Defending Hong Kong against Britain: the Six-Day War of 1899

April 14th marks the day that the Six-Day War of 1899 (新界六日戰, Man. xinjie liuri zhan, Ca. sankaai lukjat zin) commenced between the Cantonese militia of the New Territories (to be referred to as Chinese Militia). The British had wrested free the New Territories in 1898 through an unequal treaty they signed with the Qing Empire. The British were planning to hoist their flag in Tai Po, a prominent village in the New Territories. The locals, unaware that the Qing Empire had given them away to the British, were staunchly opposed to this sudden change in regime. A conflict ensued. the British sent troops to crush the sizeable rebellion. In the interest of keeping the peace, the war was not highly publicised and subsequently forgotten. Hopefully, this piece of history will be remembered just that much more because of this article. The second part of the article will discuss Hong Kong under British Imperialist rule to show what exactly these militiamen were fighting against.

The information presented in this article on the events of the war are from Patrick Hase’s The Six-Day War of 1899: Hong Kong in the Age of Imperialism. The information about colonial rule in Hong Kong is taken from Ngo Tak-Wing’s Hong Kongs History: State and Society under Colonial Rule. Any opinions expressed by me do not necessarily reflect these authors’ opinions.

Pretext

The Imperialist Attitude

The British believed so much in their own delusion that they were the superior culture, that they deemed any kind of insurrection of the natives as insanity or misguidance. Misguided beliefs and insanity both would have to be dealt with swiftly, so that the benevolent rule of the British could be implemented as soon as possible. Such arrogance is sure to be expected from the British. Especially in “the City of Victoria,” since Hong Kong, by 1899 was a supremely confident and prosperous city. Hong Kong, in mere decades, had been transformed from a dilapidated den of crime and sin into one of the most succesful examples of the British Imperial enterprise with all of the gadgets and comforts becoming of a modern city of that era. The British and those adhering to the Imperial belief system believed sincerely that the success of Hong Kong was a result of British governance while neglecting the very obvious truth that Britain was built on the backs of the people of Hong Kong. Nevertheless, as a result of this erroneous belief, the ruling British Imperial officers of Hong Kong had little reason to doubt the righteousness of the British Imperial project.

British Officers of the Hong Kong Regiment, 1902

The British Empire is, under Providence, the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen . . . In Empire, we have found not merely the key to glory and wealth, but the call to duty, and the means of service to mankind.

Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India

Indeed, the British in the 1890’s were at the peak of their Imperialism. Most of the country whole-heartedly believed in the goodness of British Imperialism and that it would genuinely lead to the betterment of mankind and benefit humanity. The British race was seen as uniquely fit to rule, and its benevolent governance and rule of law would be a benefit to all the native people they conquered. If these native peoples didn’t want to be subjugated, then force should be applied to make them kneel, it is for their own good after all.

The British Empire, having had ample experience in dealing with local “savages” by 1899, had written many widely disseminated military guidebooks on how to deal with insurrections, small scale colonial wars and armed resistance. The short answer was to crush the indigenous combatants as thoroughly and speedily as possible. Indeed as quoted in Hart and Wolseley:

With all savages, to kill its warrior is . . . the most efficacious policy, and it should therefore be regarded as of primary importance.

Hart and Wolseley

The objective of any single battle was therefore not to defeat and rout the enemy as in most conventional wars. On the contrary, the objective of the battle was to defeat the enemy, rout him, then “follow-up” and inflict as many casualties as possible. Indeed, inflicting the maximum number of casualties and thereby thinning the enemy ranks was deemed the most efficacious manner of defeating any kind of local insurrection. Subsequently, the main objective in such small scale colonial wars had always been to kill as many as possible in order to instill fear and the belief that continued resistance will end in no other possible conclusion than certain death. The British believed that the undisciplined savage warriors and tribesmen would lose heart and cease to resist in the face of overwhelming military superiority.

This was the attitude and mindset of the British Imperialists in the period of the Six-Day War of 1899. It is inevitable that the colonisers acted from this self-righteous and arrogant attitude when they faced armed resistance from the people of the New Territories.

The New Territories

The New Territories are the stretch of land between Kowloon 九龍 and Shenzhen 深圳 (Ca. sam zan, or in conventional British spelling: Sum Chun). The area was mountainous and covered by dense forests. To illustrate the wildness of the area, tigers still roamed the lands in 1899. The more central valleys were occupied by the large Punti 本地 villages of Yuen Long 元朗, Kam Tin 錦田 and Tai Po 大埔. Smaller villages in more hilly areas were inhabited by the Hakka 客家. Generally the Hakka and Punti of this area had amicable relations.

Conflict in this area existed for reasons other than Hakka-Punti animosity. Top-soil farmers were expected to be like serfs to the sub-soil owners who were letting out their land. Top-soil farming communites that grew large had no wish to be subservient to others. Arable land was also becoming scarce in the area. As a result, inter-village warfare was a frequent affair. From 1855-1880 at least 30 of these inter-village wars broke out. The villages trained strong militias which frequently fought one another. Therefore, martial arts in this area was highly praised. As a result, the whole area was rather highly militarised. It was from these villages south of Shenzhen that most of the militia were drawn. A notable exception were the violent warriors from Ngan Tin 雁田 and Wai Tak 懷德. They hailed from the lawless mountains North of Shenzhen in the direction of Dongguan 東莞 and were drawn into the fighting due to close family ties with Ping Shan 屛山 and Ha Tsuen 廈村 in the New Territories.

These people were fervently opposed to being ruled by the British. One of the notes that were posted in the villages reads:

We hate the English barbarians, who are about to enter our boundaries and
take our land, and will cause us endless evil. Day and night we fear the
approaching danger. Certainly people are dissatisfied at this and have
determined to resist the barbarians. If our firearms are not good we shall be
unable to oppose the enemy. So we have appointed an exercise ground and
gathered all together as patriots to drill with firearms. To encourage
proficiency rewards will be given. On the one hand we shall be helping the
Government; on the other we shall be saving ourselves from future trouble.
Let all our friends and relatives bring their firearms to the ground and do
what they can to extirpate the traitors. Our ancestors will be pleased and so
will our neighbours. This is our sincere wish. Practice takes place every day.

As quoted in Hase, Extension Papers, Enc. in No. 135, pp. 138–139 (Despatches, p. 6). The notice was issued by Ping Shan villa

The War

Prelude

On the 1st of April, workers from Hong Kong had come over to Tai Po to begin construction on the matsheds that would serve as a temporary police station and as the venue where the flag raising ceremony would be conducted. The locals were extremely displeased by this act and harassed the workmen. Concerned, the Hong Kong Governor visited the Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi, to ask him to calm down the villagers. Five Chinese soldiers where dispatched from Canton in order to guard the matshed.

An example of a matshed.
Blake Pier (Temporary Matshed Shelter), January 1, 1904, Hong Kong

On April 3rd, Captain-Superintendant May, accompanied by 4 Sikh police officers and the 5 soldiers from Canton arrived on scene. May was immediately threatened by the villagers. After a brief meeting with the village elders, which turned violent, May and company were forced to leave the village. He retreated to the matshed and called for reinforcements. He hid in the foliage when he saw a small host of 200 men approach his position. The reinforcements, 125 Royal Welch Fusiliers, arrived on the morning of the 4th. The villagers seemed scared and apologetic due to this small show of force. The British, thinking this was the end of it, recalled the troops and rebuilt the matsheds.

Trouble returned on the 14th of April. The Governor of Hong Kong had received reports that the matsheds were under threat of attack. When Captain-Superintendant May arrived on the H.M.S. Fame with 20 police officers on the 15th, they discovered the matsheds had been burned again. This time, upon a nearby hill, a significant host had drawn up battle lines with flags, jingals and cannon. Upon investigation, they discovered that there were thousands more positioned upon nearby hills. Alarmed, May retreated to Kowloon. On the morning of the 15th, May and his police officers were dispatched to Tai Po to set up camp for the 125 men of the Hong Kong Regiment led by Captain Berger to crush the rebellion.

Battle of Mue Shue Hang

This marked the beginning of the Battle of Mue Shue Hang 梅树坑. The Chinese positions were dug out carefully and placed orthodoxly, as conventionally trained armies would. The carefully dug out trenches and the artillery batteries were all placed overlooking the site of the flag raising ceremony. The dozen or so jingals, twelve cannon and their excellent placement spelled trouble for the 125 men who were ill-supplied carrying mere 40 rounds of ammunition with them. The Hong Kong Regiment was outmanned and at a disadvantage. It would have been difficult to storm the entrenched positions of the Chinese militia if not for the H.M.S. Fame. The H.M.S. Fame carried the battle as its artillery made precise shots on the fortified militia positions. The positions were no longer tenable by the militia and they retreated.

The 125 men pressed the attack and took the abandoned militia entrenchments. They finished off any remaining Chinese and managed to capture one of the militia flags. The British did not manage to capture any of the cannon or jingals as it was an orderly retreat which left little behind. The Chinese had now retreated out of sight of H.M.S. Fame, she could no longer be used to bombard the militia. The 125 soldiers were once again at a disadvantage. The Governor dispatched an additional 348 men (3 companies from the Hong Kong Regiment and 1 company from the Asiatic Artillery, which carried six 7-lbs mountain guns) to reinforce Berger.

The reinforcements and the Colonial Secretary James Stewart Lockhart had arrived at 2 p.m. on the 16th of April. It was decided by the Governor that it would be a good idea to advance the flag raising ceremony, since undertaking military action in an area that was not yet formally British was hardly justifiable under international law. At 2:50 p.m. they commenced the ceremony. Present were the all the available troop, who counted in total 530 men, including police and disembarked marines.

This is the place where the British flag is to be hoisted . . . This is an important epoch in your lives for to-day you become British subjects. All the world over it is known that the ways of my country in ruling other people are excellent. We simply aim to make the people happy, and my country is respected by all the nations of the world. Our dominions spread over the four quarters of the world and millions upon millions of people own our protection. From this day of hoisting the flag you and your families and your property enjoy full British protection.

Governor Sir Henry Blake to the elders of Kowloon villagers on April 17th, 1899

The militia, now having retreated into the mountains, did not suffer any losses. They neither had their guns destroyed nor expended their ammunition. There was a considerable risk during the flag raising ceremony in Tai Po for the British to have been attacked by the militia. Despite the opportune moment, nothing happened, and the ceremony was completed without further complications. No further hostilities would occur on the 16th of April.

Battle of Lam Tsuen Gap

On 17 April, Major General Gascoigne led a patrol, made up of all the available soldiers of the Hong Kong Regiment, to scout the area for any sign of the Chinese. It appeared the militia had moved to a different position and had entrenched at the head of the Lam Tsuen Valley (林村凹). However, Gascoigne had failed to notice their new position and ordered the patrol to return to camp. Upon seeing the patrol turn their backs to them, the militia took the opportunity and came up behind the British patrol. The British patrol and General Gascoigne remained unaware that they were being approached until the British signalling posts alarmed the British patrol that the Chinese militia was approaching from behind. As soon as the Chinese militia reached the crest of the She Shan (社山) ridge, they opened fire upon the British signallers upon Ma Wo Hill.

The British force was caught totally by surprise by the sound of gunfire. Gascoigne ordered his men to turn around and to disembark cannon from the ships. The soldiers of the Hong Kong Regiment moved against the Chinese militia. They split their counterattack in two, one to move against the Chinese militia frontally, the other to move through the Mue Shue Hang, in order outflank the militia position. The British artillery fired schrapnel into the militia positions. Upon seeing their disadvantageous position due to the imminent outflanking, the Chinese militia fell back to their entrenched positions at the head of the Lam Tsuen Valley.

This entrenched position was a strong one. There was a narrow footpath that any approaching force would have to follow in order to proceed throught the Lam Tsuen Pass. The pass was surrounded by elevated hillsides on which the Chinese militia had placed their jingals, overlooking the approach. Either side of the hill-slopes were very steep and rugged. The Chinese militia deemed this impassable. The cannon on the Chinese militia’s side were old fashioned. These outdated cannon could not be aimed once placed. They had angled the cannon such that it aimed at the foot of the slope that the British forces would have to come up upon. The British advanced on the Chinese position, but could not take their cannon with them, as they didn’t bring enough coolies to move the cannon and apparently, the British soldiery did not want to do this work. The British decided to go all in on this attack and commit all available forces into the assault, 350 men in total. What the Chinese militia hadn’t anticipated, however, was that the Hong Kong Regiment was “formed of Pathans and others from the North-West Frontier of India.” These men were very acquianted with rough terrain and steep mountainsides. The hill-slopes that were deemed impassable were, in fact, passable.

Viceroy Commissioned Officers of the Hong Kong Regiment, 1902

The assault commenced, the British troops advanced quickly, and instead of approaching via the slope that the Chinese militia wanted them to approach from, the Pathans took the rocky hillsides. Due to the speedy charge of the British and the unexpected direction of approach, the Chinese cannon could not cover the flanks quickly enough. The outdated firearms of the militia were also quite inaccurate. As a result, many shots went overhead the charging forces. A great majority of the miltia forces weren’t even armed with firearms, but had spears, swords and knives. The British reserved their fire until the final 200 yards, where maximum efficacy, an casualties, could be achieved. The shock of the overwhelming firepower was enough to bring the militia into disarray. Though the militiamen never stopped firing for a single moment, their positions were quickly overrun. Had the Chinese militia been drilled better and had their guns been more modern, the pass would have been very difficult to take. Most likely, the British would have taken many casualties. The Chinese militia suffered their first major defeat. They retreated and regrouped near Sha Po (沙埔).

Battle of Shek Tau Wai

The Chinese militia force, which initially numbered about 2,600, had now melted away due to desertion and was estimated to be about 400 strong. However, there were militia groups that hadn’t participated in the previous battle. These fresh militia groups were called to Sha Po. The numbers were replenished to about 1,600 men by the afternoon of April 18th.

Berger had about 350 men available. The British barely had any time to prepare before the attack began in the afternoon of the 18th at Shek Tau Wai 石頭圍. This time, the Chinese militia advanced in an orderly and regular formation, waving flags, letting out war-cries in a perfectly confident manner. Heavy fire commenced from the Chinese militia’s side as a slow and determined advance was made toward the British lines. The Chinese militia still outnumbered the British forces, and it was believed that there was strength in numbers. Alas, the Chinese side could not compensate their antiquated weaponry and poor-training with merely their exceptional courage and superior numbers.

This photograph was taken at the Pun Lun Photographic Studio, at the junction of Queen’s Road and Pottinger Street, Central, in the 1890s, and it can thus be assumed that the two young men in the photograph came from a Trained-Band in the near vicinity of Hong Kong. Since most of the Trained-Bands in the area were involved in the Six-Day War, it is likelythat these two young men were fighters in that conflict.
(Hase Plate 17)

Once again, the British forces withheld their fire until the militia was within 200 yards to maximise the damage. Once the Chinese militia entered in range, Berger ordered his men to fire as quickly as possible. The sheer violence and force of modern weaponry and adequate drilling could not be denied. The heavy casualties inflicted by these volleys were enough to shatter the morale of the men. The routing forces were chased down and killed. The pursuit continued until they reached Kam Tin. The British forces blew open the gates of Kam Tin 錦田 and Sheung Wai 上圍. What the British did after blowing open the village gates is not reported in Hase’s book (90). The British made camp at Sheung Tsuen 上村. The village of Fanling 粉嶺 surrendered.

The End of the War

On the 19th of April, the British forces took the surrender of Pat Heung 八鄉, Kam Tin, Yuen Long 元朗, Ping Shan 屛山 and Ha Tsuen 廈村. The people of the New Territories had been soundly defeated. Only the people of Ngan Tin 雁田 continued in their resistance against the British. They collected money and trained men to plan for another uprising in 1899. None of the New Territory villages shared their ambitions in kicking the British out of the New Territories, so the fires of resistance fizzled out.

In the end, the death count among the militia resistance of the New Territories was high. The British officers patted themselves on the back, claiming that not many had died at all, that it was an insignificant war with little loss of life. Hong Kong reporters took this statement with significant skepticism. Indeed, while the official statements claim little bloodshed, the Hong Kong media reported the opposite: the death toll on the side of the Chinese militia was high.

Indeed, the New Territory villages have written down every single name of those who died during these six days. The count was far from insignificant. Indeed, there is very strong evidence, by eyewitness accounts, that the battlefields were soaked with blood, and one had to wade through the blood to cross the field. The dead were so many that families could not handle the burials of their family members by themselves anymore, so that communal burial pits had to be dug in order to process the bodies.

The majority of the dead were men, however, about 25 women were killed as well. As to how, why or when they died, the sources remain silent. It is probable that they died while delivering supplies to their husbands on the front lines, but the complete story eludes us. Looking through the evidence, Hase concludes that the total death count must have been up to 600 with 450 dead at least (116). The memories of these martyrs have been recorded in their respective villages. May their souls rest in peace and be shown mercy.

The Communal Grave at Miu Kok Yuen in Sha Po.

Imperialist Rule in Hong Kong

For the history of Hong Kong and the political context the colony was founded in, I refer you to my first article. This section will cover the specific policies of the British Empire and the effects of said policy.

The myth that Hong Kong grew from a sleepy fishing village into a booming metropolis because of British benevolent governance based on a purportedly fair and impartial rule of law and an stand-offish attitude to Hong Kong’s mercantile actors is a stubborn and widespread misunderstanding of the complexities of Hong Kong as a colonial city. Of course, it is impossible to dispute the immense economic growth and development of Hong Kong during its time as a colony of the British Empire. However, the problem lies in the fact that there is a distinct “constructed belief,” as Ngo calls it, of what led to this development (Ngo 119). Indeed, the one-sided historiography claims that the success of Hong Kong can largely be ascribed to the laissez-faire attitude and the strong belief in free-market and good governance of the Colonial government. Any dissenting voices have been squelched because of the dominant colonial narrative. This section shall seek to give voice to the unvoiced and explain exactly why Colonial rule wasn’t exactly the cause for Hong Kong’s explosive growth.

Travelling in Sedan Chair
Published by M. Sternberg Wholesale and Retail Post card Dealer at No. 51 Queen’s Road Central Hongkong 

Hong Kong merely an entrepôt or more?

The conventional colonial numbers and historiography suggest that Hong Kong’s pre WWII economy was largely, if not almost enitrely, based on its role as an offshore-entrepôt for trade with Southern China. The Colonial authorities saw Hong Kong’s role as an entrepôt as the raison d’être for Hong Kong. The question has to be asked, is this conventional understanding of Hong Kong’s economy accurate?

A different story presents itself when you observe the numbers and statistics. From the colonial historiography there appears to be a consistent underestimation of Hong Kong’s industrial sector while it was actually very powerful. Indeed “based on the entries in the Hong Kong and Macao Business Classified Directory, Leeming found 3,000 factories and workshops in 1927 and about 7,500 in 1940, while official records only registered 1,523 and 1,142 factories in those same years” (Ngo 122).

To further substantiate that trade and commerce in Hong Kong were overestimated and that the importance of industry was vastly underestimated by the Colonial authorities could be seen in the 1931 census of the population. Of the 470,000 working population, 111,000 worked in manufacturing, outnumbering those who worked in finance and commerce (97,000), and transport and communications (71,000). There were, in fact, many large-scale Hong Kong factories that thrived. Indeed, the Hong Kong factories were so competitive that “an inter-departmental committee set up in Britain in 1934 complained about the ‘invasion of the United Kingdom market’ by colonies such as Hong Kong. By the 1930’s, leatherwear, rubber shoes, torches and cosmetics produced in Hong Kong were displacing imports and capturing overseas markets.

Finally, the scope and importance of Hong Kong’s manufacturing is highlighted when compared to Mainland China’s manufacturing capabilities. Indeed, by 1937, there were 3,935 registered factories in the entirety of Mainland China. Hong Kong, by the most conservative estimates, had at least 1,000 factories. All these numbers serve to show us that Hong Kong was far removed from being merely an entrepôt to facilitate the trade of Southern China. Sadly, pre-war industry in Hong Kong is regarded as non-existent in the official colonial records (Ngo 128).

The Point

The reason for the neglect of Hong Kong’s industrial sector is because Britain acquired Hong Kong explicitly as a “foothold for British trade in the Far East, especially China” (Ngo 128). Consequently, the Hong Kong administrative system was set up to facilitate trade and commerce. Put very bluntly, Hong Kong existed to make money for Britain through trade. This trade was largely taken up by British merchant houses like Lindsay & Co., Jardine, Matheson & Co., and Dent & Co. They purchased great swaths of land in Hong Kong and contructed their business emporiums there. The extremely lucrative trade have caused them to become known as princely hongs and their bosses taipans 大班 (big shots).

Manufacturing happened largely outside of Hong Kong’s hongs. The hongs, per colonial policy, viewed trade as their primary concern. Because of the lucrative trade in Hong Kong, there was little need for the Hong Kong colonial government and its merchants to pay any heed to the factories. To illustrate, in a 1911 survey of non-Chinese owned establishments in Hong Kong, of the 7000 entries only 100 were reported to be manufacturers. So, the success and rise of Hong Kong’s sizeable industry was entirely due to the efforts and financing of the Chinese Hong Kongers with Chinese capital. Subsequently, the Colonial government did nothing to support or protect the Hong Kong industrial sector. On the contrary, in order to protect the British domestic market, the Hong Kong Colonial government even attempted to limit the export of Hong Kong goods to Britain.

Lai Afong, s view of Hong Kong in the 1880s.

The Colonial government refrained from investing in industry because they deemed the political situation in China as unstable. It was also uncertain what would become of the colony in the future. They deemed it unfavourable to invest heavily in industry, only for the British to be kicked out of the Colony, thereby “wasting” all those investments.

The exclusion of industrial history from Hong Kong’s historiography conceals the self-interest and short-sightedness of imperial and colonial policies in refusing
to develop the colony. By denying the significance of industrial activity, the economic policy pursued to serve imperial and colonial interests has been rationalized, post hoc, as a ‘good policy’ that contributed to the prosperity of the entrepôt trade.

Tak-Wing Ngo, “Industrial History and Laissez-faire,” in Hong Kong’s History: State and Society under Colonial Rule, ed. Tak-Wing Ngo (London, Routledge, 1999), 133.

To summarize, the industrial sector consumed the largest portion of the labour force in Hong Kong, yet the British only acknowledged trade. While Hong Kong developed, the success of Hong Kong was attributed to the effective manner of government in their laissez-faire attitude and dedication to Free Trade ideals. However, the Free Trade policies were maintained to safeguard the rights of the merchants and to prevent industrialisation of Hong Kong, which might have threatened to undermine British domestic industry. Free Trade in Hong Kong was therefore a policy enacted to protect British interests. In the end, it is very clear what their purpose was in Hong Kong, and it was not for the good of the Hong Kong people. If accumulating wealth for oneself counts as benevolent rule, then truly the British were the most benevolent of them all.

The Unfair and Malevolent Rule of Law

The British viewed indigenous justice as arbitrary and inferior to the British “rule of law.” Replacing these backwards indigenous practises with a superior system was therefore for the benefit of not only the rulers, but moreso for the people, who could now be judged and tried fairly. The British would have made a fair case, if not for the fact that their own system was gravely unfair to the indigenous inhabitants of Hong Kong.

Supreme Court of Hong Kong in 1915

Firstly, the jury in the Hong Kong courts were fully European. Indeed, the jury consisted of six men (as opposed to twelve in England) drawn from the European inhabitants of Hong Kong. Furthermore, all of the proceedings in court were conducted in English, a language the vast majority of defendants did not speak. Naturally, the services of interpreters were required. However, most trials in that period were interpreted by Daniel Caldwell, who was ousted to be corrupt and involved in piracy. So, what started out as a fair and benevolent attempt to “civilise” justice in Hong Kong, quickly transformed into a judicial system in which European men tried Chinese for crimes committed against other Chinese in the colony, but also well outside the bounds of the Colony. Needless to say, the inherent bias of such a court hardly constitutes as fair rule of law.

Secondly, in addition to being tried for offences and crimes they would be already be tried for under Chinese Imperial Justice, under Colonial law the Chinese inhabitants of Hong Kong would also be convicted for “offences unheard of in English law” (Munn 49). These offences include not carrying registration tickets, being out after curfew or simply being a “suspicious character” (Munn 49). In the period from 1846 to 1866, 134,000 people appeared before the lower courts. Two thirds of those who appeared before the lower courts for these crimes were punished by public flogging, queue cutting (which would render you an outlaw of the Qing Empire), prison sentences, deportation or being locked up in a cangue (a kind of Chinese stockade). It would perhaps be justifiable if these excessive punishments led to an improvement in law and order, but that simply wasn’t the case. The Supreme Court possessed only a vague understanding of the Hong Kong Chinese and “exerted little or no deterrent effect on crime” (Munn 50).

Thirdly, the court treated defendants differently on the basis of race. Newspapers report a high number of European violent offences against the Chinese. However, only a small number of these were ever taken to court. In this period, merely 66 Europeans were taken to court and 43 of those for murder, manslaughter, wounding and assault. Four out of these cases were commited against Chinese. George Luscombe strangled a Chinese sailor, he was sentenced to life transportation. Denis Griffin murdered a Chinese caulker by throwing him overboard. The jury acquitted him because they saw it as a “harmless joke.” The other two were acquitted on other technicalities. Conversely, there were nine Chinese charged with murder or manslaughter against Europeans. Three were hanged, three were sentenced to death recorded and one for life transportation. None of these Chinese defendants had fair trials: the police offered large rewards for informants, gunboats were used to chase down fugitives outside of the Colony, important questions on evidence and jurisdiction were ignored, and only one of these defendants was granted legal counsel (Munn 53).

For the great majority of the Chinese population, however, English justice in Hong Kong meant intrusive policing, racial and class discrimination, and periodic campaigns of repression.

Christopher Munn, “The Criminal Trial under Early Colonial Rule,” in Hong Kong’s History: State and Society under Colonial Rule, ed. Tak-Wing Ngo (London, Routledge, 1999), 66.

To conclude, it is obvious that the British failed to establish a fair and benevolent rule of law in Hong Kong during this period. The importance of protecting European rights and British profits was put before the liberties and rights of the indigenous Hong Kong Chinese. The court systematically disadvantaged Chinese defendants. There was a double-standard where Europeans were looked upon leniently and the Chinese were tried harshly. Here too, the idea that British rule was non-interventionist is challenged. In fact, the harsh policing, the establishment of curfews and the need to carry registration tickets can not be described as “lightly governed.” It becomes abundantly clear that this idea of laissez-faire and benevolent rule is merely a baseless myth constructed by the dominant historiography established by the Colonists.

Conclusion

The convenient historical amnesia that surrounds the colonial history of Hong Kong is alarming to me, but beneficial to apologentsia of the Western Colonial enterprise. The conquered people of India, South-Africa, Egypt and other former Crown Colonies look back at the British occupation of their lands and the subjugation of their people with disgust and hatred. Contrastingly, the colonial era in Hong Kong seems to be looked at with nostalgia and an undignified yearning to return to a state of subordination to Britain.

In my article An Extension of Hong Kong Territory, I briefly touched upon the inequities of the British Empire in Hong Kong. Yet, I feel that the ground covered in that article was far too little to understand the full scope of British Imperialism in Hong Kong. I hope the reader understands that the subjugation of the people of Hong Kong to Britain by what was essentially right of conquest is something that deserves to be fought against and condemned. In my sincere opinion, the 600 militiamen who were martyred defending their lands against British annexation were heroes in the ongoing war to preserve the autonomy of the people.

References

  • Hase, P. H. The Six-Day War of 1899: Hong Kong in the Age of Imperialism. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008.
  • Ngo, Tak-Wing. Hong Kongs History: State and Society under Colonial Rule. London: Routledge, 1999.

Published by Afakv

Keeping the memories of those who went before us.

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