When the Saracen arrived in Singapore in early March 1857 Richards would have had access to the latest news from England although, even from official sources, this would have been by no means up-to-date. Nonetheless, he may have discovered that following publication of Admiral Seymour’s records of action and the subsequent independent reports, there was considerable criticism of the way matters had been handled by Bowring and Parkes after the Arrow incident. This would have been of interest to Richards because both men had been involved with the Saracen after she arrived in Hong Kong in August 1854. Although the governor of Hong Kong and Admiral Stirling had not seen eye to eye over their areas of responsibility there is no reason to suggest this impacted on the Saracen’s work and had it not been for the development of trade links with Siam and Bowring’s cultivation of a good relationship with King Mongkut, then surveys in the Gulf of Siam may have been more problematic. As for Parkes, the officers and crew of the Saracen had reason to be grateful to him for arranging a supply of fresh meat (see Chapter 23) and he and Richards worked together on the Bangkok land survey. King Mongkut seems to have held both men in high regard.

The seizure of the Arrow and the subsequent aggressive actions eventually led to intense parliamentary debate and on March 3rd, as the Saracen was carried towards Singapore on the north-east monsoon winds, the British government lost a vote over a critical motion in the House of Commons. Lord Palmerston, the prime minister, subsequently resigned and a general election was called. It was ironic that the motion which scuppered the government had been tabled by Richard Cobden, a leading proponent of free trade who had been a friend of Bowring’s for many years.

Cobden was born into poverty but success in business made him a wealthy man when not yet thirty. He helped develop the free trade movement, partly through his writings, but mainly through his joint leadership of an organisation seeking to repeal laws, dating from the Napoleonic War, which kept the price of corn high through the imposition of tariffs. The campaign, which was ultimately a success, made Cobden famous and as a member of parliament he continued to advocate the peaceful advancement of free trade world wide. It is not surprising common cause was made with Bowring who was also a free trade supporter, however, it was probably inevitable that, when responsibility for the destruction of property and loss of life at Canton seemed to Cobden to lay with the governor of Hong Kong, the two would part ways.

The reasonableness of the British position after the seizure of the Arrow was debated in the House of Commons, the House of Lords and, fed by press opinion, in the public arena too. Cobden was a strongly critical and consistent voice who deplored the fact that the expiration of the registration of the lorcha had not been reported to the Chinese authorities in the early days of the dispute. He blamed Bowring for this and said the governor had broken the instructions under which he was working, which stipulated no aggressive action against the Chinese should be taken unless sanctioned by London. He also derided a ‘blue book’ issued by the government entitled Correspondence Respecting Insults in China. Although over 200 pages long the publication contained little evidence of any insults and none that would merit the kind of action sanctioned by Bowring and Parkes.

In the House of Lords those opposed to the government rallied around Lord Derby  who had been prime minister for a short time in 1852. This ministry, in which Disraeli was chancellor of the exchequer, was nicknamed the Who? Who? Ministry because as the names of new ministers were being read out in the House of Lords the Duke of Wellington, now quite deaf, could be heard to call out ‘Who? Who?’.

British parliamentary political allegiance was rather unstable in the 1850s. Lord Derby led the Conservative Party, often called the Tories, whose main opponents were the Liberals or Whigs. However, there were factions within each party and smaller parties too so the possibility of a multi-party ad hoc coalition voting and defeating the government was always a possibility. Derby was more inclined to protectionism than free trade but made common cause with Cobden, giving support to the Chinese position, even to the extent of presenting a rather distorted view of how benign the Chinese authorities were. Like Cobden he condemned the actions of Bowring asserting the governor of Hong Kong may be a man of great attainments: but it appears to me that on this subject of admission into Canton he is possessed with a perfect monomania. I believe he dreams of the entrance into Canton. I believe he thinks of it the first thing in the morning, the last thing at night, and in the middle of the night if he happen to awake. I do not believe that he would consider any sacrifice too great, any interruption to commerce to be deplored, any bloodshed almost to be regretted, when put in the scale with the immense advantage to be derived from the fact that Sir John Bowring had obtained an official reception in the yamun in Canton.

Outside parliament the debate intensified with two notable newspapers, the Daily News and the Manchester Guardian generally supporting the views of Cobden and Derby and the Morning Post and The Times standing behind the prime minister. Political commentary in the press often reflected the overblown rhetoric of politicians. For example, the popular Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, took issue with Derby’s position and published an article that included the following passage;

Suddenly a citizen of the world, Lord Derby discovers in the Chinese character the most amiable, the most equitable dispositions. The Chinese are lambs, and the British lion, a lion destitute of all leonine magnanimity, roaring and, at any vantage, seeking to devour them. Governor Yeh, a man to whom massacre has been a familiar daily exercise is the most placable of mandarins; his peacock’s feather the feather of a dove, and Mr. Consul Parkes a blustering buccaneer, a Black Beard predetermined upon pillage.  

Criticism of Cobden’s views were presented in much the same vein but there was real unease all over Great Britain about the prospect of a war with China for reasons which, to many, appeared quite unjustified. To Cobden and his supporters it became obvious that although the trigger of the conflict might be a supposed insult to the British flag, there were other, deeper roots. As a very successful capitalist Cobden was aware of the frustration felt in some British commercial circles at the lack of progress in gaining access to the Chinese interior. Many companies and associations involved in trade with China also seemed to have a kind of ‘monomania’ and saw the enforcement of treaty rights through the forced entry into Canton and the removal of the vilified Yeh as the key to a profitable future. In their view, contrary to that of the pacifistic Cobden, military action was warranted.

Perhaps those who viewed a copy of the ‘A Map to illustrate the war in China’ looked forward to the time when the whole seaboard hinterland would be opened legitimately for British adventurers seeking to become rich through exploiting resources presently off limits. James Wyld’s cartography showed not only tea districts but also, for example, places where gold and silver could be found in streams and where lapis lasuli was found in the hills. As someone with a keen eye for maximising sales Wyld sought to publish maps linked to current events. In March 1857 he also issued a map to show Dr. Livingston’s latest expeditions in Africa, which would have been of interest to those involved in missionary work. Perhaps he sought to catch the interest of missionary societies elsewhere too for on the second edition of the China war map the position of a Jewish synagogue in the town of Kaifong was added. The larger market for the war map was more likely to have been with those keen on lucrative entrepreneurial opportunities but, unlike the conflict which took place when the first edition of the map was published, the influence of commercial interests on government policy was not so great. The real drive to ‘open up’ China came from Palmerston, who saw the importance of legalising opium within China as the profits on increased sales would help reduce the perceived serious debit in the balance of trade.

Matters came to a head in parliamentary debates. Cobden’s motion asserted the reasons given by the government could not justify the violent measures resorted to in Canton. Debated in the House of Lords the motion failed to pass but it was in the House of Commons where the real danger lay because it was by no means certain that all of Palmerston’s party would vote against it. Several Liberal members made a strong case for what Parkes and Bowring had done and Palmerston weighed in with appeals to patriotism, asserting that if the motion was passed it would do great damage to British prestige because country would be seen as being willing to abandon a large community of British subjects at the extreme end of the globe to a set of barbarians-- a set of kidnapping, murdering poisoning barbarians. The counterbalance came in long and powerful speeches made by a number of prominent MPs including Gladstone and Cobden and despite the prime minister’s warning when the vote was taken more MPs voted for the motion than against it.

Punch magazine reported the result in this way – Dizzy being Disraeli and Palmy being Palmerston.

For hauling down the British flag, apologising to the Chinese and putting

Derby, Dizzy and Gladstone in office  263                                               

For maintaining the honour of England and keeping Palmy in place  247                                                                                             

Chinese majority  16                                                                                    

Despite this defeat it may have been possible for Palmerston to have tried to form a new government without ‘going to the country’. Instead, he opted for a dissolution, which would mean a general election. It was rumoured Prince Albert influenced this decision as Queen Victoria was eight months pregnant and the prince thought a potential parliamentary crisis was best avoided at such a critical time. Almost immediately the election was announced commercial institutions and organisations, shocked by the turn of events, began to show their support for the Liberal leader and pro-Palmerston provincial newspapers, which considerably outnumbered those with allegiance to Lord Derby and Cobden, began to urge their readers to vote for Liberal candidates.

When the election took place there was no contest in a number of constituencies where it hardly seemed worth the effort to field candidates in opposition to the incumbents. In some predominantly rural areas, for example, it was not really worthwhile for anyone but a Tory standing. One such stronghold was Rutland, England’s smallest county. There, on election day, a meeting was held in the Great Hall at Oakham Castle where two Tory MPs, Gerard Noel and Gilbert Heathcote, were returned unopposed. Despite the lack of organised Whig opposition both men addressed the assembled electorate, and so illustrated the divided views of many Tories over the China issue. Noel explained that he had supported Palmerston over the Crimean War but after considering all points about the war in China he;

could not help coming to the conclusion that gross acts of injustice and inhumanity had been committed in China especially in the bombardment of Canton. Why were not Odessa and Helsingfors bombarded during the late war? Because the admirals out there and the government at home knew how much innocent blood would be spilt and what fearful destruction of property would ensue.

At this point there were cries of ‘Hear, Hear’ from the assembly followed by cheers when Noel went on to say he had yet to learn what the difference between the lives and property of the Chinese and the lives and property of the Russians were. Noel had voted for Cobden’s motion but he accepted that now war had broken out it should be brought to a speedy but successful termination. Heathcote said he had not voted on Cobden’s motion, being ill and unable to attend parliament at the time of the division. However, had he had the opportunity then he would have voted with the government. He thought that should Palmerston be returned to power it would be better if, on the issue of the China war, the Conservatives would offer him support.

The great majority of Liberal candidates remained firm about their support for Bowring, and consequentially Palmerston, over what had happened in Canton. Sir Charles Napier, MP for Southwark since 1855, was also seeking re-election and held that view. Napier had seen distinguished service in the Royal Navy over a period of 60 years, ultimately becoming an admiral. He was well ahead of his time in many respects, having proposed the adoption of steam propulsion in iron vessels in the Royal Navy from the 1820s and pressed for great improvements in conditions for sailors, with an end to flogging. He saw the need for reform in many areas of the navy and for many years conducted disputes with the Lords of the Admiralty, whom he believed patronised the aristocracy to the detriment of the humble man of merit. He was a reformer in regard to domestic policy too advocating an extension of the franchise, a graduated income tax which would press less heavily on the poor and an end to church rates. Napier was so well known that the Belfast Mercury could publish a spoof speech alluding to his naval connections which began;

The Parliamentary ship being about to go to pieces, reckon to be all adrift upon spars and hencoops about the 25th instant. You’ll throw old Charley a rope again, won’t you?

and ended with

‘England expects every Southwark man to vote for Old Charley’

and know the readership would be aware of the life story of this prospective candidate.

At the hustings the two dyed-in-the-wool Tory MPs in Oakham appear to have received as many cheers as Napier generated in Bermondsey but it was votes, not cries of ‘Hear Hear’ which would decide the results. Over the whole country the electorate were less impressed by Cobden’s motion than members of the House of Commons and Palmerston was returned to power when votes were counted. In the new parliament the Whigs had 377 seats to the Tories 264.

It would have taken many weeks before news of Palmerston’s defeat and subsequent resignation reached Richards. There is nothing in any documents I have read to indicate the opinions of Richards, negative or positive, on either Parkes or Bowring. However, being a firm but humane captain whose work put him in the vanguard of the free trade movement it is reasonable to think he would have been inclined to sympathise with Napier. We might also suspect he depreciated the sometimes vitriolic personal attacks reported in the press and recorded in Hansard on Parkes and Bowring. Parkes, a tough nut, might have been able to ride out these attacks more easily than Bowring who found Cobden’s personal animosity particularly wounding.

Whatever Richards or any other captain thought of the fall of Palmerston there may have been a radical change in policy over China if Derby had carried the day with a substantial majority. It is noticeable that during the debates Admiral Seymour had support from all sides. He was, after all, doing his duty in trying to achieve what the governor of Hong Kong, the legitimate representative of the British government, wanted. If Bowring was replaced then Seymour would be expected to work with his successor even if the new governor took a far less aggressive stance. Nonetheless, there could be problems in the interim period, summed up in this comment made in the May 2nd edition of the Hampshire Telegraph which said;

The only cause of apprehension arise from what may be the effects produced by the arrival of the news on the Chinese station of the defeat of Lord Palmerston's Government in reference to the war. The commanders of our forces and the representatives of the nation may be placed in a most awkward position, and unable to decide what course to pursue. We have, however, no doubt as to their doing their duty, and any difficulty in their doing it must be placed on the shoulders of those whose conduct has brought it about.

The election result was announced in early April so by the time the Hampshire Telegraph article was published Palmerston was back at Number 10 but there would, indeed, have been a period of uncertainty before news he had been returned to office reached the ‘Chinese station’. However, it had become clear in the hiatus that even if the Liberals won the election a possible settlement with China would be in new hands. On March 10th it was announced that although Bowring would remain as governor of Hong Kong, Lord Elgin was being sent out as a new plenipotentiary. It was, in a way, an admission that things had not been managed as well as they might have been.

During the interim period the Saracen was ordered to Hong Kong. Taking advantage of the change in the monsoon winds she had arrived, according to the Portsmouth Times and Naval Gazette, by June 5th. This information, printed in the August 1st edition, was probably gleaned from the China Mail which was published in Hong Kong and sent to England via Alexandria and Marseilles. The Saracen was not alone in Hong Kong harbour for the list of other vessels both there and at other ports along the Chinese coast, including Foochow, show a growing concentration of Royal Navy forces. Despite the concerns of the Hampshire Telegraph it was obvious that Admiral Seymour had a firm view of what his duty was as an account of fierce fighting on three expeditions against Chinese defences was printed in an adjacent column. Seymour took part in one of these attacks and, although evidently targeted by the enemy, escaped unscathed. Another list showed others had not been so fortunate. Besides those killed the casualties were listed under graduated headings from mortally wounded through very dangerously, dangerously and severely to slightly. Had Cobden read of this bloodshed he would probably have wanted to criticise, in the House of Commons, the policy of Palmerston’s government in China. But he no longer had a parliamentary voice, having lost his seat in what became known as the Chinese election.

Back to Introduction    


When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

Chapter 35 - The Chinese election 1857

Commanders and clippers

Kaifong’s Jewish Synagogue as shown on the 1857 edition of Wyld’s map

China’s rich resources
Gold, silver and lapis lasuli are mentioned under Choui Tchou in both editions of Wyld’s map.

        The Great Hall          Oakham Castle