A disastrous intellectual Governor, and a Harry Flashman rogue...

Submitted by Andrew Craig-Bennett on Sat, 05/01/2010 - 21:09
Meanwhile, back in little Hong Kong, we now come to the Governorship of Sir John Bowring, one of two former MPs to hold the post of Governor of Hong Kong, both of whom greatly annoyed the Chinese Government. Chris Patten, however, did not go so far as John Bowring and actually start a war...

Sir John Bowring was an intellectual, a Liberal, a friend of, and the Literary Executor of, Jeremy Bentham, the Editor of the Westminster Review, a supporter of Free trade, a man who could read two hundred languages and speak a hundred of them.

He was not a career diplomat, but a Member of Parliament; one of the founders of what became the Liberal Party. He was a rationalist who recommended the adoption of decimal currency in Britain, something which came to pass exactly 100 years after his death. Unfortunately, in those days, MPs were not paid, and, after he lost money after investing in an iron foundry in Wales, his friends, of whom he had many, looked for a good job for him...

His talent for languages suggested something in China, and he was appointed as Consul at Canton, where, of course, he learned Cantonese as well as Mandarin.

He had barely got back to Britain after four years in that post when Sir Samuel Bonham retired, and Sir John seemed the obvious choice to succeed him as Governor of Hong Kong.

As a Governor of Hong Kong, however, he was not the brilliant success that he ought, on paper, to have been.

Most accounts suggest that this was largely the fault of this chap:

Sir Harry Parkes, a charming rogue who managed to marry a beautiful wife and make a lifetime career as a British diplomat in Asia despite causing wars and other upsets at every opportunity. Sir Harry might indeed be one of the originals for Harry Flashman...

What we need at this point is a photograph of a lorcha. There is a very good one, of a lorcha alongside the Praya, in the lifts of the Hong Kong Club, but I am blest if I can find one on the Internet. If any reader of Gwulo can supply one, please do!

During the intermission, so to speak, I may remark that there has been a tendency for Chinese history, as understood in China, to get revised rather frequently during the past century. So far, we have dealt with five Chinese historical figures, Lin Zexu, who usually gets a good press, Qishan, who got a very bad one under Mao but who is well on the road to rehabilitation, Hong Xiuquan, who was seen as a proto-Communist under Mao but whose stock has been falling more recently, and Li Hongshang and Zeng Guofang, the two leading Modernising Mandarins of the late Qing, both of whom tend to get cast as Bad Men but whom I reckon are in certain respects Good Guys (we will be hearing more from both of them).



Submitted by
paul (not verified)
Sun, 05/09/2010 - 06:59

Bowring and Hennessy are my fave 2 governors for stories about them

some snippets as they occured to me not in chronological order

Bowring is on lists of greatest polyglots ever but 200/100 it is thought an exageration. Its actually closer around  a mere30. he published books of translations with names LIKE Hungarian fairy tales, Roumanian poetry

Bowring had an honourary Dr that he insisted people use. At the age of 14 though he left formal education to help the family textile business as the agent in Iberia

He had many interests collecting beetles , his collection is in the natural history museum

Decimalisaion, he invented the 2 schilling coin now the 10P coin

A unitarian he wrote hymns the most famous being in the cross of Christ i glory it goes on to discuss the ruins of time, inspired by Macau's cathedral. His daughter stayed here as a catholic nun

He wanted a large reclamation Central to Causeway Bay,  to be called Bowrings Prayainfighting with others  and a Tory govt at home thwarted his plan, he only got some Chinese businessmen interested they built Bowrington.

In UK he headed a pacificist society, in HK he threatened Thailand, Arrow War mentioned and left HK with the Royal Navy to hunt down Russians in Asia in the Crimea war.

His writings encouraged Byron to go to Greece to fight for independence, his body was returned care of Bowring

he lost his fortune in a Welsh mining enterprise, that caused him to leave parliament to come out east, mps were not paid then, as a caring man , he was not the bad pit owner beloved by history books, he has a shopping centre in Wales named after him

I hadn't realised what a character he was - thanks to Andrew and Paul for the information. There's more about him in Wikipedia, including:

  • The Bowrington district in Hongkong was actually the second with that name. The district around his business in South Wales was given the same name.
  • His daughter, Sister Emily Aloysia Bowring, wasn't just any old nun. "She was the first headmistress of the Italian Convent School (now known as the Sacred Heart Canossian College) in Hong Kong, serving from 1860 to 1870."