SIR ROBERT HART
THE ROMANCE OF A GREAT CAREER
TOLD BY HIS NIECE JULIET BREDON
A WORD OF INTRODUCTION
FIRST YEARS IN CHINA—LIFE AT NINGPO—THE ALLIED COMMISSION AND SIR HARRY PARKES—RESIGNATION FROM THE CONSULAR SERVICE
THE BEGINNINGS OF THE IMPERIAL CHINESE CUSTOMS—A VISIT TO SIR FREDERICK BRUCE—THE SHERARD OSBORNE AFFAIR—APPOINTED INSPECTOR-GENERAL
ORDERED TO LIVE AT SHANGHAI—FIRST MEETING WITH "CHINESE GORDON"—THE RECONCILIATION BETWEEN GORDON AND LI HUNG CHANG—THE TAKING OF CHANG-CHOW-FU—DISBANDMENT OF "THE EVER-VICTORIOUS ARMY"—REWARDS FOR GORDON
ORDERED TO LIVE IN PEKING—"WHAT A BYSTANDER SAYS"—A RETURN TO EUROPE—MARRIAGE—CHINA ONCE AGAIN—THE BURLINGAME MISSION—FIRST DECORATION—THE "WASA" OF SWEDEN AND NORWAY
BIRTH OF A SON—THE MARGARY AFFAIR AND THE CHEFOO CONVENTION—A SECOND VISIT TO EUROPE—THE PARIS EXHIBITION OF 1878
YUAN PAO HENG SUGGESTS PROHIBITION OF OPIUM SMOKING IN CHINA—NEW BUILDINGS FOR THE INSPECTORATE—THE FIRST INFORMAL POSTAGE SERVICE—THE FRENCH TREATY OF 1885—OFFERED POST OF BRITISH MINISTER
AN IMPORTANT MISSION TO HONGKONG AND MACAO—THE BEGINNING OF A PRIVATE BAND—DECORATIONS, CHINESE AND FOREIGN—THE SIKKIM-THIBET CONVENTION—FORMAL ESTABLISHMENT OF THE POST OFFICE—WAR LOANS
THE PROLOGUE TO THE SIEGE—BARRICADES AND SCALING LADDERS—THE SIEGE PROPER—A MESSAGE FROM THE YAMEN AND AN IMPORTANT TELEGRAM—RELIEF AT LAST—NEW QUARTERS—NEGOTIATIONS—THE CONGRESS OF PEKING—AN IMPERIAL AUDIENCE
SOME QUIET YEARS—A CHANGE OF MASTERS—INSOMNIA—A FAREWELL AUDIENCE—AN HONOUR AND ITS ADVERTISEMENT—AH FONG AND OTHERS—DEPARTURE FROM PEKING—"A SMALL, INSIGNIFICANT IRISHMAN"
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
SIR ROBERT HART
THE CANAL: THE ROUTE BY WHICH SIR ROBERT HART FIRST CAME TO PEKING
A VIEW OF OLD PEKING SHOWING CONDITION OF ROADS
A ROAD IN OLD PEKING DURING THE RAINY SEASON
SIR ROBERT HART ABOUT 1866
UNDER THE PEKING CITY WALL TOWARDS TUNGCHOW—ALONG THE GRAND CANAL
A PICNIC IN OLD PEKING—TOWARDS YUEN MING YUEN
WELL NEAR THE CANAL, BRITISH LEGATION, BEFORE 1900
SIR ROBERT HART IN 1878
OUTSIDE SIR ROBERT HART'S HOUSE BEFORE 1900
PEKING: A MESSENGER CARRYING MAILS IN THE RAINY SEASON
A SECRETARY GOING TO THE INSPECTORATE OFFICES DURING THE RAINY SEASON
STABLES OF SIR ROBERT HART IN THE RAINY SEASON
THE INSPECTORATE STREET BEFORE 1900
ENTRANCE TO THE INSPECTORATE OF CUSTOMS BEFORE 1900
SIR ROBERT HART'S BAND IN THE EARLY 'NINETIES
SIR ROBERT HART'S CHINESE BAND
SIR ROBERT HART'S STABLES IN 1890
SIR ROBERT HART'S PRIVATE CART
THE IMPERIAL CHINESE POST OFFICE ENTRANCE ON A RAINY DAY IN THE 'NINETIES
A GARDEN PARTY GIVEN BY SIR ROBERT HART TO GOVERNOR TRUePPEL (OF KIAOCHOW) AND PARTY
SIR ROBERT HART IN HIS PRIVATE OFFICE
SIR ROBERT HART AND A GROUP OF CUSTOMS PEOPLE
SIR ROBERT HART AND MISS KATE CARL
PEKING PEACE PROTOCOL, 1901
A CORNER OF SIR ROBERT HART'S GARDEN: A WINTER VIEW
ANOTHER WINTER VIEW OF SIR ROBERT HART'S GARDEN
TING'RH, OR CHINESE PAVILION, IN SIR ROBERT HART'S GARDEN, PEKING
SIR ROBERT HART AND HIS STAFF (FOREIGN AND CHINESE), PEKING, 1903
SIR ROBERT HART WISHING MISS ROOSEVELT "BON VOYAGE" ON HER DEPARTURE FROM PEKING, SEPTEMBER 16, 1906
FRONT DOOR OF SIR ROBERT HART'S HOUSE, PEKING
FRONT VIEW OF SIR ROBERT HART'S HOUSE
A WORD OF INTRODUCTION
Seventy-three years ago a little Irish boy lay in his aunt's lap looking out on a strange and mysterious world that his solemn eyes had explored for scarcely ten short days, while she, to whom the commonplaces of everyday surroundings had lost their first absorbing interest, was busily engaged in braiding a watch-chain from her splendid, Titian-red hair. These chains were the fashion of the hour, and the old family doctor, friend as well as physician, paused after a visit to the boy's mother, to joke her about it: "You're making a keepsake for your sweetheart, I see."
"No, indeed," she answered gaily with a toss of her bonny head, "I'm making a wedding present for this new nephew of mine when he marries your daughter."
It was a long-shot prophecy. The doctor was even then a man past his first youth; the neighbours looked upon him as a confirmed bachelor; he seemed as unlikely ever to possess a daughter as a diamond mine. Yet, all these improbabilities notwithstanding, he had taken to himself the luxury of a wife within a very few years, and soon children were climbing on his knees. I cannot say whether this red-haired young woman had the gift of second sight or whether, by some subtle power of suggestion, she willed the doctor to carry out her prophecy. I only know that the prophecy was startlingly fulfilled, for among his children was one little girl who, when she grew to womanhood, did marry the nephew and did get the watch-chain as a wedding gift.
The doctor's daughter was an aunt of mine, and her romantic marriage, by tying our two families together, gave me some slight claim on her husband's affection. Propinquity afterwards ripened what opportunity had begun; we lived long side by side in a far-away corner of the world, and from the formal relationship of uncle and niece soon slipped into that still better and warmer companionship of friend and friend.
For me the friendship has ever been, is, and always will be, a thing to take pride in, a thing to treasure. Nor will you wonder when I confess that he of whom I speak is none other than the great Sir Robert Hart, the man whose life has been as useful as varied, as romantic as successful.
The story of it can be but imperfectly written now. There are many shoals in the form of diplomatic indiscretions to steer clear of; there is much weighing and sifting of political motives for serious historians to do, but the time has not come for that. Much of the romance of his long career in China lies over and above such things, and of the romantic and personal side I here set down what I have gathered from one and from another—chiefly from those who have had the opportunity to collect their information at first hand, who either knew him sooner than I or were themselves concerned in the events described—in the hope that some readers may sufficiently enjoy the romance of a great career to forgive any imperfections in the telling for the sake of the story itself.
Robert Hart began his romantic life in simple circumstances. He was born on the 20th day of February, 1835, in a little white house with green shutters on Dungannon Street, in the small Irish town of Portadown, County Armagh, and was the eldest of twelve children. His mother, a daughter of Mr. John Edgar, of Ballybreagh, must have been a delightful woman, all tenderness and charity, judging from the way her children's affections became entwined around her. His father, Henry Hart, was a man of forceful and picturesque character, of a somewhat antique strain, and a Wesleyan to the core. The household, therefore, grew up under the bracing influence of uncompromising doctrines; it was no unusual thing for one member to ask another at table, "What have you been doing for God to-day?" and so rigidly was Sunday observed that, had the family owned any Turners, I am sure they would have been covered up on Saturday nights, just as they were in Ruskin's home.
When the young Robert was only twelve months old the Harts moved to Miltown, on the banks of beautiful Lough Neagh, remaining there barely a year. Then they moved again—this time to Hillsborough, where he attended his first school. It came about in this way. One afternoon he was called into the parlour by his father. Two visitors—not by any means an everyday occurrence in Miltown—were within. One was a stoutish man with sandy hair, the other a very long person like a knitting-needle. The stout man called the boy to him, passed his hand carefully over the bumps of his head, and then, turning to the father, said, "From what I gather of this child's talents from my examination of his cranial cerebration, my brother's system of education is exactly the one calculated to develop them," The men were two brothers named Arnold, who proposed to open a little school in Hillsborough and were tramping the country in search of pupils.
At the impressionable age of six or thereabouts an aunt fired the boy's imagination with stories of the departed glories of the Hart family. She used to tell him how their ancestor, Captain van Hardt, came over from Holland with King William, fought at the Battle of the Boyne and greatly distinguished himself; how afterwards, in recognition of his gallant services, the King gave him the township of Kilmoriarty as a reward; how the gallant captain settled himself down there, kept his horses, ate well, drank deep, and left the place so burdened with debt that one of his descendants was obliged to sell it.
"When I'm a man," the little fellow would say solemnly after hearing these things, "I'll buy back Kilmoriarty—and I'll get a title too." Of course she laughed at him quietly, thinking to herself how time and circumstances would separate the lad from the goodly company of his ambitions. Yet, after all, he saw clearer than she; he never wavered in the serious purpose formed before he reached his teens, and he actually did buy back Kilmoriarty when it came on the market years afterwards. As for a title, he gained a knighthood, a grand cross and a baronetcy—thus fulfilling the second part of his promise grandly.
From the care of the phrenologist brothers Arnold, Robert Hart was taken over to a Wesleyan school in Taunton, England, by his father. This journey gave him his first sight of the sea and his first acquaintance with the mysteries of a steamer. The latter took firm hold of his imagination; he long remembered the name of the particular vessel on which they crossed, the Shamrock, and many years later he was destined to meet her again under the strangest circumstances.
In England he stayed only a year, just long enough to make his first friend and learn his first Latin. The friend he lost, but recovered after an interval of forty years; the Latin he kept, added to, and enjoyed all his life long.
When the summer holidays came, one of the tutors, a North of Ireland man himself, agreed to accompany the lad back to Belfast; but in the end he was prevented from starting, and the Governor of the school allowed the eleven-year-old child to travel alone. He managed the train journey safely as far as Liverpool, betook himself to a hotel, and called, with a comical man-of-the-world air, for refreshment. Tea, cold chicken and buns were brought him by the landlady and her maids, who stood round in a circle watching the young traveller eat. His serious ways and his solemn air of responsibility touched their women's hearts so much that when the time came for him to sail they took him down to the dock and put him on board his ship.
Henry Hart met his son at Belfast, and was so angry, at finding he had been allowed to travel alone that he vowed the lad should never go back to Taunton, and therefore sent him to the Wesleyan Connexional School in Dublin instead. Here his quaint, merry little face, his ready laugh, and above all his willingness to perform any trickery that they suggested, made him a favourite among the boys at once. To the masters he must have been something of a trial, I imagine, with his habit of asking the why and wherefore of rules and regulations and his refusal to submit to them without a logical answer. One day, for instance, when a certain master spoke somewhat sourly and irritably to him, Robert Hart then and there took it upon himself to deliver him a lecture which, in its calm reasoning, was most disconcerting.
"It is wonderful the way you treat us boys," he said, "just as if you were our superior; just as if you were not a little dust and water like the rest of us. One would think from your manners you were our master, whereas you are really our servant. It is we who give you your livelihood—and yet you behave to us in this high-handed manner." That tirade naturally made a pretty row in the school, but the obdurate young orator melted under the coaxings and cajolings of the Governor's gentle and distressed wife, and duly apologized.
The slightest of excuses served to turn him suddenly from a clever, scatterbrained imp of mischief into a serious student. It happened that the whole school met on an equality in one subject—Scripture History. The head of that class, therefore, enjoyed a peculiar prestige among his fellows, and it was clearly understood that a certain Freckleton, a senior and the good boy of the school, should hold this pleasant leadership. What was more natural, since he was destined to "wag his head in a pulpit?" But Robert Hart could not see the matter in this light. Some spirit of contradictoriness rising in him, he thought a little dispute for first place in Scripture would add spice to a naughty boy's school life and both amuse and amaze. So on Sundays, while the rest of the boys were otherwise occupied, he would walk up and down the ball alley secretly studying Scripture.
When the examination day came the whole school was assembled; questions flew back and forth. Now one boy, now another dropped out of the game; at last only Freckleton and Hart were left, the big boy prodigiously nervous, rubbing his hands on his knees, the small one aggravatingly cool and collected. At last the examiner called for a list of the Kings of Israel. Freckleton stumbled. The question passed to Hart, and, while the boys sat tense with excitement, he answered fluently and correctly. The first place was his, and a hearty cheer greeted his unexpected success.
After this little victory the Governor of the school remarked to him:
"Now you see what you can do when you try, Hart; why don't you try?"
Why not, indeed? Here was a new idea. He accepted it as a challenge, took it up eagerly, and from that day on devoted himself to study with an enthusiasm as thorough as sudden. Everything there was to study, he studied—even stole fifteen minutes from his lunch hour to work at Hebrew—till the boys laughingly nicknamed him "Stewpot" and the "Consequential Butt."
The result was that at fifteen he was ready to leave the school the first boy of the College class, and his parents were puzzled what to do with him next. His father considered it unwise to send such a young lad away to Trinity College, Dublin, where he would be among companions far older than himself; and the end of the matter was that he went to the newly founded Queen's College at Belfast instead because that was nearer Hillsborough and the family circle.
He passed the entrance examinations easily, and of the twelve scholarships offered he carried off the twelfth—nothing, however, to what he was to do later. The second year there were seven scholarships, and he got the seventh; the third there were five, and he got the first. He heard the news of this last triumph one afternoon in a little second-hand book-store where the collegians often gathered. It was a gloomy day wrapped in a grey blanket of rain, and he was not feeling particularly confident—his besetting sin from the first was modesty—when suddenly a fellow-student rushed up and said, "Congratulations, Hart. You've come out first."
"What," retorted Hart, astonished, "is the list published already?" They told him where it was to be seen, and he hurried off to look for himself. Quite likely they were playing a joke on him, he thought. But it was no joke after all; his name stood before all the others—though he could scarcely believe his own eyes, and did not write home about it till next day, for fear that the good luck might turn to bad in the night.
Unfortunately these successes left him little time for the sports which should be a boy's most profitable form of idling. He ran no races after he left Taunton, where he was known for the fleetest pair of heels in the school; he played no games, neither cricket nor football, not even bowls or rounders—but these amusements he probably missed the less as they were not popular at Belfast, the College being new and without muscular traditions, and the students chiefly young men of narrow means and broad ambitions.
On the rare occasions when he had time for recreation, he either made a few friends in the world of books—Emerson's "Essays" influenced him most—or tried his own hand at literature. Once he even went so far as to write a poem and send it to a Belfast newspaper, signing it "C'est Moi." It was printed, and, being short of money at the time, he wrote his father that his first published writing had appeared, and received from his proud parent L10 by way of encouragement.
But his literary success was short-lived. When he tried the same editor with another effusion signed with the same pen-name, the unfeeling man actually printed in his columns: "'C'est Moi's' last is not worth the paper it is written on." Alas! for the prophet in his own country. Years afterwards he got another criticism just as harsh from another Irish paper. It was a review of his book "These from the Land of Sinim," and the Irish reviewer for some unknown reason rated the book thoroughly, declared its opinions were ridiculous, its English neither forcible nor elegant, and concluded with the biting remark, "We hear that the writer has also composed poems which were lost in the Peking Siege, thank God."
In 1853 Hart was ready to pass his final Degree Examinations. They were held in Dublin, where the three newly established Irish Colleges—Cork, Galway and Belfast—took them together. Belfast had been fortunate the year before in carrying off several "firsts," and the men were anxious to do as well as, or even better than on the previous occasion. So they arranged amongst themselves that each should cram some particular subject and try for honours in it.
Young Hart, with his character compounded of energy and ambition, agreed to take two as his share. One was English, the other Logic, which he had studied under the famous Dr. McCosh, which he delighted in, and which undoubtedly developed his natural talent for getting directly at the point of an intricate matter. He worked eighteen hours a day during the last three weeks before the Literature Examination, and when it came he did well—at least, so he supposed.
The rule was that only those in each class who had shown marked ability and knowledge of their subject at the "pass" examination should be recommended for re-examination for honours. But to his surprise, when the list was read out, Hart's name was not even amongst the successful candidates. The Belfast students were thoroughly angry. They felt the honour of the College was at stake; he had not done his share in upholding it, and they did not hesitate to tell him so. Hart listened to their reproaches and answered never a word, but quietly went on, in the week that intervened between the pass examination and the final, with his preparations for the latter. The ability to do so showed courage and character—and he hath both in an unusual degree.
The very night before the "final" his reward came. Some one hurried up his stairs and burst into his little sitting-room. It was the Professor—the famous George Lillie Craik—who had set the papers for the Literature class.
"I come to apologize to you for a mistake," he said very kindly, "and to explain why you have not been chosen for re-examination. The truth is you answered so well at the 'pass' that I wrote your name on the first sheet, and nobody else's—as nobody came near you. Unfortunately this page, almost blank, was mislaid, and that is how it happened that you, who should have been chosen before all the rest, were overlooked. Now I want to ask you to come up for re-examination to-morrow, and, at the same time, wish you the best of luck."
Robert Hart went—and won. He received a gold medal and L15 for this subject, a gold medal and L15 also for Logic and Metaphysics, and sufficient honour and glory besides to turn a less well-balanced head.
Meanwhile the choice of a future career naturally filled the young man's thoughts. First he seriously debated whether he should become a doctor, but gave up the idea when he found he came home from every operation imagining himself a sufferer from the disease he had just seen treated. Next there was some talk of putting him into a lawyer's office—talk which came to nothing; and finally a lecture he heard on China at seventeen almost decided him to become a missionary to the heathen, but he soon abandoned this plan like the others.
After taking his B.A., he went instead to spend a post-graduate year at Belfast, and read for a Master's degree—this in spite of the fact that he was worn out with the strain of eighteen hours' work a day, and used to see authors creeping in through the keyhole and wake in the night to find illuminated letters dancing a witches' dance around his bed.
Then, just at the critical moment of his life—in the spring of 1854—the British Foreign Office gave a nomination for the Consular Service in China to each of the three Irish Queen's Colleges, Belfast, Cork and Galway. He immediately abandoned all idea of reading for a fellowship, and applied. So did thirty-six others. A competitive examination was announced, but when the College authorities saw Hart's name among the rest, they gave the nomination to him, without examination.
Two months later he presented himself at the Foreign Office in London and saw the Under-Secretary of State, Mr. (afterwards Lord) Hammond, who gave him some parting advice. "When you reach Hongkong," said he, "never venture into the sun without an umbrella, and never go snipe shooting without top boots pulled up well over the thighs." As no snipe have ever been seen on Hongkong, the last bit of counsel was as absurd as the first was sensible.
He actually started for China in May 1854. It is not easy to imagine in these feverish days of travel what that journey must have meant to a young Irish lad brought up in a small town lad to whom even London probably seemed very far away. But the mothers of other sons can give a pretty shrewd guess at how the mere thought of it must have terrified those he was leaving behind. "Will he come back a heathen?" one might ask, and another—but never aloud—"Will he come at all?"
But, whatever they felt, none would have selfishly held him back; on the contrary, they were all encouragement, and the last thing his father did was to put into the young man's hand a roll of fifty sovereigns—a splendid piece of generosity on the part of one whose whole income at the time did not amount to more than a few hundreds a year—and later, splendidly repaid.
It is interesting to review the curious series of incidents that guided Robert Hart towards the great and romantic career before him. Had it not been for the tutor's detention, the subsequent move from Taunton to Dublin, and the sudden awakening there of his mischievous ambition over Scripture History, he would probably never have developed into the ardent student he did at a very early age, or left school so young.
Again, had it not been for his extreme youth, his family would probably have sent him to Dublin instead of to Belfast—and Dublin received no nomination for the Consular Service in China. Such nominations were not usually given to Colleges, and the only reason that the three colleges comprising the Queen's University in Ireland received them was because the University was new, and the Foreign Office (at which, by the way, the Chief, Lord Clarendon, was also Chancellor of the Queen's University) desired to give it some recognition and encouragement.
Surely if ever a boy was "led," as the Wesleyans say, to do a certain work, Robert Hart was that boy.
FIRST YEARS IN CHINA—LIFE AT NINGPO—THE ALLIED COMMISSION AND SIR HARRY PARKES—RESIGNATION FROM THE CONSULAR SERVICE
The journey out to Chinn in 1854 was not the simple matter that it is now. No Suez Canal existed then, and the Candia that took Robert Hart from Southampton left him at Alexandria. Thence he had to travel up the Mahmudi Canal to the Nile, push on towards Cairo, and finally spend eighteen cramped and weary hours in an omnibus crossing the desert to Suez, where he got one steamer as far as Galle, and another—the Pottinger from Bombay—which called there took him on to his destination.
He remained three uneventful months in Hongkong as Student Interpreter at the Superintendency of Trade, awaiting the return of Sir John Bowring, H.B.M.'s Minister to China, who was away at Taku trying to open negotiations with the Peking Government. It was this same Sir John Bowring, by the way, who first aroused Robert Hart's interest in Chinese life and customs—subjects on which so many foreigners in China remain pitifully ignorant all their lives. "Study everything around you," said he to the young man. "Go out and walk in the street and read the shop signs. Bend over the bookstalls and read titles. Listen to the talk of the people. If you acquire these habits, you will not only learn something new every time you leave your door, but you will always carry with you an antidote for boredom."
When the Minister came back in September, Robert Hart was appointed to the British Consulate at Ningpo, and started off immediately, travelling up to Shanghai in a trim little 150-ton opium schooner called the Iona. The voyage should have taken a week; it took three. At first a calm and then the sudden burst of the north-east monsoon made progress impossible; the schooner tacked back and forth for a fortnight, advancing scarcely a mile, and all this time her single passenger could just manage to take seven steps on her little deck without wetting his feet. Then, to make matters worse, provisions gave out, and the ship's company was reduced for twelve days to an unsavoury diet of water-buffalo and peanuts—all they could get from a nearby island. Was it any wonder that Hart could never afterwards endure the taste of peanuts, or that at the mere sight of a passing water-buffalo his appetite was clean gone for the day?
He found Shanghai in the hands of the Triads (rebels), and a friend, one of the missionaries, took him to see their famous chief, who was said to have risen, not from the ranks, but from the stables of an American merchant. With Mr. (afterwards Sir Rutherford) Alcock he also went into the other camp to visit the commander of the Imperialist forces, a Mongol, the Governor of the Province and a man of fine presence. He was the first specimen of the Mandarin class that Robert Hart had seen, and consequently the details of the interview remained in his memory.
In later years he would sometimes describe what interested him most as, silent and inconspicuous, he observed the doings of his seniors. It was not the crowd of petty officials standing about, though they were curious enough to a newcomer in their long official robes and hats decorated with peacock's feathers; it was not the conversation going on between Alcock and the Governor; it was simply the way the latter, by his excessive dignity and dramatic manner, turned a simple action into a ceremony. What he did was to draw carefully from his official boot a wad of fine white paper, detach one sheet, and solemnly blow his nose upon it. The action was nothing, the method everything. He then proceeded to fold the paper into a cocked hat, and, calling a servant to him, gave it into his hands with a grand bow, just as if he were presenting the man with some specially earned honour. As for the servant, he took his cue excellently well, received the paper like a sacred relic, and, still as if he were taking part in some ceremony; opened the flap of the tent and threw it away.
Still more adventures awaited Robert Hart on the short trip from Shanghai to Ningpo; indeed I think the best and the most romantic adventures took a certain pleasure in following him always. At any rate, this time he was to have such a one as even Captain Kettle might have envied; he was to be chased by a pirate junk, a Cantonese Comanting, with a painted eye in the bow, so that she might find her prey, with a high stern bristling with rifles and cutlasses, so that she might destroy it when found, and with stinkpots at her mastheads and boarding-nets hung round her. Of course he was to escape in the end, but so narrowly that all possible sail had to be crowded on to his little ship, and the whole crew set to work the big oar at the stern, while every soul on board shivered and shook as men should when pirates are after them.
Ningpo itself in 1854 was the quietest place under the sun. A handful of merchants lived there, buried without the trouble of dying; one or two consulates had been built, but roads were non-existent, and the few houses were separated from one another by a network of paddy (rice) fields. The new consular assistant shared his house with a man called Patridge, for whom he had conceived a liking, a jolly fellow and a capital messmate, yet not without certain peculiarities of his own. I believe he took a special delight in posing for fearful and radical ideas like the abolition of the House of Lords, and could never be made to see why a man should not sit in the presence of his Sovereign, or wear his hat either if he felt so inclined.
The other youngsters laughed at his notions; one or two even went so far as to accuse him of being a snob and to twit him on having changed the spelling of his name and dropped the first "r" for the sake of a stylishness he pretended to despise. He protested hotly; they stuck to their assertion. He declared his name was Patridge, always had been Patridge, and never could be anything else; they disbelieved him, and so the dispute remained a drawn battle for want of an umpire till long afterwards, when Robert Hart himself proved the point in a very curious way.
A word or two about Patridge's early history must be told in order to show how he did it. Patridge, as a young boy, was on board a vessel carrying opium along the coasts of China, when in 1842 she and another engaged in the same trade were wrecked on the island of Formosa, and both crews—175 Bengalis and 13 white men in all—were captured by the natives and taken to the capital, Tai-Wan-Foo. The Bengalis were beheaded immediately. It was touch and go whether the white men would suffer the same fate, when a brilliant idea struck the ship's carpenter. Why not seek to soften the hearts of his captors by a kotow as profound as it was novel; why not stand on his head? He did, with the happiest results. The Formosans, delighted with this feat of submission, spared the lives of himself and his companions and kept them in prison instead of decapitating them.
But for a long time it was doubtful whether they would ever regain their liberty, and, as a record for friends who might later search for them in vain, they made a schoolboy's calendar on the walls of their cramped and dirty prison, ticked off each day, and signed their names below. It is nice to know that they got away free at last, though their fate has little to do with my story.
The record remained. More than twenty years afterwards, when Robert Hart, then Inspector-General of the Chinese Customs, had occasion to go to Formosa on business, he found it in an old rice hong (shop), and Patridge's name among the rest, spelled with two "r's" (Partridge), whereupon he could not resist the temptation of cutting off the list with his penknife and, on his return to Shanghai, triumphantly handing it to his old messmate.
In 1855, owing to a dispute with his Portuguese colleague, the British Consul at Ningpo was suspended from duty, and young Hart put in charge of affairs for some months. His calm judgment and good sense during this first period of responsibility gained him favourable notice with the "powers that be," for a little later at Canton, when the British General Van Straubenzee remarked, on introducing him to Mr.(afterwards Sir Frederick) Bruce, "This young man I recommend you to keep your eye on; some day he will do something," the latter answered, "Oh, I have already had my attention called to him by the Foreign Office."
The Portuguese were much in evidence in the Ningpo of those days. They were numerous; they had power, and they abused it: with the result that retribution came upon them so sure, so swift, so terrible that not only Ningpo but the whole of China was deeply stirred by the horror of it.
I am thinking now of that dreadful massacre of June 26th, 1857, the culmination of years of trouble between the Cantonese and the Portuguese lorchamen, who with their fast vessels—the fastest and most easily managed ships in the age before steam—terrorized the whole coast, exacted tribute, refused to pay duties, and even fell into downright piracy, burning peaceful villages and killing their inhabitants.
Rumours of Cantonese revenge began in the winter of 1856, when news came that all the foreigners in Ningpo would be massacred on a certain night. Some one thereupon invited the whole community to dine together; but Robert Hart refused, thinking that men who sat drinking hot whiskey punch through a long evening would be in no condition to face a disturbance if it came. Thus, while the others kept up their courage in company, he slept in a deserted house—the terrified servants had fled—with a revolver under his pillow, and beside his bed an open window, through which he intended to drop, if the worst came to the worst, and try to make his way on foot to Shanghai. Nothing happened then, however; but the talk of the tea-shops had not been unfounded—only premature.
The 26th of June saw the vengeance consummated. With great bravery and determination the Cantonese under Poo Liang Tai swept the Portuguese lorchas up the entire coast and into Ningpo. The fight began afloat and ashore. Bullets whistled everywhere; the distracted lorchamen ran wildly about, hoping to escape the inevitable. Some of the poor wretches reached the British Consulate, alive or half alive, clamouring for shelter; but Mr. Meadows, then Consul, refused to let them in, fearing to turn the riot from an anti-Portuguese disturbance into an anti-foreign outbreak, and the unfortunate creatures frantically beat on the closed gates in vain.
Perhaps much of their fate was well deserved—some historians say so—but it was none the less terrible when it came; and I can imagine that the predicament of Meadows and young Hart, standing behind the barred gates of the Consulate, could have been little worse, mentally, than that of the wretches outside praying to them in the name of Heaven and the saints for shelter.
All were hunted down at last, dragged out of their hiding-places in old Chinese graves among the paddy fields, butchered where they stood defending their lodging-house, or taken prisoners only to be put on one of their own lorchas, towed a little way up the river and slowly roasted to death. Then, "last scene of all," the Cantonese stormed the Portuguese Consulate, pillaged and wrecked the building, and were just climbing on to the flat roof to haul down the flag when a stately white cloud appeared far down the river, serenely floating towards the disturbed city.
It was the French warship Capricieuse, under full sail. She had come straight from South America and put in at Ningpo after her long voyage, all unconscious of the terrible events passing there. Was ever an arrival more providential? I greatly doubt it; for had she not appeared in this miraculous fashion, who knows what would have come to the handful of white men left in that last outpost of civilization?
Such was Robert Hart's first experience of a fight, but it was by no means to be his only one. Bugles have sounded in his ears from first to last, and a wide variety of military experiences—he was present at the taking of one city and during the siege of another—has come to him without his seeking it.
From Ningpo he was transferred to Canton in March 1858, and made Secretary to the Allied Commission governing that city. Life was very different there from what it had been in Ningpo. Instead of the small community to which he had been accustomed, he found himself in a town filled with troops—British and French. Instead of living alone or with one companion, he occupied quarters in a big yamen full of officers and men—a change which probably benefited a character too given to seriousness and introspection.
The work in Canton was exceedingly interesting. He was much more in the centre of affairs than he had been before, and he had the opportunity of serving under Sir Harry Parkes. With some of the erraticness that is said to belong to genius, Parkes enjoyed doing things at odd hours. He liked to fall asleep after dinner, for instance, with a big cigar in his mouth, then wake refreshed and energetic at midnight, and work till morning. But he never expected his staff to follow his example, and was consideration itself to those under him—especially to young Hart, whom he liked from the first, and whom he always took with him on his expeditions around or outside the city.
There was no lack of these, since he was a man of indomitable energy, matured his plans with astonishing rapidity, and often had them carried out before any one suspected they were maturing.
The story of one particular little coup d'etat is well worth the telling. A new Viceroy was expected in Canton, and Parkes heard that the man who was filling the Acting Appointment was anxious to go out of the city to meet his successor. At the same time he was told that if the official left the city, the occasion would be taken to make a disturbance, so he determined to use a sudden and vigorous stratagem to keep the Acting Viceroy within the walls, willing or no. Accordingly one morning he invited all the officials to discuss matters at the said Viceroy's yamen, and went himself to the rendezvous with Hart and an escort of military police.
He greeted the assembled officials cordially, and, after some preliminary remark, went on to say: "I hear that you are all anxious to go and meet the new Viceroy. Very natural, I'm sure; very natural and obviously your duty. But we really do not want you to leave Canton just at this particular moment. Ugly rumours are floating about which only your presence here keeps in check. Therefore, as we realize that if you do not go to meet your colleague, you will be accused in Peking of lack of courtesy towards him, that none of your excuses will be believed, I have brought a few men with me to keep guard outside your rooms here. You can consequently say with truth that you were prevented from fulfilling your duty."
Astonished and angry as they were at the turn of events, the Chinese were shrewd enough to see they were helpless. The soldiers stayed. Hart went every day to inquire after the prisoners, and listened to their complaints about the ceaseless tread of the sentries under their windows all night. "They never seem to sit down like other people," one of the Chinese said pathetically. "They walk all night, all night, and we cannot sleep." Parkes sent sympathetic messages, but he remained courteously firm. Perhaps he thought a few wakeful hours were not too high a price to pay for keeping Canton quiet.
There was one official, however, who had not been caught with the rest. He was Fantai, or Provincial Treasurer, who remained quietly hidden in a temple in one of the western suburbs till Parkes ferreted him out. He and Hart and the mounted police then made a second expedition. As soon as they reached the outer door of the place, Parkes jumped off his pony and rushed in with such impetuosity that the crowds of servants running before him had no time to warn their master of the intruders' arrival. Parkes continued his rapid career straight into the inner room, where the Fantai himself sat at a table strewn with papers, absolutely calm, serene and unmoved. Parkes began to talk; the Fantai remained silent. No matter, Parkes was very adroit at carrying on a one-sided interview, and conversation did not flag.
"I've come to pay you a visit," said he; "and though you have not mentioned your pleasure at meeting a new acquaintance, I am sure it is none the less deep. Ah," he went on, looking over the paper-strewn table, "you have even been kind enough to lay aside your work on my account. Let us see. You were writing letters," and Parkes thereupon read the finished and unfinished despatches under the Fantai's very eye, then profusely thanked him for the useful information.
The Chinese sat superbly contemptuous through it all, and finally spat over his shoulder, putting enough scorn into the action to freeze the boldest. Yet Parkes had the gift of looking unconscious the whole time, and babbled on gaily:
"You don't seem very talkative to-day—but of course, sometimes one feels more in the mood for conversation than others. Besides, there is no need for you to tell me any of your news. I have found out everything I wanted to know from these papers here." He had indeed; they contained the most important revelations as to the prospective movements of the Chinese troops outside the city, and also showed exactly how far the officials inside were co-operating with them.
There was no further need to prolong the interview, and Parkes began to make his adieus. In China, these are not the slight things they are with us. Host and guest have mutual obligations; the former, unless he is willing to risk being thought uncivil, must escort a visitor of rank to the outer gate himself. But the Fantai cared little whether he was thought civil or not, and he sat stolidly in his chair when Parkes made a move to go. He reckoned without his—guest, who was not the man to be slighted.
"I am sorry to take you away from your pressing business," said Parkes affably, "but if you should neglect to s'ung (literally, bid farewell in the ceremonial manner) me, people might think that we are not the good friends we are; people might even suspect that our political relations are unsatisfactory. Therefore I must with great reluctance trouble you." The Fantai, helpless, accompanied him grudgingly to the door of the inner courtyard, whence he was about to beat a retreat when Parkes said again, insinuatingly and half under his breath, "Oh, come a little farther, please do; there are not enough people here to see our good-byes."
The same scene was gone through at each successive courtyard, and in a big Chinese temple they are neither few nor small. Hart, who was behind the other two, could scarcely stifle his amusement at the half-snarling, half-contemptuous face of the Fantai as Parkes in one phrase insisted sotto voce on his coming farther, and in the next, spoken a little louder for the benefit of listening servants and secretaries, thanked him profusely for his great courtesy and hospitality in seeing a humble guest so far. Only at the outermost gate, around which a crowd had collected, all, in Chinese fashion, asking who was within and what he had come about, was the irate Fantai permitted to return to his interrupted labours—after he had satisfied every canon of the elaborate courtesy.
Hart left his work under Sir Harry Parkes with real regret in October 1858, when he was promoted and appointed interpreter at the British Consulate in Canton under Sir Rutherford Alcock; but in May 1859 he resigned to enter the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs. It was the Viceroy Laou Tsung Kwang who invited him to do so, for he was one of Hart's special friends, a shrewd judge of men, clever enough himself and progressive for his day. He had been quick to notice the success of the new Custom House at Shanghai, and presently asked young Hart if he could not draw up a set of regulations for the collection of duty at Canton, and undertake the work of supervision.
To this invitation Hart replied that Mr. H.N. Lay was in charge of the Customs; that he, Hart, knew nothing about the business, having had no experience of the sort, and could not therefore agree to the proposals. But what he did agree to do was to write to Mr. Lay and see if something could not be done to bring Canton into line with Shanghai. The result of the correspondence, briefly put, was that Mr. Lay first offered Robert Hart a position as interpreter, which he refused, and later the post of Deputy-Commissioner of Customs at Canton, which he accepted. Of course he had meanwhile asked the British Government if he might resign from the Consular Service. Their reply gave the desired permission, but stipulated at the same time that he must not expect the acceptance of his resignation to imply that he might return to the British service whenever he pleased. Neither they nor he guessed then that he was beginning a work from which he would have no wish to turn back, or that it would be they who would finally beg him to return to their service, not as Consul, but as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary.
THE BEGINNINGS OF THE IMPERIAL CHINESE CUSTOMS—A VISIT TO SIR FREDERICK BRUCE—THE SHERARD OSBORNE AFFAIR—APPOINTED INSPECTOR-GENERAL
When Robert Hart joined the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs, the service was already four years old. 1854—the very year he passed through Shanghai on his way to Ningpo—saw its beginning as an international institution. A Chinese Superintendent had hitherto collected duties for his Government, but, owing to the capture of Shanghai by the rebels, affairs became so disorganized that he appealed to the three Consuls of Great Britain, France and the United States for help, and they responded by each appointing one of their nationals to assist him in securing an honest and efficient administration.
As far as the Chinese Government was concerned, the triumvirate gave immediate and entire satisfaction. Duties increased, smuggling diminished—all as a result of the new system, which was continued, by the express desire of the Chinese officials, even after the city was recaptured by the Imperial troops.
But the merchants on their side had no praise for an arrangement that cut large slices off their profits. They found it exceedingly annoying to be obliged to give the correct weight of their tea and silk under penalty of forfeiture; as for calmly landing and shipping their goods without permits, this was now out of the question. Yet what could they do to circumvent these innovations? Nothing—but put every conceivable difficulty, large and small, ingenious and obvious, in the way of the new inspectors.
The Frenchman presently withdrew, the American, a consular official, resigned in 1856, and the Englishman, Mr. (afterwards Sir Thomas) Wade, a sensitive man, unable to endure the social boycott imposed on him, did likewise. Mr. H.N. Lay, Vice-Consul and Interpreter in the British Consulate at Shanghai, was then appointed to succeed Mr. Wade, and, as the two other Powers concerned did not appoint successors to their original nominees, he thereafter managed Chinese Customs business alone.
Such, briefly told, is the history of the service which Robert Hart joined as Deputy-Commissioner at Canton in 1859 at the suggestion of the Canton Viceroy, Laou Tsung Kwang—which he was to build up and in which he was to make his great name and reputation. From the first he did better than well. He set to work at once on a series of regulations for Custom House management. They were greatly needed—all the internal arrangements of the infant service were in a chaotic condition—and they were also greatly praised. The Viceroy himself was delighted. Here was his own young protege, by his diligence, by his practical business capacity, by his unusual willingness to accept responsibility and by the promises of administrative ability he was giving, proving himself the very man to make the newly organized Customs a success. The Viceroy had chosen better than he knew.
Two years—from 1859 to 1861—Robert Hart spent in Canton setting affairs in order and working very hard in a hot, damp climate. Curiously enough he was never ill, though many men of far greater physical strength, of far tougher build, wilted in that steaming atmosphere; he himself was always too busy, I think, for symptoms and sickness.
During those years he had an unexpected meeting with an old friend. Word having been brought to him that a ship from Macao was expected to load teas at Komchuk—a place inland not open to trade—he started off with a posse of tidewaiters on the revenue cruiser Cumfa, to seize her. She was a shabby little vessel; her paint was scratched, her name almost obliterated. Almost, but not quite; he was able to make out the word Shamrock at her bow, and on careful inquiry identified her as the very vessel on which he had travelled to England as a boy; but alas! a Shamrock fallen on evil days, dilapidated by doubtful adventures in distant seas, and debased to the low company of smugglers.
In 1861 chance, luck, or Providence—call it what you will—once again interfered in the humdrum routine of events to give Hart the opportunity he had come half-way across the world to meet. A riot broke out at Shanghai, and Mr. Lay, as he was walking down the main street, was attacked by a man with a long knife and so severely wounded that he was obliged to go to England on two years' leave in order to recover his health.
Two of his subordinates were made Officiating Inspector-Generals in his place: Fitzroy, formerly private secretary to Lord Elgin, at that time Shanghai Commissioner, and Robert Hart. Both men had excellent qualities; but while Fitzroy, who knew no Chinese, was content to remain at Shanghai, his more active and energetic colleague travelled to and fro establishing new offices.
The Tientsin Treaties having recently opened more ports to trade, and the Chinese Government having repeatedly approved of the golden stream of revenue pouring into their Treasury, Customs administration was extended up and down the coasts as fast as the ports could be declared "open"—to Ningpo, Foochow, Amoy, Swatow, Chinkiang, even so far north as Tientsin, and British, French or German Commissioners put in charge of each, in order that the original international character of the service might be preserved.
Most of these ports welcomed the new order of things; but at one, notably Hankow, difficulties arose, and Hart promptly started to clear them up. At the time of his going both Wuhu and Nanking, two cities on the Yangtsze, were still in the hands of the rebels, and the river-steamer captain warned his passengers that the ship would stop at Wuhu to get her papers from them. "Take my advice," said he, "and remain quietly in your cabin from the time we stop until we leave, for the rebels have the habit of coming on board, and were they to find a man like yourself, a Government agent on Government business, they would certainly take you ashore. They usually only look about the saloon, however, and do not examine the cabins, so you will be safe enough if you stay in yours."
Robert Hart gratefully accepted the advice, and, sitting on the edge of his bunk, listened to the rebels talking in the saloon outside, till, with a sigh of relief, he heard them leave the ship and allow her to proceed on her way. That the danger had been real enough the deserted river proved; terror of these same revolutionaries had swept the usually busy waterway clean of craft, and nothing further disturbed the quiet but the hoarse honk of wild geese and the whirring of ducks' wings.
At Hankow the Viceroy, Kwan Wen, was as friendly personally as he was obstinate officially. He did not desire to see the new system enforced. Again and again he politely told Robert Hart that he was wasting his time—that it was quite useless his remaining longer.
But as Robert Hart listened with equal politeness and remained, the Viceroy's patience finally began to wear thin. He then sent a subordinate official to make one last effort to persuade the Officiating Inspector-General to go. This failed, just as the other attempts at persuasion had failed. Hart simply told the man that he was acting under orders, and further hinted that when he reported to Peking and the Emperor Tung Chih heard that difficulties had been made about the establishment of the Customs at Hankow, it would not look well. "But the Emperor's name is not Tung Chih," remarked the Taotai scornfully. "You should know that as well as I." "To me," retorted Robert Hart calmly, "it seems equally strange that you as a Chinese official do not know the name of your own Emperor."
He thereupon went to a drawer, took out a new Peking Gazette announcing the famous coup d'etat of November 2nd, 1861, when Prince Soo Sun's party was absolutely overthrown by the party of Prince Kung and the Emperor's official style altered from Chi Hsiang ("Lucky") to Tung Chih ("Pull Together"), and handed it to him. The man was utterly surprised. This was the very first news of the important event to reach Hankow, and as soon as it became generally known all the officials who had hitherto shaped their actions to please Prince Soo were quick to change their attitude. Even the Viceroy promptly sent for Hart and begged him, with every expression of cordiality, to do just as he pleased about everything; above all, to proceed with his business immediately.
A few weeks later, all being in working order, the Officiating Inspector-General was on his way down the river again. He had a message for the other Yangtsze Viceroy, Tseun Kuo Fan, and accordingly paid five hundred taels (L70) to stop the little steamer Poyang for two hours at Nanking in order to deliver it. This message was comparatively prosaic, concerning as it did nothing more interesting than the Viceroy's views relative to some unimportant trade matters.
But the Viceroy's answer is worth recording. "You have asked me my opinion on many matters," said old Tseun. "Some of these must be settled direct with the Wai-Wu-Pu (the Foreign Office at Peking). But I will tell you this much now. Whatever is good for Chinese and foreigners I will support; whatever is good for foreigners and does not harm Chinese I will approve; but whatever is bad for Chinese, no matter how good it is for foreigners, I will die rather than consent to." In this grand old statesman's confession of his political faith it is good to find a convincing answer to the arguments of those who pretend that there are no patriots in China.
Robert Hart's next mission was to Peking itself, the grey, wall-ringed mediaeval city where he was afterwards to spend so many years, and where he stayed with Sir Frederick Bruce at the British Legation—then, as now, housed in a fine old Chinese building.
Sir Frederick Bruce was a most striking type of man, like a straight, healthy tree, most cordial in manner, with a beautiful voice that made even oaths sound like splendid oratory, a keen intelligence flavoured with a pinch of humour, and a great gift of diplomatic suavity.
Between himself and young Robert Hart a bond of friendship rapidly grew—strong enough to bear the lapse of time and even the occasional bursts of frank criticism to which the host treated his guest. At least on one occasion it was very sharp indeed. Hart and another young man (afterwards Sir Robert Douglas) had gone riding in the outer city of Peking on the fifth of the fifth moon—a feast day—when, on their way home, a yelling mob collected around them, shouting disrespectful names and even throwing things at them. True, they did it all in a spirit of playfulness, but a moment or a trifle might easily have turned mischief into malice, and, realizing this, Hart pulled up at one of the shops in the big street and asked the shopkeeper, a respectable greybeard, to tell the crowd not to pass his shop door.
"But," said the old fellow, "we have nothing to do with these people."
"I know that," was the reply, "but if they misbehave themselves I shall not be able to report them, because they are vagabonds who will disappear into the holes and corners of the city. They would be impossible to find again, but you are a man with a fixed place of residence; it will be easy enough to find you. I see, by the way, your shop is called 'Renewed Affluence' on the signboard. And if you plead that the affair was no business of yours, people will never believe that a word from a respectable man like yourself would not suffice to control a crowd of ragamuffins."
Hart's use of this argument, so peculiarly Chinese in its reasoning, showed how well he already understood the character of the people—how well he appreciated the underlying principle of their community life, the responsibility of a man for his neighbour's behaviour. The shopkeeper was, of course, duly impressed. He spoke to the crowd and they melted away.
But when at luncheon Hart told his host how narrowly he had escaped rough treatment, all the satisfaction he got was: "Served you right, you two young fools, riding about where you were not wanted. Served you right, I say. If I had been there I'd have had a shy at you myself."
This remark was characteristic of Sir Frederick Bruce, who, either from character or experience, or both, took a conservative view of everything—even of trifles. I know Robert Hart afterwards attributed some of his own caution to his friend's example. "In all things go slowly," Bruce was wont to say in his booming, bell-like tone. "Never be in a hurry—-especially don't be in a hurry about answering letters. If you leave things long enough and quiet enough they answer themselves, whereas if you hurry matters balanced on the edge of a precipice, they often topple over instead of settling and remaining comfortably there for ever."
During Hart's visit to Peking a very important question arose concerning the policing of the China Seas. Great Britain had hitherto been doing the work, but the arrangement was considered unsatisfactory. The first idea that China should invest in a fleet of her own came up in the course of a friendly conversation between the British Minister and the Officiating Inspector-General.
Later, when they had talked the subject over at length, and Bruce asserted that Great Britain would probably be willing to lend officers and sell ships of war to China for the nucleus of the proposed navy, Hart laid the matter before Prince Kung. There were endless negotiations, the difficulty and delicacy of which cannot be exaggerated. But they ended satisfactorily.
Prince Kung memorialized the Throne, with the result that L250,000 was directed to be set aside for the purpose. Then, at Robert Hart's suggestion, the money was sent to the Inspector-General—Mr. Lay—to be spent by him in England, together with a long letter of instructions (written by Prince Kung) urging Lay to purchase everything as soon as possible, and to see that the "work put into the vessels should be strong and the materials genuine."
This delicious phrase, a true touch of human nature, is solemnly recorded in one of the despatches, and may still be seen in the correspondence on the subject in the Blue Book for the year.
It is only fair to point out that it was Robert Hart who stated that "the ability of the Inspector-General is great; that he possesses a mind which embraces the minutest details, and is therefore fully competent to make the necessary arrangements with a more than satisfactory result," when he might so easily have used his great and growing personal influence with the Chinese (he was a persona grata with them from the beginning) to undermine his chief.
How the fleet "of genuine materials" came out with all despatch under the celebrated Captain Sherard Osborne and various other officers lent by the Admiralty, is a matter of history. The reputations of its commanders—for all were men of distinction—should have ensured its success if anything could have done so. But from the very moment the fleet reached Shanghai there were misunderstandings. Captain Osborne found himself subject to local officials whose control he resented.
The truth was Lay had somewhat altered the regulations drawn up by Robert Hart and approved by Prince Kung, and had then told Captain Osborne that of course the Chinese would agree to anything he wished. Subsequent events proved him wrong, and showed that he had made the fatal mistake of committing his employers too far. Perhaps this was not unnatural considering that he was just then receiving the most flattering notice from the British press and a C.B. from the British Government for his services—yet it was none the less disastrous.
In May 1863 Lay returned to Shanghai, and, Robert Hart's acting appointment having come to an end, he was made Commissioner at Shanghai, with charge of the Yangtsze ports, the position being specially created for him by Prince Kung in order to give him more authority than would belong to the simple Commissioner of a port. That same autumn the Sherard Osborne affair came to a crisis. Returning from a trip up the Yangtsze, Hart found Lay and Li Hung Chang at daggers drawn. The former had just peremptorily demanded a large sum of money to provision the fleet, and the latter had flatly refused to put his hand in his pocket without official orders to do so, Robert Hart, who very shrewdly guessed at the real cause of the misunderstanding, offered to go and see Li and explain. Very tactfully he told Li that all Lay and Captain Osborne wanted was his formal sanction to present at the bank, as without this the transaction would not have the necessary official character. Li agreed readily enough when the matter was presented in this light; what he had objected to was Lay's abrupt demand to pay so many thousand taels out of his own pocket immediately.
But no small manoeuvre such as this, however successful, could arrange the larger matter. The fleet had been an utter failure. Osborne himself was disgusted; the Chinese were dissatisfied. They therefore made the best of a bad bargain, and sent the ships back to be sold in England in order to prevent their falling into the hands of the independent and quarrelsome Daimios of Japan, or, as Mr. Burlingame, the United States Minister, greatly feared, into the hands of the Confederates.
Thus ended a very curious incident which, by closing as it did, undoubtedly set back the clock of reform in China. It may be that from the political point of view this was as well; that, had the venture been an unqualified success, the Chinese might have thrown themselves too much into the arms of foreign Powers and tried to reform too fast by slavish imitation instead of slowly working out their own salvation.
As far as he was personally concerned the disastrous and expensive failure long preyed upon Robert Hart's mind. He reproached himself bitterly for the mistake. But the Chinese never attached the least blame to him; they showed him no diminution of respect, rather an increase. It was on the Inspector-General H.N. Lay that their wrath fell. They considered that he had treated the whole matter too high-handedly, and within three months they had dismissed him and offered the post to Robert Hart. Of course the change gave rise to much discussion, and Sherard Osborne went frankly to Hart and told him how ill-natured people were hinting that he had intrigued against Lay. The malignity of idle gossip, however, could not turn him back. Knowing that he had worked as loyally for his chief as for himself, he simply replied that if the public looked at it in that way, instead of refusing he would certainly accept the post. I wonder if any instinct told him that the great day of his life was when he did accept it, or if he had any premonition of the useful and romantic career before him?
The characters of the two Inspector-Generals, the one outgoing, the other incoming, contrasted very strangely. Lay was inclined to be dictatorial and rather impatient of Chinese methods; an excellent and clever man, but with one point of view and one only. Hart, on the other hand, was tactful, patient, and, above all else, tolerant of other people's prejudices. "To grow a little catholic," says Stevenson, "is the compensation of years." But Robert Hart was catholic in this broad sense even when he was young. He would sometimes say that the habit of toleration he acquired at college, and through the most simple incident.
Seven or eight of the Belfast students were one day asked to describe what would seem to be the simplest thing in the world to describe—a packing-case. And yet every man, after stating the simple fact that he saw a packing-case, had something different to say about it. One, who stood on the right, described an address written in black letters; another, who stood at one end, dwelt on the iron hoops that bound the box; a third gave prominence to the long nails studding a corner. Thus each, according to his view-point, saw that same commonplace packing-case in a different way. After this practical demonstration Robert Hart never in his life could grow impatient with a man who did not see exactly what he saw when both were standing on opposite sides of a question.
ORDERED TO LIVE AT SHANGHAI—FIRST MEETING WITH "CHINESE GORDON"—THE RECONCILIATION BETWEEN GORDON AND LI HUNG CHANG—THE TAKING OF CHANG-CHOW-FU—DISBANDMENT OF "THE EVER-VICTORIOUS ARMY"—REWARDS FOR GORDON
The first order transmitted by Prince Kung to the new Inspector-General—or the I.G., as he was always familiarly called—was that he should live at Shanghai. This gave him the opportunity of meeting and working with the famous "Chinese Gordon," to whom the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion was so largely due. For the history of that rebellion—how one soldier of fortune after the other attempted to suppress it; how the picturesque American Burgevine, on changing masters and seeking to better his fortune with the rebels, was succeeded by the prosaic failure Holland; how at last, on General Staveley's recommendation, Charles Gordon was lent with several other young officers to the Imperialist cause—the reader must go (and will thank me for sending him) to some of the many historians who have immortalized the struggle.
Nothing remains to be told about that terrible war—except the part that Robert Hart accidentally played in it.
His first meeting with Gordon was planned for October 1863, when Major-General Brown, commanding the troops at Hongkong, came up to Shanghai for the express purpose of seeing the brilliant young commander of what was already known as "The Ever-Victorious Army." Gordon sent the Firefly to take the General and the Inspector-General up the Soochow Creek to Quinsan, where he then was, and on a certain Sunday morning they intended to have started. Fortunately, as it afterwards turned out, Fate interfered at this point.
The English mail arrived suddenly on Saturday night with important despatches; the General sent his A.D.C. to say that he could not possibly leave until they were answered; and so, reluctantly, the visit was postponed—as the two men thought, for a few days, but in reality for much longer. Next morning the A.D.C. hurried round again almost before Hart was out of bed, and this time with the most sensational news—the Firefly had been boarded as she lay at her moorings by foreign friends of the rebels, carried up stream, and burnt. Both her European engineers had mysteriously disappeared.
The whole affair, of course, was a plot as deep laid as diabolical, hatched by the rebels for the purpose of getting rid of General Brown, who they feared was about to reinforce Gordon. But for the timely arrival of those pressing despatches it would have succeeded, and he and the I.G. would have been trapped and quietly murdered.
Not till the spring of 1864 did the delayed meeting finally take place. There had been a serious difference of opinion between Gordon and Li Hung Chang—a difference which arose over the taking of Soochow. When the city, thanks to Gordon's co-operation, was captured, certain of the Taiping princes agreed to surrender. General Ching went to interview them outside one of the city gates, taking Gordon with him. His idea was that if the great General Gordon showed the rebels that he had actually been concerned in the successful operations against them, they would be the more likely to consider further resistance hopeless. Gordon, on the other hand, thought his presence would be taken by them to mean surety for their safety. It was not an unnatural misunderstanding, seeing that Gordon spoke no Chinese, that neither the rebels nor General Ching understood English, and that there was no interpreter present.
In the end the rebellious princes surrendered, not from any feeling that Gordon's presence would ensure the sparing of their lives, but because they believed—just as General Ching shrewdly guessed they would—that his presence in Soochow made it useless to continue the struggle. Had they only been wise enough to retire gracefully from the field, all would have been well. But they swaggered into Li's presence. "They appeared"—so an eyewitness described the scene—"rather like leaders in a position to dictate terms than men sharing in an act of clemency." They even had the audacity to suggest that Li should pay their soldiers—their soldiers, who had fought him, mind you—and divide the city of Soochow by a great wall, leaving half of it in rebel hands.
Naturally he refused to do either of these things; how could he possibly agree to such quixotic demands? But through his refusal, he found himself face to face with the problem of what to do with the surrendered Wangs. He might keep them prisoners—that would be difficult; or he might summarily behead them—and that would be easy. The latter action must certainly be open to the ugly suspicion of treachery, but he had as his excuse that the city was under martial law, and that prompt and vigorous measures might be the means of saving more bloodshed in the end. Accordingly he ordered the immediate execution of the surrendered chiefs.
When Gordon heard of it he was as angry as only a passionate nature such as his could be. The idea that his unspoken word of honour to helpless prisoners had been broken for him made him mad with fury. Out into the city he went, revolver in hand, to look for Li, and to avenge what he called the "murder." His sense of his own guilt was certainly morbid; morbid too was his treatment of the head of the Na Wang, which he found exposed in an iron lantern on one of the city gates. He brought it home, kept it for days beside him, even laying it on his bed, and kneeling and asking forgiveness beside it. The Na Wang's son he adopted into his bodyguard. No father could have treated his own child more tenderly. I believe not once but a dozen times in an afternoon he would turn to the boy and ask wistfully, "Who are you?" receiving the same soft answer, "I am your son," each time with the same pleasure.
Almost immediately after the decapitation of the Wangs, Gordon, still fuming with rage, suddenly determined to break off all relations with Li, to retire to Quinsan, and to take his "Ever-Victorious Army" with him. Though his friends, singly and in company, did their best to dissuade him from this rash course, and pointed out the consequences, he would not listen, and he went.
The Chinese Government took fright at Gordon's dramatic move—there was no knowing what he might do next—(I wonder if in the back of their minds they had a sneaking fear he might join the rebels like Burgevine?)—and consequently they thought it wisdom to send the I.G. to make peace—since peace was so badly needed.
Robert Hart, in his new role of military arbitrator, left Shanghai on January 19th by boat, creeping slowly through the canals. The desolation along both banks was pitiful; every village had been burned, every field trampled; not a living thing was in sight—not even a dog—but the creeks were choked with corpses. No man could pass through such a dreary waste unmoved, least of all one who had the slightest power to alter the sad conditions, and Robert Hart met Li at Soochow with his determination to do all in his power to reconcile him with Gordon, and so end the war quickly, greatly strengthened.
Li promptly explained his action by justifying his policy from his own point of view, and finally ended by saying, "Do tell Gordon I never meant to do it; I meant to keep my word as to the Princes' safe-conduct; but when I saw those fellows come in with their hair long, the very sign of rebellion, and only wearing the white badge of submission in their buttonholes, I thought it such insolence that anger overcame me, and I gave the order for their execution. But it was my doing, not Gordon's; my safe-conduct, not Gordon's, that had been violated. Tell him that I am ready to proclaim far and wide that he had nothing to do with it, so that he loses no reputation by it. Can you not make peace with him for me?"
To find Gordon at that time was no easy matter. He was moving about very rapidly. With his wonderful eye for country, he saw at a glance—almost by instinct—a point that ought to be taken in order to command other points, and wasted no time over the taking of it. Thus he was never long in any particular spot, and Robert Hart had a week's search before he came up with him at Quinsan. Truly that was an exciting week's journey, I can promise you, dodging up and down canals, expecting every moment to run round a corner into a rebel camp—yet fortunately never doing it—in fact, doing nothing at all more exciting than listening to the cries of startled pheasants.
Gordon greeted the I.G. very cordially and held a parade in his honour, just by way of celebrating his arrival. That march past was unforgettable. Though the soldiers were commonplace enough, plain and businesslike the officers, of whom Gordon had about thirty of all ages, sizes and tastes, usually designed their own uniforms, which were sometimes fantastic, to say the least. On this great occasion you may be sure none had neglected to appear in the fullest of full dress, with highly comical results. Indeed their efforts amused Gordon so much that all the time they were advancing he kept repeating as he rubbed his hands gleefully together, "Go it, ye cripples; go it, ye cripples!"
By contrast, he himself, the commander of them all, appeared so simple in his long blue frock coat—the old uniform of the Engineers—with his trousers tucked roughly into his big boots and a little cane, the only weapon he ever carried—"I am too hot tempered for any other" he would often say laughingly of himself—in his hand. This simplicity, this utter absence of affectation, was the keynote to his character—just as it was the keynote of Robert Hart's character. Because both possessed it to an unusual degree, each understood the other—and at once.
Within a week of the I.G.'s arrival Gordon's fit of gloom, brought on by the affair of the Wangs, was dissipating; within two it was gone, for a character of such violent "downs" must have equally mercurial "ups"; within three he capitulated to argument and agreed to go back to Soochow and see Li. Impulsive and generous as ever, he then wished that Hart should say he (Hart) had induced him to come to Li. "That will give you immense influence with the Chinese," he declared. But Hart would not have it so; he preferred to tell Li that Gordon had come of his own free will, knowing that this would please Li personally far more.
The three-cornered meeting passed off well. As little as possible was said about past disagreements, as much as possible about future agreements, and the end of it was that Gordon agreed to take the field again. At the same time the I.G. took care to suggest the removal of an excuse for future misunderstandings in the person of an officious, inefficient interpreter whom Robert Hart himself described as a "'Talkee talkee, me-no-savey,' the sort of person whose attempt at Mandarin [official Chinese] is even viler than his English."
There then remained nothing more to do in Soochow, and Hart and Gordon started back together to Quinsan, though not before they had visited the historic Soochow stockades together, and Gordon, taking his friend over every disputed foot of ground, had vividly described the bloody fighting there—the victory so pleasant to remember, the tragedy so difficult to forget.
I doubt if anything he ever did in China gave Robert Hart greater pleasure than this reconciliation, or if there was any other single episode in his career in which he took more pride; though he spoke of it so seldom and so modestly that scarcely any one—certainly not the public—knew of what he had done. It cost him a few friends among minor officials who thought that negotiations should have passed through their hands rather than his. But his old friend Sir Frederick Bruce, to whom he wrote a report of the whole affair (afterwards included in the Blue Book for 1864), took genuine pleasure in his success, while the Chinese gratitude was unbounded; they realized very clearly what the extremity had been and the difficulty from which they had been rescued.
Three months after the reconciliation (April 28th) Robert Hart went once again to see Gordon and to be present at the taking of Chang-Chow-Fu. This was one of those typical water cities of Central China, walled in of course and with a canal—the Grand Canal in this case—doing duty for a moat. Gordon's headquarters were in boats, and Hart and his little party—one of whom, Colonel Mann Stuart, afterwards helped to keep the line of communications open for Gordon in Khartoum—moored his flotilla alongside. The largest vessel of the fleet was the common dining-room, and owed its excellent ventilation to two holes opposite each other torn out close to the ceiling by a shell while Gordon had been lunching a few days before.
This taking of Chang-Chow-Fu was to be a sight worth seeing—the culminating point of the whole campaign. Nowhere had the rebels fought with greater obstinacy or gathered in greater numbers. One spy told Gordon that he had forty thousand soldiers against him; another fifty thousand; a third a hundred thousand. It was impossible to get accurate information. He only knew that twice the rebels were strong enough to repulse the Imperialist attacks and that he himself was determined to lead the third—from which there could be no turning back. "You," said he to Robert Hart, "must arrange with Li that, if I fall, some one is ready to take my place." Major Edwardes, also a Royal Engineer, was the man chosen; but, after all, his services were not needed.
The great attack was fixed for the 11th of May. On the 10th Gordon determined to find out all he could about the position of the rebels on the city wall, so taking a small party, which included Hart and two of his faithful bodyguard, he went out to reconnoitre. No sooner had the Taipings recognized the Ever-Victorious Leader than they pelted shots at him. The wooden screen behind which he took shelter looked in a very few minutes as if it were suffering from an acute attack of smallpox.
But Gordon, with his usual miraculous luck—in his fighting before more than twenty cities he was only once wounded—escaped scot-free, though one of his bodyguard got a bullet in his chest. With all possible haste the poor fellow was taken back to the doctor's boat, and the surgeon began poking his fingers into the wound to find the ball. It was not a pleasant operation for the guardsman, and he made some grimaces, much to the amusement of several of his companions, who stood on the bank and jeered at his lack of courage. Those jeers, in addition to the pain, exasperated him greatly, and Hart, whose boat was moored next to the doctor's overheard the man say to his companions, "Yes, it's all very well for you to laugh, but if you had a rebel fiend's bullet in your chest, and a foreign devil's fingers groping after it, you would make more fuss than I do."
Very early in the morning of the 11th all was in readiness. The guns from the various batteries around the city began to play. They barked and roared until noon, when Gordon gave the order to "Cease fire." "You see," he remarked to Hart by way of explanation, "those beggars inside will be completely thrown off their guard by the silence. They will take it that we have finished work for the day."
Gordon then snatched a hasty lunch, and at one o'clock the signal was given for the big attack by four soldiers waving red flags on the little hill where Li Hung Chang's tent stood. From this hill Hart and Li stood together to watch the operations. Three rushes were made simultaneously—two feints, and one led by Gordon himself. How splendidly he called his men on, how he flourished his little cane, just as though it had been a lance with flying pennant! I can imagine how the watchers held their breath with excitement. "They're in—no, they're out; no, they're in," one said to the other, I'm sure, till at last they were in, Gordon himself the very first to dash through the narrow breach, his too reckless exposure of his own precious life redeemed by the inspiring audacity of his presence.
The spectacular moment was over, but work still remained to be done. The rebels immediately attempted a turning movement, which if successful, threatened the artillery camp, and Gordon sent post haste to Li with a request for more troops to help him. Li turned to the I.G. in despair. "What can I do?" he said. "All my men are scattered over the city looting by this time. How shall I collect them?" Hart persuaded Li to send messengers and try. Meantime, luckily, the rebels dispersed and the city fell.
They fled wildly in every direction, dropping flags, rifles, and the fans without which no Chinese soldier of the old regime ever went to war, as they ran. From the grey belt of city wall the I.G. looked down on the whole tragic panorama. Fires were burning north, east, south and west. In one street he saw an old woman hobble out of a house supported by her two sons. Just before they could reach shelter a narrow stone bridge over a pond had to be crossed. The old woman limped pitifully to the middle, when a shrill ping rang out. A sharpshooter's bullet struck her; she toppled over into the water, while the men took to their heels and fled back into the smoke of the burning building.
Similar horrors took place in nearly every lane; men were struck down in the attitudes of escape, and the hateful lean dogs that infest Chinese cities crept stealthily out of holes and corners.
As Robert Hart turned away from these sights and descended the ramp of the wall, he noticed a dozen little boys following him, naked urchins with uncombed hair on shoulders. Some of Li Hung Chang's men, seeing them too, rushed up, rolling their sleeves high and flourishing swords. Here, thought they, was an excellent opportunity to gain favour with their master by cutting off some rebel heads and exaggerating the exploit into a severe fight. But the I.G. immediately stepped between, showed his revolver, and threatened to shoot the first man who stirred a step nearer to the boys. "Are you not ashamed to fight with children?" said he, and they slunk off.
At the end of the day, when he returned to the boats, the whole ragged troop was there waiting, their number increased by a little fellow of six or seven years, the son of the Taiping Wang (Prince) of Chang-Chow-Fu, who had been left behind in the confusion and rescued by Gordon from his father's burning palace. He was adopted at once by the party, made much of, petted, and consoled for his fall from high estate by being placed in the seat of honour; and he caused great amusement to the assembled company by the matter-of-fact way in which he accepted his dignity and looked about with serious eyes, as if to say, "This is just what I am accustomed to."
Yet he ill repaid the care that was lavished on him till he grew to manhood. Clothes, food, some education, and finally a position on one of the Customs cruisers, were given to him. He wasted no breath in thanks to his generous captors; but one day, when the wild fighting blood in his veins asserted itself, disappeared. Nor from that day to this has anything been heard of the errant princeling.
What to do with the other children was a problem. All could not be adopted: so the youngest, a winning little fellow of ten years, who lisped out "Lo Atsai" when asked his name, remained at headquarters, while the rest were sent off to find their friends.
Lo Atsai was promptly handed over to the cook—with no cannibal intent, but simply to be washed. "The energy and enthusiasm that cook put into his task," the I.G. would remark when telling the story, "made the whole operation most ludicrous. Into the river the child was plunged again and again, our chef holding him stoutly by the hair all the time as he bobbed up and down between the boats and the unsavoury corpses sticking there, till he was considered clean enough to be hauled on board again."
This little child, son of humble parents, was destined to rise far higher in the world than the prince's son who sat in the place of honour while Lo Atsai ingratiated himself with the servants in the confined kitchen quarters of the boat. Because of his whole-hearted allegiance, the I.G. sent him to school in Hongkong, where he improved his opportunities so well that the Head Master, reporting on him, could only say, "He is too conscientious; he will kill himself with study."