Timothy Mo – An Insular Possession

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An Insular Possession is a fictionalised account of the founding of Hong Kong. It tells the story of the first Opium War in the 1840s, and the attempts of the Chinese authorities to clamp down on the opium trade.

The story is told at a leisurely pace. It centres on two American traders, Gideon Chase and Walter Eastman, working between Macau and Canton. They are friends with an “English” artist, Harry O’Rourke, who as you would expect is a bit of a rogue, and certainly not part of the British establishment.

You can probably see where this is going. The novel is not particularly critical of the British, but it’s certainly not the story of the founding of Hong Kong that John Bull might have told.

Early in the novel there is a romantic element as Walter becomes involved with a young American woman, but that relationship is ended brutally by her guardian on financial grounds – Walter was poor! Much of this part of the novel consists of the kind of formal, stuffy dialogue you might expect from a Victorian romance of the drawing room kind.

Later Walter and Gideon publish a newspaper, which is in competition with an English paper. These are shown “verbatim” as they were supposedly published, fortnightly, over a period of several years, and take up large parts of the text. They report on local issues and controversies, and follow political and military developments leading to the founding of Hong Kong.

They seem to be truthful representations of the kind of papers that might have been published at that time. They are verbose, with long, complex sentences, and rather pompous. The writers flaunt their education. I suppose there is some humour in this, in the implicit criticism of the characters and the mores of the time, but it’s hard work.

The most interesting parts of the novel are when the characters set out on various trips and adventures in the area. They parade around the walls in front of the Chinese who are threatening and angry. They go on a hunting expedition and meet Chinese pirates and armed robbers. They climb to the top of Victoria Peak and paint the view. Gideon learns to speak Chinese, and meets the locals.

Later he is paid to translate for Captain Elliot, the man charged with ensuring the British can continue to trade with China. This puts Gideon at the centre of some quite exciting battles and gives an interesting insight into the back story of the first Opium War. It put flesh on the bones of the story, and was very well done.

The novel uses real historical figures. Gideon was a real person, and there is an appendix containing extracts from his unfinished and unpublished autobiography. There is a list of other historical figures with some details.

But the distinction between fact and fiction is not always clear. Both the newspapers were probably fictional constructs. But that is never made explicit. Walter Eastman is not in the appendix of historical figures. But he is a photographer, and introduces new film developing techniques. Are we supposed to think he founded Eastman the film company, rivals to Kodak?

I suppose these things don’t really matter, though I would have liked to know which bits were made up, just to avoid confusion.

By the end the novel seems to be telling the story of Charles Elliot, the man who founded Hong Kong. He was lambasted by the British for his lack of firmness and decision, twice beating the Chinese, but then returning land he had conquered, rather than pushing home his advantage. The writer points out that there is no memorial or even memory of him in Hong Kong, but that despite his apparent failure, his contribution to world history is pretty significant.

It was Palmerston who called him back to England and sent a replacement to finish the job, not in this book – but in the Second Opium War. Palmerston himself is an interesting character for me as my great grandfather took the time to carve a wooden bust of him – see below. I wonder which aspect of Palmerston’s character made my ancestor honour him so much? I dread to think. But he was a very popular politician at the time. Maybe he just thought it would be a good seller?

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There is also mention in the book of the Manchester School of Free Trade. Again, as a Mancunian by birth this was of interest. Cobden and Bright believed free trade would lead to more ready availability of goods and improve life. They contributed to the ending of the Corn Laws, which was, I believe, a “good thing”. (Sellars and Yeatman – 1066 and All That.)

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Manchester Free Trade Hall

In the novel free trade gets a pretty bad press though. It’s the desire for free trade that causes the war. The British want to trade, and the Chinese don’t. They would like to preserve their society. And thank you very much, but that opium is causing havoc – please stop. But the British have paddle steamers that can move cannon and troops swiftly up shallow rivers, whilst the Chinese have junks!

These things have so many echoes in the current debates about trade, tariffs, Brexit and Trump that it’s hard not to take lessons from the book. To start with the British were literally acting like Pablo Escobar and buildings like Manchester Town Hall and the Free Trade Hall were probably partly funded by drug money. I know in Bristol some people want to change the name of the Colston Hall, as Colston was a slaver. There are other legacies of empire.

It seems that free trade is a bit of a dragon with a will of its own. You don’t get the impression that Elliot and his compatriots were that keen on the opium trade, but there were larger forces at work. Elliot was a small cog, and quite a humane man by this account. But the forces that free trade brings into play cannot be controlled by any one man. Men are just the implements it uses, and are at its mercy.

I do worry about England once Mogg, Gove, Johnson and May let the monster loose.

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