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Saturday, October 8, 2011

8 October 1856 - the Arrow Incident, and more

Exactly 155 years ago today, the Second Opium War began

On the morning of 8 October 1856, a ship with a junk rig, and a European hull -- a hybrid known as a "lorcha" (pictured) -- lay quietly at anchor in the Pearl River, off the Chinese trading port of Canton.  She was owned by a Hong Kong merchant, Fang Aming, and had been registered as British, which meant she was protected under the Treaty of Nanking.  Her captain was Irish, and her crew was Chinese.  Her name was Arrow.

A little after 8 a.m., Qing officials boarded her, claiming that known pirates and smugglers were among her crew.  Allegedly, the vessel was employed in the salt-smuggling trade.  Twelve seamen were arrested.  The captain hurried to complain to the British Consul, Harry Parkes, who rushed on board in a fruitless attempt to prevent the arrested men from being taken on shore.

Parkes returned to his office to pen a severe message to the Governor-General of Canton, Yeh Mingchen, complaining particularly about the insult to the British flag -- which, apparently, had been torn down.   Not only did he want the return of the men, he wanted an apology for this.  He also sent a note to Hong Kong, declaring that it was time for a military demonstration of strength.

Yeh replied, pointing out that the vessel was Chinese-built and Chinese-owned, and that the arrested men were Chinese.  However, he offered to return the arrested men to the Consulate.  Parkes refused to accept them, as there had been no apology.

This was all a subterfuge.  The real issue was Chinese recalcitrance in the matter of Western trading privileges in their country. Gunboats, under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, sallied out to punish Canton for the alleged insult.  Though the Chinese prisoners had been returned to the custody of the British Consul they had not been "publicy restored to their vessel, nor had the required apology been made"  -- or so Seymour claimed.  After destroying the Imperial Provincial Fleet in the Peark River, he forced his way into Canton, and marched on Yeh's offices.  The Cantonese retaliated by torching British factories.

And so the Second Opium War began ...

On this day in 1871, the cow kicked over a lantern in a barn, starting a fire that razed Chicago, and in 1892, Rachmaninoff played his Prelude in C-sharp Minor in Moscow.

In 1945, President Harry Truman announced that the atom bomb would be shared with just Britain and Canada.  And in 1992, the morning-after pill was invented.

Is there anything about the written word in all this?  Of course.  On October 8, 1984, China announced that primary education for all their young citizens would be compulsory within six years, and that by 1995 adult illiteracy would be eradicated.

As far as I know, it has happened.

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