Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Crowd Sourcing - First of Five

This is the first section of a draft version of one of the chapters for my upcoming book The Silver Bowl. Four more sections of the chapter will follow, each with a thumbnail sketch of four 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.

On Monday, January 25th 1841, six months before the birth of Thomas Jackson in faraway Ireland, a small British contingent raised the British flag on the western shores of Hong Kong Island, at a promontory later called Possession Point. The soldiers then drank a toast to the queen and fired several rounds of celebratory gunfire. Even though the final agreement took another year to conclude, 1841 is still as good a date as any to mark the birth of the Colony, at least for the purposes of this book.
An 1845 map of Hong Kong Harbour, showing Possession Point near the centre. Map by Thomas Bernard Collinson (1821–1902). NOTE: Collinson’s survey of Hong Kong Island benefitted from his previous work with the Ordnance Survey in Ireland. In other maps of Hong Kong, he used the same contour system that had recently been developed and adopted there.

The fingerprints of a small group of Irishmen were all over the battles and documents which had led up to this day. They had either manned the guns which had preceded the treaties, or wielded the pens which made them official. As Woodie Guthrie once put it: Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen. ’Twas ever thus -, although in Hong Kong, not all of it played out in such a black and white manner.

There is a fondly held notion, shared by many people of Irish ancestry that history would have unfolded more favourably if only they, rather than the British, had been in charge of the British Empire. Perhaps - but we should be wary of taking this notion too far. A sobering example is revealed in the history of how the Irish ran Montserrat in 1630. Like most groups in power in the absence of checks and balances, they passed slews of unjust laws solely to their own advantage. There is also sad and incontestable evidence that many of them treated their slaves far worse than Oliver Cromwell had ever treated their own people.

This is not surprising. Throughout history it has been the rule rather than the exception that no matter how rich or poor we are, our actions are often shaped by our fear of losses and/or our sense of entitlement. When I served a couple of terms as a local politician in the 1980s in Mission City BC, a fellow alderman often subjected any proposed bylaw to the following test: Whose ox is being gored? When it came to Hong Kong, most of the Irish in positions of power, tended to favour the merchant class.

There are several reasons why so many Irish ended up not only working but also living in Hong Kong. In the 19th century, it was easier to be proudly Irish when living and working in the colonies than it ever could be in London. Although many wealthy Irishmen were Irish when it suited them and British when it didn’t, they still faced a fair bit of discrimination in the England of the mid-1800s. Another factor that drew them to Hong Kong was that for most of the 19th century, it was hard for ambitious young Irishmen to make a fortune in Ireland, even for those born into relatively well-heeled families. Lacking coal, Ireland lacked industry, and lacking industry, it had little in the way of cities, and lacking cities, there was little opportunity for accumulating capital. In the mid-1800s, up to two thirds of the soldiers and officers serving in the colonial British army were Irishmen, and many of them graduated, as they aged, from the battlefields into the British civil service. Most of these men had skills and tenacity, and in that were quite unlike that class of Englishmen, captured so brilliantly in Jane Gardom’s novel Old Filth, where the name of the central character is an acronym for Failed in London Try Hongkong.

Four such Irishmen were Lord Palmerston, Sir Hugh Gough, Sir Henry Kellett and Sir Henry Pottinger. All four had been born into Anglo-Irish families, with Irish roots that went back to the early 1600s. Most of them had little to show for it in terms of wealth or security. Palmerston was the only one who still owned his family’s ancestral land. The fortunes and/or family expectations of the three others had obliged them to sign up for military service when they were mere teenagers: Henry Kellett at 16; Hugh Gough at 14 (with his father’s Limerick militia); and Henry Pottinger at 12, going to sea, then serving in India when he was only 15. By the time these three men had landed in Hong Kong, with instructions to either fight or govern, they had already served on dozens of battlefields, and had defended numerous colonies of the British Empire. This had seasoned their approach to both war and governance, and shaped how they approached the issues of their day in Hong Kong. Snapshots cannot do these men justice, but they can at least set the context for much of what followed in the later 1800s.


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