Karl Marx in New York Daily Tribune
Articles On China, 1853-1860

The Case of the Lorcha Arrow

Written: Jan 23, 1857;
Transcribed by: Harold Newson;
HTML Mark-up: Andy Blunden;

Jan 23, 1857

THE MAILS of the America which reached us yesterday morning bring a variety of documents concerning the British quarrel with the Chinese authorities at Canton, and the warlike operations of Admiral Seymour. The result which a careful study of the official correspondence between the British and Chinese authorities at Hong-Kong and Canton must, we think, produce upon every impartial mind, is that the British are in the wrong in the whole proceeding. The alleged cause of the quarrel, as stated by the latter, is that instead of appealing to the British Consul, certain Chinese officers had violently removed some Chinese criminals from a lorcha lying in Canton river, and hauled down the British flag which was flying from its mast. But, as says the London Times, "there are, indeed, matters in dispute, such as whether the lorcha ... was carrying British colours, and whether the Consul was entirely justified in the steps that he took." The doubt thus admitted is confirmed when we remember that the provision of the treaty, which the Consul insists should be applied to this lorcha, relates to British ships alone; while the lorcha, as it abundantly appears, was not in any just sense British. But in order that our readers may have the whole case before them, we proceed to give what is important in the official correspondence. First, we have a communication dated Oct. 21, from Mr. Parkes, the British Consul at Canton, to Governor General Yeh, as follows:

"On the morning of the 8th inst. the British lorcha Arrow, when lying among the shipping anchored before the city, was boarded, without any previous reference being made to the British Consul, by a large force of Chinese officers and soldiers in uniform, who, in the face of the remonstrance of her master, an Englishman, seized, bound and carried away twelve Chinese out of her crew of fourteen, and hauled down her colours. I reported all the particulars of this public insult to the British flag, and grave violation of the ninth article of the Supplementary Treaty, to your Excellency the same day, and appealed to you to afford satisfaction for the insult, and cause the provisions of the treaty to be in this case faithfully observed. But your Excellency, with a strange disregard both to justice and treaty engagement, has offered no reparation or apology for the injury, and, by retaining the men you have seized in your custody, signify your approval of this violation of the treaty, and leave her Majesty's Government without any assurance that similar aggressions shall not again occur."

It seems that the Chinese on board the lorcha were seized by the Chinese officers because the latter had been informed that some of the crew had participated in a piracy committed against a Chinese merchantman. The British Consul accuses the Chinese Governor-General of seizing the crew, of hauling down the British flag, of declining to offer any apology, and of retaining the men seized in his custody. The Chinese Governor, in a letter addressed to Admiral Seymour, affirms that, having ascertained that nine of the captives were innocent, he directed, on Oct. 10, an officer to put them on board of their vessel again, but that Consul Parkes refused to receive them. As to the lorcha itself, he states that when the Chinese on board were seized, she was supposed to be a Chinese vessel, and rightly so, because she was built by a Chinese, and belonged to a Chinese, who had fraudulently obtained possession of a British ensign, by entering his vessel on the colonial British registers method, it seems, habitual with Chinese smugglers. As to the question of the insult to the flag, the Governor remarks:

"It has been the invariable rule with lorchas of your Excellency's nation, to haul down their ensign when they drop anchor, and to hoist it again when they get under way. When the lorcha was boarded, in order that the prisoners might be seized, it has been satisfactorily proved that no flag was flying. How then could a flag have been hauled down? Yet Consul Parkes, in one despatch after another, pretends that satisfaction is required for this insult offered to the flag."

From these premises the Chinese Governor concludes that no breach of any treaty has been committed. On Oct. 12, nevertheless, the British Plenipotentiary demanded not only the surrender of the whole of the arrested crew, but also an apology. The Governor thus replies:

"Early on the morning Of Oct. 22, I wrote to Consul Parkes, and at the same time forwarded to him twelve men, namely, Leong Ming-tai and Leong Kee-fu, convicted on the inquiry I had instituted, and the witness, Wu-A-jin, together with nine previously tendered. But Mr. Consul Parkes would neither receive the twelve prisoners nor my letter."

Parkes might, therefore, have now got back the whole of his twelve men, together with what was most probably an apology, contained in a letter which he did not open. In the evening of the same day, Governor Yeh again made inquiry why the prisoners tendered by him were not received, and why he received no answer to, his letter. No notice was taken of this step, but on the 24th fire was opened on the forts, and several of them were taken; and it was not until Nov. 1 that Admiral Seymour explained the apparently incomprehensible conduct of Consul Parkes in a message to the Governor. The men, he says, had been restored to the Consul, but "not publicly restored to their vessel, nor had the required apology been made for the violation of the Consular jurisdiction." To this quibble, then, of not restoring in state a set of men numbering three convicted criminals, the whole case is reduced. To this the Governor of Canton answers, first, that the twelve men had been actually handed over to the Consul, and that there had not been "any refusal to return the men to their vessel." What was still the matter with this British Consul, the Chinese Governor only learned after the city had been bombarded for six days. As to an apology, Governor Yeh insists that none could be given, as no fault had been committed. We quote his words:

"No foreign flag was seen by my executive at the time of the capture, and as, in addition to this, it was ascertained on the examination of the prisoners by the officer deputed to conduct it, that the lorcha was in no respect a foreign vessel, I maintain that there was no mistake committed."

Indeed, the force of this Chinaman's dialectics disposes so effectually of the whole question — and there is no other apparent case — that Admiral Seymour at last has no resource left him but a declaration like the following:

"I must positively decline any further argument on the merits of the case of the lorcha Arrow. I am perfectly satisfied of the facts as represented to your Excellency by Mr. Consul Parkes."

But after having taken the forts, breached the walls of the city, and bombarded Canton for six days, the Admiral suddenly discovers quite a new object for his measures, as we find him writing to the Chinese Governor on Oct. 30:

"It is now for your Excellency, by immediate consultation with me, to terminate a condition of things of which the present evil is not slight, but which, if not amended, can scarcely fail to be productive of the most serious calamities."

The Chinese Governor answers that according to the Convention of 1849, he had no right to ask for such a consultation. He further says:

"In reference to the admission into the city, I must observe that, in April 1849, his Excellency the Plenipotentiary Bonham issued a public notice at the factories here, to the effect that he thereby prohibited foreigners from entering the city. The notice was inserted in the newspapers of the time, and will, I presume, have been read by your Excellency. Add to this that the exclusion of foreigners from the city is by the unanimous vote of the whole population of Kwangtong. It may be supposed how little to their liking has been this storming of the forts and this destruction of their dwellings; and, apprehensive as I am of the evil that may hence befall the officials and citizens of your Excellency's nation, I can suggest nothing better than a continued adherence to the policy of the Plenipotentiary Bonham, as to the correct course to be pursued. As to the consultation proposed by your Excellency, I have already, some days ago, deputed Tcheang, Prefect of Lei-chow-fu."

Admiral Seymour now makes a clean breast of it, declaring that he does not care for the Convention of Mr. Bonham:

"Your Excellency's reply refers me to the notification of the British Plenipotentiary of 1849, prohibiting foreigners from entering Canton. Now, I must remind you that, although we have indeed serious matter of complaint against the Chinese Government for breach of the promise given in 1847 to admit foreigners into Canton at the end of two years, my demand now made is in no way connected with former negotiations on the same subject, neither am I demanding admission of any but the foreign officials, and this only for the simple and sufficient reasons above assigned.

"On my proposal to treat personally with your Excellency, you do me the honour to remark that you sent a prefect some days ago. I am compelled therefore to regard your Excellency's whole letter as unsatisfactory in the extreme, and have only to add that, unless I immediately receive an explicit assurance of your assent to what I have proposed, I shall at once resume offensive operations."

Governor Yeh retorts by again entering into the details of the Convention of 1849:

"In 1848 there was a long controversial correspondence on the subject between my predecessor Len and the British Plenipotentiary, Mr. Bonham, and Mr. Bonham being satisfied that an interview within the city was utterly out of the question, addressed a letter to Leu in the April of 1849, in which he said, 'At the present time I can have no more discussion with your Excellency on this subject.' He further issued a notice from the factories to the effect that no foreigner was to enter the city, which was inserted in the papers, and he communicated this to the British Government. There was not a Chinese or foreigner of any nation who did not know that the question was never to be discussed again."

Impatient of argument, the British Admiral hereupon forces his way into the City of Canton to the residence of the Governor, at the same time destroying the Imperial fleet in the river. Thus there are two distinct acts in this diplomatic and military drama — the first introducing the bombardment of Canton on the pretext of a breach of the Treaty Of 1842 committed by the Chinese Governor, and the second, continuing that bombardment on an enlarged scale, on the pretext that the Governor clung stubbornly to the Convention of 1849. First Canton is bombarded for breaking a treaty, and next it is bombarded for observing a treaty. Besides, it is not even pretended that redress was not given in the first instance, but only that redress was not given in the orthodox manner.

The view of the case put forth by the London Times would do no discredit even to General William Walker of Nicaragua.

"By this outbreak of hostilities," says that journal, "existing treaties are annulled, and we are left free to shape our relations with the Chinese Empire as we please... the recent proceedings at Canton warn us that we ought to enforce that right of free entrance into the country and into the ports open to us which was stipulated for by the Treaty Of 1842. We must not again be told that our representatives must be excluded from the presence of the Chinese Governor-General, because we have waived the performance of the article which enabled foreigners to penetrate beyond the precincts of our factories."

In other words, "we" have commenced hostilities in order to break an existing treaty and to enforce a claim which "we" have waived by an express convention! We are happy to say, however, that another prominent organ of British opinion expresses itself in a more humane and becoming tone. It is, says the Daily News, a "monstrous fact, that in order to avenge the irritated pride of a British official, and punish the folly of an Asiatic governor, we prostitute our strength to the wicked work of carrying fire and sword, and desolation and death, into the peaceful homes of unoffending men, on whose shores we were originally intruders. Whatever may be the issue of this Canton bombardment, the deed itself is a bad and a base one — a reckless and wanton waste of human life at the shrine of a false etiquette and a mistaken policy."

It is, perhaps, a question whether the civilized nations of the world will approve this mode of invading a peaceful country, without previous declaration of war, for an alleged infringement of the fanciful code of diplomatic etiquette. If the first Chinese war, in spite of its infamous pretext, was patiently looked upon by other Powers, because it held out the prospect of opening the trade with China, is not this second war likely to obstruct that trade for an indefinite period? Its first result must be the cutting off of Canton from the tea-growing districts, as yet, for the most part, in the hands of the imperialists — a circumstance which cannot profit anybody but the Russian overland tea-traders.

With regard to the reported destruction of a Chinese fort by the American frigate Portsmouth, we are not yet sufficiently informed to express a decided opinion.