Object of the Month

“A barren island with hardly a house upon it”: Nineteenth Century Hong Kong

Harbor at Hong Kong Oil on canvas mounted on aluminum

Harbor at Hong Kong

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[ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston, the British foreign secretary in 1841, memorably—and dismissively—described Hong Kong as a “barren island with hardly a house upon it” when the Royal Navy seized the island from China during the 1839-1842 Opium War [First Anglo-Chinese War]. If not a “barren island,” Hong Kong had been a relatively quiet site of fishing, salt production, piracy, and illicit trade up until then; the excellent harbor had become an anchorage for British and American opium traders in the 1830s.

The cession of Hong Kong in the Treaty of Nanjing, signed on 29 August 1842, ending the Opium War and effectively ending the China Trade via Canton (Guangzhou), unalterably changed the history of the “barren island.” The island city rapidly expanded, numbering 33,000 inhabitants by 1851. This painting, from the early period of expansion, and a companion view of the harbor of Macao in the Massachusetts Historical Society collection are attributed to Lam Qua (or Lamqua), a studio name used by three generations of a family of Cantonese artists who painted in the European or “western” style.

The Memory of the Opium War—and the rise of Hong Kong

In China, the memory of the Opium War is a story of national decline and humiliation. Over three years, the Chinese government was defeated in a series of intermittent, but bloody engagements and finally forced to open ports and cede land, including Hong Kong, to Great Britain, all—as the Chinese and many sympathizers in the West saw it—for the purpose of protecting the illegal, but enormously profitable opium trade making China a nation of drug addicts. British merchants, and in their wake American ship captains and traders, saw their role as supplying the large demand for opium in China, and moved their operations from Canton to Hong Kong. The treaty that ended the Opium War ratified the seizure of Hong Kong and was the first of many “unequal treaties” with encroaching foreign powers that would follow. Hong Kong became a thriving center of trade—considered an exemplar of unfettered business enterprise in the West, but, for more than 150 years, in China a symbol of foreign exploitation.

The Massachusetts Historical Society enters the fray

In the fall of 1841, 74-year-old John Quincy Adams, a former U.S. president then a representative from Massachusetts in Congress, agreed to present a public lecture in Boston on behalf of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Since 1802, Adams had been, when his diplomatic and political career allowed it, an active member of the MHS. While his address was the first in a series of lectures on American history designed to raise funds for the Historical Society, Adams chose as his topic the conflict then underway between Great Britain and China—the Opium War.

Earlier the same year, Adams had made his famous defense before the Supreme Court of the Amistad captives—Africans who had been illegally kidnapped and sold as slaves in Cuba. On 22 November 1841, his audience at the Masonic Temple in Boston, “crowded to overflowing,” probably expected to hear another attack on slavery by “Old Man Eloquent,” but they were in for a surprise. Adams launched into a vigorous defense of the conduct of the British government in their relations with China, denying that the illegal opium trade was the cause of the war. He argued that the Chinese government recognized “no such Law [of Nations]” and that its “hereditary, patriarchal despotism” had brought the conflict upon itself by demanding the “Ko-tow”—the complete submission of the representatives of “barbarian” nations to Chinese supremacy—making normal diplomatic relations impossible.

In recording the events of 22 November in his diary, John Quincy Adams expressed his relief that his lecture “was heard without manifestation of disapprobation,” even though it ran “directly contrary to the strong current of popular opinion in this Country and will be handled without mercy by political antagonists.” John G. Palfrey, the editor of the Boston-based North American Review, originally had suggested that John Quincy Adams write an article for the Review about the conflict between China and Great Britain, but he clearly was taken aback when Adams forwarded to him the manuscript of his argument that Britain had a “righteous cause.” Palfrey, who questioned whether the “unsocial and selfish” policies of the Chinese government justified British military action, prevaricated, knowing that Adams was about to return to Washington.

John Quincy Adams’s address never appeared in the North American Review, but it was published in part, without his permission, in the 4 December 1841 issue of the Quarto Notion, George Roberts’s Boston literary newspaper. Even that excerpt of the talk took up three entire pages of the Notion, concluding with what Adams described as the “monitory lesson, written upon a beam of phosphoric light—of preparation for war and preservation of peace.”

China Trade materials at the Massachusetts Historical Society

Soon after the acquisition of important manuscript collections previously held by the Museum of the American China Trade in Milton, Massachusetts, Katherine H. Griffin compiled an overview of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s related holdings, “Manuscripts on the American China Trade at the Massachusetts Historical Society,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, v. 100 (Boston, 1988), 128-139.

Current information about the Historical Society’s China Trade holdings can be located by searching collection guides (manuscript and photograph collection descriptions and inventories) and the Historical Society’s online catalog, ABIGAIL, for the phrase “China trade.”

Further reading

Adams, John Quincy. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: Digital Resources

John Quincy Adams’s extraordinary—and extraordinarily long—diary has never been published in its entirety, although a project now is underway to compile a complete online edition of verified and searchable transcriptions. [See The John Quincy Adams Digital Diary for transcriptions of entries from September 1817-December 1829; with more transcriptons forthcoming.] There is an online digital collection presenting digital facsimiles of the entire diary (51 volumes), which is quite legible until the very last years of Adams’s long life. [See The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection; this website has a date search tool and browse options for all volumes, 1779-1848.] The Adams Papers Digital Edition includes verified transcriptions for the first 10 years of the diary. [See the Adams Papers Digital Edition Browse Volumes page, for the Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1779-1788.]

Adams, John Quincy. “J. Q. Adams on the Opium War.” Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, October 1909–June, 1910. Vol. 63. Boston: Printed for the Society, 1910, 295-325.

A detailed account of the background and publication history of John Quincy Adams’s address, including a transcription of Adams’s manuscript of his lecture.

Christman, Margaret C. S. Adventurous Pursuits: Americans in the China Trade, 1784-1844. Washington: For the National Portrait Gallery by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984.

Crossman, Carl L. The China Trade: Export Paintings, Furniture, Silver & Other Objects. Princeton: The Pyne Press, 1972.

Dolin, Eric Jay. When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail. New York: Liveright, 2012.

Layton, Thomas N. The Voyage of the Frolic: New England Merchants in the Opium Trade. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Layton gives a clear description of the operations of American vessels engaged in the opium trade in the 1840s.

Lovell, Julia. Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China. New York: The Overlook Press, 2014.

Lovell’s account is especially helpful for understanding how the long shadow of 19th-century European (and American) intervention in China influences present-day diplomatic relations.

Platt, Stephen R. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Platt concludes his recent study of the Opium War with Adams’s “remarkable” speech, noting that because of his prominence, Adams’s “absolute heresy” in the eyes of the public (supporting the British) would later be “frequently mistaken as representing those of Americans at large.”

Tsang, Steve. A Modern History of Hong Kong. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

Wilkinson, Endymion. Chinese History: A New Manual. Fifth Edition. Endymion Wilkinson, 2018.

Wong, John. Global Trade in the Nineteenth Century: the House of Houqua and the Canton System. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2016.