Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Morrison, Robert

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MORRISON, ROBERT (1782–1834), missionary in China, son of James Morrison, was born 5 Jan. 1782 at Buller's Green, Morpeth, in Northumberland. When he was three years old his parents removed to Newcastle. There he was taught reading and writing by his maternal uncle, who was a schoolmaster, and at the proper age he was apprenticed to his father as a last and boot-tree maker. In 1798 he joined the presbyterian church, and three years later entered on a course of study of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew under the instruction of the Rev. W. Laidler. In 1802 his mother died, and his inclinations, which had for some time tended towards missionary work, now determined him to enter that field. He obtained admission to the Hoxtou Academy (now Highbury College), and stayed there for a year from 7 Jan. 1803. He was then sent to the Missionary Academy at Gosport, which was under the superintendence of Dr. David Bogue [q. v.] In 1805 he was transferred to London to study medicine and astronomy, and to pick up any knowledge of the Chinese language which he could gain, it having been determined by the London Missionary Society to send him to China. By good fortune he met a Chinaman named Yong Samtak, who agreed to give him lessons in the language. Having made some acquaintance with the Chinese written character, he made a transcript of a Chinese manuscript at the British Museum, containing a harmony of the Gospels, the Acts, and most of the Pauline epistles; and copied a manuscript Latin and Chinese dictionary which was lent to him by the Royal Society. On 8 Jan. 1807 he was ordained at the Scots Church, Swallow Street, and at the end of the same month he embarked at Gravesend for Canton via America. After two years' labour in China, on 20 Feb. 1809 he married Miss Morton, at Macao, and on the same day was appointed translator to the East India Company. The fact that he had printed and published the New Testament and several religious tracts in Chinese came in 1815 to the knowledge of the East India Company's directors, who, fearing that it might influence the Chinese against the company, proposed to sever their connection with him. But their agents in China successfully urged them to retain his services. In 1817 he accompanied Lord Amherst as interpreter on his abortive mission to Peking, and in the same year he was made D.D. by the university of Glasgow. In 1818 he succeeded in establishing the Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca for the training of missionaries for the far East. Three years later his wife died, and in 1824 he returned to England, bringing with him a large Chinese library, which he ultimately bequeathed to University College. In November 1824 he married, secondly, a Miss Armstrong. About this time he interested himself in the establishment of the Language Institution in Bartlett's Buildings, London, and in 1826 he returned to Canton, where he resided until his death on 1 Aug. 1834. On 5 Aug. he was buried at Macao. He left seven children, two by his first wife and five by his second.

Morrison was a voluminous writer both in English and Chinese. His magnum opus was his 'Dictionary of the Chinese Language,' which appeared in three parts, between 1815 and 1823. At the time, and for many years afterwards, this work was, as Professor Julien said, 'without dispute the best Chinese dictionary composed in a European language.' After the conclusion of the works in 1824 Morrison was elected F.R.S. He published also a Chinese grammar and several treatises on the language. His most important work in Chinese was a translation of the Bible, which, with the help of Dr. William Milne [q. v.], he published at Malacca in 21 vols. in 1823. He was the author also of translations of hymns and of the prayer-book, as well as of a number of tracts and serial publications.

The eldest son, John Robert Morrison (1814–1843), born at Macao in 1814, became in 1830 translator to the English merchants at Canton, and in 1833 he published 'The Chinese Commercial Guide,' supplying much valuable information respecting British commerce in Canton. On his father's death in 1834 he succeeded him as Chinese secretary and interpreter under the new system adopted by the British government after the withdrawal of the East India Company's charter. During the diplomatic troubles which led to war between England and China in 1839, all the official correspondence of the English government with the Chinese authorities passed through Morrison's hands. He was attached to the British forces during the campaigns of 1840–2. When peace was made and Hongkong ceded to England, Morrison became a member of the legislative and executive council, and officiating colonial secretary of the Hongkong government. He died of malarial fever at Hongkong in the autumn of 1843. The English plenipotentiary there, Sir Henry Pottinger, described his death as ‘a posltlve national calamity.’

[Memoirs of Life and Labours of R. Morrison. D.D., by his widow, London, 1839. For the son: Gent. Mag. 1844, i. 210; and information kindly sent by Mrs. Mary R. Hobson and Mr. J. M. Hobson.]

R. K. D.