Tag: Crown Colony

The 99 Year Lease

Sir Henry Pottinger's house in Victoria, Hong ...
Sir Henry Pottinger’s house in Victoria, Hong Kong, 1845. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hong Kong officially become a Crown Colony of the British Empire in 1843, and Sir Henry Pottinger took charge as governor of a settlement that quickly descended into chaos and lawlessness as more and more people arrived and settled.

The population of the island grew rapidly from a mere 33,000 in 1850 to 265,000 by 1900. With so many British citizens living in Hong Kong the army felt pressed to protect the growing colony from China’s ever-present threat.

Relations between China and the British colony were strained at best. The Second Opium War (or Second Anglo-Chinese War) had broken out in 1856 and raged on for two full years before the two governments signed the Treaty of Tientsin. In spite of the treaty, there were continued skirmishes between the British and the Chinese until the British and French marched on Beijing and pressed the Chinese into the Convention of Peking. This convention ratified the Treaty of Tientsin, placing Stonecutters Island, Kowloon Peninsula and the entire Victoria Harbour (and its approaches) into British Hands.

1930s in Hong Kong
1930s in Hong Kong (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In order to protect these new territories, as well as to provide water for the growing population, the British approached the Chinese government to request a land extension which would connect Hong Kong with the new territories. Surprisingly, China agreed and offered Britain 235 islands and a hefty slice of territory that reached north to the Shenzhen River. This land increased the size of the Hong Kong colony by 90%. Unlike previous agreements, the British were granted these lands on a 99 year lease, guaranteeing their claim on the colony until 1997.

Word spread as fortunes were made by British merchants in Hong Kong. Business was booming in trading houses dealing in silk, tea, opium, and spices. Both British and Chinese emigrants flocked to Hong Kong’s harbour. In 1900, over 11,000 ships arrived in Hong Kong harbour, bringing waves of new settlers. A decade later, the population was nearing 300,000. There were few immigration or visa procedures required for British citizens to live or work in Hong Kong, so it was fairly common for young blue collar workers to find work in Hong Kong when the economy at home took a downturn.

As the lease term drew to a close, both governments began considering the upcoming transition. Plans were made throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, and on July 1, 1997, sovereignty was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China.

Throughout the 99 year lease, Britons made up only a small percentage of the entire population. Exact numbers have been hard to estimate, as not all immigrants registered with the British Consulate. Much of the population was also transitory, with most staying a short while and then returning home to England. By the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong’s Immigration Department estimated that there were around 22,000 Britons living in Hong Kong (though that number could range between 16,000 and 28,000). Today, about 95% of the population is Chinese, and less than 3% is made up of British and American citizens.

The Hong Kong Colony

Hong Kong harbour from a hill above Causeway Bay.
Hong Kong harbour from a hill above Causeway Bay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Britons in the 19th century had created an enormous market for Chinese tea; however, they were hard pressed to offer any British products that the Chinese were interested in exchanging. This presented a very real problem until the British discovered a commodity that China did want: opium.

Thanks to the poppy fields of India, the British had access to a vast supply of the narcotic, and began to aggressively pursue the trade. The Chinese government, however, became alarmed as opium addiction became widespread and the nation’s coffers were drained to pay for the imported opium. Emperor Chia Ch’ing and his successor, Tao Kuang issued edicts banning the opium trade throughout China, Whampoa and Macau.

The drug trade could scarcely be suppressed though, and a network of corrupt officials ensured its ongoing success. In 1839, Lin Xexu, the governor of Hunan and a man known for his integrity, faced off with the British garrison in Guangzhou. He surrounded the garrison, cutting off the British food supply until they turned over their stockpile of more than 20,000 bales of opium.

Captain Charles Elliot was British chief superintendent of trade at the time, and he responded by promptly cutting off all trade with China while he waited for orders from London. Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, sent off a force of 4000 men under the command of Rear Admiral George Elliot. He tasked them with pressing the Chinese government into yielding to a favourable trade agreement and providing reparations for the confiscated goods.

This sparked the beginning of the First Opium War, as the British forces first besieged Guangzhou, then sailed north, blockading and occupying ports and cities along the Yangtze River. When the British forces reached Shanghai and began to threaten Beijing, the Emperor realized the very real danger to his capital. He quickly sent out an envoy to negotiate with the British, offering Hong Kong Island in exchange for the British withdrawal from Northern China.

Ultimately, neither side truly agreed to all the terms of this offer, known as the Convention of Chenpui, though the British did take control of Hong Kong in January of 1841, hoisting the British flag at Possession Point. Hong Kong was, at the time, little more than a backwater. There were only around 20 tiny villages; however, its deep, sheltered harbour provided the British with a distinct advantage in the region.

Captain Elliot saw the island as an ideal foothold for the British Empire from which they could conduct their trade under complete British sovereignty. The British merchants in Guangzhou felt differently, however. They saw the tiny, barren island as scarcely the sort of victory that the British should have achieved. The following month, Captain Elliot took control of the Pearl River, the Bogue Fort in Humen, and laid siege to Guangzhou, refusing to withdraw until he exacted concessions from the merchants there.

Sir Henry Pottinger, the first governor of Hon...
Sir Henry Pottinger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sir Henry Pottinger succeeded Captain Elliot six months later, and led a powerful force north, seizing Amoy, Ningpo, Shanghai, and other strategic ports. With the British closing in on the strategic city of Nanking, the Chinese were pressed into accepting the terms that the British offered.

When the Treaty of Nanking was signed, five “treaty ports” were opened to the British. British residents were free to establish themselves there, and foreign trade was allowed to thrive. British nationals were exempt from Chinese laws, and the island of Hong Kong was officially ceded to Britain “in perpetuity”. On June 26, 1843, Hong Kong officially became a Crown Colony of the British Empire.

When Hong Kong became a British Colony, it was very easy for Britons to find work there since visa and immigration procedures were almost non-existent. It became quite common for young working class Britons to turn to Hong Kong for employment, especially during economic low periods in England.

Interestingly enough, however, Britons never made up more than a small portion of Hong Kong’s population. While the mark left on the culture and institutions of Hong Kong was enormous, there were never a very large number of Britons there at any one time. This can be seen on the census of 1865, which notes Hong Kong’s population at 125,504, of which only 2,000 or so were European or American.

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