3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
Taipan The Governor General


Ch 17 - A Clash of Cultures

The Chief Superintendent of Trade

Lord William John Napier, Britain's first Chief Superintendent of Trade, had no understanding of the situation in China and in the short span of three months managed to anger, insult, threaten, provoke and attack the very people with whom he had been ordered to establish friendly and open trade relations.

On July 15, 1834, the H.M.S. Andromache dropped anchor in the Macao Roads. Lord Napier and his party were welcomed ashore by a group of British merchants, who informed him that all necessary arrangements for his arrival had already been made by Jardine and Matheson, the leaders of the free merchants. Within days of Napier's arrival, the Chinese mandarin in charge of the patrol boats in Canton Bay learned of his presence at Macao and hurriedly reported to Canton that a British warship had delivered a foreign official to Macao, not a merchant. Viceroy Lu Kun issued an edict to the hong merchants on July 21 compelling them to go to Macao immediately, ascertain exactly why this official had come to China, and remind him of the Trade Regulations and the laws of China. They were ordered to instruct this official that, except for the merchants and the taipans, no foreign government officer was permitted to enter Canton until he petitioned for a red permit, a report was made on the matter and the emperor authorized his entry.

Lord Napier settled his family into a well-appointed home in Macao owned by the Company and proceeded to fill out his staff. He appointed a Mr. Astell as his personal secretary. John Francis Davis, the last President of the East India Company's Select Committee in Canton, and Sir George B. Robinson, also a Company man, were appointed Second and Third Superintendents respectively. Lord Napier selected Captain Charles Elliot, Royal Navy, as his Master Attendant with authority over all ships and crews within the Bocca Tigris, or the Bogue, a forty-mile stretch of the Pearl River that extends between Canton and the northern end of Canton Bay.

The Chinese Secretary's Office served the needs of the Company's Select Committee in matters of communication with the Chinese. The secretary had always been a European with some knowledge of the Chinese language who performed various translation tasks for European merchants. With the arrival of Lord Napier however, it became a government office and, beginning with its first appointee, all official diplomatic exchanges between the Chinese and British governments had to pass through the Chinese Secretary's Office. Lord Napier picked Dr. Robert Morrison, a fellow Scotsman and member of the London Missionary Society, as his first Chinese Secretary. Dr. Morrison, who studied Chinese in London and had lived in Macao since 1807, had published a number of works in both Chinese and English including, "A Dictionary of the Chinese Language." Holding the official title of Chinese Secretary of Her Majesty's Plenipotentiary, Morrison took on the task of interpreting the numerous communiques sent between the Trade Superintendent and Chinese authorities. Among the missionaries and diplomats who successively occupied this critical post were Dr. Robert Morrison, his son J. R. Morrison, Karl Gützlaff, Walter Henry Medhurst, and the famed sinologist Thomas Wade.

After briefing his new staff on his instructions and intentions, Lord Napier and his party boarded the H.M.S. Andromacheand set sail for Canton on July 23. Around midnight, the Andromache anchored beneath Fort Chuanbi on the eastern mouth of the Bogue, where it spent the night. At noon the following day, Napier and his staff boarded a Chinese war junk. After fourteen hours of sailing and rowing, the ship finally reached Canton on July 25 at two o'clock in the morning, where his party was met by the British merchant William Jardine and escorted to the English factory.

Lord Napier immediately got off on the wrong foot the following morning when, as his first official act, he prepared a letter to be sent directly to Viceroy Lu Kun announcing his arrival. The document, translated into Chinese by Dr. Morrison, was headed "Letter," and not "Petition" as required by the rules when the Select Committee addressed communications to the Viceroy through the Cohong. As the letter was being translated into Chinese, two representatives of the hong merchants, Wu Shaoyong and Lu Wankin, arrived with a copy of the Viceroy's edict of July 21, which should have been delivered to Napier in Macao. As the two men announced their intention to present the edict, Napier curtly dismissed them with the explanation that his instructions directed him to inaugurate a new procedure under which he and his colleagues would deal directly with the local authorities. Terrified of the implications of such an action and unable to get anyone to listen to their pleading and protestations, Wu Shaoyong and Lu Wankin left shaken to report to Viceroy Lu.

On July 27, Mr. Astell took Napier's letter to the Petition Gate in Canton to hand it over to a mandarin for delivery to the Viceroy. This act alone was an obvious method of circumventing the former status of the Cohong in such matters. In a nearly day long struggle with a variety of Chinese officials, including the local Manchu Adjutant General, not one Chinese would take possession of the inappropriately titled document. The following day, on July 30 and July 31, Viceroy Lu issued edicts on the developing situation, in each case representing the name "Napier" with two ideographs which meant "laboriously vile."

The first edict ordered Lord Napier out of Canton without allowing him time to conclude his business. The second ordered the hong merchants to once again explain to Napier the "ways" of the Canton system and make sure he understood them. The third ordered the hong merchants, under the threat of death, to ensure Napier's departure from Canton. After all, it was the responsibility of the Viceroy to maintain the existing regulations, and he had no more authority to change or alter them without government approval than did any official in any other country. Canton's Trade Regulations had been designed to keep foreigners at arm's length and now that Napier was forcing himself into close quarters, the situation required a measured amount of pressure on the hong merchants to regain control over the natural order of business.

Lord Napier violated a number of Trade Regulations during his first two weeks in China:  he did not wait in Macao for permission to enter Canton;  he moved into the factory district without permission;  he failed to address the Viceroy by a "petition" through the hong merchants. This last violation struck fear into the hearts of the Cohong, for they knew from bitter past experience that whenever foreigners misbehaved it was they who were always fined and risked punishment. It was their responsibility to ensure that this sort of thing never happened.

Culture shock quickly took its toll on the humorless Scotsman and threw him off balance. Two days after his arrival in Canton, Lord Napier learned that Chinese customs officers had broken into his baggage chests, even though they had been given the keys. That was followed by the ordered withdrawal of the boatmen generally employed by other firms and the intimidation of others. Although the old China hands in Canton understood these actions to mean that the Chinese were annoyed and took this action to hint at their displeasure, Napier was not amused. On the morning of July 29, Napier received a note from Wu Shaoyong to say he would be meet with His Lordship at one o'clock. When Dr. Morrison translated the note, he noticed that Napier's name was not written with the two ideographs he had used in the letter to Viceroy Lu to express its sound, but with two others which he saw meant "laboriously vile." Angered by the reference, Napier became unnecessarily preoccupied with defending not only his personal dignity, but the honor of Britain.

Unaware that Viceroy Lu had already ordered his expulsion, Lord Napier wrote a dispatch to Lord Palmerston on August 9 arguing that the Viceroy would eventually be compelled to accept his letter, since without it his report to the Emperor would be incomplete. Feeling that he was angering the very people Palmerston had ordered him to placate, Napier justified his unsuccessful actions to date as "protecting the honor of Britain." British merchants were solidly behind him and he claimed that subsequent events would justify his behavior. Napier's outright contempt for the Viceroy and the whole Chinese nation clouded his intelligence. His position in China was precarious at best and the very idea that Viceroy Lu Kun could outmaneuver him never entered his mind.

The sizeable population of British merchants who resided and traded in Canton did so with China's permission. They had no arms, no troops, no warships;  their position in Canton, some eighty miles from the open ocean, was secured only by the continued Chinese issuance of that permission. Trade could be suspended at any time and their expulsion could come at a word. Fully half the China trade occurred outside the Canton area however, and the British firm of Jardine and Matheson held a greater share in that trade than any other firm. If Canton were closed to trade, it would be their rivals who suffered, not them. In truth, a period of disturbance would serve a useful purpose, partly because it would push opium prices higher, but mostly because Jardine and Matheson was better organized than any other firm, and they could easily ride out storms that drove other companies under.

Canton authorities had suspended trade in the past as an effective method of controlling British behavior. That Lord Napier did not grasp the fact they could use it again would be regarded as strange except for the fact that his arrogant behavior and flouting of Chinese regulations well-suited Jardine and Matheson, who openly supported, even pushed him in his intractable attitude. The more he was insulted, the more the Crown was humiliated, the easier it would be later to persuade Parliament to sanction the use of armed force to open the entire country of China to trade.

William Jardine's subtle yet bold assessment of the economic potential of the Chinese market, based on long and personal experience, went far beyond Lord Napier's limited understanding. With his mind clouded by personal contempt for the Viceroy and the Chinese, Napier could not understand that Lu Kun was, in reality, outmaneuvering him. He apparently never realized that he had no way to resist. Great Britain was unquestionably a world power and, given sufficient time, it could assemble sufficient force to impose its will in China or anywhere else. As of August 1834 however, England was in no position to exercise that power, leaving Lord Napier with no "ace in the hole."

On August 14, less than three weeks after his arrival in China, Lord Napier sent another dispatch to Lord Palmerston. This message was more boisterous in tone and displayed a good deal of William Jardine's influence. Napier expressed his belief that circumstances compelled Britain to confront the weak Qing Government with an ultimatum;  give the British the same privilege in China that any Chinese citizen would enjoy in England. Napier "suggested" that if China refused to comply, Great Britain should employ a military presence to enforce its request. His attitude regarding the situation in China was all bluster and arrogant pretense however, and Viceroy Lu Kun called his bluff. At the very time Napier was composing his second dispatch, Viceroy Lu ordered the hong merchants to take preliminary steps to halt trade, hoping that it would create a split among the British merchants. It did.

Among the Western nations trading with China at the time, only the British openly refused to submit to the customary tribute relationship, and it was England that first suffered the consequences. Those merchants unconnected with the opium trade took the brunt of Viceroy Lu's action, while firms such as Jardine and Matheson were left virtually untouched. Though Jardine and his compatriots continued to back Napier's refusal to yield to the Viceroy and leave Canton, other merchants began to have their doubts. They believed that Superintendent Napier had done little except precipitate a major crisis and expose the very people he had been sent to protect to great loss. With typical British determination to prevail, Napier printed a proclamation and had it posted throughout Canton on August 26. The proclamation summarized events to date and spoke of the "ignorance and obstinacy" of Viceroy Lu Kun, and of the "thousands of industrious Chinese who must suffer ruin and discomfort through the perversity of their government" in stopping trade. This was the final straw.

Publicly libelled in his own city, Lu Kun became enraged and within two days posted a stinging proclamation of his own, one that was direct, violent and very unlike the usual official language of his edicts. It stated, in part;

"A lawless foreign slave, Napier, has issued a notice. We know not how such a dog foreigner of an outside nation as you, can have the audacious presumption to call yourself Superintendent. Being an outside savage Superintendent, and a person in an official situation, you should have some little knowledge of propriety and law.

"You have passed over ten thousand miles in order to seek a livelihood;  you have come to our Celestial Empire to trade and control affairs;  how can you not obey well the regulations of the Empire? ... According to the laws of the nation, the Royal Warrant should be respectfully requested to behead you and openly expose your head to the multitude, as a terror to perverse dispositions."

The partial slowdown of British trade that had been in effect since August 16 was made final and complete by Viceroy Lu on September 2. The British merchants were isolated. Their brokers, agents, interpreters, boatmen, servants, and porters were all withdrawn from the Thirteen Factories District. Chinese troops surrounded the factories on the landward side and local Chinese were forbidden to sell provisions to the British. After the Viceroy's edict was posted on September 4, Lord Napier realized that accommodation was not going to be possible. In Napier's mind, the proclamation offered convincing evidence that a clear and present danger existed to British interests in Canton.

The lives and property of British residents in Canton were in no danger whatsoever. This was not the first time Chinese authorities halted trade to win a dispute. They had used it repeatedly in the past as a standard weapon for keeping foreign trade merchants in order and it never failed to bring them to heel. Furthermore, not a single incident had ever been accompanied by loss of life or property. If any arrests or punishments were meted out, it was always the Chinese who suffered, never the British. It was common knowledge among members of the British East India Company that whenever Chinese troops arrived, their chief duty was to protect foreigners from an excited rabble.

William Jardine fully understood the situation. He strongly disapproved of Parliament's China policy and wanted the world opened to English manufacturing interests. Even if he did not put the idea of impending danger in Napier's mind, he certainly did nothing to dispel it. He advised Lord Napier to order Captain Elliot, Master Attendant of British ships in the Canton area, to bring the two British frigates H.M.S. Andromache and H.M.S. Imogene up from their anchorage at the mouth of the Pearl River and threaten to move them directly "under the wall of the town." Jardine knew that one of two things would happen once the British frigates reached Whampoa and either would be satisfactory:  either the warships would sufficiently intimidate Viceroy Lu, who would then grant Napier's demands, or they would not, in which case Napier would be forced to withdraw. A withdrawal would appear as a slap in the face to Britain and the Royal Navy and that would surely prompt industrial and manufacturing interests in England to force Parliament to send not just two frigates, but a fleet of warships. Jardine, Matheson and Company would win either way.

Lord Napier agreed to Jardine's plan and directed Sir George Robinson, Third Superintendent of Trade, to carry a letter to Captain Blackwood, then commanding the frigate Imogene, which along with the Andromache was anchored off Fort Chuanbi just outside the Bogue. The letter directed Blackwood to enter the Pearl River and proceed to Whampoa. He was not to fire the first shot, but if the gun batteries at Chuanbi or any other fortress tried to stop him, he was to silence them.

Captain Elliot arrived at the Bogue on September 6 aboard the British cutter H.M.S. Louisa. Around twelve-thirty the following afternoon, the three British ships weighed anchor and began their journey into the Bogue under light westerly winds. As the ships tacked northward about four miles north of Chuanbi they came under the gun batteries of the Wandong and Anonghoy fortresses on either side of the river. Each of the tiered stone structures had about thirty heavy caliber cannon covering the waterway. As soon as the Andromache and the Imogene got within range, barely making headway in the light breeze, both fortresses opened fire. The two British frigates presented excellent targets, but the Chinese had not properly sighted their guns and no ship suffered more than minor damage during the brief exchange. Captain Elliot's small task force anchored well clear of Chinese guns just north of Wandong and Anonghoy, where they remained for more than a day in nearly calm winds.

Lord Napier had been ill with a fever for some days and the summer heat and high humidity did little to cool his mounting anger. Against the advice of his personal surgeon, Dr. Colledge, he remained on his feet and continued the struggle, fortified in the belief that Viceroy Lu would capitulate. The day after the British action in the Bogue, Napier sent a menacing, almost hysterical dispatch to Viceroy Lu that stated in part;

"It is a very serious offence [sic] to fire upon or otherwise insult the British flag .... I recommend the Viceroy and the Governor to take warning in time;  they have opened the preliminaries of war."

Napier included the veiled threat that the Andromacheand Imogene would fight and further threatened to send his dispatch directly to the imperial court in Beijing. He concluded his letter in a tasteless mimicry of Lu Kun's earlier edicts, "Therefore tremble Viceroy Loo, intensely tremble!"

Early in the afternoon on September 9, the ships got underway in line ahead formation and sailed under a light southerly breeze toward the precipitous rocky bluff at Tiger Island, site of the remaining fortress guarding the northern exit of the Bogue. At 2:20 p.m. Chinese gunners opened fire on the British from a range of only 200 yards. After a thirty-five minute exchange of cannon fire, which killed two British seamen, wounded five others and destroyed the Tiger Island batteries, the Battle of the Bogue was over. This little known naval action was significant, not for what it accomplished, but for what it led to. The Battle of the Bogue was the first clash in the first war ever fought between China and the West.

Lord Napier firmly believed the presence of the British Navy would force Lu Kun to back down and agree to British terms. He was wrong. On September 11, the same day Elliot's frigates reached the Whampoa Anchorage, Viceroy Lu Kun issued another edict, one that implied he was willing to meet force with force. He held Napier alone responsible for all the recent trouble, and stated as much in his edict;

"The said Barbarian Eye has not learned ...He has again opposed the laws by commanding the ships of war to push forward into the inner river; and in allowing the barbarian forces to fire guns ...." The Viceroy continued, "if the said Barbarian Eye will speedily repent ...withdraw the ships of war and remain obedient to the old rules, I will yet give him some slight indulgence. This is his last chance, and if he does not grasp it, the Celestial troops will drive him out. Barbarian Eye or Foreign Official?."

Viceroy Lu Kun called the Englishman's bluff and demanded the British either submit or be expelled by force. He backed up his threat by bringing Chinese troops into Canton to surround the British factory and ordering the construction of stockades and gun emplacements along the river bank below Whampoa. He also had one hundred fire boats readied for immediate use if needed. Chinese workers sank twelve stone-filled barges in the Pearl River's main channel between Canton and the Bogue and secured them with heavy rope hawsers staked to the banks. The obstructions closed the river to the frigates and made it nearly impossible for them to bring up an armed landing party. Trapped in a twenty mile stretch of the Pearl River between Canton and the Bogue, Napier's small show of force was rendered helpless the very day it reached Whampoa. The Andromache, the Imogene and the Louisa could neither continue nor fight their way back to Canton Bay.

The sudden escalation of tension in Canton was reduced somewhat by the concerted efforts of Chinese merchants and British free-traders led Whiteman, Dent, and Brightman, the most important firm after Jardine and Matheson. The growing feeling that Napier's policy was ruining the China trade and that the British Commission should withdraw prompted the merchants to privately petition Viceroy Lu to compromise and reopen trade. China's ancient and proven policy of "divide-and-rule" had worked again. In failing health, feeling deserted and betrayed by his own countrymen and completely cut off from his ships, Lord Napier realized the game was over. All that remained was to exit saving some sense of British honor, but even in this Napier was unsuccessful. The Viceroy had his own face to consider. Lu Kun had already lost considerable face because British warships had stormed the Bogue;  to recover his own honor and prestige, he would have to make it clear that Napier's departure was being forced.

Lord Napier informed the British community on September 14 that he was about to leave Canton. Five days later, at a meeting with Wu Shaoyong, Lu Wankin and William Jardine, he announced the order that would send the frigates back to Lintin Island. Napier would apply for a special red permit to allow him to proceed to Macao. Ironically, the root cause of all the trouble had been Napier's earlier failure to apply for such a permit to travel to Canton. Viceroy Lu accepted the terms of his departure and assured him the frigates would be allowed to sail unimpeded down the Bogue without public demonstrations. Napier and his staff were removed from Canton on September 21 and escorted to Macao by a squadron of Chinese boats. In the short span of three months, he had managed to anger, insult, threaten, provoke and attack the very people with whom he had been ordered to establish friendly and open trade relations. The stress, humiliation and a stubborn illness finally took its toll on October 11, 1834, when William John Napier quietly passed away. In retrospect, the entire Napier affair was a case of the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time with orders from the British Government to do the wrong thing.


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Taipan The Governor General