When London Became An Island
Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys
In 1854 the name Victoria was found wherever Britain held dominion and this would become more and more common as the C19th wore on. Queen Victoria was certainly an influential monarch, but constitutional limitation meant she never held the executive powers of, say, Elizabeth 1st. Such constraints did not apply in China and at around the time the Saracen was at anchor in Hong Kong Harbour (later to be renamed Victoria Harbour), a promotion occurred in the Chinese imperial court that eventually allowed a woman to acquire powers the resident of Windsor Castle could only dream of.
As was the custom the enthronement of a new Emperor of China initiated a process to select new concubines. Held at the Forbidden City, this was an important procedure, supervised by the Imperial Dowager and was necessitated, in the middle of the C19th, by the death Emperor Tao-kuang and the accession of his son Hsien-feng. In the first round of this selection each girl had sixty competitors, all Manchu. It is unclear what exactly the process entailed but one candidate, called Tz’u-hsi, obviously impressed the judges as she was told to stay and created Preparative Concubine. After selection for Hsien-feng’s bed Tz’u-hsi was given the title Worthy Lady Yi, but this meant she was still only a concubine of the 5th rank. As the 5th rank in any hierarchy is not a place to satisfy anyone of real ambition, this pretty, petite and beguiling girl, who was once delivered naked to the Imperial bedchamber in a red robe, must have concentrated on developing her social climbing techniques. Her intelligence and hard work were eventually rewarded and as the Saracen headed towards the South China Sea she was promoted to the rank of Imperial Concubine. As the little British ship surveyed the coast of her country Imperial Concubine Yi made a personal survey of the court, identifying hidden shoals of jealousy, obscured reefs of rivalry and submerged rocks of disdain. She proved to be a navigator of the first rank and, as Lady Yehanara, became pregnant with what proved to be the emperor’s only son. Through this child the Lady Yehanara, or the Dragon Empress as she came to be known, came to dominate the whole Chinese empire, consistently repudiated the courting of all foreign powers as best she could.
The survival of the Manchu dynasty until the final overthrow by Sun Yat Sen in the early C20th must, to some extent, be attributed to the last indomitable empress. However, when she was still a low ranking concubine, much of central China was in turmoil because of a rebellion rooted in the resentment millions of Han Chinese, by far the largest ethnic group in the country, felt towards both Western ‘foreign devils’ and the corrupt and oppressive Manchu dynasty, which seemed unable to resist them. Curiously, it was inspiration from the West, originating in London, which had helped formulated the progressive ideas of the charismatic rebel leader.
The British and Foreign Bible Society had been formed in Britain in 1804 and came to play an important role in the translation and distribution of bibles in the Far East. Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, helped produce a Chinese translation of the bible and during this process, which was partly funded by the society, Morrison worked with and then ordained a Cantonese printer named Liang Ah Fa. Liang Ah Fa in turn wrote and distributed religious tracts to introduce Christianity to his compatriots and one of these publications, ‘Good Words Exhorting Mankind’ was evidently read by, and deeply influenced, Hung Hsin-ch’uan, who eventually came to direct the anti-Manchu rebellion.
The work of the bible society was complemented by the development of missionary work with roots in the evangelical movement in Britain, Holland and the United States. For several hundred years Jesuit missionaries had worked in the Far East, mainly in those areas controlled by Spain and Portugal. By the early C19th these had all but disappeared, although, where Catholicism and Protestantism crossed, tensions, harking back to the Reformation often emerged. But the London Missionary Society, the Netherlands Missionary Society and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had all, by the middle of the century, established a presence in China. Each not only had an intent to spread the gospel but a practical, reformist social agenda too, which did not always make them popular with either the Chinese state authorities or Western opium traders.
In 1853, after the establishment of the ‘Taiping Heavenly Kingdom’ at Nanjing, the anti-Manchu rebels received delegations from British, American and French communities. Many of the delegates were certainly ashamed of both the opium trade and the deployment of military means used to force open the door to commerce and one result of the contact was the establishment, in 1854, of the Million Testament Fund. This sought to provide a million bibles for distribution within China and for many supporters of the British and Foreign Bible Society the opportunity to support a potentially new, Christian friendly, Chinese government must have seemed providential, coming as it did in the jubilee year. According to the Book of Leviticus every fiftieth, or jubilee, year is one in which prisoners and slaves will be freed and divine mercy be particularly apparent. Few places or peoples, in the view of many in the West, were in more need of this than China and money began to pour in from all over the world to support the fund. One of the places where the new bibles would be printed would be Hong Kong and, as the main missionary base of the period was Foochou, if the surveys of the Saracen proved a success, then vessels carrying coleporters as well as commodities were more likely to reach their destination safely.
Bible printing centre or not, Hong Kong was precisely the kind commercial centre that incensed the Taiping rebels for it was an important base for opium smugglers, including the increasingly wealthy firm of Jardine Matheson. Whereas Hung Hsin-ch’uan offered an austere revolutionary programme that included land reform, common ownership of property, equality for women and a kind of Christianity that would supplant Buddhism and Confucianism, none of these, according to his contemporary, Karl Marx, provided the main motivation for insurrection. Marx, writing in the New York Daily Tribune took the view that;
the occasion of this outbreak has unquestionably been afforded by the English cannon forcing upon China that soporific drug called opium
Although ‘English cannon’ was the prime weapon in forcing the Chinese to take opium, traders from other countries, including the United States, were involved too and indeed every American firm in the region took part, with the lone exception of D. W. C. Olyphant and Co. But the Americans did not have access to the resources of the Indian poppy fields and had to import their opium from, amongst other places, Turkey. Consequently the money they made fell far behind that made by the British.
Whatever his private thoughts about opium or the reasons for the Taiping rebellion it is doubtful if Richards lay awake mulling over the less savoury uses to which the charts for which he would be responsible might be put. He may however, have reflected on how precarious the leadership roles on survey expeditions could be for, when the Saracen arrived in Hong Kong, he found the commander of a whole squadron of anchored survey ships had just been relieved of his command and ordered home.
Chapter 8 - Trouble in China
Queen Victoria in 1860
The Forbidden city today
The Dragon Empress in old age