The Napier Affair (1834)

In 1834 Lord Napier was appointed Chief Superintendent of Trade at Canton. Hitherto, the trade of English ships had been supervised by appointees of the English East India Company, the private trading concern that had enjoyed a monopoly of the far eastern trade for over a century. With the withdrawal of this monopoly and the opening of the trade to any British trader, it became necessary for the British government to take a supervisory role; hence the appointment of Lord Napier. He arrived at Macao in July 1834.

Trade regulations as imposed by the Chinese government, were very restrictive and trade was confined to the port of Canton only, for specified months of the year. Moreover, it was forbidden to foreigners to communicate directly with Chinese officials; all contact was to be made with officials of the local guild of merchants, the Co-hong, who would then deal with Chinese officialdom on behalf of all foreign merchants and officials. These procedures had always been adhered to by the E.I. Company.

With the arrival of Napier, however, a direct challenge was made to this one- sided arrangement when Napier, as instructed by his superiors, sought to communicate directly, by letter, with the imperial representative at Canton, Governor Lu. Napier's brief was "to protect and foster British trade and attempt to get it expanded to other Chinese ports." Disdaining to accommodate Chinese protocol,which he regarded as unwarranted assumption of superiority vis-à-vis foreign officials, Napier accordingly delivered his letter of introduction at the gate of the city only to have its receipt refused. Governor Lu was determined to apply the regulations for not to do so would surely have cost him his life. Equally, Lord Napier was resolved to contravene the regulations so as not to have the "honor of the British nation" impugned. A stalemate ensued that ended with a humiliating withdrawal of Lord Napier but under circumstances that misled and deluded the Chinese into thinking that they could persist in treating foreign countries as tributary states and foreigners themselves as 'barbarians'.

The following extracts from contemporary correspondence indicate the gulf that existed between the two states--the one ancient, traditional and untuned to the vast changes in the world at large; the other, modern, powerful, and a prime mover in establishing new patterns of global trade .

ITEM A: Governor Lu to the Co-hong merchants

On this occasion, the barbarian, Lord Napier, has come to Canton without having at all resided at Macao to wait for orders; nor has he requested or received a permit from the superintendent of customs, but has hastily come up to Canton: a great infringement of the established laws! The custom-house waiters and others who presumed to admit him to enter, are sent with a communication requiring their trial. . . . As to his object in coming to Canton, it is for commercial business. . . . The petty affairs of commerce are to be directed by the merchants themselves; the officers [i.e., government officials] have nothing to hear on the subject. . . . If any affair is to be newly commenced, it is necessary to wait till a respectful memorial [i.e., request] be made, clearly reporting it to the great emperor, and his mandate be received; the great ministers of the celestial empire [i.e., China] are not permitted to have intercourse by letters with outside barbarians [i.e., foreigners]. If the said barbarian throws in private letters, I, the governor, will not at all receive or look at them. With regard to the foreign factory [i.e., the warehouse complex outside the city at which foreigners resided and traded] . . .it is a place of temporary residence for foreigners. . . ; they are permitted only to eat, sleep, buy and sell in the factories; they are not allowed to go out to ramble about.

ITEM B: Governor Lu to the emperor

The said barbarian [Lord Napier] would not receive the hong-merchants, but afterwards repaired to the outside of the city to present a letter to me, your majesty's minister Lu. On the face of the envelope the forms and style of equality were used ; and there were absurdly written the characters, Ta Ying kwoh (i.e., Great English nation). . . Whether the said barbarian has or has not official rank, there are no means of thoroughly ascertaining. But though he be really an officer of the said nation, he yet cannot write letters on equality with the frontier officers of the celestial empire. As the thing concerned the national dignity, it was inexpedient in the least to allow a tendency to any approach or advance, by which lightness of esteem might be occasioned. Accordingly, orders were given to . . the colonel in command of the military forces of this department, to tell him [Napier]authoritatively, that, by the statutes and enactments of the celestial empire, there has never been intercourse by letters with outside barbarians . . .
Now it is suddenly desired to appoint an officer, a superintendent, which is not in accordance with old regulations. Besides, if the said nation has formed this decision, it still should have stated in a petition, the affairs which, and the way how, such superintendent is to manage, so that a memorial might be presented, requesting your majesty's mandate and pleasure as to what should be refused, in order that obedience might be paid to it . . . But the said babarian, Lord Napier, without ever having made any plain report, suddenly came to the barbarian factories outside the city to reside, and presumed to desire intercourse to and fro by official documents and letters with the officers of the Central Flowery Land [i.e., China], and this was, indeed, far out of the bounds of reason.

ITEM C: Lord Napier is Insulted

Napier had communicated with his government on August 26, 1834 [that would take some two months to reach London] apprising the officials of the Foreign Office of the tortured nature of his fruitless attempts to meet with the Governor of Cant on. The reaction of the Governor, who had ordered the stoppage of trade at the port, is conveyed in the two documents above, In addition, however, the Chinese authorities caused to be published to the people of Canton statements about Napier's visit that were highly prejudicial to the success of the British mission. In an attempt to save the dignity of his mission and demonstrate the intransigence of the authorities at Canton, Napier also adopted that tactic and had a statement lithographed ( and circula ted in the city criticising the authorities whose "perversity" was working to effect the ruin of "thousands of industrious Chinese who live by the European trade." Napier was mistaken if he had thought that this would change the minds of officials, as is indicated in the following stinging reply:

A lawless foreign slave, Napier, has issued a notice. We know not how such a dog barbarian of an outside nation as you, can have the audacious presumption to call yourself Superintendent (of Trade). Being an outside savage Superintendent, and a person in an official situation, you should have some little knowledge of propriety and law.

You have passed over ten thousand miles in order to seek a livelihood; you have come to our Celestial Empire to trade and control affairs;--how can you not obey well the regulations of the Empire? You audaciously presume to break through the barrie r passes [i.e., entrance to the city of Canton; forbidden to foreigners] . . . According to the laws of the nation , the Royal Warrant should be respectfully requested to behead you; and openly expose your head to the multitude, as a terror to perverse dispositions

ITEM D: Lord Napier to Lord Palmerston at the Foreign Office, London

My present position is . .. a delicate one, because the trade is put in jeopardy, on account of the difference existing between the (governor) and myself. I am ordered by his majesty [the king of England] to "go to Canton, and there report myself by letter to the (governor)." I use my best endeavors to do so; but the (governor) is a presumptuous savage.
. . . Had I even degraded the king's commission [i.e., the orders given him by his government] so far as to petition through the hong-merchants for an interview, it is quite clear by the tenor of the edicts that it would have been refused. Were he to send an armed force, and order me to the boat, I could then retreat with honor, and he would implicate himself; but they are afraid to attempt such a measure. What then remains but the stoppage of the trade, or my retirement? [i.e., withdrawal]. If the trade is stopped for any length of time, the consequences to the merchants are most serious, as they are also to the unoffending Chinese. But the (governor) cares no more for commerce, or for the comfort and happiness of the people, as long as he receives his pay and plunder, than if he did not live among them. My situation is different; I cannot hazard millions of property for any length of time on the mere score of etiquette. If the trade shall be stopped, which is probable enough in the absence of the frigate [i.e., British naval protection], it is possible I may be obliged to retire to Macao [the Portuguese enclave at themouth of Canton harbor] to let it loose again. Then has the (governor) gained his point, and the commission [i.e., Napier's mission to foster trade, etc.] is degraded. Now, my lord. I argue, that whether the commission retires by force of arms, or by the injustice practised on the [foreign] merchants, the (governor) has committed an outrage on the British crown, which should be equally chastised. . . . I can only once more implore your lordship to force them to acknowledge my authority and the king's commission, and if you can do that, you will have no difficulty in opening the ports at the same time.

In the event, Governor Lu stopped the trade entirely on Sep. 2 and three weeks later Lord Napier, now in ill-health, withdrew to Macao where he died the following month.. Rpresentations by the English merchants to the government in London that a fleet be sent to settle the matter [i.e., intimidate the Chinese into acquiescence] were refused by the government, as was the recommendation of Lord Napier in the letter cited above (Item D) , to which he received the reply that it was "not by force and violence that his majesty intended to establish a commercial intercourse between his subjects and China, but by conciliatory measures." Accordingly, the trade was resumed under the existing regulations, though Lu's success in maintaining the "great principles of dignity" did not outlast the decade . . . [Refs.: S. Wells Williams, The Middle Kingdom , Vol II, pp. 470ff.; British Parliamentary Papers, 1840, XXXVI (223), p. 34]