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© Maria Bugrova

The British expeditions to China in XIX century

The report "British expeditions to China and its tributaries in 70-90-s of the XIX century" addressed to the International Congress of Asian and North African Studies (ICANAS-XXXVIII), 2007, Ankara

In the 70-90-s of the XIX century the ‘scuffle for Africa’, problem of Egypt debt, the Middle East question became the more important in international policy. The strategy and tactics of Great Britain referring Far East was changing: military pressure was changed for reconnoitering expeditions. The present report is dedicated to the reasons of British missions, its character, and consequences.

In the middle of the XIX century China had to sign unequal treaties. As a result of it some Chinese ports were opened for foreign trade. However the starting of foreign trade in several ports didn’t lead to the opening of the whole country. The inner regions of China were closed for westerners. On the one hand it was impossible to penetrate into internal China without special passports; on the other hand it was very difficult to receive these documents. The British traders faced the reluctance of local population to buy foreign goods. The Chinese ones were preferable to the British. Economists of that time considered ‘self-sufficiency of China the strongest obstacle the England was faced for its industrial and commercial history’. In 1882 British Consul in Chinkiang Oxenham wrote that ‘The present stagnant condition of foreign trade in China requires consideration. The chief reason for this stagnation state of things is, I understand, that the great body of the people, the poorer and agricultural classes, do not buy our manufactures, the purchase of them being mainly confined to the richer, middle, and trading classes. The poor complain that our cotton goods wear out too quickly (in two years); that the thread of which they are composed is weak… The native cloth is cheaper, stouter, and stronger’.

The fact of increasing of British expeditions’ number to China in the 70-90-s of the XIX century had several reasons. In the middle of 70-s and the beginning of the 80-s there was the period of economic depression in Europe and Britain too. British traders were interested in new markets and considered Chine as one of them.

In 70-80-s of the XIX England faced with new serious rivals in Far East such as France, Germany, and Russia whose attention to China was greatly increased too. They started to research China and its internal trade routes. Great Britain couldn’t neglect this fact and had to make arrangements to maintain its position in far eastern region. British journalist and editor of ‘Fortnightly Review’ Escott T.H.C. pointed in 1884: ‘We have entered upon a new order of things. Our international relations and responsibilities; the obligations imposed on us by our Empire; the part which we ought to play and can play in the government of the world, have not only changed since Palmerstone’s death… the great European powers equipped with a military machinery it is an impossibility for England to rival; the political control of European politics vested in Germany’. Under these circumstances it was necessary to comply maps of regions, to know climatic conditions of Qing Empire, to study local languages, to have good dictionaries and so on.

British Government was interested not only in trade expansion of British goods, but chiefly in British economical and political expansion to China. The opium wars’ experience shown ineffectiveness of military operations in China. That’s why the main aim of British missions was in researching internal Chinese territories and looking for the control mechanisms and methods of increasing British influence under the Qing Empire.

The organization of missions was very expensive because of climate conditions, absence of good roads, and hostility of local population to foreigners. In 1883 the Marquis Tseng pointed that trouble frequently arose from Englishmen traveling and preaching in the interior. Travelers should be required to procure passports, and as an additional precaution, the officials of the places to which they resort should send the local elders with them to prepare the people for their reception.

There were two categories of British expeditions to China: the first one included expeditions which researched the opportunity to spread British influence into tributaries of China. The second one included expeditions routed into internal China. Its character and routes were dealt with its initiators: British Government or Chambers of Commerce, or private persons interested in their trade relations with these regions.

The most of missions were formally scientific. However their scientific character usually served as a screen to hide the real aims and tasks of expeditions. There were about thirty British expeditions to China and its tributaries in the 70-90-s of the XIX century.

Expeditions to internal China and Burma

There were several British expeditions to internal China in 70-90-s of the XIX century.

In January-August of 1871 Thomson traveled along Yangtze River through Sichuan province to Hankow and Ichang. The aim was in researching of the possibility of navigation in upper Yangtze.

In 1873 British agent in Mandalay offered to send the mission from Mandalay to Bhamo till Momien and Yunnan province. The decision was approved by the chief commissioner of British Burma because of strong activity of France in region of Mekong River. The topographic mission with Colonel Browne at the head consisted about 200 armed people. British envoy in Beijing Thomas Wade was ordered to receive passports for the mission and deliver British official A. Margery to assist the mission as interpreter. He had to meet mission in Chinese territory. January 17, 1875 Margery arrived to Bhamo. In February 1875 mission started to frontier of Burma and China but was stopped by armed troops. Margery and his servants were murdered.

This outrage gave the reason for Britain to make demands to China and the Chefoo Convention was signed September 13, 1876. According to Convention China had to pay two million taels, send mission to England to apologize, work out the frontier’s trade rules between Burma and Yunnan. The British representatives were allowed to watch trade circumstances in Yunnan within five years. Ichang, Wuhu, Wenchow, Beihai were opened, England could send its representative to Chunking. Foreign ships were allowed to load six cities along the Yangtze. The additional article was dealt with Tibet: the British could send missions from China to Tibet and India.

In the 80-s of the XIX century Great Britain’s attention to the south-western China was increased because of Franco-Chinese war 1883–1885. It threatened to England with loss of its influence in southern provinces (Yunnan and Sichuan) and control under trade routes from these provinces to Burma. In 1882 Royal Geographical Society published the reports of Chinese Secretary to the British Embassy at Peking Baber ‘Travels and researches in Western China’. The first of these reports had for its principal theme the exploration, geographical and ethnological, of the extreme Western province of China, by name Ssu-chuan. The second narrative was concerned with the south-western province of Yunnan. Baber wrote that a prospect surely of a kind to allure the most sluggish, to induce any amount of enterprise, justify almost any outlay of expenditure, in the mind of British traders. However he pointed out some obstacles in exploitation of these regions: Chinese officials in Ssu-chuan reluctantly agreed to assist in deal of coal mines. The western half of Ssu-chuan, where the metallic treasures were most abundant, was seriously under-peopled. A route that from Bhamo to Ching-tu, the central town of Ssu-chuan, would have to traverse a distance of about five hundred miles with torrents, floods, landslips, and robbers.

In February 1883 the expedition under British agent in south-western China, from Ssu-chuan to western Yunnan A.Hosie was delivered by British Government. Hosie remarked in his report that the water were little available for purposes of irrigation. Hosie pointed hostility of the local population to foreigners. The aim of expedition he formulated by the following words: ‘to visit new markets for British manufactures, and to endeavor to discover how these markets could best be reached. It is admitted by every traveler in the western and south-western provinces of China that Ssu-chuan is the most important of them all’.

Hosie asked by himself why had not the advantages granted to British commerce by the Chefoo Convention, which gave the great impulse to trade with western China, been utilized? Simply because ship-owners did not care risk their vessels west of Ichang, the highest open port on the Yangtze. Previously British traders transferred their manufactures in junks all the way from Ichang to Chunking, a journey which occupied from one to two months. But there was no any guarantee that the goods would be transferred successfully.

In December 1885 the new expedition was delivered from Peking to Yunnan under Mr. Bourne. In 1892 A.E.Pratt went as naturalist a voyage to Ssu-chuan.

In the middle of the 80-s of the XIX century the British started to research Chinese eastern coast. The interest to this region was stipulated by French activity in Indo-China. The French occupied port Foochow. It was the British Government initiative that several missions were delivered in Chekiang by E.H.Parker, Esq. of H.B.M. Consular Service. The first one was sent January 29 1883 from Foochow to Wenchow through central Fukien. The second one was organized in November 11 1883 from Wenchow to Chekiang. According to the report there were all necessary conditions for development of foreign trade. There was no any hostility of local population; most houses were prosperous. Local population didn’t’t wear western cloth. Zhejiang province was provided everything except coal, iron and opium.

January 11, 1884 Parker made his third travel from Wenzhou to Fijian. Referring to opium trade in Fujiang he stated that turnover of opium trade was not considerable. Parker described in details all villages, and drawn attention to the fact that this information will be useful in the future for travelers.

In 1887 British Consul I.L.Oxenham went on travels by Huanghe till Chungking.

In the 80-s of the XIX century Great Britain drawn special attention to the Upper Burma’s region and the roads to south-western China. The former colonial officer of British Burma’s administration Colquhoun A.R. and engineer of Civil Works Department in India H.Hallett went on travels in 1882 from Canton to Rangoon. Returned to England Colquhoun A.R. sent his proposal to Chamber of Commerce of Great Britain to investigate the question of railway building between Rangoon and south-western China through Shan states. His proposal was approved by Chambers. According to preliminary calculation the cost of works was about seven thousand pound sterling, one half of this amount must be presented by Chambers of Commerce, and another part must be contributed by the Government.

In the end of 1884 Hallett and Colquhoun received 3,5 thousand of pounds from Chambers of Commerce for investigation of railway building. They found important information about climate, population, minerals. They drawn special attention to liking. From their point of view penetration of British goods into China depended on amount of this tax. The difficulty of liking question substantially explained British traders’ interest in railway building. In case of this building it’d be possible to avoid the payment of liking transferring goods to internal China. Colquhoun daily telegraphed to The Times about its expedition.

It’s very important to mark that foreign trade in China was prevented from development by absent of transport infrastructure in China. British attempts to start railway building in China, Burma and Shan states were not successful. The funds contributed by British businessmen for investigation of railway building possibility were lost. Chinese government considered that railways must be built by Chinese themselves. The British trade circles more than once applied to its government for request to solve the concession question for shaft mining and railway building in China. They considered the revision of treaties concluded between England and China as the first step in solution of this problem.

When Hallett and Colquhoun returned to Great Britain in the spring 1885, they looked for support of their plan of railway construction. At the Royal Geographical Society meeting November 16, 1885 Hallett reported about possibility of railway construction between Burma and China stated that it’s very important for England ‘to open and develop … trade with south-western China’. Geographical Society resolved to approve railway construction and estimated expenses as one million pounds.

In May – June 1890 British vice-consul W.D.Archer traveled from Chengtong in Laos to Changmai. The main task of this expedition was to establish friend commercial relations with local administration and trade circles of Yunnan and compose necessary maps. Military missions were sent by England to Burma. For example to Loilem (150 kilometers from Mandalay).

Some missions were sent to Manchuria. The explorers tried to research if there was friendly attitude of nomads towards British traders and Russia and their attitude to foreigners in general. In September 1885 Colonel D.Yanghusband and Fulford made their travel to south and eastern Manchuria. They went from north Manchuria to unknown Manchuria region through Petunia and Sungari. In 1887 another mission of Yanghusband was sent to this region.

At the same time the expedition of H.I.James (Bombay Civil Service officer) was sent to Manchuria. James stated in his report that Manchuria population was about 12 or 13 million people. This information he received from British Consuls’ and missionaries reports. Manchuria area exceeded Austria and Great Britain’s one. August, September and October were only goods months for trade because of absent of rains and snow. Manchuria was rich of minerals, iron, gold, coal, forests.

In June 1887 the expedition of Captain Durant, captain M.Smith and D.Robertson was sent from Manchuria to Kashgaria accompanied by F.I.Yanghusband and 50 cavalrymen. At the same time mission of Colonel S.Bell was sent through Shanxi, Shenxi provinces. All way took 113 days. Two expeditions were combined at the end of the way.

Other expeditions

British traders expected that Tibet and bordering territories (Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan) become outlet for British textile in the future.

Sikkim was situated between Nepal and Bhutan bordering with Tibet in the north. England was interested to support peace in the board of Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim and Tibet. Due to the fact that in period of local disorders in the first half of XIX century England assisted Sikkim to return part of its territory she received an edge on other European states in this region. The Englishman A. Campbell was appointed superintendent of Sikkim.

The British were looking for trade marts in Tibet. In 1886 Colman Macaulay, leading a mission for the purpose, entered Sikkim en route to Tibet. In 1885 Macaulay under decision of convention of 1876 received from Tsungli Yamen passport, organized armed squadron of 300 soldiers and intended to go to Tibet, but faced with the Tibetans hostility. His mission was sent Sikkim to find if the rumor about decline of British trade in this region was truth or not and research possibility to go to Tibet directly. Moreover the mission was to set good relations with Tibet administration and send friendly message from India Administration. Macaulay was met in the friendly manner. He received all necessary information about trade between Tibet and India. By the order of British Ministry of Foreign Affairs he visited Beijing and received from Chinese government approval to be in Lhasa for three months for setting of good relations with Chinese resident and administration of Tibet and research question of free trade in Tibet for Indian traders and their security.

In 1886 mission accompanied by small guard was sent to Tibet. It passed south-eastern board of British Upper Burma. However Tibetan authorities considered it as invasion of Great Britain into Tibet and put obstacles in the way of expedition. They sent armed squadron to Lingtu and blocked the road to gorge declared that the Englishmen should stop any trade between Tibet and India. Chinese government was afraid that England used this situation as ground for military invasion to Tibet. The Tibetans refused to negotiate with Englishmen.

The British formed the Sikkim expeditionary force in March 1888 to evacuate Tibetans from Lingtu and sent 2000 men under brigadier General Graham. Sikkim’s relation with Tibet worsened. They stopped the yearly presents for Sikkim Raja. The weakness of Tibetans was obvious.

According to convention of 1886 between England and China the latter recognized England’s sovereignty over Burma; Great Britain refused to send its plenipotentiary to Tibet. In 1890 Qing government appointed its representative for assistance to England in Tibet question. March 17, 1890 there was signed convention in Calcutta about Sikkim confirmed British protectorate over Sikkim. These two conventions besides regulation of board question between Tibet and Sikkim included article about British right to trade with Tibet. Opening Yatung allowed British traders to move freely and leave in trade settlements in Tibet.

The report was read at the Royal Geographical Society’s meeting January 18, 1886 about D.Scott’s travel to Tonquin in 1885. The traveler described in details geographical conditions in Tonquin, its water system, villages, climate. He drawn his attention to the place of Tonquin in British trade in the Far East. Scott stated that in spite of expectations of British traders Tonquin region was not rich of minerals, gold, silver or tin. North provinces of Tonquin were as before unknown.

In 1890 A.R.Agasis went from Tonquin to Canton. In his report before Royal Geographic Society he described in details military fortifications of Tonguing. In 1891 one more expedition of lord Lamington went to Tonguing through Shan states. He visited Siam and Changmai. In 1888 expedition of S.Stringer was sent to Laos.

At the same period the Englishmen sent several ethnographic expeditions to Formosa. Member of Maritime Customs G.Taylor read his report at the meeting of Royal Geographical Society in 1889 about his trip to Formosa. He marked hostility of local population to the expedition. Local tribes of Taiwan were differed from continental Chinese. According to Taylor report there was flat in the west of Formosa. The north of the island was hilly covered by tea plantations. The island was rich of coal, iron, sulfur, mineral oil, gas, cuprum, gold, rubies and amber. Taylor thought that local population was Malayan in origin.

Scaled penetration of western powers to internal regions of China beginning from Franco-Chinese contradiction 1884-1885 opened south-western China to the West became the second phase of ‘opening’ China after opium wars. In 1884 the Times wrote that ‘the last 16 years, we are in a different position to-day from that of the period of the last war with China, when public attention was largely directed to that country. Since 1868 the travels of Cooper, Margery, Richthofen, Garnier, Dupius, Gill, Baber, Szechenyi, Ney Elias, the members of the Chinese Island Mission, and the latest explorer of southern China , have thrown a flood of light in interior China. Much remains yet to be done. But inner China no longer presents to the gaze of the European public a dead blank. She no longer is the enigma which she was in 1857, when the allied forces were before Canton, or in 1868, when the “Chinaman in pigtail”, Cooper, first made his way to the Tibetan border".

Faced with some problems in Qing Empire the British politicians realized that there was great necessity to study China, its traditional society, to form pro-British circles of Chinese compradors, to create some mechanisms allowed to influence Chinese policy and economy. To execute this task it was necessary to send scientific expeditions to research internal trade routs and location of the most strategically important objects.

The aim of British policy in China was to find support of Chinese local administration and Chinese compradors. This fact demonstrated Britain’s ability to use old management forms in new historical conditions. During expeditions there exploring of minerals took place in Chinese provinces. The Englishmen tried to understand if there will be possibility to find potential customer of British goods and outlet and market of cheap labor in China in the future. There was the task before Britain to research internal regions of China, and the ways of wide distribution of British influence in China and neighboring regions after its final opening for foreign goods and foreign capitals.

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