Maria's Diary 31
And still thy rain descends, Thy sun is glowing
Fruit ripens round, flowers are blowing
And as if man were some deserving creature
Joys cover nature.
I find that I cannot tell this story properly without going into politics and in particular Papa’s part in the whole thing.
Papa’s time in China is divided into two parts. In the first part, he was consul to Canton. He had been asked by Palmerston to try to get a new treaty with China, as the one they had following the opium war was not to Britain's advantage, as so many of the Chinese ports were not open to our trading. He seemed confident he could do this. All his life, he was a proponent of open trading, so this was right up his street. He felt that he would accomplish this without much difficulty.
He had nothing but difficulty. The Chinese people were happy with the treaty as it was, and they didn’t want to have more trade. They were self-sufficient, and didn’t need or want the goods that England were trying to force on them – things like cotton and wool garments when they only wanted to wear silk, which they had a great industry in.
One thing made Papa particularly annoyed. All the time he was there, he wasn’t able to visit the inner city of Canton – where the most important people were, and the most beautiful architecture and buildings. He tried asking, and then trying to provide some incentive – like releasing them of back taxes. None of that worked, and he got more and more frustrated. The viceroy of Canton was called Yeh, and he was Papa’s arch enemy.
When Papa came back as Governor, he found out that things had gone from bad to worse in Canton. There were lots of pirate ships that went about their unlawful business in the harbour, and some of them carried a British flag on board, and used it when it was expedient to do so. One of these boats was called the Arrow, and it had tried to force an entry into Canton harbour. It was fired on, but because the flag was showing (some believe it wasn’t) it should have been respected. The crew were imprisoned, and Papa felt he had to do something about it. But nothing seemed to work so in the end, he allowed the navy to fire upon the port, and they did a very great deal of damage, both to human lives and to the structure of the city. The British were blamed for a war labelled the Second Opium War, and Papa was blamed for starting it, although he always says that he only did what he had to do.
He wrote to Edgar, “The problem left unsettled by all my predecessors I have satisfactorily settled and with a very small loss to our naval forces have entered the city of Canton. I think this mode of action more worthy of a Great Nation than the stoppage of duties and disturbance of trade. Out of these troubled waters I expect to extract some healing food.”
Unfortunately the lack of military forces to support the attack made it impossible for Mr. Parkes to control Canton. And OT Lane, Papa’s nephew, had been made consular assistant there, so when the Chinese took revenge and attacked the European quarters in the factories, gutting the consulate, OT was killed when a wall fell on him.
Anyway, the Chinese were very unhappy with the British. They never liked us very well at the best of times. But before long, they devised a plan of getting even. Proclamations were put out offering huge amounts of cash for anyone who could do damage to the Europeans, and especially the British. The European people numbered about 500 on the island. And because they wanted to maintain their usual pattern of life, they wanted to have bread to eat for breakfast. There was one baker who supplied them all each morning with fresh bread. And usually it was wonderful.
The morning of 11 January 1857, we all sat down to have breakfast. Our servants had set out the food as they always do, with bread, butter, marmalade, coffee, fried eggs and bacon for later after the coffee and bread. Mother had a small piece of toast, but said she wasn’t very hungry. The rest of us tucked in and had at least one if not two or even three of the lovely fresh, still warm soft buns that our baker makes so well.
It didn’t take long for us to feel sick - perhaps as little as a few minutes, and then we all were running for the water closets to be violently sick. The vomiting went on and on, and we felt weak and just dreadful. So we sent one of our servants for the doctor to come. Doctor Challdecott came as soon as he could, and said that it was poisoning, and in the bread. He had sent out messages to as many of the Europeans as he could to warn them not to eat the bread, and if they had already done so, to drink mustard in water and eat raw eggs, and that should make us vomit, which of course we tried, and it induced more vomiting. By this time our bowels were active too, and we ached all over. Moma seemed the least infected and although the doctor made her take the treatment, she hadn’t up till that stage vomited. The doctor didn’t stay more than half an hour, as he had many more houses to visit. But we were very upset to find out that other servants had warned their households, but ours hadn’t.
The malaise and stomach pain continued for a very long time - some recovered in weeks and some took months. Moma seemed that although originally she was least affected, she now was unable to get back to her normal digestion. She had such stomach pains that even drinking water and milk was painful for her. The doctor surmised that it was because she had less bread - and therefore, the body didn’t immediately reject the poison as it had with the rest of us. But because her body had digested the poisoned food, it took its toll on her stomach, kidneys and liver and all the other organs. She was hardly able to get out of bed; she was so weak. Her body was covered with carbuncles. She even had a convulsion at one stage and we feared for her life.
Edith and I got well quite quickly but it took Papa many months to feel normal again. But he had to be at his job, because he was the Governor, and needed to sort out the business of catching the poisoners.
Everyone thought it was our baker, Cheong Alum. So there was a hue and cry to get him and kill him. But it turned out that early the morning of the poisoning, he and his family had gone off on the ferry to Macau. He was apprehended and they were brought back. Papa insisted that the letter of the law be held and that he should have a fair trial.
All those associated with his bakery were rounded up and imprisoned until the trial could take place. According to some, that meant being thrown into a dark hole of a dungeon, where 50 people could hardly stand up, and there was little ventilation and nowhere to go for the normal needs of the body. The District Attorney said they were in the only room available for that big a group, but it wasn’t a dungeon, and although it was stuffy, there was some ventilation, and they were fed.
It was important that the trial take place soon, so the various lawyers got to work. No one doubted that it was Cheong who did it. We all expected him to be hung, and he himself must have felt that too, as he asked if he could be beheaded instead of hung - as that was the usual corporal punishment for the Chinese.
Cheong was a very well respected man, so many people were prepared to give testimonials to his character and say they felt that he must have been set up. He always denied his guilt, and said they left because they heard early on of the poisoning and knew they would be suspected, so he wanted to get his family safe.
There were three main possibilities. One was that he had done it. One was that someone else either in his employ or from a different baker had done it to frame him, and the third was that it had somehow happened by accident.
They knew that every bit of food and machinery were tested for the poison which was arsenic, but none was found in the flour, or any other ingredients or any of his equipment except for the final bread mixer. So the arsenic, which is colorless and tasteless and looks very like flour, was added just as the last mix was being done before the bake.
Because about 300 people had been poisoned, there was no way that we could all be the people accusing him so one man James Carroll Dempster, the colonial surgeon, who had been poisoned, was to take the part of the accuser for all of us.
There was very little in evidence to charge Cheong, and in the end the jury found him not guilty. What a shock! But as he was considered still a dangerous character, he was sent back to the jail. Papa was asked to have him sent from Hong Kong, and he decided to do it immediately, and so that matter was closed.
No one else was blamed for the poisonings, but it was felt that a consortium of disgruntled Chinese bakers had worked together on it.
But the tension between the Chinese and us was as high as ever. They were put under a sharp curfew, and people were allowed to lock their servants up at night. The police were allowed to shoot any Chinese out after curfew which started at 8 pm if he looked at all suspicious.
We had three guests staying with us as well at the time of the poisoning, and they of course got ill too. The symptoms were rocking headache, pains in limbs and bowel. Several of our servants got arsenic poisoning too, which showed that not all had known of it in advance.
Two children who had a second portion of bread were in risk of their lives for several days.
Papa was blamed because he was the one who gave the order for the firing on Canton. So the British Government censured him for going beyond his remit, and the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, who tried to defend him, was forced out of office. Papa was removed from his job, although when Palmerston got in again, he was reinstated as Governor, but Lord Elgin, was given his plenipotentiary role.
Edgar wrote a long letter to the Times, defending Papa’s position, but Frederick felt that Papa had made a very bad mistake, and this made a bit of a rent in their relationship.
Papa wrote to Edgar, “ How to thank you for your devoted kindness, I really know not. How proud I am of your ability and readiness - how pleased I am of these marks of your affection and devotion. The way I have been personally marked out as a target is characteristic of the animus displayed. There was no step in which the Admiral was not consulted, and he was the actor, not I, who had no power to control the action if I departed from it - which I never did.”