In a first-rate piece of historical detective work, Patrick Hase has uncovered a
previously unknown colonial atrocity: the brutal suppression of a ragtag force of Chinese
villagers opposed to the British occupation of the New Territories. Fought between
14 and 19 April 1899, the war eventuated in no deaths on the British side but 500 or
more on the Chinese. Hong Kong’s military authorities mismanaged the campaign from
the outset. Intelligence was ‘a conspicuous failure’, provisions to the British side were
handled poorly, command was ‘unclear and imprecise’, and artillery was poorly handled
(p 3). The reason the British side, which relied almost entirely on rifles and bayonets,
won so easily was because of the skills of Captain E E C Berger and the antiquated
weaponry of the insurgents. Berger fought the campaign in ‘a copy-book way’ (p 119), in
perfect accordance with the writings of Field Marshal Lord Roberts, Charles Calwell,
and Reginald Clare Hart - the leading British military strategists of the age.
Especially significant in terms of Hong Kong’s colonial administration is how the
suppression was covered up so effectively until now. Governor Henry Blake saw the
insurgency as a misguided and poorly planned civil disturbance, preferring that it be
subdued with minimal force. However, Colonial Secretary James Stewart Lockhart and
Lt Col N P O’Gorman, military commander on the ground, saw it as a rebellion that had to
be suppressed, the offending villagers destroyed and their families and villages punished.
Lockhart and O’Gorman read Blake’s orders as giving them permission to launch a fullscale
colonial suppression. The cover-up, which publicly stated that there had been very
few casualties, began from the beginning of the campaign and involved Lockhart,
O’Gorman, and Major-General William Gascoigne. Blake tried to close the matter by
refusing to sanction any retribution for the insurgents, withdrawing the military completely
from the region, and never mentioning the fighting when meeting with village leaders. The
government did not want the war to ruin the image of a peaceful administration of the New
Territories, and the villagers decided very quickly that the insurrection had been a bad idea.
The only military campaign in Hong Kong until the Japanese invasion in 1941 thus
disappeared from the official and public memory.
This book when combined with Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841 - 1880 should appeal to anyone interested in the history of Hong Kong, the
British Empire, and colonialism in general. Grounded firmly in Hong Kong's unique
geographical and cultural context, they address larger questions about the administration
of justice, anti-colonial resistance, and state-society relations.