Maria's Diary 34
Last Months in Hong Kong
As ’midst the ever rolling sea,
The eternal isles established be,
’Gainst which the surges of the main
Fret, dash, and break themselves in vain—
Papa proceeded to Manila, on a visit chiefly with a view to the extension of the trade of the islands with Great Britain. Manila had been the only port accessible to foreigners, but the more liberal policy of the Spaniards had opened the harbours of Sual, Iloilo, and Zamboanga, which Papa visited in H.M.S. Magicienne.
He wrote to Edgar, “Large bodies of troops welcomed my landing, a carriage and four to drive to the palace. I am getting young again with the reminiscences of Spain in my memory.” By the time he returned in January, 1859, his zeal for spreading the benefits of commercial prosperity to backward Asian lands had fully revived.
He found a despatch from Lord Malmsbury informing him that the government had appointed Lord Elgin’s brother as the first minister plenipotentiary, and he himself was expressly forbidden to enter in any communications with the Chinese authorities. But the news also was that his request for a pension had been granted.
Back at Government House Papa once again succumbed to a fever and was still on his sickbed, where he devoted his time to preparing a book on the Philippines. Elgin treated him in a very off hand way. But Elgin did not stay long, as in March he set off for Europe, and for a while Papa was again in charge. But this was little consolation to him as Lord Malmesbury did not even consult him about matters which he had previously been closely connected with.
In April Papa paid a final visit to Canton, and took Emily and me with him. He wrote “I took the girls to see the ruined and blank site of the factories. It is a sad spectacle; the gardens look as if they had been ploughed up with deep holes and ditches, heaps of broken bricks and dust. The east quarter of the city is quite destroyed.”
He was very upset about Emily’s decision to become Catholic, and her desire to be a nun.
He wrote to Egar, “I cannot understand the light heartedness and complacency with which she contemplates the separation which to me is death as she is lost forever to all of us on earth.”
At the end of April, his replacement arrived at Hong Kong and we were free to leave the colony. On May 3 he formally handed over his duties and set off with me on the journey to England.
Perhaps I can add in a bit more about Lewin’s news here. Lewin married Mary Laura Talbot on the 13 August, 1857. Her father was Admiral Sir Hon John Talbot, and he was a friend of Papa’s from way back. She usually went by the name Laura. They lived in Calcutta where Lewin was the Private Secretary to the Governor General, Charles John Canning. At this time, the Indian Rebellion was taking place, so Lewin was very involved in that.
Edgar had married Sophia Cubbitt in 1853, and they had two children, Edgar born 1854 and Margret Sophia in 1856. Sophia died two months after her baby was born. And now Edgar has recently remarried to Ellen Cubbitt, who was his first wife’s cousin. I can understand with a young baby to raise, how a quick remarriage to someone whom he already knew was quite acceptable.
One of the nicest memories I have of our time in Governor's House was our visit from Albert Smith. He had decided to base one of his show pieces on China, and made a journey for the purpose of collecting material in 1857. Mr. Smith was a leading light of the Garrick Club circle to which both Dickens and Thackeray belonged, and a great friend of the former, although he fell out with Thackeray. He was said to have inspired Dickens to start his enormously successful public readings, but Albert Smith's own line was a little less elevated - his duet with his hand ‘made up’ like an old woman, was a great success with the Chinese girls. In the monotony of Hong Kong's social existence his visit was a welcome break. He said, “Sir John Bowring was civil, and spoke learnedly of the trees and plants in the Botanic Gardens which he had established.” Smith dined convivially at Government House with us and we also invited General van Straubenzee and Charles Jardine. We had great fun about some wine that Papa had received from Japan, which they thought that nothing could be nastier. Upon our request, Albert Smith did a few conjuring tricks, also the thimble-rig with three nutshells and a ventriloquist singing act.
When Mr. Smith prepared to leave on 28 September, the local Chinese, who had learned that the proceeds from a show Smith had put on for the expatriate community at the Hong Kong Club were to go to local charities, organised a spectacular procession to accompany him to the wharf: seated in a sedan chair, with flags ‘setting forth his virtues and talents’ and the sound of firecrackers warding off evil spirits, a fantastical Aladdin procession.
Gifts for his Piccadilly show were generously forthcoming but in spite of the genuine hospitality, Albert Smith told the press he found the place plain and dull. He had had his pocket picked, and found that one friend always carried a hand spike and kept a 'sharp dog'.
A correspondent of the New York Times came to the Governor’s Residence for an interview with Papa and represented in glowing colours Papa’s sociability and intellectuality, alledging that one secret of his unpopularity 'in the detestable society of Hong Kong' was the democratic simplicity he adhered to in his style of living. He wrote “we chatted about literature at Government house, I called his ideas democratic simplicity, because of unpopularity, a more purely intellectual countenance I never saw. A great man out of place in crude Hong Kong. Played second fiddle to Parkes. Full of good ideas, inexperienced administration, out of sympathy with most Europeans, too good natured to fight hard to impose his will. Liberal ideas unsuited to combat.”
Did I feel bad about leaving Hong Kong? No, except for having to leave John Charles and Emily behind, but we knew John Charles would be home again before long. But Hong Kong was not a pleasant place to live. It was on the wrong side of the Sugar Loaf mountain, so the monsoon blows on the south coast and stagnant heat falls on all. Cockroaches are all over everything and mosquitoes never quit. If you have four hours of rain, it is the equivalent of a month’s rain in England. When the sun does come out, it feels like a vapour bath. Clothes get mildewed. I couldn’t wait to get home.
Papa prepared to depart, amid the execrations of a large portion of the European community and the blustering roar of farewell condemnations poured forth by local editors. In one respect he fared even worse than his predecessors. No Governor of Hong Kong was so extravagantly abused as he. The venomous epithets and libellous accusations, continuously hurled at him by the public press (China Mail excepted) until the very moment of his departure, are unfit to be mentioned. It clearly was his personal character rather than his policy that provoked the ire of his political opponents. When he left the Colony, the European community presented neither address nor testimonial, sullenly ignoring his departure, no doubt counting the days until there would be a public auction held at Government House drawing the European community together in sarcastic frolics over our goods and chattels.
The Chinese community, however, stolidly indifferent to the dissentive views of foreign public opinion, came forward right loyally. Two stately deputations of Chinese waited on Papa at the last moment of his departure and expressed the genuine esteem in which he was held among all classes of the native population, by presenting him with some magnificent testimonials including a mirror, a bronze vase, a porcelain bowl and a bale of satin which bore the names of 200 subscribers. The spontaneous character of these presentations was undoubted and did much to cheer Papa's heart. But of course, all those fine gifts are now, with all our personal belongings, at the bottom of the Red Sea.
In April 1859, we planned to leave on the boat, Alma, and return to England for good. We packed up loads of beautiful treasures we had bought during our stay. This included all of Moma’s and Edith’s things that they hadn’t taken back when they left, and all the books and manuscripts that Papa had written during his time here. There were many packing cases. So the night before we were to leave, Emily told Papa she wasn’t going to leave, and that she wanted to become a Catholic nun. He was very upset, and seemed almost beside himself. So that night she ran away. Papa was heart broken, but I kept my promise to her not reveal where she had gone. We had no choice but to get on the ship without her. Papa certainly felt that his children had let him down. I must admit that I was tempted to stay too, and become a nun with Emily. But I couldn’t have left Papa on his own, and felt that my vocation at the moment anyway, was caring for him.