Sir William Robinson

Sir William Robinson was an unusual appointment in that he had no discernible experience or knowledge of Chinese affairs. Previously he had worked almost exclusively in the West Indies. His last post had been governor of Trinidad. As Hong Kong was to be his last post it was a curious choice.

He displayed little sympathy for Chinese customs, ideas and no aptitude for the language whatsoever. He held condescending views to the majority of the population of the Colony and believed in the innate superiority of European culture. This was made particularly acute when plague struck Hong Kong in 1894. Sir William blamed much of its spread and dispersement to the habits of the Chinese and their efforts at frustrating public health officials from finding and confining afflicted patients. He also was less than impressed with Chinese native medical practice which seemed to offer little hope to those suffering from the plague. The seriousness of the plague outbreak, and the fact that it was afflicting Europeans also, forced Sir William Robinson to cooperate with the Chinese community to help stop its spread. As such, he established a specific plague hospital under Chinese supervision and with Chinese doctors but offering Western medical practices. This went some way to placating Chinese sensitivities whilst offering concrete medical care to the majority of the population should the need arise.

Sir William Robinson insisted that searches of the poor quality housing was essential to find afflicted patients and help stop its spread. Furthermore he refused to permit Chinese to enter or leave the colony concerned with furthering the spread of the disease. This did not endear him to Chinese sensibilities especially when the authorities insisted burying the dead rapidly in mass graves. Culturally this was abhorrent to the Chinese however sensible it may have been from a Public Health perspective. Repeated attempts by Chinese to flee the colony during the plague made the authorities reevaluate their policy. They decided to establish a controlled evacuation procedure under medical supervision. They organised special junks to take patients directly to plague settlements and hospitals in Canton.

The plague subsided during the cooler winters but hung around for a number of years. The fact that it had struck so virulently only increased efforts at slum clearance and public health improvements - although these could be very unpopular with those Chinese who were displaced in the process. Byelaws on the standard of housing and registering lodging houses and accommodation were introduced and rigidly enforced. This actually led to a series of strikes as suspicious Chinese refused to cooperate with the authorities fearing that compulsory registration was a precursor to government increasing taxes and tracking the population. Negotiations were entered into the politically motivated strike but Robinson refused to back down due to the public health concerns. Eventually he was willing to pay new coolies from Canton higher prices to break the strike. This strike was an early example of Chinese popular resistance but it also showed that the British were not going to resort to violence or the prisons to stamp out the challenge. Rather, they resorted to market economics to challenge the strikers.

In the early part of Sir William Robinson's governorship, the Liberal government back in Britain pushed for an increase in the representation of native peoples in the affairs of government. At this point in time, it meant an increase in representation on Legislative Council's such as Hong Kong's. Sir William Robinson vehemently opposed any such suggestion and sought to frustrate its implementation. He did not believe that the Chinese had the capacity or experience for government. Ripon's replacement in 1895 by Chamberlain seemed to offer an opportunity to scotch the proposal. However Chamberlain also insisted on increased Chinese representation. Reluctantly Sir William Robinson agreed to an unofficial Chinese member of the Legislative Council. However a further demanded increase in the Executive Council was also agreed but would only be filled by Europeans. Sir William Robinson had been forced to compromise, but not by much!

Hong Kong was reluctantly dragged into Chinese politics during this decade when Sun Yat Sen attempted to use Hong Kong as a base to organise resistance to Imperial control in China. An amateurish attempt to send agents provocateurs to China was easily foiled in 1895 but the political shenanigans and risks were too much for Sir William Robinson who simply refused Sun Yat Sen to leave to return to the colony.

Important groundwork to expand the colony was laid down during the time of Robinson's governorship. The General Officer Commanding of Hong Kong, General Digby Baker, found a sympathetic ear for a significant expansion of the colony in order to make it more defensible. Indeed, Robinson had considered extraditing Sun Yat Sen and his supporters to Imperial China in return for a possible expansion of territory. However, Joseph Chamberlain was not impressed with this proposal and quietly quashed it.

Haughty and culturally insensitive, Sir William Robinson was nevertheless an effective administrator who was willing to take unpopular decisions and deliver results. He was fair if not always compassionate. In many ways he encapsulated many of the vices and virtues of imperial governance in the 1890s.

Hong Kong | Governors of Hong Kong

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by Stephen Luscombe