Arrogance and Waistcoats
or Out of my way, young man I’m British
A commentary on Laurence Oliphant’s account of his visit to China in 1857
by Graham Earnshaw
Laurence Oliphant was one of the most prolific travel narrative writers of the 19th century, and also a classic Victorian character. He eventually became a mystic and a champion of a Jewish state in Palestine but his youth was largely spent in adventures in unlikely parts of the world, journeys about which he published a number of books.
Born in Cape Town South Africa in 1829, he followed his father into the legal profession, but at the age of twenty-two he found his real vocation — a combination of travel and writing. He visited Kathmandu the capital of the inaccessible Himalayan kingdom of Nepal and also travelled extensively in Russia. His travelogue of the Crimea, perfectly timed to coincide with the start of the Crimean War, became a best-seller and soon after he accepted an apppointment as personal secretary to Lord Elgin then Governor-General of Canada and son of the Elgin who shipped the “Elgin Marbles” from the Parthenon in Athens to the British Museum in London.
He accompanied Elgin on his mission to forcibly open up China and Japan to British trade and later served time as a Member of Parliament in London. Later still he came under the spell of T.L. Harris a religious fanatic in America to whom Oliphant signed over his entire fortune.
In the 1870s, he led a premature campaign to establish a Jewish state in the region then still under Turkish control. He was not Jewish himself but declared that the creation of such a state was necessary “fulfilling prophecy and bringing on the end of the world”. Needless to say, the campaign failed and Oliphant moved to the port of Haifa in Palestine in 1882 where he wrote a book entitled “Evolutionary Forces Now Active In Man” described as “apparently a plea for purified sex life”. He died in 1888.
Compared to the turgid prose of many of his peers, Oliphant’s travel writings are very entertaining. His book on the Elgin mission to China and Japan is a lively account of British gunboat diplomacy at its most brazen and is a good example of the breath-taking arrogance and contempt for the “natives” which Europeans almost invariably affected in such parts of the world at that time.
The mission started out from London in the Spring of 1957 and became one of the first groups to travel on the new railway linking Alexandria and Cairo across part of the Isthmus of Suez. When they arrived in Ceylon the party received news of the discontent among native Indian troops which would soon explode into the Indian Mutiny. Elgin diverted some of the troops meant to accompany him to China to India to help quell the disturbances but the Indian troubles delayed the mission for many months.
In Singapore also, the natives were restless. Oliphant refers darkly to recent “occurrences” amongst the Chinese populations of several British possessions in the region including a “treacherous attempt upon the lives of the British residents at Hong Kong” a reference to the attempt by a Chinese baker in January 1856 to kill off the Colony’s foreign community by lacing their bread with arsenic.
The Chinese were clearly not to be trusted. But while full of what he saw as their sly, treacherous nature, Oliphant also noted how hard-working the Chinese immigrants in Southeast Asia were compared to the locals. Without Chinese coolies, Malaya, the Philippines, Thailand and Indochina would produce nothing for export at all.
In Manila, which the party visited briefly Oliphant reported that all the best shops were run by Chinese: “The superior industry intelligence and economical habits of the pure Chinaman give him an immense advantage” he said over the local Filipinos.
“It is not at all an uncommon thing to see a man coiled up snoring in one corner of his shop and a mestizo girl stretched luxuriously at full length upon the counter her beautiful black hair thrown back from her face falling in wavy massive folds to the ground and her bosom heaving so softly and regularly with the long-drawn breath of a profound slumber that rather than do violence to his aesthetic nature by disturbing sleeping beauty the purchaser moves gently on to the next shop and finds a grinning Chinaman … who is imbued with the firm determination if he does not possess in his shop the article which you do want to force you to buy from him something you do not”.
* The Elgin mission had been sent to force China to open itself more fully to foreign trade and contacts. The excuse was an incident the year before involving a Hongkong-registered ship which had been seized by the Chinese authorities in Hongkong.
“The Arrow incident as it was called was a weak pretext at best as Oliphant almost admits but the British had decided the situation called for a determined show of strength. Inaction said Oliphant would not only impair Britain’s prestige but also be embarrassing. In order to impress the Chinese the British would occupy Canton the largest city in southern China a hundred miles or so up the Pearl River from Hongkong.
But with most of the mission’s troops engaged in India, there was little Elgin could do immediately. The party rode at anchor a mile off Hongkong for two months during the height of the summer. Oliphant had nothing but loathing for the small Colony. Even recreational walks around the small town he said were likely to result in fever.
“The monotony of life is varied by this malady alternating with the boils and dysentery so that the proverbial hospitality of the merchants ant Hongkong can only be exercised under very adverse influences. Depression and general irritability pervaded the foreign community he reported adding: “A large bachelor’s party was the extreme limit of gaiety.”
Oliphant and his colleagues made the obligatory side trip to Macao the older Portuguese settlement to the west as an antidote to the frustrations of upstart Hongkong. “Its air of respectable antiquity was refreshing after the somewhat parvenu character with which its ostentatious magnificence invests Hongkong. In Macao Oliphant had his first taste of Chinese food which he enjoyed “in spite of the novelty of the implements”.
They also went for a sail through the islands to the west of Hongkong and pronounced the scenery to be much like that of the Western Highlands of Scotland. Their ship then turned north into the Pearl River estuary. “It was our first introduction to Chinese scenery: numerous villages dotted the river banks some of them utterly destroyed and depopulated either by rebels or ourselves. The most conspicuous structure in these villages was a high square tower. Oliphant said it was significant of the character of the Chinese race that these were not the strongholds of a local feudal baron “but of some old usurer who needs a fortress for the preservation of sundry goods and chattels which he holds in pawn for the credit of his victims. The number of these pawnbroking towers inspires one with rather a low estimate of the solvency of the community.”
Finally early in December 1857 an awaited contingent of marines arrived making an attack on Canton feasible at last. Just for the record, the British sent the Chinese High Commissioner in Canton Yeh Ming-shen an ultimatum which deplored the “attitude of hostility and dislike which the people and authorities of Canton have maintained in their dealings with foreigners” and demanded compensation for losses sustained by British subjects. Yeh rejected the ultimatum and the British force moved up the Pearl River towards Canton, flotillas of Chinese boat-dwellers fleeing before them.
The British anchored off Whampoa a town a few miles down river from Canton. The local villagers generally seemed unconcerned by the arrival of the foreigners or by the threat they posed to Canton but the British party decided “it was desirable to take our evenings walks armed with revolvers,” Oliphant said.
The British had warned the Chinese Commissioner Yeh that they would begin shelling Canton on Boxing Day December 26 if he did not agree to the demands in the ultimatum but they held off until December 28. “It will thus be seen that every opportunity was afforded to the authorities to yield and to the people to provide for their own safety and the security of their property,” Oliphant commented.
The bombardment began shortly after day-break and continued for twenty-seven hours. British and French troops landed that day and Oliphant noted: “As I observe in the French papers that our gallant allies have claimed some credit for being the first to land on the 28th it is only fair to state the amount of risk they incurred in landing at a spot which had been in our possession since the previous day.”
The troops advanced into hilly rice paddy country. “It was just the country for skirmishing in and had our enemy not been contemptible they might have harassed us seriously as we advanced. As it happens what little danger there was arose rather from a species of treachery than from open warfare.”
The surrounding hills were crowded with spectators as the British and French approached Lin’s fort “the capture of which it had been arranged should complete the first day’s operations” and the next day the foreigners continued on to Canton meeting little resistance from Chinese troops. They took control of the city and took Commissioner Yeh prisoner. (Yeh was shipped off to Calcutta as a prisoner of war and died in India.
Taking Canton was one thing ruling it was entirely another not least Oliphant said because its population contained “a larger proportion of trained thieves and vagabonds than any in the world”. The foreigners had a force of about 5,000 soldiers at their disposal to administer this strange oriental city and only two men who could speak Chinese. They quickly gave up the idea of trying to run Canton themselves and decided there was no alternative but to let the Chinese continue to run it themselves.
Looters both Chinese and foreign were having a grand time but Oliphant says the English sailors did not have the best eye for value.
“Our simple tars presented a marked contrast in their looting propensities to their more prudent comrades among the allies. These latter possessed a wonderful instinct for securing portable articles of value, and while honest Jack was flourishing down the street with a broad grin of triumph on his face a bowl of gold-fish under one arm and a cage of canary-birds under the other honest Jean with a demure countenance and no external display was conveying his well-lined pockets to the waterside”.
The population of Canton gradually got used to the idea of foreign occupation. People returned to their houses, and shops re-opened. Oliphant describes the transformation of one of Canton’s larger thoroughfares:
“As the ‘Avenue of Benevolence and Love’ was more frequented it became a less agreeable lounge and the already narrow streets were still farther diminished in breadth by large tubs full of live fish baskets of greens sea chestnuts yams and bamboo root. Cooking-stoves were erected and elaborately cooked viands hissed and sputtered on the heated iron titillating with their savory odor the nostril of the hungry passenger. Open coppers steamed and bubbled and delicate morsels danced on the surface, round tables were daintily set out with pastry of divers patterns and presided over by croupiers who jerked reeds in a box or spun a ball something after the fashion of roulette thus enabling the dinner-seeker to combine the exhilarating excitement of the gambler with the epicurean enjoyment of the gourmand the consideration that they had cost him nothing adding additional zest to his gastronomic pleasures. It might so happen on the other hand that one unkind turn of the wheel of fortune sent him supperless to bed.”
But Oliphant was far from attracted by this scene. “After the first novelty has worn off there is nothing to make a promenade in the streets of a Chinese town attractive. The foulest odors assail the olfactories. The most disgusting sights meet the eye — object of disease more loathsome than anything to be seen in any other part of the world jostle against you. Coolies staggering under coffins or something worse recklessly dash their loads against your shins, you suspect every man that touches you of a contagious disease, and the streets themselves are wet slippery narrow tortuous and crowded.”
Oliphant was also offended in the extreme by the sight of Chinese women. “When to their natural ugliness is added the deformity of feet and apparent entire absence of arms — for a Chinese woman seldom makes use of the sleeves of her jacket, any thing more unprepossessing than the lady part of the community could not be well conceived.”
Once in control of Canton the British and French representatives along with those of the United States and Russia sent a note to Peking demanding that an Imperial representative be sent to Shanghai to negotiate with them. No satisfactory reply was forthcoming, so Lord Elgin decided in February that the only way to solve the problem was to exercise “a moral pressure of a military description” in the neighborhood of the Imperial capital.
The envoys and their party left Canton and sailed northeast along the China coast first to Amoy (Xiamen) and then to Shanghai. The highest-ranking Chinese official in the city was absent and so the foreigners decided to force themselves on the most senior Chinese representative in the immediate vicinity the Governor of Kiangsu province who resided in the nearby city of Soochow (Suzhou).
The party were uncertain about whether they would be able to get to Soochow fifty miles to the west of Shanghai. The city had never been officially visited by Europeans and had only been seen Oliphant said by a few Europeans disguised as Chinese or concealed in boats. On February 24, the party consisting of seventeen boats set off for Soochow through the maze of rivers and canals which criss-cross the low-lying region of east China.
Probably the most important member of the party the only one who could speak Chinese was Mr Horatio Nelson Lay twenty-five years of age and already the Inspector of Imperial Customs at Shanghai. In 1861 he was to become the founder and first Inspector-General of the Chinese customs service which regulated trade through the fourteen ports then open to foreign trade collecting tariff charges for the Chinese government.
The trip took them through the Grand Canal the world’s longest man-made waterway constructed more than a thousand years before to transport grain from southern China to the Imperial capital in the north. At the time Oliphant saw it some stretches of the canal had not been used for several years due to floods and to the Taiping Rebellion which raged back and forth around Soochow during the 1850s and early 1860s. The banks of the canal were lined he said with enormous imperial grain-junks which were rotting away. “They look like so many stranded arks going to decay: this is their inevitable destiny as the profane vulgar are not allowed to touch Imperial property.”
Oliphant’s comparison of the bustling sections of the Grand Canal with London traffic is delightful:
“There were as many different varieties of boats here as there are of vehicles in Fleet Street and the water-way was as inconveniently crowded as that celebrated thoroughfare usually is. Ferry-boats plied as briskly and were as heavily loaded as omnibuses, heavy cargo-boats lumbered along and got in every body’s way just as brewers’ drays do. Light tanka-boats with one or two passengers and deftly worked by a single oar astern cut in and out like hansoms. And there were large passage-boats with accommodation for travelers on long journeys that plied regularly between Soo-chow Hang-chow Chang-chow and other distant cities and that created the same sort of sensation as they passed as did the Brighton Age or Portsmouth Telegraph in days gone by. Gentlemen’s private carriages were here represented by gorgeous mandarin junks with the huge umbrella on the top and a gong at the entrance to the cabin beaten at intervals by calfless flunkies. Other junks there were more gaudily painted even than these from whence issued shrill voices and sounds of noisy laughter and music. There was the costermonger in his humble substitute for a donkey-cart a small covered canoe which looked like a coffin and in which he sat alone forcing it speedily through the water with a pair of oars one of which he worked astern with his hand and the other at the side with his feet. The race of scavengers lived in flat punts and scooping up the mud and rubbish from the bottom of the canal discharged it into them where it was immediately examined by a number of ducks kept on board for the purpose who picked out all that was worth eating and what they rejected was then inspected by their owners for waifs and strays that had been lost from junks and then taken to fatten the land. But the most curious appearance was presented by the boats which carried the fishing cormorants solemnly perched in successive rows on stages projecting from the sides, they looked like a number of gentlemen in black on the platform at a meeting of a grave and serious character.”
They arrived outside the Soochow city walls which formed a perfect square surrounded on all sides by canals. A messenger appeared on the bank with a note from the Provincial Governor Chaou asking them to wait outside the city walls where he would come to meet them.
“But anxious to get inside the city walls we pressed on threading our way in line along the densely thronged canal and attracting to its banks and the roofs of the houses crowds of eager spectators not accustomed to see British French and American flags flaunting impudently under their very windows. We appeared so suddenly before the water-gate called ‘Foomun’ that the officials had they wished it would scarely have had time to shut it. However they contented themselves with making the most frantic gesticulations and expressive signs to us to turn back, but we put on an air of the most obtuse stolidity and pushed vehemently on, my boat which happened to be leading carrying away in the hurry some of the grille which formed part of the gate.
“Once in the city we did not venture on an exploration of the lanes of water which like those of Venice opened up in divers directions but moored at once in a retired spot under the walls. We were not long however left in quiet. Almost immediately a dense crowd collected on both sides of the canal deeply interested in the proceedings of the barbarians. Whenever any of us moved from one boat to another a general titter of astonishment and curiosity was heard, but they manifested no semblance of dislike or hostily toward us and were infinitely more respectable in their behavior than an English mob would have been under similar circumstances.”
A detail of Chinese soldiers approached and escorted them to the residence of the Governor who greeted them politely at the door of his audience room. The senior British representatives a Mr Meadows informed the Governor that they were carrying messages for the Chinese Prime Minister from the four allies which he hoped he would convey to Peking immediately. “The covering dispatch to himself he opened and read a crowd of attendants collecting round him and making themselves acquainted with its contents over his shoulder. As we desired that the whole proceeding should be invested with as much publicity as possible this mode of conducting business though rather unusual in Western diplomacy was quite in accordance with our wishes.”
Oliphant described Governor Chaou as “the best specimen of a Chinese gentleman I had yet seen in China” but doesn’t lose an opportunity to comment on the wily inscrutability of the Chinaman: “A Chinaman has a wonderful command of feature, he generally looks most pleased when he has least reason to be so and maintains an expression of imperturbable politeness and amiability when he is secretly regretting devoutly that he can no bastinado you to death.” (Bastinado is an old Spanish word meaning to torture someone by caning them on the soles of their feet.)
The audience over the party returned to Shanghai. Oliphant took another side-trip to the city port of Ningpo where he attended a Chinese opera performance in a local temple. “The disagreeable necessity of being obliged to form one of a dense crowd of very odoriferous Chinamen prevented my staying very long nor was the plot of so refined a nature as to render the performance attractive, but the acting was in some instances clever.”
On a visit to another temple in the area the priests treated him to tea and fingered his strange European garments in wonder.
“I have generally found gloves and corduroy trousers to be the most striking objects of dress to the uncivilized mind, shooting-boots are also curiosities. Our entertainers however were becoming accustomed to Europeans and had evidently smoked a few cigars in their lives before, but they were particularly amused by my Madras servant apparently a specimen of humanity heretofore unknown to them, they took him to look at the hideous black deities which guarded the entrance of the temple a compliment to his personal appearance at which they chuckled hugely but which he did not seem to appreciate.”
On April 10 a suitably impressive fleet of gun-boats having been assembled the foreign representatives left Shanghai heading north. They crossed the Yellow Sea rounded the promontory of Shangtung and sailed into the Beihai Gulf, then known as the Gulf of Pechelee. The intention was to sail up the Huai River towards Peking to cow the Chinese into accepting treaty terms dictated by the foreign powers. But the naval force was deemed too small to force its way up the river and so it was decided to wait for more reinforcements. As the foreigners rode at anchor in the shallow brown waters of the Gulf for a month the Chinese worked to strengthen the forts guarding the mouth of the river.
More ships arrived and on May 20 the foreigners attacked the forts and took them easily. The way to Peking was now open and they became the first foreign ships to sail up the Huai river to Tientsin a large trading port to the east of Peking. “Towards evening the mud villages became more numerous: their entire populations turned out as the leading gun-boats passed and saluted them with profound and reverential obeisances then squatted in a long blue line upon the river’s bank and gazed in awestruck wonderment as our ardent little craft defying wind and tide puffed steadily along a slight commotion under her stern being the only external evidence to the Celestial eye of the demon that was propelling her.”
It was a classic example of gun boat diplomacy and the natives were suitably impressed. The villagers Oliphant said were clearly under the impression that the foreigners were on their way to Peking to overthrow the Manchus and establish a new dynasty. The Imperial Court sent word that an Imperial representative would be sent to Tientsin for negotiations and the party landed in the suburbs of Tientsin where the local officials made available the Temple of Supreme Felicity on the river bank as living quarters for the foreigners during their stay.
“The personnel of the two missions were accommodated in the temple and other buildings all enclosed within one outer wall. A partition wall however divided us from our allies. They occupied a number of detached summer-houses dotted about a garden. We established ourselves in the innermost recesses of the temple our bedrooms furnished with sacred pigs and bronzes in which smoldered eternal fire (until we came and allowed it to go out), our slumbers presided over by grinning deities with enormous stomachs or many-armed goddesses with heads encircled in a blaze of golden or rather brass flame. The perfume of incense still clung to these sacred purlieus. Would it had been the only odor to which our nostrils were subjected Now began the process commonly known as “shaking down” into our quarters: altars were turned into wash-hand-stands, looking-glasses were supported against little gods, tables chairs and beds were indented for upon certain venerable citizens who had been appointed by the authorities to attend to our wants. Doubtless they must have wondered much at many of our demands and some of them — as for instances tubs — they never succeeded in satisfying.”
The American and Russian envoys tagging along after the Anglo-French force had more difficulty finding accomodation. They chose a suitable house on the river bank but “the proprietor made a novel proposition in the shape of an offer of 6,000 dollars if they would not rent it.” The offer was declined and the foreigners occupied the house anyway paying the owner “a handsome rent” for its use.
Their stay near Tientsin lasted about a month. Oliphant and his colleagues decided they needed horses in order to extend the range of their explorations during their stay. “We therefore sent in a requisition for a certain number of steeds and after some delay were furnished with what appeared the scum of the stables of Tientsin. These were indignantly rejected and we ultimately obtained six very respectable ponies and six very uncomfortable Chinese saddles very hard and angular and garnished with extensive drapery and an awkward bolster-shaped protuberance in front. To these uncouth contrivances however we ultimately became accustomed, and I had minutely explored the country round Tientsin within a radius of about six miles before we left it.”
A meeting between the Imperial commissioner Kweiliang and the foreign envoys was arranged at The Temple of Oceanic Influences about two miles outside Tientsin. The foreign entourage consisting of twelve sedan chairs a guard of honor of 150 marines and the band of the British man-of-war Calcutta made its way there in procession through the narrow streets watched by a spell-bound Chinese crowd. The envoys were met by the Chinese commissioners in the courtyard of the mansion and led them into a meeting room where they were seated at a table.
Lord Elgin announced that he had come with full powers of negotiation from his Sovereign and asked whether Kweiliang had done the same. This was always a sticking point in Chinese-Western relations. The Chinese produced an Imperial decree conferring large powers on Kweiliang but Elgin found the commissioner had not been provided with a seal of office. A show of displeasure was called for so Elgin immediately stood up and left with the Chinese commissioners chasing after him.
“Lord Elgin had arrived in Tientsin as the representative of a nation whose dignity had been outraged,” said Oliphant. “It had been necessary to have recourse to violence and to force an entry into the country to obtain satisfaction for insults: and any symptom of recluctance to grant a stern uncompromising bearing doubly necessary.”
The Chinese, thoroughly alarmed, asked for Mr Lay the Shanghai Inspector of Customs and linguist to help reach a compromise and eventually the commissioners were provided with powers acceptable to the foreigners. Negotiations proceeded. A diplomatic triumph now seemed certain but Oliphant was sorry the Chinese acquiesced to the foreign demands so readily — a more unyielding attitude from the Chinese would have given the foreigners an excuse to force their way into Peking, still a closed city.
Oliphant praises the locals of Tientsin for their respectful behavior towards the foreigners until one day a crowd pelted and hooted the British Admiral while he was out walking. The next day a certain Captain Dew and a colleague were “attacked by the mob who however entertained too great a respect for barbarian prowess to press them very close and they esaped with only the loss of a favorite dog of Captain Dew’s and the hat of that gallant officer.”
Incensed at this insolence Captain Dew led a party of British marines back to where the outrage had occurred. His hat was handed back to him but the British decided that in view of the impropriety of the behaviour of people in that part of the city it would be necessary to take a number of householders prisoner. A few shopkeepers were seized and marched off by the marines and kept in confinement for one night during which Captain Dew’s dog a retriever swam to the ship on which his master was staying.
* Oliphant found Tientsin slightly less obnoxious than the cities of southern China he had visited. The streets were wider and “the visitor could pursue his exploratory investigations without having his nostrils assailed at every turn by the indescribably foul odors of the south”. Even so he describes the city as “the most squalid impoverished-looking place we had ever been in”.
In the markets he found some Manchester-made cloth but was pessimistic about the opportunities for further trade.
“In contemplating the population of Tientsin with a practically commercial eye the problem is not whether they want clothes but whether they have money enough to buy them … In no part of the world have I ever witnessed a more squalid diseased population than that which seemed rather to infest than inhabit the suburbs of the city. Filth nakedness and itch were the prevailing characteristics. The banks of the river swarmed with men who lived entirely on the garbage and offal that were flung from the ships or were swept up by the tide from the city. There was an eddy just in front of our yamun in which dead cats etc. used to gyrate and into which stark naked figures were constantly plunging in search of some delicate morsel. Their clothing generally consisted of a piece of mat or tattered sacking which they wore not round their waist but thrown negligently over their shoulders — it was difficult to divine for what purpose as decency was ignored and in the month of June warmth was not a desideratum.
“Cutaneous diseases of the most loathsome character met the eye in the course of the shortest walk and objects so frightful that their vitality seemed a mockery of existence shocked the coarsest sensibilities. Upon several occasions I saw life ebbing from some wretched suffer as he lay at his post of mendicancy. One old woman in particular attracted my attention. She used to lie motionless on a mat in the centre of the road a diseased skeleton. She had just strength enough to clutch at cash that was flung at her. One day this strength seemed to have failed: I looked closer and she was dead. A few hours after, I repassed, but her place knew her no more: she had been carried away and cast upon a dung-heap.”
Oliphant summed up his feelings about the city by adding:
“As if in ironical allusion to the misery which the living seemed to endure almost the only pretty spots near Tientsin were the burial-places.”
As to the young women, a constant source of interest to Oliphant, some of the girls of Tienstin he thought pretty “but as a general rule the women generally seen were hideous”.
On his rambles through the countryside around Tientsin Oliphant was pleased to find well-tended kitchen-gardens vineyards and plenty of green vegetation. But towards the end of June luckily after the harvest a locust plague descended on the area. “Locust-hunting was a favorite and profitable occupation among the juvenile part of the community. I had the curiosity to eat one and thought it not unlike a periwinkle.”
On June 26, 1858, as the locusts swarmed around the city, Lord Elgin and his Chinese counterparts signed the Treaty of Tientsin which, among other things, gave foreign envoys the right to reside in Peking for the first time, and established the right of foreigners, including Christian missionaries to travel through the interior of China.
The Forces of Right having finally triumphed over Chinese obstinacy, Lord Elgin with Oliphant in tow sailed off to negotiate a similar treaty with the Japanese Empire.