Sir John Bowring

Sir John Bowring had been a renowned writer and radical politician before his appointment despite his relatively advanced age. He was first sent to the troublesome but important Canton in 1849 as consul. He was appointed plenipotentiary and chief superintendent of trade in the Far East and governor, commander-in-chief, and vice-admiral of Hong Kong in 1854. A keen advocate of Laissez Faire economics his brief was to extend trading opportunities in the region. In 1855 Bowring visited Siam and successfully negotiated a commercial treaty with King Mongkut, which provoked strong opposition in England from Lord Shaftesbury and Bowring's radical friends owing to the clauses facilitating importation of opium into Siam. Since his arrival in the Far East, Bowring had modified his views on the opium trade, ostensibly because of the difficulty of controlling it, but his son John was a partner in Jardine Mattheson & Co., the largest dealers in opium in the Far East, and this firm acted as Bowring's bankers. He was accused of having sold himself to opium merchants.

Events in the region took on a more sinister turn in October 1856, when a British-registered light vessel, the Arrow, was boarded by Chinese soldiers keen to prevent British trade in Canton. Bowring felt he had no option but to dispatch a naval force to force Canton's entry to British shipping igniting the Second Opium War. The Chinese directed attacks on the British in the area and in January 1857 an attempt was made to poison the European population of Hong Kong by putting arsenic in their bread. No one died, but about 300–400 people, including Bowring and his family, were made seriously ill. Bowring rejected the implementation of martial law and in the ensuing trial the baker of the poisoned bread and other suspects were acquitted for lack of evidence and allowed to leave the colony. Votes of censure on his conduct and on the government were moved in both houses of parliament, but in the ensuing elections the government was strengthened. Although the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, supported him, he thought Bowring had handled the situation badly and decided that he should be replaced as plenipotentiary while retaining the governorship of Hong Kong for the time being. Lady Bowring, suffering from the effects of arsenic poisoning, returned to Britain with her daughter Edith, and died on 27 September 1858 in Taunton, while Bowring remained in Hong Kong, accompanied by two other daughters and his son John. On 3 May 1859 Bowring formally handed over his office and, accompanied by his daughter Maria, left for Britain. As it was passing through the Red Sea, their ship, the Alma, struck a submerged coral reef. The passengers were rescued after three days of privation.

Image Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

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