Friday, October 30, 2015

Intro to The Silver Bowl

Since I have had so little time for blogging this past month, here instead is the first chapter of my book.

            One spring day, young Tommy was out a-walking with Mr. Malever. Down a lane, it was, back of the church. They chanced upon a Gypsy. She stopped them on the path. “Would you be after having your fortune told?” Malever laughed and reached into his pocket. He crossed her palm with a coin. She pocketed the coin, took the palm of young Tommy into her hand, and studied it carefully. Then she took the hand of Malever and as she held it palm upwards, the look on her face darkened. She shook her head and said, “One of you will be known all over the world and one of you will meet a dastardly death.”
As told by Thomas Andrew Jackson. 2004

There were four identical silver bowls – at least, according to the stories that I grew up with. Our family had one of them, but it was my quest for the other three that led me to meet Thomas Andrew Jackson. I could so easily have missed him. He died, at age seventy-seven, in a hospital near his home in Bangor, Co. Down, December 20th, 2007, three years after we had first met. The story of his great-uncle and namesake, Thomas Jackson, remains the earliest of such stories I have found. I can easily imagine young Tommy in the late 1840s, as he walked the lanes by his parent’s home near Crossmaglen in short pants or breeks. There would be the ever-present dog at his heels, and a walking stick at hand as he intermittently thwacked the leaves of the nearby whin bushes. Although he had been born in an Irish cottage with a thatched roof and a dirt floor, by the time that he died in 1915, on St. Thomas Day, at Gracechurch Street in the City of London, he was internationally known as Sir Thomas, or TJ, a much celebrated banker. His story is inextricably linked to the story of the four silver bowls, even though they were not his.

Myself in 2015 - posing at Gilford Castle with one of the four silver bowls.
Every year or two, my mother would pack our silver bowl into a large crate along with a mix of cutlery, linens, and children’s toys as we followed my father from one RCAF posting to another. I recall unwrapping it, time and again, from month-old newspapers, polishing it, and centering it on the mahogany tea table which had cracked the first winter we lived in North Bay, Ontario. The air up there was too dry for a Lancashire table. The table and the bowl were the only two special things that our family had to speak of. The table was my mother’s, and the bowl was my father’s. He always said that it had been given by the Emperor of Japan to one of his ancestors, a son of an Armagh farmer, a man who –like him - was also named David Brown. 

It had never occurred to my childhood mind that there might be more than one Emperor. There was simply “the Emperor” and his connection to “my ancestors”. Whenever I rubbed Silvo into the tarnished ridges of the embossed chrysanthemums and leaves on the outside of the bowl, my fingers may have blackened, but my imagination soared. The bowl allowed me to imagine a better time for my family. Throughout my childhood, we lived in rented houses or apartments, didn’t own a car, wore second hand clothes, and unlike most of our neighbours, didn’t even own a television. But we did have that bowl. 

In the early years of my research, I had assumed that my great-uncle David Brown (1872-1919), a banker based in Persia, had been the first recipient of this bowl. After all, he had the right name, profession and lived in the right era. I had set aside the inconvenient fact that Persia is a considerable distance from Japan. It took me many more years before I discovered that it was actually another family banker, my great-great-uncle David Jackson (1855-1903) who had been the recipient of all four bowls. They had been given to him, along with a silver candelabra, when he was awarded The Order of the Rising Sun. I later learned that David Jackson had first gone to Hong Kong in 1877, on the coattails of his older brother Thomas, aka young Tommy. Thomas had started work in Hong Kong a decade earlier in 1864, when he was twenty-three. By 1877, at age thirty-six, he was already the Chief Manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, now known as HSBC. In 1899, he was knighted by Queen Victoria, and then three years later, made a baronet. Not bad for the son of an Armagh tenant farmer.

The brilliance of Sir Thomas’ career may have eclipsed the life of his younger brother, but David was also a banker to reckon with. From the 1890s until his death in 1903, he served as the manager of HSBC in Yokohama. Thomas had held that same position a few decades earlier, but the timing for David was good. Japan was in the midst of reinventing itself, trying to adapt to the forces of globalization that had undermined its historic ways of conducting trade. It also needed cash to fund the building of railways, as well as its war with Russia. To do this, it needed entry into the foreign loan markets, and David’s work was key. As part of his role as the HSBC manager in Yokohama, he was also a chief negotiator for a consortium in London handling such loans. This was essential for the next phase of international trade for Japan. Even though David was never knighted, some of my elderly Irish relations – those a generation or two older than I am - claim that David Jackson drunk was a better banker than Thomas Jackson sober.

In 2006, our silver bowl made it possible for me to meet the current inheritor of the baronetcy at his home in Co. Dorset: Sir Michael Jackson It was from letters in his family archives that I learned that Eliza Jackson, Thomas and David’s mother, had also been essential to the success of the bank, even though she’d never left Ireland’s shores. At least once a week, she’d written to her sons from her home on the family farm, letters that took months to arrive on steam ships to Hong Kong, Yokohama, Shanghai or whatever other branch of the bank her sons happened to be managing. These letters included her specific recommendations for hiring other young men from South Armagh, men whose abilities had caught her notice. Some were Protestant; some were Catholic. Her judgement about staffing was sound, but her greatest contribution may have been her unwavering moral compass, a compass that her sons inherited. One other trait they shared was not taking themselves too seriously. When they wrote to each other about HSBC, they often referred to it as The Old Cow.

The success of Eliza’s sons was made possible by events that took place around the time of Thomas’ birth in 1841. This was when the British Empire defeated China. Hong Kong was then made into a Treaty port, and its deep harbours were opened to British trade – free of Chinese taxes, tariffs or regulations. The rulers of the British Empire also imposed a relatively corruption-free civil service, based on the British model, as well as a functioning judiciary. It is intriguing that so many of that generation’s leaders were also Irish. In 1841, it had been Hugh Gough from Co. Waterford who had headed up the troops when British forces won the first Opium War, and it was another Irishmen, Henry John Temple aka Lord Palmerstone who had negotiated the subsequent terms of the treaty. Then, it was Henry Pottinger from Co. Down who had signed the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, a treaty which tilted the deck in Britain’s favour. Eight of Hong Kong’s early governors were also Irish, as was much of its civil service. The reason for this inter-generational plethora of Irishmen was simple. In the mid-1800s, it was much easier for ambitious young men to get rich in the Far East than it was in Ireland. They also didn’t face the rampant discrimination against Irishmen that they would have faced had they tried to succeed in England.

It was probably an advantage just to have grown up in Ireland. England’s approach to governing their homeland had offered several solid lessons on how not to govern a colony. The biggest lesson was being clear about who you served. Not surprisingly, the Irish in Hong Kong were therefore more inclined to respond to the needs of the Hong Kong locals – or at least, to the members of the business class who had their ear – than they were to heed commands from across the sea. In the pre-telegraph era, when it took up to three months for communications from London to arrive, and three more months for a response to be received, it often benefitted Hong Kong that London’s directives were often either delayed or outright ignored.

Andrew Hugh Gilmore Jackson (1881-1918) on the right - a nephew of TJ.
The surviving photos of these banker-farmers from Armagh, taken after they had done well for themselves, make them look as if they had always known certainty, urbanity, and comfort. You wouldn’t guess that most of them had spent their early lives being as much at home with cattle, horses, pigs and potatoes as they now were with bank drafts, cocktails, and government loans. Nor that most of their families had felt the sting of significant financial failure, and that at least a dozen of them were nephews, brothers and cousins of Thomas Jackson - or if not related, had at least grown up on nearby farms. These were men who knew the names and habits of each other’s aunties and cousins, as well as exactly who sat in which pews at church. Their childhood had been shaped by the impact of the mid-1840s potato famine. For centuries, that part of South Armagh where the Jackson brothers had grown up had been referred to as bandit country, a hot bed of agrarian and sectarian unrest. By the time that they arrived in Hong Kong, they had already learned how to make and keep friends, tolerate differences, and to work well with others for the benefit of all. They had also learned not to bet the farm.

The leased farms they had grown up on were large enough to be reasonably profitable – at least when a combination of good crops and decent market prices were in their favour. Even so, whenever the crops failed, or the markets dried up, or their cattle fell ill, their families risked losing their home, their livelihood, and their lease, all in one fell swoop. When there were profits, they ploughed money back into the farm. On a day to day basis, they mostly lived in a barter and gift economy. Clothes were hand sewn by wives, sisters, aunts, or mothers. Children did not have the opportunity to be educated at the schools favoured by the professional classes. When their chores were done, these future bankers had played with their brothers and sisters, and also with the children of the hired help in the enclosed farmyard, or in the acres of fields surrounding the barns. They’d grown up listening to the tales of Finn McCoul, a giant who could outrun, outride, out-throw, and outfight anyone. Together, they’d clambered onto large rocks that Finn McCoul had tossed from his perch in the Slieve Gullion mountains. They’d also behaved themselves - or not - during Eliza Jackson’s daily readings of verses from the Bible, as well as snippets from the local newspapers. In her home, the hired help had always joined the family both for the readings as well as for the mid-day meals which were eaten in a room just off the kitchen. When Thomas Jackson became the chief manager of HSBC, he was known to have insisted – like his mother - that his staff be well fed. The clerks and managers, young and old, all joined together to enjoy their British-styled tiffin, a rare practice for banks in Dickensian times, but a practice that proved to be profitable. 

There were also other mentors who had influenced the young Thomas Jackson. One of them was his uncle, the Rev. Daniel Gunn Browne. He was well-known in mid-1800s Ireland for his sermons and speeches agitating for the legal rights of all tenant farmers – including Catholics. He was also the father of Thomas McCullagh Browne, another HSBC Manager in the Far East, and a cousin to Thomas Jackson. When these young men were growing up, they had all heard Browne preach at Presbyterian churches in Ballybay, Freeduff, and Newtownhamilton. Some of Browne’s speeches drew thousands, some say as many as 30,000 in one instance. He was known to have refered to absentee landlords as “exterminators”. His economic analysis of the situation in Ireland anticipated the writings of Karl Marx, and both of them used language in their writing which could have been lifted from the King James Bible. When Rev. Daniel Gunn Browne lay dying in 1892, Thomas hurried back to Ireland to hold his hand one more time. Long after Thomas had become an intimate member of the London banking establishment, he still referred to the Rev. Daniel Gunn Browne as the most important mentor of his life. 

Aside from Rev. Browne and Eliza Jackson, there was one other significant mentor that we know about in Thomas’ life: his great-aunt Barbara Donaldson née Bradford (1783-1865). I would never have learned of her importance had it not been for two letters that I stumbled across in the spring of 2015. From these two letters, it is obvious that they wrote to each other on a regular basis. In the first of them, written on September 23, 1863, midway through the American Civil War, he talks of the need to abolish slavery. A tale told by one of his daughters adds to our sense of his commitment to treating all people of all faiths and races with respect:

My mother and I had had an enjoyable trip from England and on our last night before arriving at Hong Kong my mother thanked the Chief Officer for all his care and attention and asked him to dinner on shore the following night, as my father would not wish to lose any time in thanking him too. We dropped anchor the next morning and as I came on deck a Chinese coolie woman crossed my path, where upon the Chief Officer took her by the shoulders and threw her so roughly out of my way that she lost her hat and her shoes. I was then aware of a raging 6 ft 2 tornado in the form of my father who seized the Chief officer by the scruff of the neck and as he shook him like a rat roared "How dare you treat a Chinese woman so, you something something..". I didn't wait to see the end but dived below and into the Wayfoong [a ship owned by HSBC] as quickly as I could, and needless to say the Chief Officer did NOT dine with us that night! Oct 12, 1951. Beatrice Marker.

The faith divide in Ireland has a complicated history, and the lines were not always drawn as short-hand versions of Ireland’s history often suggest. Like slavery in America, and the race divides in the colonies of the European Empires, faith was a division that was exploited to protect economic power and privilege. It divided people into three classes: Protestants, Dissenters, and Catholics. Dissenters, as the Presbyterians were called, not infrequently found common cause with their Catholic neighbours, both in practical and political pursuits. Thomas’ father, David Jackson may have been a member of the Protestant Orange Lodge, but he signed at least one petition advocating the granting of tenant rights to Catholic farmers.  Not that this reaching across the faith divide always protected the families of Presbyterians. Attacks by members of the more radical wings of Catholic resistance were not uncommon. In South Armagh and Co. Louth, several of TJ’s friends, relations, or neighbours had their fields burnt, their first-born sons murdered, or else woke up to find their horses or their cows writhing on the ground, their tendons cut. Although many of these attacks were carried out by men from outside the parish, often funded by money raised in America, knowing these facts did nothing to lessen the fears of these Presbyterian farming families. Some stayed, but most left for new lives elsewhere.

Many of the Chinese businessmen operating in Hong Kong were also economic refugees, and like the Irish farmer-bankers in Hong Kong, were only one generation away from their agricultural roots. In the province of Canton, just as in Ireland, the failure of potato and other crops had gone hand-in-glove with dysfunctional land policies, leading to mass emigration starting in the 1840s, and lasting for decades. These new arrivals, both Irish and Chinese, continued to rely on their networks of friends and family. Nepotism for them made perfect sense. Both had been raised in cultures which relied on oral rather than written agreements when conducting business. Their word was their bond. Just as importantly, they had all learned at the local markets, how to hook a prospective client, how to bargain, and then how to close a deal with enough good will on both sides to ensure more shared business in the future. 

The more I learned about these young Irish bankers, the more I wondered: What if today’s bankers could learn from the practices of farmers? Plan for times of scarcity. Save seed. Manure the fields. Feed the workers. Don’t export profits. Reinvest. In a word, stewardship. I also wondered: Can we learn from the past? Is ethical banking an oxymoron? Experiences in one generation tend to have echoes in future generations. All of us are shaped, inevitably, by the experiences of our ancestors, our cultures and our times. Even so: How do cultures get shaped and changed? How did the politics, economics, culture, stories, and faith of the farmers of South Armagh in the mid to late 1800s impact on the future of both Hong Kong and HSBC? What are the stories of these men and their families?
Perhaps a good starting point is to go back to that story that opened this chapter, that tale of a “dastardly” death.

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