the home country. In this he was mistaken. The public mind of England did not care for or understand these things, or at any rate the nation was not prepared yet to redeem the honour of the British flag in China. Stronger measures had to be taken by the Chinese to arouse public opinion in England, and the occasion for such measures was furnished by the opium trade itself.