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.
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.