Saturday, 23 February 2013

Elgin Street and the Old Summer Palace



Sipping sangria in a tapas bar at Hong Kong’s Soho District, looking out the window, one could spend hours watching cosmopolitan humans spewing out one of the world’s longest elevator systems. Next to it, a street sign reads “Elgin Street.” Hardly anybody knows who Elgin was, or what he had done to deserve a street named after him. If not because of a recent deliberation with a quaint academic about Hong Kong’s early colonial days, I would not have bothered to research about him either. By reading up on the history which embroiled the life of this forgotten character, however, I’ve discovered the justice in history.


The Wikipedia summary of Lord Elgin is as follows: 

James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine, KT, GCB, PC (20 July 1811 – 20 November 1863), was a British colonial administrator and diplomat. He was the Governor General of the Province of Canada, a High Commissioner in charge of opening trades with China and Japan, and Viceroy of India.[1] As British High Commissioner in China during the Second Opium War in 1860 he infamously ordered the destruction of one of Asia's most important historical sites, the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.

This condensed profile seems representative enough but for the description of “diplomat”. He did not seem to be a very diplomatic kind of person to me. 

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that back then in Britain, there were in fact fierce parliamentary debates about the country’s behaviour towards China. But Prime Minister Palmerston had the press behind him. Facts were grossly distorted and disproportionally exaggerated to incite public outrage against the Chinese, which eventually gave Palmerston the democratic mandate to “do something about China”. Using the free press to propagate lies and fabricate casus belli is evidently an old trick.

Elgin’s leadership in the looting and burning of the old Summer Palace was well documented. Consulting only “Western” sources for this piece, I’ve selected a few typical records to provide a taste of the scale of this historic vandalism:


“ On Sunday morning, the 7th of October, the orders against looting were withdrawn, and officers and men, English and French alike, rushed excitedly [319] about the place, appropriating every valuable which it was within their power to carry. What could not be carried away was destroyed, a spirit of wanton destruction seeming to animate them all. Some amused themselves by shooting at the chandeliers, others by playing pitch-and-toss against large and costly mirrors, while some armed themselves with clubs and smashed to pieces everything too heavy to be carried . . . ”

In many similar accounts, the soldiers were described as being totally drunk. Surprised? The French, to give them credit, were against the senseless arson ordered by Elgin, evidently an Empire fanatic whose unhappy life would end in a few years.

“ Lord Elgin gave orders that its palaces should be levelled with the ground. The French refused to aid in this act of vandalism, which they strongly condemned —a verdict which has since been that of the civilized world. But Lord Elgin was fixed in his purpose, and the work of destruction went on.”

A couple of weeks later, after signing the Treaty of Tianjin, Prince Kung tendered a banquet which the British refused to attend, worrying about poisoning. The French could not refuse the offer of good food, and no doubt bragged afterwards to their culinarily less refined ally how amazing it had been.


Sir John Michel and the British First Division marched in a light powdery snow on Oct 18, 1860, and set the Park and its 200 buildings on fire.

The burning took three days. Interestingly, the two brass lions outside the Summer Palace, being too heavy and perceived worthless, were spared. Elgin had no idea that they were solid gold with brass coating, and could have easily paid for the whole war.

In his 1975 history of the two Opium Wars, English poet Jack Beeching described the incalculable value of the real estate that was lost to posterity: 
“The [old] Summer Palace was the treasure-house of China – such a concentration of visual beauty, artifice and wealth as neither existed nor could once again have been brought into being anywhere else in the world. Here had been brought together and put in order irreplaceable libraries and collections of splendid paintings.”

Incontrovertible as the looting and senseless destruction were, one could still find contrived justifications that are more pathetic than infuriating now. One being that “almost twenty” British and Indian prisoners were abused. When such a small number is given in approximation, I always suspect generous rounding up. Still, it was only “almost twenty”. This was 1860, before any Geneva Convention (which hasn’t done any good in Vietnam, Guatanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib etc. etc. anyway). The invaders were viewed as hired-guns of drug smugglers, and no doubt treated like pirates. Were they not? In any event, this triggering excuse is equivalent to accepting modern “terrorists” burning down the British Museum and Windsor Castle, probably the Buckingham Palace as well, to revenge the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis tortured in their own country, in the 21st century.

Another popular argument is that “the Chinese were weak and corrupt, totally screwed up, so it served them right.” This statement is true. But using China’s weakness as justification for aggression and senseless destruction is as cynical as a murderer telling a man: “Good thing I killed your dumb and crippled parents, otherwise you’d not have had the chance to become the tough and independent man that you are.”

I did not mean to dwell on what happened one and a half centuries ago, in a very different world. My interest was accidentally piqued. But in researching the subject, it occurred to me that given a long enough vision, history seems to maintain justice through its ironies.

The victor, ego inflated by military success, industriousness and productivity sapped by easy money, commenced a downfall which soon accelerated into the collapse of a global empire. Guns and lucre were much more addictive and impairing than opium. After a fleeting spike on history’s timeline, the Empire’s only lasting legacies are a globalised language, scientific milestones, music, theatre, and great beer! — all civilisation products of talents who in all likelihood never shared the imperialists’ violent ambitions. The gunboats — the pride of fanatics such as Elgin — have virtually disappeared but for the occasional appearance as supporting actors in skimpy “coalitions of the willing”.   

The loser, no thanks to the invaders’ brutal alarm, did eventually wake up to it. In the ensuing century, it suffered further humiliations, and struggled through one painful transformation after another, to be reborn.

Meanwhile, Lord Elgin remains hoisted on mild-steel poles, in a bohemian restaurant district in Hong Kong, China. In principle, Elgin Street seems incongruous, like an “Osama bin Laden Square” in Washington, or a “George W Bush Avenue” in Bagdad. But his name has long faded into obscurity, lost the emotional power needed to warrant the hassle of renaming a side street. Elgin is nothing more than a street name now.



Lord Elgin's name immortalised above some neighbourhood rubbish


Guo Du 23.2.2013

6 comments:

Roast duck said...

How very interesting! Good on you to research on his background.

Anonymous said...

If this excellent article gets to the right people, Elgin street is going to be renamed soon. No doubt. In the meantime, ignorance fed with beer and junk food in the area will do enough justice, as does your lapidary and so cynical conclusion. Good research work and story writing with Guo Du's inimitable signature. I'm a fan.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, I find your audit of the British empire's accomplishments and the way its legacy still heavily influences and permeates our world today to be quite shallow and unsophisticated (perhaps intentionally so?).

I find this all the more surprising as you are, I presume, a native Hong Konger. If you want to have some idea of the true legacy, beyond beer and theatre, of the British imperial system you need only compare the general living conditions, education, health care, environment, and social fabric, the quality of the institutional structures, legal system, media, etc., of mainland China and HK. The relative quality and integrity of the said elements in HK can be largely attributed to the framework provided by British imperialism.

May I suggest a decent light introduction to the subject: http://www.amazon.com/Empire-Demise-British-Lessons-Global/dp/0465023290

James Tam 谭炳昌 (过渡) said...

I normally don't respond to comments lest I turn this into a forum of silly debates; but the comment by Anonymous the Second highlights a common misconception that I'd like to highlight, in a few words if possible. It could be due to our different biases but I would have cited living conditions, education, health care, environment, (not sure what social fabric is, so I'd leave that out), legal system, media etc. as evidence of some of the globalised social ills. Though I would have mostly blamed the Americans due to their unparalleled effectiveness in spreading them for self interests. But if Anonymous 2 thinks that imperial Britain are also to blame because of historical reasons, I won't argue.

It would take an essay to elaborate but, briefly, we should first look at how this system has benefited its inventor: The National health Care is in such an abominable state I cannot find a single British friend who would put in a good word for it. Education? Even my low key Oxford pals are shaking their heads. And look at HK's education system that is neither here nor there. Speak to an educator or, better employer, and find out how they compare with students from China in intellectual quality and learning attitude. HK's "social fabric" - if we are thinking of the same vague thing - is an example of achievement? A negative one perhaps. I would have used it to show that the system has failed. The legal system blatantly favours those with money and resources, treasuring technicality over common sense, at the expense of human justice. Unless brainwashed, I'm curious as to why people would be proud of it.

It is true that the multiple-standard Capitalism-Freetrade-and-Democracy complex was first globalised through colonialism. But I don't blame the British for it because they did it for their own ruling convenience rather than profit, as the American empire is doing. As it is, it has paralysed political leadership when the world needs it desperately to resolve, for example, the long-term environmental consequences caused by the imperial powers, followed by all kinds of late comers, including most notably China. The fraudulent financial system, the economy, is an established game with rules which recent players such as China, India etc. etc. either opt out, and be consumed right now, or play the game, and accelerate the Collective End.

Has any previous "non-White" colonies benefited? India, according to Amitav Ghosh, was centre to nearly a quarter of world trade before becoming part of the Empire. At the end of it, it had shrunk to less than 1%. Assuming the figures, like all figures, are subject to fine-tuning debate, the general picture is indisputable. India’s relatively slow rise, in spite of a strong cultural background and very clever people, is partly due to the poison of this colonial legacy. The Middle-East? It’s mind-boggling how anyone could regard such a legacy positive but . . . I still prefer British beer wins out.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and poignant article, and reminded me of the father Lord Elgin (who looted the Parthenon of the infamous "Elgin Marbles"). Seems that the family had a soft spot for ancient treasures :-). I don't think that there is an Elgin Street in Athens, though..

A tangential comment on colonial legacy and the Elgin marbles: I once had a discussion with a Greek friend. While he is in favor of the return of the marbles to Greece, what surprised me was that he made the point that Elgin's looting had its positives as well: (1) a proportion of the treasures that were not looted by the good lord got destroyed in the subsequent war of Greek independence (2) the Elgin marbles contributed substantially to the positive image of Greece in London and influenced the Empire to intervene and save the day in 1827 in favor of the Greek revolutionaries. Interesting viewpoint...

So methinks that colonialism although despicable by today's standards must have done something good for HK and China. A cynic would say that without the opium wars there would have never been a Sun Yat-Sen and maybe all of China would still be under the Manchus :-). Same is true for Pax Americana: capitalist democracy is a horrible system - but everything else that has been tried is worse :-)..

BTW: I am anonymous #3 and not an Anglo..

James Tam 谭炳昌 (过渡) said...

Interesting information Anonymous 3 (Looks like Mr. Anonymous had lots of kids :)) Looks like the Elgin genes is worth a look by medical researchers.

I actually fully agree that most ancient treasures are better off scattered all over the world. The spoils from the Summer Palace have generally been well taken care of (not the artefacts incinerated by the good Lord Elgin though), and become "world heritage." Why not? By being scattered, they stand a better chance of surviving localised manmade and natural disasters.

I also agree that the Opium War was a catalyst to China's awakening, hence my comment that the long-term justice of history lies in its ironies. However, that's karma, and the resilience of the civilisation that was remarkable. It would be ludicrous for the malicious invaders to justify their aggression in hindsight, just as the murderer analogy I used in the article.

I'm not so sure about the Pax-Americana Capitalistic Democracy being better than everything else humans have tried though. There had been many short periods in history (much longer than what Capitalistic Democracy has been though) that were much "better" - depending what "better" means to you.

But EVEN if the American model is the best so far, according to a personal and subjective set of criteria, since it is not perfect, humanity owes it to itself to keep experimenting. The way the Democracy Crusaders sabotage alternative efforts, demonising heathens and heretic, is despicable.

In the globalised reality today, being "Anglo" or not has very little to do with one's worldview (of course, cultural background and the propaganda we're exposed would have some influence on most people, but not all). I have many British and European friends, and a very few American ones, who are much more critical of their politics than say, Hong Kongers. Perhaps due to a colonial history and mercantile culture, Hong Kong tends to be efficient, and very superficial. That attitude is reflected in some people's blind worship of the Democracy Missionaries without giving much thought to the obvious pros and cons.