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Saturday 17 April 2010


I wonder how many of my ancestors have started wars! Of course everyone has family feuds but I’m talking about armed conflict, and specifically international armed conflict.

Sir John Bowring, my 3x great uncle, was a pugnacious polymath, an early proponent of decimal currency for Britain whose views on reforming public accounts were too radical both for the Tories and for his own party, the Whigs. A devout Unitarian, a poet and hymnwriter, a multi-linguist, a railway speculator, an iron magnate … I could fill this blog with his exploits. His public service was distinguished although often controversial; it is sad that much of his good reputation was discredited by events during his last appointment.

Sir John Bowring (1792-1872)

In 1849 he left Britain to take up an position as Consul in Hong Kong, and later as Plenipotentiary in China. By 1854 he was back in Hong Kong as Governor. Britain had imposed some treaties of trade access on China in 1842-43 and was having trouble enforcing them. To Palmerston, the foreign secretary, Sir John’s keen intellect and able negotiating skills must have seemed perfect for the job.

It was not a happy posting for Sir John, one dogged with personal loss and misfortune. Early during his absence from Britain his father and two of his sisters died, and his wife’s health declined so much during their time in the colony that she died without him soon after her return to Britain. Her condition was due in part to an extraordinary Chinese attempt to poison the entire European population of Hong Kong by baking arsenic into their bread, from whose effects she never fully recovered. (It's through Sir John's second wife Deborah Castle that I am related to him.)

Bowring was extremely conscientious and competent in his duties in the Far East, amongst other things concluding an important treaty with Siam. But Mr Yeh, the Chinese Imperial Commissioner of Canton, tested his patience by continuing to block access to the city by British merchants. When Yeh ordered the boarding of  the Arrow, a pirate ship flying a British flag which he suspected of smuggling opium, Bowring decided the time had come to take firm action; he ordered a naval bombardment of the city and occupied it with land troops. Thus began the Second Opium War which rumbled on until the British burnt down the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860.

Imperial Britain attacking Imperial China
in a contemporary Chinese cartoon

Unfortunately Sir John didn’t have the military force to sustain the occupation, and the Chinese retaliated by burning down European properties in Canton including the British consulate (killing a nephew of Bowring’s for whom he had found an appointment there). War junks attacked and massacred the passengers of a postal steamer en route from Canton to Hong Kong; and the arsenic bread was another act of the same war.

Bowring was criticised for his aggressive tactics and relieved of many of his duties. He bitterly resented being sidelined, and more sorrows followed in the deaths of a son, a daughter in law, a brother, and finally of his wife. In 1859, now aged 67, he was relieved of his post and left Hong Kong for good. But even the voyage back to Britain was cursed with bad luck when his ship struck a reef in the Red Sea. All escaped drowning, but his daughter was washed up on rocks in nothing but her nightgown.

I’m afraid this is not a cheerful introduction to Sir John! He really was a remarkable Victorian, and I promise I will return to him in his sunnier days.

 I'm delighted to add in August 2014 that a new biography of Sir John Bowring has just been published. "Free Trade's First Missionary" is written by Sir John's descendent Philip Bowring and deals with his time in Europe and Asia. Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, said of the new book: "This scholarly and very readable biography, written by one of Asia's most distinguished journalists, shows how free trade became part of Hong Kong's DNA." It's published by Hong Kong University Press and is available on Amazon as a real book and also in a Kindle edition. (And this blog is acknowledged in the introduction!)


  1. I look forward to reading your blog. There's so many good true stories, we really shouldn't need fiction!

  2. Hi Lucy (and Dick!) - good to hear from you. I'm lucky to find all these stories in my family history; it's a great oportunity to explore events from the past and see them through the eyes of real people. Sir John was a giant mind, and must have found it very frustrating to find he world wasn't up to his speed! But then, that's the trick, isn't it - being close enough to the beat to influence it?

  3. Fascinating family history! Nice to meet you. And Sir John!

  4. I wish I'd known him - fierce intellect and stood no nonsense, I suspect. Better as an uncle than a father! Thanks for visiting - don't be a stranger.

  5. Sir John Bowring was my Great, Great, Great something Grandfather! I wonder if we are related! Andrew Maclean (my Grandmother's Maiden name was Bowring)

  6. Hi Andrew, what an intersting guy you have as an ancestor. There are so many good stories about him: have you seen my post about him and the invention of decimal coinage? I am only related by marriage - his second wife Deborah Castle was my great great grandfather's sister. But that's good enough for me if I get to write about such a colourful character! (If you want to compare notes about him, I'd be happy to correspond privately - you can reach me via my profile.)

  7. Dear Mr Salter, I have in my possession a letter from Le roy Pierre to either Sir Bowring in 1857 or quoting him. It's hard to read due to it being in pencil and also the old English or french grammar..Do you know who I might consult with to find out about it, or appraise it?
    Thanks you, J Mills

  8. Jill, that sounds intriguing! A starting point might be the Devonshire Association - Bowring was its first president and they ran a conference at the University of Exeter in 1992 to mark the bicentenery of Bowring's birth - there is a book, "Sir John Bowring 1792-1872 - Aspects of his Life and Career," of the papers from that conference. I don't know offhand who Le roy Pierre was, but it might be that one or other of the contributors to that book would be helpful. I think I'm right in thinking that 1857 was during his time as governor of Hong Kong, but he was a busy man and Pierre could be anywhere! (If you want to contact me privately via my blog profile, I'd be happy to go into further detail.) Can you make out any clues in the note? I know the writing of that period quite well, having inherited a lot of letters from the Castle side of the family, and yes, reading and transcribing them is hard but fascinating work. Hope to hear more from you!

  9. What an adventurist spirit was it! Sir John truly was an expert negotiator with a keen sense of business and trade.

  10. Great history of great time un repeatable


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