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Chapter XXXVIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8


Another Chinese War - Sir John Bowring - The Affair of the Lorcha - Attack upon Canton - Debate on China in the House of Lords- Speeches of Lord Derby, Lord Clarendon, Lord Grey, Lord Granville, and the Bishop of Oxford - Majority of Thirty-six in favour of the Government - Debate of Four Days, in the House of Commons, on Mr. Cobden's Motion for a Vote of Censure on the Government - Statement of the Case against it - Defence of the Policy pursued at Canton - Defeat of the Government - Discussion on the Dissolution of Parliament - Resignation of the Speaker, Mr. Shaw Lefevre - Proposal of a Vote of Thanks by Lord Palmerston - Pension of 4,000 settled on Mr. Lefevre - Dissolution of Parliament - General Election - Mr, John Evelyn Denison elected Speaker - Proposed Marriage of the Princess Royal with Prince Frederick William of Prussia - Dowry of the Princess - Revenues of the Crown - The Queen incurs no Debt - Abolition of Ministers' Money in Ireland - Establishment of a new Probate Court and a new Divorce Court - The English Law of Marriage - Resistance to Reform on the part of the Church - Protracted Debates - The Rights of the Clergy - The Orsini Attempt to Assassinate the Emperor of the French - Despatch of Count Walewski, charging England with harbouring Assassins: it receives no Official Answer - French Military Threats against England - The Emperor's Dictation to the English Government - Great Excitement and Irritation in this Country - The Conspiracy Bill - Lord Palmerston's Speech - Speech of Mr. Kinglake - Mr. Roebuck's Denunciation of the Conduct of the French Emperor - Lord John Russell opposed the Bill, which was defended by Sir George Grey and Mr. Disraeli - Public Excitement against the Measure - Debate on the Second Reading - Mr. Milner Gibson moved its rejection - Remarkable Speeches of Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Gladstone - Mr. Disraeli - The Bill rejected - Resignation of the Government - Lord Derby charged with the Formation of a New Ministry - The New Cabinet.
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The most momentous debates in the session of 1857 were connected with the affairs of China. They resulted in the defeat of Lord Palmerston's Administration, which was followed by the dissolution of Parliament. It was a seemingly trivial incident in a remote part of the globe that led to these important consequences. Sir John Bowring had been appointed British Consul in Canton in 1849. In 1854 he was appointed Her Majesty's Plenipotentiary in China and Governor of Hong Kong. While he occupied this position he came into hostile collision with the Imperial Government. On the 8th of October, 1856, a lorcha named "the Arrow," which bore the British flag, was boarded by Chinese officers, for the purpose of arresting some of their countrymen charged with piracy. The British flag was torn down, and twelve out of a crew of fourteen were carried off prisoners. Sir John Bowring in vain endeavoured to obtain redress for this outrage. The Imperial Commissioner Yeh paid no attention to his remonstrances, or only returned evasive answers. Menaces being equally unavailing, the matter was referred to the British admiral, Sir Michael Seymour. Troops were obtained from India and Ceylon, and Sir John Bowring, on his own responsibility - without any authority from the Government at home - made war upon the most ancient and extensive empire in the world. The forts along the river were one after another attacked and reduced. The public buildings in the city of Canton were shelled. A large fleet of war-junks was destroyed, and the city lay defenceless under our guns. The news of these events had reached England during the autumn, and produced a great deal of excitement and discussion. On the 16th of February the Earl of Derby gave notice of a motion on the subject, and in the House of Commons a similar notice was given by Mr. Cobden. Both these statesmen delivered speeches memorable for the masterly and eloquent discussion of the principles of international law and the duties incumbent upon civilised powers in their dealings with semi-barbarous nations. Lord Derby moved his resolutions on the 24th, and then described the proceedings at Canton as most violent in their character, and as having inflicted the greatest injury upon trade and commerce. The Arrow, it was said, was a British vessel within the meaning of the treaty, and entitled to carry a British flag; but he contended that she was a China built ship, captured by pirates, re-captured by the Chinese, sold afterwards by the Chinese, and ultimately bought, owned, and manned by Chinese. It was an essential characteristic of a British merchant's ship, that she must be wholly owned by British subjects. But even if the Arrow were a British vessel, no infraction of the treaty had been committed: no ohne would think of enforcing "the colonial ordinance," in the case of the vessels of any European country, trading on the coast of that country. Besides, its very existence had not been made known to the Chinese authorities until some time after it was established. In any case there could be no doubt that the Arrow had no legal right to carry the British flag, because it was admitted by Sir John Bowring that her licence had expired before the seizure. The governor had said to Consul Parkes, that the lorcha could not claim British protection, although he made a directly contrary statement to Commissioner Yeh; and it was by such means that the British nation was drawn into a destructive and expensive war It was true that by treaty the British were entitled to be admitted into the city of Canton. The admission was denied by the Chinese authorities, on the ground that it would lead to conflicts between the natives and the foreigners. This had been held by Sir G. Bonham to be a sufficient reason for not pressing the claim; but Sir John Bowring was determined to enforce it at all hazards, and considered no sacrifice too great to effect his object. In the correspondence upon the subject, the tone of the Chinese was throughout forbearing, courteous, and gentleman-like; while that of our representative, with hardly an exception, was menacing, disrespectful, and arrogant. Lord Derby believed that Sir John Bowring and Mr. Parkes had determined beforehand that they wouid not consent to anything proposed, but would tack to the lorcha grievance Sir John Bowring's monomania for obtaining admission to the city. The military operations were advised and planned within twelve days after the cause of quarrel, while every overture for peace on the part of the Chinese was evaded. Sir John Bowring had charged the Chinese with shameful violation of treaties; but those treaties remained unfulfilled, with the acquiescence of Her Majesty's Government, upon reasons assigned and representations made. Lord Derby concluded his speech with an earnest appeal to the bench of bishops to come forward on this occasion and vindicate the cause of religion, humanity, and civilisation from the outrage which had been inflicted upon them by the British representatives at Canton. He solemnly called upon the hereditary peers not to tolerate the usurpation by authorities abroad of that most awful prerogative of the Crown - the right of declaring war; not to tolerate, upon light and trivial grounds, the capture of commercial vessels, the destruction of forts belonging to a friendly country, the bombardment of an undefended city, and the shedding of the blood of unwarlike and innocent people, without warrant of law and without moral justification. He then moved three resolutions embodying his sentiments.

Lord Clarendon defended the conduct of the British representatives at Canton. He denied that the Arrow had forfeited her licence, because, though the term had expired, the vessel was still at sea, and therefore still entitled, under the terms of the ordinance, to bear the British flag. He contended that if Mr. Parkes, whose discretion and moderation deserved all praise, had shrunk from demanding redress, he would have failed in his duty, and given the Chinese reason to believe that they might proceed to still greater insults. Such an outrage could not occur among nations who respected international law, and it was necessary to make the Chinese sensible of the law of force. He believed that the assumed popular hostility to the admission of the British into Canton was a mere bugbear, and that the Queen's officers were justified in taking advantage of the dispute about the Arrow to endeavour to obtain a partial fulfilment of the treaty. He declared that the resolution prohibiting hostilities against a foreign people, without express instructions received from Her Majesty's Government, would endanger the lives and property of all British subjects in China, would cast dishonour upon our name and our flag, and would bring ruin upon our trade with that country. The Lord Chancellor, in reply to Lord Lyndhurst, took the same view of the subject. Earl Grey maintained that the Arrow was not a British vessel in any sense of the term, and such from first to last had been the argument of the Chinese. He could not conceive any doctrine more dangerous than that subordinate officers, who might not be persons of easy temper, should be allowed to resort to offensive measures without reference to the Home Government. The policy of conciliation, so long as it had been pursued in China, had been crowned with success; the policy that had been carried out by Sir John Bowring he denounced as inhuman, as a scandal to Christianity, whose precepts bound nations as well as individuals; and he charged their lordships not to become responsible for the blood of innocent Chinese already shed, but to save themselves by voting for the resolution of Lord Derby. The Earl of Ellenborough firmly believed that the insult to our flag was not intentional; yet for this doubtful offence the Chinese forts were destroyed, and fire and sword carried into the bosom of a peaceful city. On Sir John Bowring a fearful responsibility rested. That responsibility was now accepted by the Government, but he entreated their lordships not to accept it. The losses which would result to this country and India from this war of his, it was almost impossible to estimate. Already a penny of the income tax was gone in the falling off of the duty on tea, and the deficiency would not stop at that. "All our influence in China would be overturned - our efforts towards the conversion of the people entirely neutralised. How, indeed, could we attempt to teach them a religion of benevolence and humanity, when our Ministers were breaking the commandments, committing murder in an unjust war, not telling the truth of their neighbour, and gratifying their covetousness at the expense of the sufferings of mankind?"

Earl Granville having defended the conduct of Sir John Bowring, sarcastically remarked upon the zeal with which noble lords on the opposite side of the House constituted themselves lay-readers to the episcopal bench, and admonished right reverend prelates with moving sermons whenever they were in doubt about which way their votes would go. He was sure the bishops would vote according to the dictates of their consciences, and be guided only by what they believed and felt to be the principles of justice and humanity. The Bishop of Oxford was the only prelate who spoke in the name of the bench. He declared his belief that the claim made on behalf of the lorcha was not founded on the principles of either law or justice; therefore the war which had sprung from that claim was indefensible, and its principle untenable among Christian men. He reprobated the conduct of a great Christian nation like England spreading the horrors of war among a weak and unoffending people. If the House gave the weight of its great authority to support an act so unjust, it would go against a Power which took its own time for vindicating eternal justice, and which never allowed a wrong to pass unrevenged - a Power which could find in the very weakness of China sufficient elements to abase and rebuke the lawless oppression of this country.

All these appeals failed to avert a decision in favour of the Government, which had a majority of thirty-six; but this majority was made up chiefly of persons who bad not heard the arguments. The proxies for Lord Derby's motion were fifty-seven, and the proxies against it seventy-five.

Mr. Cobden, on the 26th of February, moved a resolution to the effect that the House had heard with concern of the conflicts that had occurred between the Chinese and British authorities on the Canton river; and considered that the papers laid on the table failed to establish satisfactory grounds for the violent measures adopted in the affair of the Arrow. He moved that a select committee be appointed to inquire into the state of our commercial relations with China. He asked the House to inquire how all this warfare and devastation began - would they have dealt in a similar manner if the transaction had taken place at Charleston, and the Government assailed had been at Washington? Referring to the correspondence between our consul and the Chinese Commissioner, he said that Mr. Parkes, a young man, seemed to have made up his mind not to be satisfied, in spite of the logical arguments of Governor Yeh, which would have done credit to Westminster Hall. Mr. Cobden conscientiously believed that there had been a preconceived design to pick a quarrel with the Chinese authorities, for which the world would cry shame upon us. He regarded the papers laid before the House as a garbled record of trumpery complaints. It was an insult to bring down such a book in order to make out a case for Lord Clarendon. Englishmen carried with them a haughty demeanour and inflexible bearing towards the natives of other countries, and the demands of our mercantile men in this instance were characterised by downright selfish violence. Sir John Bowring, acting on their behalf, had not only violated the principles of international law, but had acted contrary to his instructions, and even to express directions from the Home Government. Sir Bulwer Lytton, on the same side, censured the language of Consul Parkes to Commissioner Yeh as repugnant to the rules of diplomatic intercourse, and he denounced the hostilities carried on upon such a miserable plea. Lord John Russell reviewed the whole question, and argued that the alleged provocations furnished no sufficient ground for the extreme measures resorted to, which were not the proper modes of settling such a great question. Government should consider that their officials had committed a serious offence. And where was the matter to end? The worst part of the case, he said, was the conduct of Sir J. Bowring, who, while he declared that the vessel had lost all right to British protection, set up that claim against the Chinese Commissioner, and required an apology for the British flag as having been rightfully used. Mr. Warren regarded the war with China into which the country had been dragged as a flimsy pretext for carrying out what appeared to be a long-cherished design. He denied that the Chinese had given a fit occasion for war, and he challenged the law officers of the Crown to disprove the law laid down in the House of Lords upon the question. What were the interests of commerce, he asked, compared with national honour? Mr. Whiteside charged the British officials with duplicity, misstatement of law, and misrepresentation of facts. They had been arrogant, insolent, overbearing, and domineering, Sir James Graham argued that the Chinese authorities had a perfect right to board the Arrow. Not only had Sir J. Bowring not been censured for his falsehood - which, had he been an attorney, would cause his name to be struck off the roll - but it had been approved by the Government. The affair of the lorcha was evidently but a pretext seized upon by Sir John Bowring, who had been fretting under the prohibition against engaging in hostilities with the Chinese. Sir John Pakington regretted that the Government did not repudiate the acts of Sir John Bowring and his co-officials, and at once recall them. He repudiated the doctrine that the servants of the Crown should be upheld at all risks. Sir John Bowring had been charged by the Chamber of Commerce at Shanghai with having deliberately misrepresented the instructions he had received from the Foreign Office, having thereby obtained the consent of the merchants to an arrangement which they would otherwise have opposed. Mr. Sidney Herbert stated that the concurrence of Sir M. Seymour had been obtained by the false pretences put forth by Sir John Bowring, who had made a disingenuous use of the despatches from home. The Government had commended the judgment, firmness, and moderation of their officials; but Mr. Herbert felt the deepest indignation at the force exerted with so little mercy on pretexts so transparently fraudulent, and inflicting so much suffering on the Cantonese. Mr. Roundell Palmer argued that the Arrow was not, according to the treaty, an English merchant vessel, and that, therefore, there was no legal justification for the hostilities. Mr. Roebuck recognised the resolution as a vote of censure, not only upon Sir John Bowring, but upon the Government which approved his acts. They assumed the responsibility, and the House should fix it upon them. If the Chinese were wrong, they have erred in common with great luminaries of the law in this country - why then should their houses be shattered and their relatives butchered? Mr. Gladstone protested against making Sir John a stalking horse for diverting attention from the real matter at issue, which involved the interests of humanity and the honour of England. We talked of the violation of treaty by the Chinese, but was there no violation of treaty on our part? The purpose for which Hong Kong was given to us was that it should be a port in which British ships might tarry and fit. Was not our contraband trade in opium a breach of treaty obligations? Had our Government struggled to put it down, as bound by treaty? Had they not encouraged it by organising a fleet of lorchas under the British flag? They who thus acted had stained the British flag. For what were we at war with China F If the House had the courage to assert its prerogative and adopt this resolution, it would pursue a course consistent at once with sound policy and the principles of eternal justice. Mr. Disraeli thought that Sir John Bowring had been unfairly treated in the debate. If his conduct had been ratified by the Government, it should not be impugned by the House. The question at issue was the policy of the Government, which was to extend our commerce in the East, not by diplomacy, but by force. Lord Palmerston - "the very archetype of political combination without principle" - complained that he was the victim of conspiracy. Then let him appeal to the country.

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Pictures for Chapter XXXVIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8

The Earl of Clarendon
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Lord Palmerston
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Port of the city of Canton
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