Karl Marx in New York Daily Tribune
Articles On China, 1853-1860

Parliamentary Debates on the Chinese Hostilities

Written: March 16, 1857;
Transcribed by: Harold Newson;
HTML Mark-up: Andy Blunden;

March 16, 1857

THE EARL of Derby's resolution, and that of Mr. Cobden, both of them passing condemnation upon the Chinese hostilities, were moved according to notices given, the one on the 24th February, in the House of Lords, the other on the 26th of February, in the House of Commons. The debates in the Lords ended on the same day when the debates in the Commons began. The former gave the Palmerston Cabinet a shock by leaving it in the comparatively weak majority of 36 votes. The latter may result in its defeat. But whatever interest may attach to the discussion in the Commons, the debates in the House of Lords have exhausted the argumentative part of the controversy-the masterly speeches of Lords Derby and Lyndhurst forestalling the eloquence of Mr. Cobden, Sir E. Bulwer, Lord John Russell, and tutti quanti.

The only law authority on the part of the Government, the Lord Chancellor, remarked that "unless England had a good case with regard to the Arrow, all proceedings from the last to first were wrong." Derby and Lyndhurst proved beyond doubt that England had no case at all with regard to that lorcha. The line of argument followed by them coincides so much with that taken up in the columns of The Tribune on the first publication of the English dispatches that I am able to condense it here into a very small compass.

What is the charge against the Chinese Government upon which the Canton massacres are pretended to rest? The infringement of Art. 9 of the Supplemental Treaty Of 1843. That article prescribes that any Chinese offenders, being in the colony of Hong Kong, or on board a British man-of-war, or on board a British merchant ship, are not to be seized by the Chinese authorities themselves, but should be demanded from the British Consul, and by him be handed over to the native authorities. Chinese pirates were seized in the river of Canton on board the lorcha Arrow, by Chinese officers, without the intervention of the British Consul. The question arises, therefore, was the Arrow a British vessel? It was, as Lord Derby shows, "a vessel Chinese built, Chinese captured, Chinese sold, Chinese bought and manned, and Chinese owned." By what means, then, was this Chinese vessel converted into a British merchantman? By purchasing at Hong Kong a British register or sailing licence. The legality of this register relies upon an ordinance of the local legislation of Hong-Kong, passed in March, 1855. That ordinance not only infringed the treaty existing between England and China, but annulled the law of England herself. It was, therefore, void and null. Some semblance of English legality it could but receive from the Merchant Shipping Act, which, however, was passed only two months after the issue of the ordinance. And even with the legal provisions of that Act it had never been brought into consonance. The ordinance, therefore, under which the lorcha Arrow received its register, was so much waste paper. But even according to this worthless paper the Arrow had forfeited its protection by the infringement of the provisions prescribed, and the expiration of its licence. This point is conceded by Sir J. Bowring himself. But then, it is said, whether or not the Arrow was an English vessel, it had, at all events, hoisted the English flag, and that flag was insulted. Firstly, if the flag was flying, it was not legally flying. But was it flying at all? On this point there exists discrepancy between the English and Chinese declarations. The latter have, however, been corroborated by depositions, forwarded by the Consuls, of the master and crew of the Portuguese lorcha No. 83 — With reference to these depositions, The Friend of China of Nov. 13 states that "it is now notorious at Canton that the British flag had not been flying on board the lorcha for six days previous to its seizure." Thus falls to the ground the punctilio of honour together with the legal case.

Lord Derby had in this speech the good taste altogether to forbear from his habitual waggishness, and thus to give his argument a strictly judicial character. No efforts, however, on his part were wanted to impregnate his speech with a deep current of irony. The Earl of Derby, the chief of the hereditary aristocracy of England, pleading against the late Doctor, now Sir John Bowring, the pet disciple of Bentham; pleading for humanity against the professional humanitarian; defending the real interests of nations against the systematic utilitarian insisting upon a punctilio of diplomatic etiquette; appealing to the vox populi vox dei against the greatest-benefit-of the-greatest-number man; the descendant of the conquerors preaching peace where a member of the Peace Society preached red-hot shell; a Derby branding the acts of the British navy as "miserable proceedings" and "inglorious operations," where a Bowring congratulates it upon cowardly outrages which met with no resistance, upon "its brilliant achievements, unparalleled bravery, and splendid union of military skill and valour" — such contrasts were the more keenly satirical the less the Earl of Derby seemed to be aware of them. He had the advantage of that great historical irony which does not flow from the wit of individuals, but from the humour of situations. The whole Parliamentary history of England has, perhaps, never exhibited such an intellectual victory of the aristocrat over the parvenu.

Lord Derby declared at the outset that he "should have to rely upon statements and documents exclusively furnished by the very parties whose conduct he was about to impugn," and that he was content "to rest his case upon these documents." Now it has been justly remarked that those documents as laid before the public by the Government, would have allowed the latter to shift the whole responsibility upon its subordinates. So much is this the case that the attacks made by the parliamentary adversaries of the Government were exclusively directed to Bowring & Co., and could have been endorsed by the home Government itself, without at all impairing its own position. I quote from his Lordship:

"I do not wish to say anything disrespectful of Dr. Bowring. He may be a man of great attainments; but it appears to me that on the subject of his admission into Canton he is possessed with a perfect monomania (Hear, hear, and a laugh). I believe he dreams of his entrance into Canton. I believe he thinks of it the first thing in the morning, the last thing at night, and in the middle of the night, if he happen to be awake (a laugh). I do not believe that he would consider any sacrifice too great, any interruption of commerce to be deplored, any bloodshed almost to be regretted, when put in the scale with the immense advantage to be derived from the fact that Sir J. Bowring had obtained an official reception in the Yamun of Canton (Laughter)."

Next came Lord Lyndhurst:

"Sir J. Bowring, who is a distinguished humanitarian as well as plenipotentiary (laughter), himself admits the register is void, and that the lorcha was not entitled to hoist the English flag. Now, mark what he says: 'The vessel had no protection, but the Chinese do not know this. For God's sake do not whisper it to them.' (Hear). He persevered, too, for he said in effect: We know the Chinese have not been guilty of any violation of treaty, but we will not tell them so; we will insist upon reparation and a return of the men they have seized in a particular form. If the men were not returned in the form, what was to be the remedy? Why, to seize a junk-a war junk. If that was not sufficient, seize more until we compelled them to submit, although we knew they had the right on their side and we had no justice on ours (Hear) ... Was there ever conduct more abominable, more flagrant, in which — I will not say more fraudulent, but what is equal to fraud in our country — more false pretence has been put forward by a public man in the service of the British Government ? (Hear) ... It is extraordinary that Sir J. Bowring should think he had the power of declaring war. I can understand a man in such a position having necessarily a power of carrying on defensive operations, but to carry on offensive operations upon such a ground — upon such a pretence — is one of the most extraordinary proceedings to be found in the history of the world... It is quite clear from the papers laid on the table yesterday that from the first moment at which Sir J. Bowring was appointed to the station he now fills, his ambition was to procure what his predecessors had completely failed to effect — namely an entry within the walls of Canton ... bent only upon carrying this object of gaining admission within the walls of Canton into execution, (he) has, for no necessary purpose whatever, plunged the country into war; and what is the result? Property, to the large amount Of $1,500,000, belonging to British subjects, is now impounded in the city of Canton, and in addition to that our factories are burned to the ground, and all this is only owing to the mischievous policy of one of the most mischievous of men. — But man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he's most assured, This glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As make the angels weep."

And lastly, Lord Grey:

"If your Lordships, will refer to the papers, you will find that when Sir John Bowring applied for an interview with Commissioner Yeh, the Commissioner was ready to meet him, but he appointed for that purpose the house of the merchant Howqua, without the city... Sir John Bowring's dignity would not allow him to go anywhere but to the official residence of the Commissioner ... I expect, if no other result, at least the good result from the adoption of the resolution — the instant recall of Sir J. Bowring."

Sir J. Bowring met with similar treatment at the hands of the Commons, and Mr. Cobden even opened his speech with a solemn repudiation of his "friend of twenty years' standing." The literal quotations from the speeches of Lords Derby, Lyndhurst and Grey prove that, to parry the attack, Lord Palmerston's Administration had only to drop Sir J. Bowring instead of identifying itself with that "distinguished humanitarian." That it owed this facility of escape neither to the indulgence nor the tactics of his adversaries, but exclusively to the papers laid before Parliament, will become evident from the slightest glance at the papers themselves as well as the debates founded upon them.

Can there remain any doubt as to Sir J. Bowring's CC monomania " with respect to his entrance into Canton? It is not proved that that individual, as the London Times says, "has taken a course entirely out of his own head, without either advice from his superiors at home or any reference to their politics?" Why, then, should Lord Palmerston, at a moment when his Government is tottering, when his way is beset with difficulties of all sorts — financial difficulties, Persian war difficulties, secret-treaty difficulties, electoral reform difficulties, coalition difficulties — when he is conscious that the eyes of the House are " upon him more earnestly but less admiringly than ever before," why should he single out just that moment to exhibit, for the first time in his political life, an unflinching fidelity to another man — and to a subaltern, too — at the hazard of not only impairing still more his own position, but of completely breaking it up? Why should he push his newfangled enthusiasm to such a point as to offer himself as the expiatory sacrifice for the sins of a Dr. Bowring? Of course no man in his senses thinks the noble Viscount capable of any such romantic aberrations. The line of policy he has followed up in this Chinese difficulty affords conclusive evidence of the defective character of the papers he has laid before Parliament. Apart from published papers there must exist secret papers and secret instructions which would go far to show that if Dr. Bowring was possessed of the "monomania" of entering into Canton, there stood behind him the cool-headed chief of Whitehall working upon his monomania and driving it, for purposes of his own, from the state of latent warmth into that of consuming fire.