Sir Robert Hart
Part 1 out of 3
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[Illustration: _Sir Robert Hart, G.C.M.G._]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
[Illustration: THE CANAL: THE ROUTE BY WHICH SIR ROBERT HART FIRST
CAME TO PEKING.]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
[Illustration: A VIEW OF PEKING SHOWING CONDITION OF ROADS.]
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
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.
[Illustration: A ROAD IN OLD PEKING DURING THE RAINY SEASON.]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
[Illustration: SIR ROBERT HART ABOUT 1866.]
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
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
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
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
He was truly wearing himself out with diligence, when a rich merchant
took a fancy to him and gave him a good position; then another gave
him a better, so that in a few years he had become a very rich man.
It is nice to add--for the benefit of those who sneer at Chinese
gratitude--that at every new year he would travel, no matter how far
away he might be, to see his old patron and friend. Nor did he ever
grow too grand to go into the kitchen afterwards and gossip with
the servants, sitting down in his sable robes and peacock's feathers
without thought of snobbery, without desire to make himself appear
great in humble eyes.
Chang-Chow-Fu was the last city Gordon took. Its fall closed his
career, and the I.G. arranged most of the details regarding the
disbandment of the famous "Ever-Victorious Army." He did more; once
again he smoothed out a difficulty for the too impulsive Gordon. At
the close of the rebellion the Chinese showed towards Gordon a warmth
of feeling which it has seldom been their habit to show to foreigners.
They thereupon begged Sir Frederick Bruce to advise them as to what
would be a suitable reward to offer him for his valuable services to
the Imperial cause. Finally a gratuity of L3,000 (Tls. 18,000) was
decided upon; but when Gordon got wind of this, he was so furious at
being treated like what he called "an adventurer," that he chased the
messenger out of the camp.
Now the Chinese were utterly at a loss to understand a man who grew
furious at the offer of a large sum of money, such an occurrence being
without precedent. As usual in times of perplexity, they asked the
ever-tactful I.G. to sound Gordon as to what he _would_ accept. "Tell
Wen Hsiang" (then Premier), was Gordon's answer, "that though I have
refused the money, I would like a Chinese costume." Accordingly, by
Imperial Decree, a costume was sent him, and, on Hart's suggestion,
the famous Yellow Jacket was added. Gordon afterwards had his
portrait painted in the full regalia, and, like a glorified Chinese
Field-Marshal in his quaint garb, he still looks down from over the
mantelpiece in the Royal Engineers' mess-room at Chatham.
Once again before his tragic death this strange soldier of destiny
was to see China, though on this second visit he did not meet his old
friend Robert Hart. He came in the early eighties direct from India,
where he had been Private Secretary to the Viceroy. The position never
suited his too independent character, and when the Chinese, perplexed
over Russian questions, invited him to the Middle Kingdom, he gladly
accepted their invitation.
Unfortunately the visit was a failure. His advice was unpractical, and
though, as the first prophet of "China for the Chinese," he found
a fundamental truth, he found it too soon for immediate utility. On
political matters he and the I.G. disagreed; the latter was far too
wise to hold with Gordon's somewhat visionary idea that China could
raise an army as good as the best in the twinkling of an eye; and when
Gordon left Peking after a very short stay, he left disappointed and
It was, however, characteristic of him that before he had got farther
than Hongkong he wrote an affectionate letter to his old friend,
acknowledging himself in the wrong and giving the highest praise to
that friend's policy. This, with all the rest of Gordon's letters to
the I.G., was burned in the Boxer outbreak of 1900.
But what nothing could destroy was Robert Hart's admiration for the
soldier hero. If the apparent inconsistencies of his character were
numerous, all of them added force and picturesqueness to it, and only
served to increase the affection of one who knew him and understood
him most thoroughly.
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
When his share in the arrangements for the disbandment of "The
Ever-Victorious Army" was completed, the I.G. received a second order
directing him to live at Peking. In those days Peking was the very
last corner of the world. Eighty miles inland, not even the sound of
a friendly ship's whistle could help an exiled imagination cross the
gulf to far-away countries, while railways were, of course, still
The only two means of reaching the capital were by springless cart
over the grey alkali plains, or by boat along the Grand Canal.
Both were slow; neither was enjoyable, but since the latter perhaps
presented fewer discomforts, Robert Hart chose to spend a week in the
monotonous scenery of mudbanks, and land at Tungchow, a little town
some fifteen miles from his destination. Thence he made his way over
a roughly paved stone causeway--one of those roads that the Chinese
proverb says is "good for ten years and bad for ten thousand"--between
endless fields of high millet to the biggest gate of Peking itself.
To step through the gate was to step back into the Middle Ages--into
the times of Ghenghiz Khan. The street leading from it was nobly
planned--broad, generous; but rough and uneven like the hastily
made highway from one camp to another. Rough, too, were the vehicles
traversing it; the oddly assorted teams, mules, donkeys and Mongolian
ponies, went unclipped and ungroomed; the drivers went unwashed.
Loathsome beggars sat in the gilded doorways of the fur-shops, the
incongruity of their rags against the background of barbaric splendour
evidently appealing to none of the passers-by who hurried about their
business in a cloud of dust.
At sundown the noise and bustle ceased; the big city gates closed with
a clang, and the municipal guard, for all the world like Dogberry and
his watch, made their rounds beating wooden clappers, not in the hope
of catching, but rather in the hope of frightening malefactors away.
[Illustration: UNDER THE PEKING CITY WALL TOWARDS TUNGCHOW--ALONG THE
Yet Robert Hart had already seen far queerer places--and lonelier. I
am thinking now of Formosa, that strange land of adventure where the
veriest good-for-nothings, stranded by chance, have "owned navies and
mounted the steps of thrones," and where he spent some time in 1864
inspecting the Custom Houses.
A most amusing story was told him on his travels there--a story
too good to leave unrepeated, though he personally had no part in
it--unless the laugh at the end can be called a part. During one of
those terrible storms which periodically sweep the shores of Formosa,
an American vessel was wrecked and her crew eaten by the aborigines.
The nearest American Consul thereupon journeyed inland to the savage
territory in order to make terms with the cannibals for future
emergencies. Unfortunately the chiefs refused to listen, and would
have nothing to do with the agreement prepared for their signature.
The Consul was irritated by their obstinacy; he had a bad temper and
a glass eye, and when he lost the first, the second annoyed him. Under
great stress of excitement he occasionally slipped the eye out for
a moment, rubbed it violently on his coat-sleeve, then as rapidly
replaced it--and this he did there in the council hut, utterly
forgetful of his audience, and before a soul could say the Formosan
equivalent of "Jack Robinson."
The chiefs paled, stiffened, shuddered with fright. One with more
presence of mind than his fellows called for a pen. "Yes, quick,
quick, a pen!"--the word passed from mouth to mouth. No more
obstinacy, no more hesitation; all of them clamoured to sign,
willing, even eager to yield to any demand that a man gifted with the
supernatural power of taking out his eye and replacing it at pleasure,
On his return from Formosa the I.G. wrote a famous paper called "Pang
Kwan Lun" ("What a Bystander Says"), full of useful criticisms and
suggestions on Chinese affairs. Some were followed, others were
not, but he had the satisfaction of hearing from the lips of the
Empress-Dowager herself--when she received him in audience in
1902--that she regretted more of his advice had not been taken,
subsequent events having proved how sound and useful it all was.
In 1866, having worked twelve years in China--seven of those years for
the Chinese Government--Robert Hart felt a very natural desire to see
his own country and his own people again. He therefore applied for
leave, and was granted six months--none too long a rest after the
strenuous work he had done.
Just before starting he said to the Chinese, "You will soon be
establishing Legations abroad. Do you not think that my going will be
an excellent opportunity for you to send some of your people to see a
little of the world?" Yes, they agreed it would be; but--though they
never told him so--I think the older conservative generation had grave
doubts whether the adventurous ones would return alive. Europe was
then a _terra incognita_. There might easily be pirates in the Seine
and cannibals in Bond Street, not to mention the hundred mysterious
dangers of the great waters and the fire-breathing monsters that
Well, in the end, the prejudices melted and the party started,
chaperoned by the I.G. Five in all there were, a certain Pin Lao Yeh,
an ex-Prefect, his son and three students from the Tung Wen Kwan or
College of Languages. Old Pin Lao Yeh, being the senior, wrote a book
about his experiences, describing all he saw for the benefit of his
timid homekeeping countrymen, and giving careful measurements of
everything measurable--the masts of the steamers, the length of the
wharves, the height of the Arc de Triomphe, as if in some mysterious
way statistics could prove a prop to the faint-hearted. Of the four
lads in the "experiment," two afterwards filled high diplomatic
posts. A certain Fang I was made Charge d'Affaires in London and later
Consul-General in Singapore, while Chang Teh Ming was made Minister
Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James.
The voyage home was uneventful, the little party's first adventure
coming at their last port. Here the Customs had to be passed. With
some pride, I should like to write, only I am sure it was with his
usual modesty--the kind of modesty that made strangers say, the first
time they saw him, "Is that all he is?" and after they had spoken with
him for ten minutes, "Can he be all that?"--the I.G. presented his
letter from the French Legation at Peking to the Chief Custom House
Official Profound bows immediately from this worthy, then grand
gestures and the magic words, "Passe en ambassade!"
Accordingly the "mission" passed--in true Chinese style. The first
man by had a dried duck over his shoulder, the next a smoked ham,
the third a jar of pickled cabbage, none too savoury, while all
the attaches and servants were equally weighted down by pieces of
outlandish baggage from which nothing in the world would have induced
them to part, since nothing in the world could have replaced them in
the markets of the West.
From Marseilles Robert Hart went on to Paris. Though this was his
first sight of the Continent, he was too impatient to be home to
linger, and he only remained long enough to hand over his charges to
the Foreign Minister, who promised they should be treated with the
utmost friendliness. They were indeed. Half the courts of Europe
entertained them; they dined with Napoleon and Eugenie; had tea with
old King William of Prussia at Potsdam, and travelled altogether _en
Meanwhile the I.G. declined any share in the lionizing, and slipped
off to enjoy a quiet holiday in Ireland. The only inconvenience he
found in being a private individual was when he passed the Customs
in London. What a difference from Marseilles! About sixty passengers
crowded into the examining room together, and a slouchy man with a
short pipe came forward, eyed them critically, but instead of taking
people in turn, spied out Robert Hart and said roughly, "I'll take
you. Anything to declare?" pointing to his pile of trunks.
"Nothing but one box of cigars--Manillas."
The man scowled just as if he had discovered a gunpowder plot. Finally
he asked Hart where he came from.
"Straight from China, from Peking."
"Oh," said the Examiner, softening a little, "that's such a long way I
suppose we can let those cigars pass."
Then he went over to the waiting people, waved his hand and said, "You
can go; that's all."
Robert Hart was so much amused at being picked out as the likely
smuggler of the party that he could scarcely restrain himself from
whipping out of his pocket a card with "Inspector-General Chinese
Imperial Maritime Customs" on it and presenting it to the man.
He found his father and mother settled at Ravarnet, as proud as happy
to see him back again, and he dropped quite naturally into the simple
home life, resumed his affectionate intimacy with a clan of sisters
just as if it had never been broken off, and took the same delight
in simple pleasures that he had taken as a boy. Some of his relatives
wondered a little at this.
"Let me look at you," said they, peering and peeking about him for
the solution of the mystery. For mystery there must be when a great
man--yes, that's what he was already--should look just the same on the
outside as Tom or Dick or Harry--should even enjoy a simple breakfast
of fresh herring and tea.
"I am just like everybody else," he would answer to their
half-quizzical inspection. "No more noses or eyes than you."
Alas! this home life, delightful though it was, could not last very
long. On August 22nd, 1866, he married that daughter of old Dr. Bredon
of Portadown that his aunt had prophesied he would when, at the age of
ten days, he lay upon her lap. The honeymoon was spent at the romantic
lakes of Killarney, and very soon afterwards the young couple were on
their way out to China again.
The house in Peking had been somewhat rearranged and remodelled while
the I.G. was in Europe, in anticipation of his wife's coming. Without
altering the picturesqueness of the original Chinese design, it had
been adapted to Western ideas of comfort. The pretty pavilions
with their upturned roofs remained; the ornamental rockwork of the
courtyards, the doors shaped like gourds or leaves or full moons,
were left untouched. So were the odd-shaped windows, real Jack Frost
designs; but instead of paper, glass was fitted into the quaint panes
and the stone floors, characteristic of Chinese rooms, covered with
wood--a very necessary alteration in a town which, although in the
same latitude as Naples, Madrid and Constantinople, has a winter as
severe as New York.
Fortunately neither he nor his bride had a very keen taste for
society, as in those days Peking could not boast of any. The
Diplomatic Corps was small; no concession-hunters or would-be builders
of battleships enlivened the capital with their intrigues, and the
monotony of life was broken only by an occasional visitor.
Rarely, very rarely, there was a dinner party--a formal affair, to
which the I.G.'s wife went in state and, as became her rank, in a big
green box of a sedan chair with four bearers. Indeed this was the
only possible means of going about comfortably at night in a city
of unexpected ditches, ruts like sword-gashes, and lighted only by
twinkling lanterns of belated roysterers.
The I.G. was therefore somewhat disconcerted when his chair coolies,
having been six months in his service, came to say they could remain
no longer. "It is not that we are discontented with our wages," the
head man explained, "or that you are not a kind master, or that the
_Taitai_ [the lady of the house] is an inconsiderate mistress."
"Then you have too much work to do?"
"No, that's the trouble," the man replied, "we have not enough. Our
shoulders are getting soft and our leg muscles are getting flabby. Now
if the _Taitai_ would only go out for twenty miles every day instead
of for two miles every ten days as she does now, we would be delighted
to remain in your service." Was ever stranger complaint made by
servant to master?
Whenever work permitted Robert Hart and his wife rode out into the
country on their stocky native ponies, sometimes to one and sometimes
to another of the picturesque temples, pagodas and monasteries which
then abounded in the hills near by. The favourite picnicking place of
the little community--almost the only Imperial property open in those
days--was the ruined palace of Yuen Ming Yuen destroyed by the Allies
in 1860. It must have been a most charming spot, at all events in the
autumn months, when the persimmon-trees, heavy with balls of golden,
fruit, overhung its grey walls.
The original construction in semi-foreign style from plans by the
early Jesuit Fathers was doubtless still easy to trace; an ornate
facade brought unexpected memories of Versailles, while on crumbling
walls old European coats-of-arms, carved, for the sake of their
decorative beauty, beside Oriental dragons and phoenixes, remained to
surprise and delight the eye.
Unluckily business too often stood in the way of pleasure, for the
'sixties were very busy years. China was just beginning to realize
that she could no longer remain in peaceful self-sufficiency;
intercourse with foreign nations she must have, willing or no; that
meant drastic changes--changes in which the I.G.'s advice would be
valuable. Thus circumstances helped him into a unique position, one
without parallel in any other country; he was continually consulted on
hundreds of matters not properly connected with Customs administration
at all, and he was in fact, if not in name, far more than an
[Illustration: A PICNIC IN OLD PEKING--TOWARDS YUEN MING YUEN.]
Much of this advisory work, too, was of the most delicate nature: some
involved intricate dealings with several Powers having conflicting
interests. The slightest false move would often have been sufficient
to snap the frail thread of negotiation. It is not to be wondered
at if he made some mistakes--he would have been scarcely human
otherwise--but as a rule his tact and energy carried to a successful
issue whatever he began.
"What is your secret power of settling a difficult matter?" a friend
once asked him. "Whenever I deal with other people, and especially
with Chinese," was the answer, "I always ask myself two questions:
what idea that I do not want them to have will my remark suggest to
them, and what answer will my remark allow them to make to me?"
The habit of deliberating before he made a statement grew upon him,
as habits will, exaggerated with time, and provided an excuse for at
least one _bon mot_. A certain French Professor whom he had brought
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