British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by B.D. Wilson
The Acquisition of the New Territories
of Hong Kong
New Territories Map
Amidst the welter of expeditionary forces, minor wars and punitive actions that characterised British colonial expansion of the 19th century, the skirmishing that attended the lease of the New Territories of Hong Kong from the Empire of China can claim little attention as far as military action is concerned, but since the whole affair was designed to avoid fighting, its lack is all the more exemplary. By the convention of Peking in 1898, a modest document of some two dozen lines or so, China agreed to lease to Great Britain for 99 years an area of land north of the Crown Colony of Kowloon which lies on the mainland a mile across the harbour from the island of Hong Kong. The Treaty went on to state that the exact boundaries of the lease territory were to be settled by a Commission. It is interesting to note that no financial or other consideration was specified in return for the lease.

The Acquisition of the New Territories
of Hong Kong
Sir James Haldane Stewart Lockhart
In March 1899, Mr J.H. Stewart Lockhart, Colonial Secretary of the Government of Hong Kong, was appointed the representative of Great Britain for fixing the boundaries of the extension to the Colony. A fluent Cantonese-speaker, he had already visited the area the previous year in August, which is probably the hottest month, sailing in a naval frigate round the indented coastline and up estuaries which these days would appear impossible to enter. A comprehensive report was produced concerning the inhabitants, the geography, agriculture, communications and existing administration. Now, in company with Mr Wong Tsun Shin who had been deputed by the Viceroy of Canton as the Chinese Boundary Commissioner, Mr Stewart Lockhart paid a number of visits to the proposed frontier and induced his opposite number to agree to a natural line following the north bank of the Sham Chun river about 25 miles north of Kowloon. Strenuous efforts to include the town of Sham Chun itself were resisted by Peking, nor was the island of Lin Tin secured although it had for some years from 1830-1840 unofficially formed a useful British base at the mouth of the Pearl River for the unloading of opium and its subsequent distribution in China. The territory obtained was, however, fairly substantial, consisting, with adjacent islands, of some 390 square miles of barren scrubby mountains with well cultivated flat valleys. The east and west sides were bounded by the sea.

The Acquisition of the New Territories
of Hong Kong
Sir Henry Blake
The next step in taking over the territory was for Sir Henry Blake, the Governor of Hong Kong, to despatch Mr May, the Captain Superintendent of Police, to the market town of Tai Po on the east coast. There being no suitable roads, a voyage of three or four hours by sea was the quickest method of travel. Mr May duly proceeded on 24 March with instructions to select a site for a temporary Police station.

The Acquisition of the New Territories
of Hong Kong
Tai Po Policestation
He left a contractor on the site to begin the work of erecting a matshed. This is a familiar Chinese temporary structure, consisting of a bamboo framework with sides and roof of palm leaves, the whole being lashed together with strips of rattan. Surprisingly enough, matsheds are strong, water-tight and very quickly erected. It was, therefore, with some surprise that Mr May discovered on 31 March when he paid a further visit of inspection that no more than the framework was standing. It appeared that the contractor had been intimidated by local villagers who threatened violence if he continued work. A message outlining the position was sent to Mr Stewart Lockhart in Hong Kong, together with inflammatory placards which were found posted in nearby villages. Regarding the matter as serious since it was likely to involve the Government either in strong measures or a loss of face, the Colonial Secretary asked the Governor for permission to visit the Viceroy in Canton. Sir Henry Blake decided to go himself instead and lost no time in telegraphing the news to the British Consul in Canton, a hundred miles away. At 5-30 a.m. next day, 2 April, Sir Henry set sail in HMS Fame, arriving in Canton at 10 a.m. Preparations for his arrival were elaborate and unexpected. Despite the shortness of notice, the two miles of street between the Consulate and the Viceroy's Yamen had been washed and cleaned, and were lined throughout with troops bearing a variety of weapons. Flags on long poles decorated the route which was thronged with people; their bearing was described as "perfectly respectful". The usual ceremonies were observed at the Yamen and the parties settled down to business, with Mr Pitzipios, the British Consul, acting as interpreter. The proceedings were open to the public which packed the great hall.

The Acquisition of the New Territories
of Hong Kong
Canton
Sir Henry Blake had obviously resolved to take a strong line. He began by commenting on the need to continue the existing friendly relations between England and China and even observed that England was China's best friend. In these circumstances he was unable to understand the actions of the villagers in the leased territories, particularly their inflammatory placards. He emphasised that he was not asking for the punishment of those who had posted the placards but that he was asking the Viceroy to exercise his undoubted powers to prevent the leased territory being upset by agitators before the Government of Hong Kong could assume control. To give the Viceroy time to exert himself. Sir Henry proposed to delay the date of taking over. It then transpired that the Viceroy contemplated retaining in the leased territory a number of existing Chinese Maritime Customs Stations. Nothing had been mentioned about their fate in the Convention of Peking or in subsequent negotiations. Not unnaturally, the Governor objected strongly, pointing out that under no circumstances could the Chinese Government continue to collect customs dues in territory leased to a foreign country; that, as soon as the British flag was hoisted, the territory became for the period of the lease as effectually British territory as Government House, Hong Kong. The Viceroy, foreseeing the loss of welcome revenue which no doubt found as ready a home in his private pocket as the public coffers, took the line that, since the point was not covered in the Convention, the Governor's proposals were incorrect. He clinched his argument by stating that, if Sir Henry Blake persisted in his view, then all was at an end and there would be no boundary. The Governor replied that, since the Convention had been agreed upon by the two Governments concerned, it was not in the power of individuals to declare it void. Seizing his opportunity, the Governor applied pressure. Remarking that he had no wish to use language that was not of the most friendly character, he called upon the Viceroy to remove all the offending placards, punish those responsible and provide ample protection for the parties working on matsheds and the survey of roads. A time limit was set, with 17 April as the date for the hoisting of the flag. The Viceroy conferred with his mandarins and eventually gave way, being rewarded with the doubtful news, which he is reported as receiving with great pleasure, that new legislation in Hong Kong would shortly render opium smuggling into China impossible. Thus ended a most successful interview of hours. Sir Henry Blake arrived back in Hong Kong at 10 p.m. that night.

The Acquisition of the New Territories
of Hong Kong
HMS Whiting
With the way ahead apparently clear, Mr May returned to Tai Po on 3 April, taking with him six unarmed Sikh policemen and five Chinese soldiers, the latter being under orders from the Viceroy to protect the matshed and workmen erecting it. Appearances were deceptive. At midnight the Governor received a pencilled note from Mr May's notebook, to the effect that a mob was attacking and that help was needed. At the Government's request. Major General Gascoigne, the General Officer Commanding troops in Hong Kong, himself proceeded to Tai Po in HMS Whiting at 3-30 a.m., accompanied by Mr Stewart Lockhart and a hundred men of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Travelling at 20 knots in dense fog, the Whiting unfortunately struck a rock on her way but managed to continue. The party found one matshed burnt but the other untouched; of Mr May there was no sign. On being informed by villagers that he had returned to Hong Kong, they too left. It transpired that Mr May and his party had been assailed by villagers with stones and other missiles, and that his armed guard of Chinese soldiers had refused to intervene. At the sight of a general concentration of villagers, he and his unarmed party had prudently hidden in the hills until morning when they had returned to Hong Kong, missing the relief party of British soldiers.

The Governor immediately telegraphed the Consul in Canton instructing him to inform the Viceroy of the situation and requesting a sufficient force of Chinese soldiers to maintain order since the Governor was not anxious to install armed British troops or Police in the leased territory until the flag had been formally hoisted. The Viceroy promised 600 soldiers, and the contractor eventually completed the matshed by 14 April. For the hoisting ceremony on the 17th, a public holiday had been proclaimed "by general desire" and a large number of the inhabitants of Hong Kong of all classes bad declared tbeir intention to be present.

The Acquisition of the New Territories
of Hong Kong
HMS Fame
On 14 April, however, Mr Stewart Lockhart received information that there were no Chinese guards on the Tai Po matsheds and that rowdies were about, bent on mischief. These suspicions were only too well-founded, when a Police party sent round by launch found the matsheds once again burnt down. The Governor at once sent in a company of Indians of the Hong Kong Regiment under Captain Berger to join the Police. On arrival, they observed large numbers of what they took to be uniformed Chinese troops, in a position on the hills to the north of Tai Po, together with a battery of guns mounted in a regular emplacement.

The Chinese, who were estimated at 1,000 strong, opened fire which was sustained for a considerable time until the arrival of HMS Fame, bearing Captain Long, the Deputy Assistant Adjutant General, who had come round to arrange the position of the military camp. The Fame landed a party of 16 bluejackets under Lieutenant Keyes, RN, who was later in 1900 to lead another naval detachment at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and to finish his career as Admiral of the Fleet. The Fame opened fire whilst the troops and bluejackets advanced to clear away their assailants who were regularly entrenched. In this successful process, they captured a flag bearing the inscription of one of the local land forces of China.

The Acquisition of the New Territories
of Hong Kong
Matshed
This brief action on 15 April brought Major General Gascoigne to Tai Po, together with another three companies of the Hong Kong Regiment (a regular Indian unit and not to be confused with the Volunteers) and a company of the Asiatic Artillery. The Colonial Secretary also arrived and, without the benefit of Hong Kong onlookers or a public holiday, promptly hoisted the flag. This regularised the position of armed British troops on Chinese soil, which for the next 99 years was to become British territory. A message to the Viceroy to this effect only caused the latter to state that he declined to give any reply.

The Acquisition of the New Territories
of Hong Kong
Tai Po Flag Raising
Shortly after the hoisting of the flag, the British force was again attacked but the firing was from such a distance that no casualties occurred whilst the assailants disappeared when a counter-attack was put in. General Gascoigne not unnaturally returned to Hong Kong, reporting that "he apprehended no serious difficulty". Command of the troops in the field was handed over to the Chief Staff Officer, Colonel The O'Gorman. For the remainder of the brief campaign, Mr Stewart Lockhart continued to accompany the troops acting as Government representative and as general interpreter.

On 17 April the troops pushed further westwards across the mainland up the Lam Tsun valley where at 4 p.m. Captain Berger with 250 Indians of the Hong Kong Regiment met heavy fire at a range of 2,500 yards. A detachment of artillery was sent forward to assist Berger but it unfortunately went in the wrong direction. In the event, the guns were not required. Despite the fact that the Chinese fired almost incessantly for 1.5 hours, pouring in round shot of 3.5 inches diameter from muzzle loaders in addition to musketry fire, the company of the Hong Kong Regiment drove the enemy before them, capturing 3 guns and forcing the Chinese to flee over the pass at the top of the Lam Tsun valley and down the other side to the village of Sheung Tsun. Almost the only casualties were a private and Major Browne, RAMC, who was slightly wounded in the right upper arm by a spent bullet. At any rate the lack of casualties, despite the volume of fire, was attributed to the Chinese concentrating their fire on known paths although no targets could be seen, whilst in fact Captain Berger's troops moved solely over the rough hillsides without using paths. No estimate could be made of the enemy's casualties, since they made it a practice to remove all dead and wounded.

The Acquisition of the New Territories
of Hong Kong
Hong Kong Regiment
Simultaneously with the advance from the east. General Gascoigne was at daybreak on 19 April landed with a force at Deep Bay on the north-west side of the leased area. The force marched through to Castle Peak, a distance of about 10 miles, but finding no opposition embarked again.

Feeling that the battle was departing from them. Colonel The O'Gorman and Mr Stewart Lockhart set forth at daybreak on 18 April to catch up with Captain Berger who had meanwhile reached Sheung Tsun. Rations were brought up and a short halt was made in a courtyard where the troops made themselves comfortable on dry straw. At 2-30 p.m. that day a large force of Chinese was seen approaching. Berger made his preparations and awaited the enemy who advanced in three lines in fairly regular formation, waving banners and shouting loudly. The report says that this was "distinctly a determined advance for Chinamen", being made over a perfectly level plain of dry ploughed land. The enemy opened fire at long range, most with 3.5" diameter shot and jingal fire (Jingal was a musket that required a wooden rest); a few rifle bullets were heard. At 500 yards Berger ordered a couple of ranging shots to be fired. As they appeared to disconcert the Chinese, Berger advanced to place his men under cover in a water course. From there, the Hong Kong Regiment went straight for the enemy who bolted without firing another shot. As fire from the Regiment was controlled, few casualties were inflicted on the Chinese, in accordance with policy not to mow down "misguided creatures, badly armed and untrained to war, a foe utterly unworthy of a soldier's steel". It was clear that the Chinese, who numbered something like 2,600 in this action, had no idea of the power of the modern rifle. Having apparently staked their all on the issue of this action, there was little real opposition from now on. Reliable information disclosed that at least one-third of the enemy had come from the other side of the border. Having lost so much face, it was inevitable that the local villagers should cease resistance to a power which was obviously more powerful than the agitators from China.

The Acquisition of the New Territories
of Hong Kong
Tai Po Government Buildings
Mr Stewart Lockhart busied himself with speaking to the few villagers who had remained behind and in trying to discover the organisation which had set up this opposition. It appeared that even if the Viceroy in Canton had not actually sent the Chinese troops he must certainly have connived at their assistance in the revolt. It remained now to root out the small pockets of resistance. The gates of two walled villages in Kam Tin were blown in. The sequel to this event is that one pair of these wrought-iron gates were removed and eventually found their way to an ancestral house in the south of Ireland where they remained for 20 years until purchased and restored to the village of Kam Tin by Sir Cecil Clementi, a celebrated Governor of Hong Kong. The advance now continued to the villages of Yuen Long, Ping Shan and Ha Tsuen, all of which are now thriving townships. Mr Stewart Lockhart harangued the villagers, who by now had quite changed their tune and were prepared to "kow tow", with the profuse explanation that the trouble had been caused by outsiders from China. The occasional discovery of caches of arms and ammunition belied their explanations. Lieutenant Hillman and a small force of bluejackets caught up with the force, leading a convoy of provisions for the men "but nothing for officers".

Although all armed hostilities had ceased, the inhabitants of the New Territory remained sullen and resentful, even the livestock. It is reported that Major Watson, RAMC, was attacked by a buffalo on April 25 and severely injured. The military force was split up into parties which covered the entire area, visiting villages, collecting arms, posting up proclamations and generally presenting a visible sign of strength with which to keep the peace. It remains to say that handsome tributes were paid to all concerned by the Secretary of State for War and his colleague for the Colonies, in recognition of the speed and moderation with which the whole affair had been handled. The inhabitants of the New Territory, which has since become the New Territories, are now administered as an integral part of Hong Kong and Kowloon, genuinely grateful for the law and order brought by the British.

Author's note

I wrote this in about 1954 whilst District Officer, Yuen Long, on the west side of the New Territories, Hong Kong. In the office I had discovered a series from the turn of the century of Sessional Papers to the Legislative Council, which had somehow survived the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong and are now with the Government Archive. I was fascinated with the lengthy report and summarised it in the above account which originally appeared anonymously in the Summer Edition 1956 of The Volunteer (Journal of the Royal Hong Kong Defence Force). The Devonshire Course in Oxford did not tell me anything about this episode. It is interesting that the District Office, Tai Po (on the eastern side of the New Territories), where I had earlier served 1949-51, was built on the top of the hill at the foot of which Lieutenant Keyes, RN, and his bluejackets had stormed ashore.

B.D. Wilson

General note

For readers unfamiliar with the history of Hong Kong it may be helpful to record that the British flag was first raised on the island in 1841. This was formalized by the Treaty of Nanking, signed in 1842 and ratified the following year, by which the Chinese ceded Hong Kong island to Britain "in perpetuity", for the purpose of facilitating British trade selling opium. In 1860, after two more "opium wars" and when a joint British/French force had reached Peking, the Chinese also ceded "in perpetuity" the tip of the Kowloon Peninsular across the harbour on the mainland, and the adjacent small Stonecutters' Island. But the perceived need by the British for more space and better protection from incursions led to the lease of the 350 square miles of the New Territories.

map of British Empire
New Territories Map, 1898
Colony Profile
Hong Kong
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 73 (April 1997)


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