Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Crowd Sourcing: 2nd of Five

This is the 2nd section of a draft version of one of the chapters for my upcoming book The Silver Bowl. It is one of four thumbnail sketches of Irishmen whose impact on Hong Kong in its early days as a Colony were significant. My hope is that helpful readers can set me straight if I am wrong about any of the facts. I still have much to learn.

Lord Palmerstone (1784-1865)
Henry John Temple aka 3rd Lord Palmerston was 18 years old when his father died. Having inherited an Irish peerage, he was able to start his career near the top of the military ladder. When he joined the Volunteers at age 19, Napoleon had recently threatened to invade England. Palmerston subsequently became a Lieutenant-Colonel without even leaving Great Britain. At age 22, he was appointed Junior Lord of the Admiralty, where his main job was to wield a pen. Since he had already been trained how to use a rifle and to spit-polish his shoes, he was deemed at age 25 to be the ideal politician to serve in the post of Secretary at War. By 1841, at age 57, he was a well-seasoned politician, serving as the British Foreign Secretary when Hong Kong was first officially claimed for the British Crown.  

He was not nicknamed Lord Pumicestone for nothing. His abrasive and imperious style, while popular amongst his supporters, undermined trust amongst the more conservative members of his Whig government and later cost him the support of the Queen. He was eventually forced to relinquish his post when Sir Robert Peel’s Conservatives took control of the House of Commons in the 1841 election in late June, early July. While he was temporarily sidelined, a fellow Irishman, Pottinger, signed the Treaty of Nanking on August 29, 1842 despite the fact that Palmerston had drafted the outlines for the terms of the treaty. Palmerston’s concept of free trade, of a sort that favoured British interests, was at its core.

That 1842 treaty left a few issues unresolved, particularly when it came to agreements concerning the trade in opium. Later, in 1856, Palmerston whipped up British anti-Chinese sentiment, saying:

[he would never] 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.

This was one of his classic “create-an-enemy” speeches. The merchant and middle class cheered him on. A year later, an election was called, provoked by a vote of censure over Palmerston’s approach to the Arrow affair during the 2nd Opium War (an incident where the Arrow had been sailing under the protection of a British flag while committing acts of piracy) resulted in the Whigs being swept back into power with their largest majority since 1835. Palmerston was back where he wanted to be, and finally able to secure the free trade of opium. This trade become integral to the development of Hong Kong, and featured in some of the future business dealings of Thomas Jackson. In fact, it was a significant commodity for both Chinese and British traders, and one that all the early Hong Kong banks depended on for profits.

To Palmerston, defending free trade in opium was simply part of defending the needs of capital. He had never shown any moral qualms when it came to this kind of need. After all, he had made his first fortune as an absentee landlord, living in Hertfordshire and benefitting from the rental income from more than 12,000 acres in Co. Sligo. He was one of those landlords who regarded the Famine as a convenient way of dealing with a surplus and unwanted population. One of his tutors had been a friend of Adam Smith. This combination of his schooling, class, and early source of income is all of a piece with the kinds of terms which he imposed upon China. When it came to opium, the notion that it was a matter of individual morality fit quite neatly, as such things usually do, with the needs of his own pocketbook. It also fit quite neatly with the needs of his close friends, men such as William Jardine, one of the most active and successful opium traders in his day. Imposing free trade in opium on an unwilling China was also a good fit with his temperament. As the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollop put it in his biography of Palmerston: A man who will not be bullied will sometimes bully.

In spite of this, most would say that, overall, he was an effective Foreign Secretary. He served Britain’s needs as he saw them throughout the Empire. Even though his initial assessment was that Hong Kong was no more than a barren rock with nary a house upon it, and that It will never be a mart for trade, he eventually changed his mind. As his fellow countryman, George Bernard Shaw, would note, a man who cannot change his mind cannot change anything – and Palmerston could. It turned out that it wasn’t Hong Kong’s land that would be essential to advancing British interests, but its deep bays, perfect for harbouring ships. They gave the military an advantage that helped to ensure that the framework for free trade could be well defended, especially when it was backed with that particularly British mix of military muscle, governance and laws.


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