Sir John Francis Davis

Sir John Francis Davis (1795–1890) was a renowned scholar on Chinese history and culture. He also translated many Chinese books into English. He was perhaps best known for The Chinese: a General Description of China and its Inhabitants published in 1836 and Sketches of China published in 1841. With this renowned background he appeared the perfect choice to oversee relations between Britain and China.

On 9 February 1844 Davis was appointed plenipotentiary and superintendent of trade at Canton, and, on 23 February he was made governor and commander-in-chief of Hong Kong. The central issue facing Davis was that of the British right of entry into Canton, which, despite the terms of the treaty of Nanking, had not thus far been granted in full. British traders were becoming frustrated with the lack of access and lobbied against the governor's slowness in protecting their rights. British traders and sailors were being attacked although their own behaviour and attitude hardly enamoured them to local sensibilities. In April 1846 Davis agreed with the Chinese Imperial Commissioner, Qiying, to delay British entry into the city yet further in exchange for an agreement over the Chushan Islands. Attacks on the British in Canton and throughout the seaboard multiplied. In April 1847 Davis retaliated by sending an armed force which captured the Bogue (Humen) ports and occupied the Canton factories. Qiying reached a rapid agreement with Davis to open Canton in two years' time and punished those who had offended the British, and conceded the right for the British to build warehouses and churches.

Despite the apparent success of this venture, Davis was censured for his actions and resigned in November 1847. A change of government back in Britain combined with vociferous and powerful local traders to undermine his position. He did not actually leave his post until the following March. As if to confirm his political outmanoeuvering, a 1847 parliamentary select committee inquiry into British commercial relations with China, without naming Davis, succeeded in condemning his administration of Hong Kong and supporting the views of the British merchants who had consistently opposed his policies.

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by Stephen Luscombe