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Saturday, 13 October 2012


“Polymath” is the word regularly applied to my 3x great uncle John. He turned his agile mind to everything from translation to devising Britain’s decimal currency. He was an active industrialist and politician; and in the latter capacity he was both a trouble-maker and a trouble-shooter for the British government.

There’s not much more trouble you can make than dragging your country into a war. That’s what Uncle John did in 1856 while governor of the British colony of Hong Kong – the Second Opium War, all his doing, raged on until 1860. It was sparked by his rather high-handed, imperious stand-off with his opposite number the Chinese Imperial Commissioner in Canton. That typically British imperial over-confidence may have been encouraged in him by his success as a negotiating trouble-shooter the year before.

Sir John Bowring 1792-1872
trouble-shooter and trouble-maker
sculpted in 1857 by François-Félix Roubaud

In 1855 Sir John was dispatched to Siam (modern-day Thailand) to negotiate a trade treaty with the country’s King Mongkut. It was a fairly one-sided negotiation, if the truth be told. Britain had recently demonstrated its military might in the region with victory in the First Opium War. Its response to a failed negotiation with Siam five years earlier was the threat of gunboat diplomacy – the same threat with which Sir John triggered the Second Opium War in 1856, and the same threat which now helped to conclude what's now known as the Bowring Treaty.

The treaty opened Bangkok up to international trade, and other diplomats more or less duplicated the Bowring agreement in negotiating for their own countries. In return, Siam’s independence was guaranteed by the most important world powers of the time. So in effect my great great great uncle’s work kick-started the modern economic development of Thailand and trade in general across Southeast Asia (the Second Opium War notwithstanding!).

L-R: Anna Leonowens (1831-1915) painted c1900 by Robert Harris);
King Mongkut of Siam (1804-1868) photographed c1865 by John Thompson)

One of the unexpected benefits of the new British freedoms within Siam was the employment of an English schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, in the education of King Mongkut’s wives and children. She taught at the royal court in Bangkok from 1862 to 1868, and her experiences there were fictionalised by author Margaret Landon in her 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam. The novel was filmed with Irene Dunn as Anna and Rex Harrison as the king in 1946, and the film’s success prompted the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein to write a stage musical with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in the lead roles.

Anna played by Irene Dunne, Gertrude Lawrence and Deborah Kerr

Their musical The King and I opened in 1951 and a film version was released five years later with Brynner again as Mongkut and Deborah Kerr taking on Anna in place of the late Gertrude Lawrence. Two other screen interpretations of the story, both called Anna and the King, have been made: a 1972 TV series with Brynner playing opposite Samantha Eggar, and a 1999 non-musical film adaptation of the Landon novel, with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. A cartoon version of the musical appeared in 1999 with Miranda Richardson voicing Anna and Martin Vidnovic the king. (Christiane Noll sang Anna's songs.)

Anna played by Samantha Eggar, Miranda Rchardson and Jodie Foster

Just think, if it hadn’t been for Sir John Bowring’s diplomatic skills and Britain’s naval rule of the south-east Asian waves, we might never have had a Second Opium War. But nor might we have had such show-stopping songs as Hello Young Lovers and Getting To Know You. History is full of what-ifs.

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!)

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