Establishment of the Colony
The Portugese had been the first European power involved in establishing relations in the area. They managed to create a trading factory and concession at Macao from 1557. There were many goods that could be acquired relatively cheaply and sold for many more times its price back in Europe; silk, spices, tea, etc... The other European nations wanted to get involved and to take a cut of the huge profits that were being made by the Portugese. The English East India Company sent their first ship to Macao in 1635 but found it difficult and prohibitive to engage trade with the Portugese. Trading directly with the Chinese was not much easier. Trade was restricted to the port of Canton where English traders had to deal with one of 13 merchants selected by the Chinese government. These were referred to as the 'Hong'. For the Eighteenth Century, the English East India Company had a monopoly of British trade from Asia at least which in many ways counter-balanced the Chinese trading restrictions. However, in 1833 the British government ended the East India Company monopoly and traders rushed to fill the vacuum.

These traders would become known as Taipans and they competed voraciously to get hold of the precious Chinese commodities. Unfortunately, they did not have many products that were of interest to the Chinese - silver was preferred but was in short supply. Therefore, many of the Taipans resorted to using Opium as a trading commodity. The Chinese government was concerned at the debilitating effects of the drug and wished to prevent the inflow of Opium into the country. To this end, in 1838 they appointed a new Imperial High Commissioner to Canton, Lin Tse-hsu, to stamp out the importation of Opium.

The British traders were to use his policies as an excuse to force the Chinese government to relax its restrictive trade practices. The so-called Opium War started in 1839 and lasted until 1842. The Royal Navy was able to impose its will on the unsophisticated Chinese fleet. As a result, the British were able to make demands upon the Chinese government before lifting their blockades and stopping the bombardment of important ports. The Chinese agreed to cede the rocky island of Hong Kong to Britain as a free port with rights of trade to the mainland. In fact, both the Chinese and British negotiators got into trouble. Kishen, the Chinese negotiator, was blamed for ceding inviolable Chinese territory to the foreigners. Whilst Charles Eliot, the British negotiator, was lambasted for acquiring such an unpromising rocky outcrop with virtually no indiginous population and no history as a port whatsoever. Over time though, the acquisition would prove invaluable to the British.

Phenomenal Growth
On taking possession of the island, it was estimated that the population was no more than 1,500 who mostly made their living from fishing. Disaster seemed to afflict the early colony especially when a number of Typhoons devastated the flimsy wooden structures that had been hastily thrown up. However, the increase in trading activity continued to act as a spur to the growth and development of the fledgeling colony. By just 1844, the population had increased twelve-fold to 19,000.

It was not just British traders who were attracted to the colony. Other European traders took advantage of the free port and ease of establishing businesses on the island. Chinese labourers from the mainland were attracted to work on the infrastructure and for the companies themselves. The island also became a means of emigration for many Chinese who could board ships for Singapore, Malaya, California or Indonesia. The Tai Ping Rebellions brought another wave of refugees who sought to escape the instability of the mainland. By 1861 the population had grown to 120,000 and space was beginning to be an issue.

The British sought to expand their foothold, and the Second Opium War with China provided just such an opportunity. In 1860, the Peking convention was signed which ceded to Britain the Kowloon peninsula (up to Boundary Street) and Ngon Sun Chau. Britain had now acquired land on the mainland of China itself - and this was to be in perpetuity. This provided some additional space for building and allowed the port facilities to expand. Although it was still not enough and in 1898 the British leased the New Territories together with 235 islands for a period of 99 years.

The beginning half of the twentieth century saw further turmoil in China as the 1912 revolution occurred and a period of political instability ensued. The Japanese invasions saw yet more refugees head towards the British colony. By 1939, the population had risen to 1.6 million.

World War Two and the Cold War
World War Two saw Hong Kong fall to the Japanese. They attacked Hong Kong as part of their coordinated attacks across Asia on December 7th, 1941. The isolated colony fell on Christmas Day 1941 and was under occupation until August 1945. During the brutal Japanese regime, the population of the colony fell to just 600,000 most of whom were suffering from malnutrition. The colony's economic activity had shrivelled to virtually nothing and there was little functioning infrastructure remaining.

Hong Kong's population recovered with yet another flow of refugees. This time it was the end of the Nationalist government of China as the resurgent Communist forces seized control of China proper. By 1950, the population of Hong Kong swelled to 2.3 million.

At first, the Communist revolution in China was assumed to be a disaster for the small colony that had thrived on moving goods between the mainland and the wider world and yet, over time it proved able to adapt to the new situation. Much of this was due to the development of light industries that drew on the pool of cheap labour especially as their competitors on the mainland had been all but removed from the economic scene.

Economic discontent of workers did spill into open confrontation in the 1960s and it became dangerously political during the years of the Cultural Revolution in China. The government of the colony felt compelled to improve the living and working conditions of the population to head off further violent disturbances. Housing projects, public works and labour legislation helped diffuse tensions and allowed the colony to once again prosper.

The Return to China
Technically, it was just the New Territories that was due to return to Chinese control in 1997 as per the 1898 agreement. However, the Communist Chinese government made it a priority to recover the entire colony of Hong Kong and would not cede anything less during diplomatic negotiations. The government of Margaret Thatcher did actually consider retaining the Kowloon and Hong Kong Island part of the colony but the infrastructure and administrative difficulties would have been so difficult to overcome that it would have made the rump colony economically worthless. The British government finally conceded that it had more to lose than gain by hanging on to the original two parts of the colony and finally signed the Chinese British joint declaration on December 19th, 1984 that provided for the return of all the ceded and leased territories to China on July 1st 1997. There would still be much diplomatic wrangling over the extent of democracy that should be allowed in Hong Kong, but the British government's attempts at reforms were too little and too late and were largely ignored by the Chinese who assumed control of the colony as a Special Administrative Region directly under the central government.

Hong Kong was the last significant and economically viable colony to leave the British Empire. Although there are still small dependent colonies scattered about the globe to this day, the Imperial adventure effectively ceased in 1997 with the return of Hong Kong to China.

Imperial Flag
map of Hong Kong
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1843 - 1997
1843 - 1997
Images of Imperial Hong Kong
Historical Hong Kong
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National Archive Hong Kong Images
Company School Paintings
The Opium Wars (BBC)
Chinese Box
The Acquisition of the New Territories of Hong Kong
B.D. Wilson gives a detailed account of how Britain acquired the New Territories for Hong Kong in 1898/9. Technically, they were leased from China but no money ever changed hands and the British found that they had to fight to claim the land in a brief but potentially dangerous six day war.

Brian Wilson explains how the Chinese fascination and enthusiasm for fireworks and firecrackers had to be tamed and tempered by British authorities during their period of administration.

The Dinner Party
John Grieve explains the finer subtleties and intricacies of arranging the seating plans for a formal dinner when a diverse set of guests have been invited to dinner with the Governor of Hong Kong.

Re-housing in Hong Kong
Brian D Wilson explains how the Hong Kong administration had to respond to the massive influx of refugees with the fall of Nationalist China in 1949 and find housing for a swelling population in a territory with finite and limited land resources.

Go Away and Think About Hong Kong!
Dan Waters explains how unlikely it was that he ended up in Hong Kong, the old fashioned journey to take up his new post and how he ended up remaining there for over a half a century!

  • Ghosts of the Past
    Brian D Wilson relates how he had to resort to implementing traditional Chinese practices after receiving complaints of a government building being haunted by ghosts.
  • Timeline
    1841 Hong Kong Ceded to British
    First Land Sales
    Jardine and Matheson establish themselves
    1842 Treaty of Nanking confrims cession
    1843 Royal Charter proclaims Hong Kong as a separate colony. First Governor appointed
    1845 P&0 commence monthly mail route
    1846 Hong Kong Club opens
    1852 Taiping Refugees arrive from China
    1856 Ginger and Coffee farms promoted
    1857 Arrow War with China. 500 Europeans poisoned by Arsenic from a bakery.
    1858 Treaty of Tientsin legalises Opium sales in China
    1860 Kowloon and Stonecutters Island are leased to Britain in perpetuity.
    1862 Battle of Tsim-Sha-Tsui between local Punti and Hakka tribes.
    1863 Jardine, Matheson lay first telegraph lines within colony. Silver dollars issued.
    1865 Hong Kong and Shangai Bank founded
    1867 Chinese blockade Hong Kong.
    1870 Hong Kong to Amoy to Shanghai cable operational.
    1871 Hong Kong to Singapore cable operational.
    1884 Riots in response to Sino-French War. Hong Kong Jockey Club formed
    1895 20,000 coolies strike over lodging house regulations
    1898 New Territories leased to Britain for 99 years.
    1899 Local Chinese oppose British take over. Chinese magistrate and militia expelled from Kowloon.
    1900 Boxer Rebellion. Hong Kong serves as base for Allied forces.
    1910 All opium divans closed. First car arrives in Hong Kong.
    1911 First flight in Hong Kong
    1912 Attempted assassination of Governor
    1918 Fire at Happy Valley Racecourse. 600 are killed.
    1922 Royal visit of HRH Edward.
    1925 Guangzhou-Hong Kong strike until 1926
    1930 First commercial flights.
    1931 Anti-Japanese riots
    1936 Imperial Airways flying boat carries airmail from Britain to Hong Kong.
    1937 Japanese land in New Territories en route to Shenzhen.
    1938 Fall of Shenzhen. Japanese cruiser Myoko visits Hong Kong.
    1939 More Anti-Japanese riots. Conscription for British subjects. Volunteer forces strengthened
    1940 General Norton takes control from civilians.
    1941 Japanese invade Hong Kong.
    1942 Lt General Rensuke Isogai becomes Japanese Governor.
    1943 Japanese rebuild government house.
    1944 Seven British civilians beheaded for possessing a radio.
    1945 Japanese surrender
    1946 Civilian government restored.
    1948 UK ends control over Hong Kong finances
    1949 Chinese communists reach Hong Kong border.
    1950 Immigration controls on Chinese.
    1952 British abandon political reform.
    1965 Large influx of American service personnel due to Vietnam War.
    1967 5 Hong Kong police shot dead by Chinese PLA troops at border.
    1972 Vietnamese boat people begin to arrive.
    1974 Anti-Corruption Commission formed. Hong Kong Dollar floated.
    1980 'Touch Base' policy of allowing illegal Chinese to remain in Hong Kong ends.
    1982 Thatcher visits Beijing to discuss Hong Kong's future.
    1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration signed by Thatcher.
    1986 Queen visits colony.
    1987 British National (Overseas) Passport introduced.
    1989 Tiannemen Square massacre.
    1997 Hong Kong returned to China.
    Further Reading
    Feeling the Stones: Reminiscences
    by David Akers-Jones

    The Changing Scenes of Life: from the Colonial Service to the European Civil Service
    by Keith Arrowsmith

    Hong Kong: The Colony That Never Was
    by Alan Birch

    May Days In Hong Kong: Riot And Emergency In 1967
    edited by Robert Bickers

    For The Record And Other Poems Of Hong Kong
    by Dr Gillian Bickley

    The Golden Needle: The Biography of Frederick Stewart (1836-1889)
    by Dr Gillian Bickley

    Hong Kong Invaded!: A Ninety-seven Nightmare
    by Dr Gillian Bickley

    A Magistrate's Court In 19th Century Hong Kong: Court In Time
    by Dr Gillian Bickley

    Moving House And Other Poems From Hong Kong: With an Essay on New Hong Kong English Language Poetry
    by Dr Gillian Bickley

    Hong Kong Metamorphosis
    by Denis Bray

    An Illustrated History of Hong Kong
    by N Cameron

    Paper Tigress: A Life In The Hong Kong Government
    by Rachel Cartland

    Hong Kong's Watershed The 1967 Riots
    by Gary Ka-wai Cheung

    Myself a Mandarin: Memoirs of a Special Magistrate
    by Austin Coates

    My Colonial Service
    by Sir George William Des Voeux

    A History of Hong Kong
    by G B Endacott

    Hong Kong Policeman
    by Chris Emmett

    Via Ports: from Hong Kong to Hong Kong
    by Sir Alexander Grantham

    Reminiscences and Observations of a Hong Kong Chai Lo
    by John Tudor Griffiths

    The Six-Day War of 1899: Hong Kong in the Age of Imperialism
    by Patrick, H. Hase

    Sir Matthew Nathan: British Colonial Governor and Civil Servant
    by Anthony Haydon

    Foreign Devils: Expatriates in Hong Kong
    by Mary Holdsworth

    A Long Beat - Service to the Crown, Home and Abroad
    by Arthur Hughes Jenkins

    The Battle For Hong Kong 1941-1945: Hostage To Fortune
    by Oliver Lindsay

    Hong Kong Under Imperial Rule 1912 - 1941
    by N Miners

    Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841 - 1880
    by Christopher Munn

    The Last Governor
    by Chris Patten

    Deadly December
    by R. Parker

    Winged dragon: The history of the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force
    by Valerie Ann Penlington

    Another Disaster: Hong Kong Sketches
    by Denys Roberts

    Footprints, the Memoirs of Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke
    by Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke

    Matilda, Her Life and Legacy
    by Joyce Stevens Smith

    Excellency: the Governors of Hong Kong
    by R Spurr

    Colonial Sunset - A Worm's Eye View
    by Ralph Stephenson

    Southern District Officer Reports: Islands And Villages In Rural Hong Kong, 1910-60
    edited by John Strickland

    Of Cargoes, Colonies And Kings
    by Andrew Stuart

    Governing Hong Kong: Administrative Officers from the Nineteenth Century to the Handover to China 1862-1997
    by Steve Tsang

    A Modern History Of Hong Kong
    by Steve Tsang

    Mariners: The Hong Kong Marine Police 1948-1997
    by Iain Ward

    View from the Peak: An Autobiography
    by Phoebe Whitworth

    Hong Kong Then
    by Brian Wilson

    For Hong Kong Items