Purpose one: writing a travelogue to describe my various trips.

Purpose two: muse.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Elliot, Forgotten Father



I was at the Museum of History today. I found the presentation of Hong Kong history to be really good, and the interior was characteristally elegant and clean.

One thing that struck me in the presentation was the somewhat dichotomic approach to figures and events, in the sense that something or someone either failed or succeeded. For instance, both posters and movie presentations referred to Macartney as having "failed," where a Western account may just have said that he had an impossible task and did as well as he could under the circumstances.

It was not surprising, but still disappointing, Elliot should receive such little attention. If Hong Kong has a founding father, it is Charles Elliot. (Not to be confused with the bigotted Eliot that came to Hong Kong much later). Elliot not only was the first to suggest Hong Kong as a suitable location to the Colonial Office, he also defied orders and stipulated its cession at the first convention with the Chinese. He was also the commanding British officer taking possession of the island.

Elliot is a fascinating figure. Although his appointment to China was nepotistic, he dispatched his duties with energy and compunction. Like a 19th century Picard, he acted judiciously, taking his office seriously while maintaining respect for the local population and a policy of peace and restraint.

A case in point is when Dent was stuck in Canton just as hostilities were about to break out. With just four sailors, Elliot proceeded to enter Canton, outmanouvering a small fleet of junks trying to block him. He hoisted the flag over the super-intendent's office, indicating official UK presence and thereby showing government support for the compatriots and making the issue international. It is unclear what would have happened to Dent with a less dutiful plenipotentiary, but Elliot's actions were surely both daring and keen.

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