The chapter proposes to explore rational curiosity as a key category to unpack nineteenth-century British perspectives on Asia, and especially China. Duncan MacPherson’s account is interpreted from a new perspective, which highlights both imperialist rhetoric and overlapping dichotomies. A careful reading shows how even at the height of European expansion we do not find in travel literature any clear dichotomy of East vs West, but rather a Eurocentric view of material and scientific progress that praised or condemned different aspects of both Asian and European societies. Hence, Asia emerges as a complex space where the civilising mission encounters problems similar to those encountered amongst British people: traditions, irrationality and passions. This chapter therefore adds to the reflection of the volume on the use of knowledge and the impact of identity, whilst uncovering a more specific mode of curiosity rooted in post-Enlightenment thought and guiding the encounter with Asia.
- British Asia
- European imperialism
The ‘Haunted House’ is a stock, commonly recurring structural setting for ghost stories. In such narratives, the setting of a house, a local usually comfortable and familiar to the reader, is distorted by a spectral presence making all ‘not as it should be’.Footnote 1 Subsequently ‘haunted house’ tales usually involve a central protagonist who must dispel this spectral distortion, either by transforming himself, such as with Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, or, more commonly, by addressing the force which has disrupted the order of things, as in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. ‘The time is out of joint’, declared the titular Hamlet. ‘O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!’.Footnote 2
The ‘haunted house’ is interestingly also the image evoked by the British Army Surgeon Duncan McPherson MD in is his account of the military expedition to China between 1840 and 1842. Casting the British as bold adventurers voyaging into an enchanted land to lift a sorcerer’s spell, he dramatically states on the first page of his narrative:
Few boys will venture into a Haunted House, although it interfere materiality with their comforts; but how many would congregate to see the one bold adventurer daring to enter its precincts, and endeavouring to dissolve the spell!Footnote 3
Such framing is interesting as it initially impresses upon the reader notions of encounters with ‘mysterious others’ being recalled by a bold and heroic ‘self’. At first glance, such phrasing would also appear as a classical example of orientalism: an effort to depict the peoples and lands of the ‘east’ as the mystic and irrational opposite of the Enlightened and progressive ‘west’.Footnote 4 However, as this chapter will endeavour to demonstrate, such first impressions are misleading. In fact, McPherson’s account offers a far more nuanced construction of both China and, indeed, the British who venture into it. What ‘haunts’ China equally haunts the British, and what unites and divides humanity is far more fluid than orientalist dichotomies would hypothesise.
What this chapter will in particular seek to reveal is the multi-layered nature of McPherson’s account. There is at first a moralistic narrative of British intervention liberating the Chinese people from the archaic practices of the Qing Empire, a narrative that is incredibly bombastic and polemic and is most evident in the opening and closing of his account. There is however another layer of more objective rational curiosity and reflection which makes up the bulk and main body of McPherson’s account. The findings revealed are notably more nuanced and sober than the polemic bookends of the text and which unsettle the rigid dichotomies of identity and hierarchies of knowledge that are suggested by the text’s moralising and polemic bookends.
In uncovering this multi-layered nature of McPherson’s account, this chapter will be primarily hermeneutic in nature. It will seek not to reconstruct the events of the Chinese Expedition itself nor chronologically assess McPherson’s experiences within it. By contrast, it will seek to explore the perception of the world which our author’s actions occurred in—what Hans-Georg Gadamer would term his ‘historical horizon’Footnote 5—and how his experiences both helped shape, and were shaped by, this framework of understanding. In doing so, it will explore the two fundamental categories of history outlined by Reinhart Koselleck: ‘expectations’—the transcendent framework of understanding which gives meaning and purpose to one’s actions in historical time, in this case, the polemical moral justification for Britain’s intervention in China—and ‘experiences’—the immanent encounters one has within the time–space continuum which shape, reinforce, and distort our transcending sense of purpose, in McPherson’s case his direct experiences in China during the expedition.Footnote 6 Understanding the interplay between these categories will be fundamental to understanding the relationship between the different layers of McPherson’s account and how this in turn effects the identities of the actors in his narrative and the knowledge it constructs of China and the British expedition of 1840-2.
2 The Chinese Expedition: A Moral Duty
McPherson opens his account by comparing the British to explorers venturing into a haunted house determined to free it from the ‘spell’ that distorts it. Such introduction immediately suggests a division between ‘enlightened west’ and ‘enchanted east’. It also casts the British as the protagonists of the story and their mission as heroic and moral; they appear as Hamlet, tasked with putting time back ‘into joint’.
Such depiction is characteristic of the moralising tone of McPherson’s opening and closing chapters. The British expedition to China is introduced in the first chapter as opening a new era ‘in the moral history of nations’.Footnote 7 The account concludes by asserting that the Treaty of Nanking:
paved the way for the utter extinction of the exclusive-ness and idea of supremacy hitherto insisted upon by the Celestial Empire and we have laid open the most valuable mart of commerce to the world at large.Footnote 8
Such overtly moralistic and verbose claims will undoubtedly be looked upon with cynicism by modern readers. The Chinese Expedition—or the ‘First Opium War’ as it is now more commonly known—is frequently interpreted as an attempt by the British to push opium on the Chinese people, with moralistic defences for the campaign dismissed as a smokescreen for British material interests.Footnote 9 As Alan Lester, in a widely shared opinion piece, has argued: ‘free trade… was used to force China to continue accepting opium imports against its will’.Footnote 10
Yet, to dismiss McPherson out of hand in such a way would be to impede our ability to properly engage with and interpret his account. To dismiss his views as merely a smokescreen for British material ambition would be to regard him as either a liar or a fool who had been tricked by the lies of others. Both such positions would prevent us from properly engaging and considering his account and how knowledge of China, and indeed Britain, is constructed.Footnote 11 It is important thus to suspend modern prejudgements about the Anglo-Chinese conflict and instead begin by considering the contemporary understanding in which McPherson’s account is rooted.
To best appreciate the historical understanding in which McPherson’s account is situated in we might begin by considering the sources of his knowledge of China. There are three notable sources which McPherson refers to in his account: the periodical The China Repository; the Pomeranian Missionary Karl Gützlaff; and the English Missionary Henry Medhurst.
The Chinese Repository was Canton’s leading English language periodical. The periodical is notable for framing the need for military intervention as a moral duty in the lead up to the expedition, calling on European powers—especially Britain—to liberate the Chinese people from the archaic practices of the Qing Empire by forcing it to open up to international trade. Stressing the moral humanitarian need for military intervention, it declared the need for intervention by Britain as a ‘moral duty’.Footnote 12
McPherson is clearly aware of The Chinese Repository, declaring it an ‘excellent periodical’ in the preface.Footnote 13 More than this, the preface also declares that two of McPherson’s chapters had already been published in this very periodical. This may very well explain McPherson’s focus on the ‘moral duty’ of the expedition: in bookending the account this way, he is identifying with the editorial line of a journal in which he has previously published. The aim of the opening and closing of the account to situate it within the moral position propagated by The Chinese Repository would also be reinforced when one compares the overtly moralising opening and conclusion of the account with the much more grounded and balanced tone of substantial main chapters.
The ‘moral’ nature of the expedition is also reflected in the work of Gützlaff. Gützlaff had worked as a missionary in China whilst also lending his services to the Opium dealers.Footnote 14 The Pomeranian also published an influential account of his travels in 1834. Gützlaff was an advocate of opening China to global trade, remarking:
unshackled commercial operations will be of mutual benefit… foreigners and Chinese, as inhabitants of the same globe, and Children of the same creator, have an equal claim to amiable intercourse, and free reciprocal communication.Footnote 15
Gützlaff further believed that free trade would assist his overall aim of introducing Christianity to China, which would replace their idolatry and superstition. Indeed, the idolatry and superstition of the Chinese is a theme Gützlaff would labour, remarking many of the habits of the Chinese were the ‘offspring of blind superstition’. He also, through his discussion of Chinese religion, stresses the notion of the Chinese are enslaved by custom: they have no true grasp of spirituality, ‘They are religious, because custom bids them to be so’.Footnote 16
McPherson refers to Gützlaff as an authority in China, though he does not cite his work directly. It should indeed be noted that McPherson’s knowledge of Gützlaff’s views could have come as much from personal acquaintance as from reading his works: Gützlaff served as a British agent during the expedition, notably filling the double role of magistrate and spymaster during the occupation of Ningpo.Footnote 17 Regardless of how he became familiarised, it is nonetheless doubtless that McPherson was knowledgeable about the missionary-come-spymaster’s views.
The other authority that McPherson directly references is Walter Henry Medhurst. Medhurst was an English missionary to China whose book, China: Its State and Prospects, was highly influential amongst missionaries. Medhurst, in contrast to Gützlaff, was a critique of the Opium trade and of European expansion.Footnote 18 Observing the aggressive and exploitive behaviour of the European Empires, the missionary remarked that who could blame the Chinese for shutting the door to these ‘barbarians’: ‘if China is closed against us, we may thank ourselves for it’.Footnote 19 Furthermore, despite much of the opinion at the time, Medhurst insists China is an advanced civilised nation, describing in detail Chinese industry and the discovery of products like porcelain and gunpowder long before Europeans.Footnote 20
Yet, despite praising Chinese skill in crafts, Medhurst echoes Gützlaff’s view of Chinese custom. He remarks on the ‘sinfulness’ and superstition of China and laments this will make conversion a ‘Herculean Task’.Footnote 21 He notes that Taoists, ‘like the Athenians of old’, are ‘in all things far too superstitious’. He also gives details about customs that pander to the supernatural, such as the practice of providing for ghosts: ‘[they] must not only feed them, once in a year, but supply them with cash’.Footnote 22 He also discussed the ‘infernal practice’ of female infanticide, which he assures his readers does exist, though attributes this ‘abominable custom’ to poverty rather than superstition.Footnote 23
McPherson mentions Medhurst only once, citing him as an authority on the population of China.Footnote 24 Familiarity with his work is however suggested by how many of the surgeon’s general remarks about the Chinese map on to the major themes of Medhurst’s China. McPherson’s remark that the ‘manufacture of paper and gunpowder, glass and porcelain ware, and the art of printing were all known to them long before they came into use among us more civilised nations’, for example, reflect significant topics in Medhurst’s book where he discusses the development of each craft in detail.Footnote 25
To this it also may be added that the one reference in McPherson’s account to Christianity—a remark in the conclusion suggesting the expedition may prove ‘instrumental in sowing the seeds of Christianity’Footnote 26—may also reflect the influence of missionaries on McPherson’s understanding. The prospects of spreading Christianity to China were of course overriding concerns of both Medhurst and Gützlaff, the former indeed subtitling his work as ‘with especial reference to the spread of the gospel’.
It is notable however that the general picture of China McPherson would have got from his sources is that of an archaic, indeed, ‘backward’ civilisation that had fallen behind that of European nations. This had led to the belief that a war with China to force engagement with wider world had become a ‘moral duty’. This view was not universal, and a more negative perspective of aggressive European policy to China would have been available to McPherson via Medhurst. Yet even Medhurst conveys strongly the idea that China is in a state of inertia and is gripped by superstition, with the notable stories of ghosts. From such sources, it is thus understandable how McPherson could view China as a ‘haunted house’: it had a clear reputation of being a land still under the thrall of supernatural superstition and not yet blessed with the enlightening influence of European civilisation. McPherson also, despite the reservations of writers like Medhurst, shares and reiterates the position of the Chinese Repository that it was a moral duty to free China from these shackles of archaic custom.
What these bookends subsequently provide is the ‘expectations’ of McPherson’s historical time: the view that the British intervention was a moral duty and was working for the liberation of the Chinese. This is notably not just an expectation of McPherson’s but one spread across a number of western writings and propagated by periodicals such as the China Repository. In his bookends, McPherson thus clearly seeks to make evident and situate his work within this understanding of the British mission. What we must now thus consider is whether the more nuanced and sober layer recounting McPherson’s actual experiences in China reinforce or distort this moral narrative.
3 The Curious Surgeon
Whilst McPherson may share and appeal to these grander narrative interpretations of the British expedition, when one gets into the main body of the text, one finds such frameworks fade into the background and McPherson’s own encounters and adventures take centre stage. Neither are these anecdotal encounters always driven by the grand themes of moral duty but, more frequently, by his own personal curiosities.Footnote 27
McPherson was a medical expert of some note. Serving predominantly in British India, McPherson rose to Inspector General of the medical service of Madras. Here his most notable accomplishment would be the improvement of sanitary conditions. His accomplishments would result in him being decorated by Queen Victoria with the Imperial insignia of the Order of Medjidia, the only medical officer to be so decorated.Footnote 28
Giving such expertise, it is not surprising to find much of McPherson’s curiosity to be of a medical nature.Footnote 29 It is subsequently through the lens of ‘medical curiosity’ that many of his encounters are framed. This is most evident in McPherson’s interest in ‘small feet’ women, something he declares himself ‘most anxious to see and examine’ and the ‘chief curiosity’ in Macao.Footnote 30 By ‘small feet’ women, McPherson is denoting those who had gone through the process of foot binding.
McPherson eventually gets to interview a ‘small foot’ woman during a particularly ‘tiresome’ period of negotiation. The surgeon only refers to these diplomatic manoeuvres in the slightest of detail, instead choosing to elaborate on his encounter and subsequent ‘examination’.Footnote 31 Indeed, the ‘interview’ is the longest anecdote of the whole account. In one aspect, the encounter is a light-hearted comedy of errors: McPherson has to overcome language barriers; the woman is reluctant to show her foot, and McPherson subsequently feels cheated; he eventually convinces her to show him through assurances that his interests are purely medical in nature accompanied by ‘the best placebo’—a bribe. Upon seeing the foot, McPherson then proceeds in a more blunt and sombre tone. The procedure, the surgeon hypothesises, must have been a ‘partial amputation’ that has left a ‘bone protruding’ where the big toe should be.Footnote 32
McPherson however does not only provide medical description, but also expresses his opinion on the custom. It is, he leaves the reader in no doubt, a ‘barbarous practice’.Footnote 33 He describes the woman’s feet repeatedly as a ‘deformity’ and remarks that these ‘poor creatures’ are ‘invariably crippled’. Indeed, the idea that the custom ‘cripples’—and therefore deforms—is repeatedly pressed upon the reader. ‘Small-footed woman’ are never described as ‘walking’, but always ‘tottering’; ‘stump about’; and ‘hobbled’. He concluded they ‘remind me of… a boy walking on stilts’.Footnote 34
Whilst not hiding his disproval of the practice, it is nonetheless notable that McPherson does not adopt a moralising tone, as is found in the opening and closing chapters. Rather, his assessment is much more in the manner of a blunt straight-talking medical professional. Nor, notably, does McPherson use this encounter to labour a point about Chinese barbarity in particular. Rather, he equates the practice with the more universal tendencies of cultures to irrationally deform the body as to aspire to misconceived societal perceptions of beauty. Indeed, he compares the practice not only to the ‘flattening of the heads among the natives of Columbia’ but also, tellingly, the custom of ‘squeezing the wastes of English women out of all natural shape’.Footnote 35
Another key theme McPherson’s medical curiosity gives him a unique perspective on is Opium, the drug receiving its own dedicated chapter towards the end of the account.Footnote 36 This chapter is notable for its rapid dismissal of the idea that the opium trade was a major cause of the war, restating instead the moralistic perspective which bookends the account. Nonetheless, this is done incredibly briefly, McPherson instead using most of the chapter to consider the drug from the perspective of medical curiosity.
Such curiosity indeed prompts McPherson to do some self-experimentation: ‘I had the curiosity to try the effects of a few pipes myself’.Footnote 37 This experimentation, coupled with his observations of the Chinese people—the Chinese workman is both physically and mentally superior to the British working classFootnote 38—leads him to conclude, if used in moderation, opium does not have serious health effects. Indeed, alcohol, he assures his readers, is a far more dangerous pastime and has a far more corrosive effect on society; opium smokers are ‘not so disgusting to the beholder as that of the sottish, salving drunkard’.Footnote 39
McPherson is however more concerned with stressing the benefits of the use of opium for medical science. ‘There is no disease in which opium may not be employed’, he states emphatically, ‘nor do we know of any substance that can supply its place’.Footnote 40 The drug is used in Bengal ‘as a substitute for quinine’ and was also used to treat the fevers that ‘prevailed so extensively amongst our troops in Hong Kong’.Footnote 41 His curiosity in, and perspective of, opium smoking is thus directed from the perspective of its medical value, the surgeon subsequently concluding its benefits for the advancement of medical science far outweigh the risks and dangers caused by those few who choose to abuse the drug.
McPherson’s medical perspective and knowledge allows him to conveniently dismiss certain criticisms of the war and thus avoid dwelling on some of the more controversial aspects of the expedition. It also however reveals the perspective that McPherson adopts for much of his assessment of experiences: that of an objective enlightened and scientific mind giving balanced assessment on the practices and behaviours he encounters. This is clear in his view of opium, as he seeks to give fair assessment through observation and self-experiment. It also informs observations of practices like foot binding, where McPherson frames his interest as stemming from medical curiosity and condemns it on the grounds of physiological damage. This discussion notably does not labour an ‘orientalist’ view of the inferiority of the Chinese in particular, but rather is put in the context of the suffering of women across cultures, including Europeans, in the name of ‘beauty’.
4 The ‘Uncanny’ Chinese
Having thus sketched the historical horizon in which McPherson’s journey occurred in as well as the specific curiosities that framed and motivated his encounters, we may consider the image of China that is constructed in his account.
McPherson attempts to convey the general ‘character’ of China to his readers in the very first Chapter. The picture drawn here is notably inconsistent. In one sense, McPherson depicts the Chinese as a complete ‘other’, dramatically opposite to Europeans in every conceivable way: ‘his port lays west-north’; on a compass ‘he describes the needle as pointing south’; ‘he commences at what we would consider the end of the book’; at funerals ‘they dress in white’ whilst at weddings ‘nothing can be heard but sobbing and crying’.Footnote 42 In addition to this apparently odd worldview, it is also impressed upon the reader that the Chinese are deeply superstitious: worship of ancestors is rigorously enforced; all ‘consult their joss, or god, before commencing any undertaking of importance’; many believe ‘in the transfiguration of souls’, a process which can go terribly wrong if the proper funeral rights are not carried out”’.Footnote 43 McPherson also adds to this the observation that: ‘much duplicity and craft may come to light from amongst the upper classes’ whilst ‘much low cunning, and treachery, and selfishness, may he find lurking beneath the garb of the lower order’.Footnote 44 The Chinese are:
Haughty, cruel, and hypocritical, they despise all nations but their own; they regard themselves as faultless… they style all foreigners barbarians… No argument will induce a Chinamen to adopt a different style of reasoning.Footnote 45
Yet, amongst this seemingly negative list of Chinese characteristics, there is also listed many positive traits: in ‘private life, they excel many other nations’; ‘there are no castes among them, consequently the great barrier between man and man… is altogether done away with’; ‘the passing stranger is at all times welcome to partake of the poorest man’s fare’.Footnote 46 Their craftsmanship is also highly praised.Footnote 47 McPherson remarks Chinese ‘guns are of in many instances equal to any of European manufacture’ and ‘their industry and never-ending perseverance enable them to build extensive and powerful batteries’.Footnote 48 Fortunately, for the British, the Chinese being ‘not a warlike race’, were unable to use this to their advantage.Footnote 49 Such differing positive and negative viewpoints of the Chinese mingled together in one chapter subsequently creates a very disorientating perception for the reader and results in contradictions. McPherson describes the lower order as treacherous and selfish and remarks that the poorest Chinese man would share his lot with a stranger: the Chinese are at once selfish and generous.
Explanation for this is found in the fact that, in his opening account, McPherson is not relaying his own experience but summarising the accounts of others.Footnote 50 As discussed, McPherson explicitly states familiarity with the Chinese Repository as well as Gützlaff and Medhurst and it is highly likely that it is information from these sources that the surgeon relays. Chinese superstition, for example, is a prominent theme of both Gützlaff and Medhurst. Equally, as was noted, McPherson’s discussion of Chinese crafts resembles Medhurst’s major themes.
Noting that such information comes from other sources certainly explains McPherson’s often paradoxical first depiction of the Chinese people. It also however provides somewhat of a framework to McPherson’s discourse as it adds additional points of curiosity to his medical interests. The notion that the Chinese are skilled craftsmen, for example, results in McPherson investigating the quality of Chinese forts and artillery as to confirm their ‘very superior manufacture’.Footnote 51 After the fall of the Bocca Tigris McPherson indeed gives detailed anecdote of his findings in the Chinese forts as to give ‘proof of the ingenuity of the Chinese’:
[S]ome guns which had been spiked and deprived of their trunnions at Cheumpee, were here recognised, mounted on carriages, having had a vent-hole boarded on the opposite side, and a strong iron hoop, with trunnions attached, placed on the centre of the piece.Footnote 52
Of course, that the Chinese had such impressive military craftsmanship and architecture, yet still lost to the British, requires explanation. McPherson provides this with the view that the Chinese did not know how to effectively use their weaponry.Footnote 53 Thus, seemingly confirming the view that the Chinese were ‘unwarlike’.
Caution should however be taken that such comments are not interpreted as McPherson claiming that the Chinese are ‘effeminate’ (‘feminisation’ of the East of course being considered a central technique of orientalism).Footnote 54 On the contrary, McPherson frequently describes the Chinese as a ‘brave’, ‘determined’, and, notably, ‘manly’.Footnote 55 Indeed, some of the most striking images of martial valour depicted are of the Chinese: Admiral Kwan advancing alone on British forces ‘brandishing his double-handed sword’Footnote 56; the last stand General Keo and his men who stuck ‘to him to the last’Footnote 57; the unnamed soldier described as ‘boldly waving his fag in spite of British naval cannonade’ until a ‘32 pounder shot finished his career’.Footnote 58
McPherson’s assessment that the Chinese could not effectively repel the British is instead more a reflection of Qing leadership. McPherson makes considerable note of the poor quality of Imperial leadership and the divisions between many Mandarin officers and Chinese soldiers. This is particularly evident at the battles on the Canton River, where McPherson notes how, to his surprise, the Chinese forts opened fire on their own boats. This, he would later learn, was an act of retribution by the common soldiers against their Mandarin commanders who had fled on boats after locking the common soldiers in the forts to hasten their escape.Footnote 59 A similar division existed within the city of Canton itself, where Tartar and Chinese troops had been engaged in a de facto civil war in which ‘Tartar troops ate the flesh of the Chinese that were slain’.Footnote 60
Another characteristic that McPherson appears to confirm in his experiences is the superstitious nature of the Chinese. He describes how British steamships were referred to by the Chinese as ‘devil ships’ and believed to have supernatural powers. Indeed, McPherson records this belief in Britain’s ‘unnatural powers’ as critical in convincing the emperor to accept the Treaty of Nanking.Footnote 61 Caution should be taken here as clearly some of these claims do not derive from direct experiences. Whilst McPherson may have heard some Chinese refer to steamships as ‘devil ships’ he was not privy to the thoughts of the emperor. Indeed, McPherson had already left China when the Treaty of Nanking was signed.Footnote 62
Where McPherson does however directly experience Chinese superstition is during a typhoon in Hong Kong. McPherson recording how the ‘natives were running widely about, vainly beseeching succour from their Gods’.Footnote 63 This seems to have confirmed to McPherson the view that the Chinese were superstitious as well as offered an opportunity to compare them to the technologically minded British: the Chinese detected the storm by ‘indications’ and the British by their barometers. On this occasion though, both were right.Footnote 64
One might observe that, though his readings may have provided extra curiosity beyond medical issues, they are investigated in the same ‘examinatory’ manner. McPherson hears of something, his curiosity is peaked, and he seeks out to examine and give perspective on it. The Chinese are indeed superior craftsmen, he observes. Their inability to repel the British is due to internal division and poor Qing leadership, he diagnoses. It is also notable that, though giving normative perspective, there is not the same ‘moralising’ that there is in the account bookends. The Hong Kong Islanders are superstitious, that is verified, but McPherson does not labour this into a point of British superiority, he just observes differences in approach. Indeed, McPherson even appears to empathise, remarking ‘the last days of Hong Kong seemed to be approaching. It was a grand but truly awful sight’.Footnote 65 Nor does McPherson ignore aspects of Hong Kong organisation that are superior to the British, such as building shelter in the storm and dressing appropriately for the tropical climate.Footnote 66 This makes a clear distinction between McPherson’s moralising in the bookends and the curious investigations that make up the bulk of the account. It would lead to the suggestion that such moralising was aimed at alignment with current literature, whilst the actual construction of knowledge about China takes a more detached and balanced approach free from such moral baggage.
Nonetheless, what perhaps is the overarching narrative of McPherson’s encounters with the ordinary Chinese is their growing friendliness and welcoming nature. At Chusan, despite initially hiding, the Chinese did ‘gradually regaining confidence, return’, the attraction of the dollar and the rupee being particularly effective in winning them over. It was not long before the British were being referred to as ‘fokee, the Chinese word for friend’.Footnote 67 Such a process is repeated in other localities visited, most notably, Ningpo where local citizens were described as being incredibly friendly and even assisted with the removal of barriers erected by the Qing army.Footnote 68
Such friendliness leads McPherson to make further diagnosis: that the Chinese are welcoming of British intervention. In Canton McPherson judges hundreds would be glad to join the British if they had ‘encouragement’.Footnote 69 In Chusan, McPherson records that the locals demonstrated knowledge and praise for the British Empire.Footnote 70 The citizens of Ningpo ‘openly expressed a wish to be taken altogether under British protection’.Footnote 71 The friendliness of the local Cantonese towards the British is indeed one of the key factors McPherson gives for the de facto civil war that breaks out in the city. Tensions seemingly began when Qing officials sought to record who had been frequenting the British ships. Fearful of retribution, the people assaulted and overcame the officials, subsequently boiling the lead Mandarin alive whilst sending his deputies into the river on boats primed ‘with combustibles of every description’.Footnote 72 The fact that injured Chinese believed British medical staff were in fact torturers meanwhile impressed upon McPherson an idea of how cruel the Mandarin officials could be to those who defied them.Footnote 73
Such description does notably veer towards the ‘liberation’ narrative of the opening and close of the account. Nonetheless, it should be noted McPherson does not really labour this narrative here nor does he use verbose polemic language. Rather he keeps his dryer and detached observational tone. Indeed, it almost reads as if his experiences are verifying the view that the expedition would be for the benefit of the ordinary Chinese people, thus fitting with the curiosity-driven scientific tone of the main body of the text rather than the polemic bookends.
It also crucially reveals much about how McPherson constructs his perception of the Chinese. Contrary to the opening remarks, it is evident that he does not see them as some complete ‘other’ who is utterly different and alien to all things British. Similar interests and desires consistently manifest as McPherson’s encounters with the Chinese develop, most notably an appreciation for craftwork and a desire to trade. What is clearly evident in the many light-hearted conversations and interactions McPherson vividly recounts is that the Chinese are a people whom one can engage; converse; build a rapport; and even have a laugh with. This reveals a common humanity that McPherson clearly feels with the Chinese he encounters. Amongst McPherson’s last words is notably an expression that the Chinese are a ‘skilful and intelligent people’.Footnote 74
It also however reveals what, in McPherson’s eyes, divides the Chinese and the British. This is most evidently the Qing Imperial regime which is committed to preventing the Chinese trade with the outside world and, in the process, oppresses and holds back its people. Beyond this however, at a deeper level, what evidently separates the British and the Chinese is the latter’s strange customs and beliefs.Footnote 75
These factors which unite and separate the Chinese and British are particularly well illustrated in McPherson’s anecdotal account of the ‘foundling-house’ of Amoy. It is here that McPherson finds ‘evidence’ of the ‘horrible crime of killing […] female offspring’. McPherson notes:
not far from the foundling-house, in a tank covered with duckweed, a number of new-born babies were found sewed up in mats; these, apparently, had been drowned.Footnote 76
The anecdote is interesting in two ways. Firstly, it follows McPherson’s investigative approach to phenomena he had clearly heard about and sought to verify himself. Indeed, he notes his finding reveals that ‘there appears to be some truth in this accusation’.Footnote 77 This reflects very much Medhurst’s insistence that infanticide was practised in China, despite the doubts of Europeans.Footnote 78 McPherson’s words indeed imply he himself likely doubted that such a practice could truly be carried out and was subsequently driven by curiosity to uncover the truth for himself. Sadly, on this occasion, Medhurst’s claims were confirmed.
Secondly, read against the larger discussion of Amoy, it makes for interesting reading on how McPherson constructs his depiction of the Chinese as a whole. The findings in the foundling-house are noticeably followed by a positive note on local merchants, whom McPherson records had great acquaintance with European customs and manners; showed knowledge of the British Empire, Singapore in particular; and spoke in favour of the British Empire.Footnote 79 This friendly encounter creates a strange juxtaposition with the previous encounter that is the closest to the ‘horror genre’ in McPherson’s travels through the ‘haunted house’. This is revealing as the anecdote give a clear indication of the duality in which McPherson sees the Chinese: this is an evident common humanity and issues like trade pull the British and Chinese together; yet there are also these ‘horrific’ practices that, when discovered, make the Chinese suddenly appear incredibly inhuman and ‘other’. Indeed, the foundling-house resembles the ‘small foot woman’ in an interesting way: in both cases, there is some common ground found and rapport is built. However, this familiarity is juxtaposed by a practice that seemingly warps the Chinese and makes them incredibly strange and ‘other’. Foot binding clearly separating the Macao women by physically crippling her. Infanticide meanwhile separating the citizens of Amoy on a more fundamental moral level through association with a practice deemed most inhuman.
Interestingly, such construction resembles a stock trait of ‘hauntings’: the ‘uncanny’. The ‘uncanny’ can be understood as ‘a peculiar commingling of the familiar and unfamiliar’.Footnote 80 This is why a ‘house’ is such a common setting for a haunting, as it is the strange distortion of a familiar, normally comfortable setting, which creates the disturbing presence. ‘Haunting cannot take place without the possibility of internal eruption and interruption within and as a condition of a familiar, everyday place and space’.Footnote 81 In McPherson’s account however, it is not the setting that is necessarily uncanny, but the people he encounters. Often the Chinese are friendly and demonstrate relatable interests, conveying a familiar and common humanity. Yet frequently the discovery of strange archaic practices suddenly reveals a very disturbing aspect to these people which renders them different and alien, disrupting any sense of familiarity and common humanity.
5 The Bold Adventurers
Having thus understood the Chinese as appearing ‘uncanny’ to McPherson—on account of them being suddenly distorted and made ‘other’ by their customary practices—we may turn to consider the protagonist who will free China from this haunting spectre, the Hamlet that will put China ‘back in joint’.
In McPherson’s bookends, this is clearly framed as the British. Depicted as ‘bold adventurers’, the British, it is claimed, are raising ‘the curtain’ in China and ushering in a new ‘moral’ age.Footnote 82 It will be observed that such framing would seem to be overtly ‘orientalist in nature’, indeed, putting the British in the trope of a ‘white saviour’ coming to the Chinese’s rescue. We might, in light of this, expect the British to manifest from McPherson’s pages as brave, heroic and—in contrast to the Chinese enslaved by superstition—‘enlightened’.
Yet, once one gets past the verbose introductory chapter, McPherson’s fellow Brits do not appear as overtly heroic nor enlightened. There are of course elements where such traits are visible. Captain Belcher and Captain Kellet are praised for carrying out ‘careful surveys’; ‘spirited reconnoitre’; and ‘repeated surveys’ up the Canton River.Footnote 83 In one vivid depiction, McPherson recounts the bravery of Captain Hall of the Nemesis who personally ‘thrust his hand’ into one of the ship’s firing ‘tubes’ to dislodge a jammed rocket, thus ‘saving the lives of many with his boldness’.Footnote 84 Such incidents and characterisations are however mostly expressed very briefly and in passing.
If anything indeed appears to represent the virtues of bravery and enlightenment it is the steamship Nemesis itself. McPherson often comments on the ship’s ingenious modern design making crucial differences in key engagements. It also receives heroic depiction. Consider for instance how McPherson’s describes the ship during the battles for the Canton River:
The Goddess of Revenge, through the midst of repeated explosions while performing this gallant feat… returned unscathed, decked with Chinese flags and banners, and her crew habited in mandarin’s coats and caps.Footnote 85
Yet, it would be incorrect to say that McPherson depicts the British as braver than the Chinese. Indeed, depictions of British heroism are about equally matched, if not superseded, by descriptions of Chinese heroism. Nor is McPherson’s account of the British always positive. In fact, when discussing British command, it is largely critical. The initial leaders of the expedition, cousins Charles and George Elliot, are described bluntly by McPherson as ‘two… imbeciles’.Footnote 86 Charles Elliot in particular receives more criticism than any other single person is praised or blamed in the entire account. Elliot ‘daily become more clouded and veiled in obscurity’; he ‘changes opinion every few minutes’; ‘the nature of his temperament’ is ‘vacillating’; he was overly ‘conciliating’.Footnote 87 It is ‘surprising’ that a man who had such extensive ‘communication with the Chinese, both officially and otherwise’, should yet remain in ‘ignorance of their true character’.Footnote 88 Rather than a bold and enlightened hero, Elliot comes across as a blundering ‘imbecile’ of unbelievable ignorance.Footnote 89
It should be noted that McPherson was not alone in holding a dim view of Elliot. Lord Palmerston was notably unimpressed with Elliot’s leadership, eventually dismissing him on the grounds that his appeasing approach to the Qing was treating his orders like a ‘waste of paper’.Footnote 90 The poet Emily Eden meanwhile reflected:
he [Elliot] will prevent… taking Canton, for fear it should hurt the feeling of the Chinese, and the Emperor will probably send down orders that our sailors are to wear long tails and broad hats, wink their eyes, and fan themselves, and C. Elliot will try to teach them. I don’t think my national pride ever was so much hurt.Footnote 91
It would indeed appear Elliot’s ‘appeasing’ nature also irked McPherson, who noted that Elliot seemed desperate to establish peace ‘honourable or otherwise’.Footnote 92 Julia Lovell has argued that frustration towards Elliot was born out of a desire to cease negotiation and engage the Chinese in battle. In her landmark study Opium War, she remarks ‘British troops were becoming increasingly inured to large-scale slaughter of the Chinese’.Footnote 93 Interestingly, she highlights McPherson’s account as evidence of this, quoting:
appearance of this flag of truce was very disheartening to all who, flushed with the success of yesterday, and not yet satisfied with the quantity of human bloodshed, were eager yet to dip their hands more deeply into it.Footnote 94
Lovell however omits that this is a sentiment McPherson goes on to rebuke:
How little does a victorious army think, when reckoning on the numbers of the dead and wounded enemy, that these, too, had friends who deplore their loss and weep for their fate.Footnote 95
Thus, whilst McPherson conceded such bloodthirsty sentiments were present amongst his comrades, even noting it was the view of a ‘callus’ majority, it was a sentiment that McPherson does not share.Footnote 96 Indeed, he finds it odorous. A notable anti-war sentiment subsequently can be detected across McPherson’s account. ‘Alas! What a cruel monster is man, thus to destroy the only bonds which… bind us to each other, and make life a comfort and a pleasure’.Footnote 97 This significantly disrupts the heroic identity of the British sailing east to liberate the Chinese, McPherson’s experiences revealing the British to be at times overtly bloodthirsty and acting certainly to the detriment of the Chinese who were slaughtered.
McPherson’s anger at Elliot rather stems, not from his reluctance to take Chinese life, but how his decisions cost British lives. The unsanitary conditions British troops are subjected to during the occupation of Chusan is a notable point of contention.Footnote 98 A situation further exasperated by the insistence of senior officers that usual ceremonial traditions are continued despite the topical conditions.Footnote 99 Similar incompetency was repeated in Hong Kong. McPherson observed that, being aware of the endemic fevers along the East China coast, the Hong Kong islander subsequently spared ‘no expense or trouble to make his dwelling comfortable, and thus protect him from those frequent and sudden transitions from hot to cold’.Footnote 100 The British, by contrast, were less thoughtful:
The troops were cantoned on the brow of a small hill, from whence cold blasts of wind and heavy falls of rain were in quick succession followed by burning hot sun… the barracks provided for them were wretchedly ill adapted for so changeable a climate.Footnote 101
‘Is it any wonder’, McPherson concludes in frustration, ‘disease increased?’Footnote 102
Such mistakes were costly to the British, and indeed, disease would inflict a far greater casualty rate upon them than the Qing. As McPherson laments: the ‘catalogue of mortality, far outnumbering the devastation and destruction of the sword’.Footnote 103 McPherson insists these causalities were caused by the neglect of British command. An ‘infatuation’, he asserts, came over British leadership that made them deaf to expert advice. Medical staff were dismissed as ‘croakers’ and their ‘recommendations were neither listened to nor attended to’.Footnote 104 This was particularly infuriating as many medical staff had direct experience of the cause and spread of disease in tropical climates: the mistakes being made in Chusan regarding ‘military hygeiana’ were ‘self-evident to all who study… the History of the Anglo-Indian army’.Footnote 105 Yet expert advice was ignored, and the spread of disease claimed many a British life that could have been saved by ‘a very small amount of intellect and trouble’.Footnote 106
McPherson’s anger over the numerous medical disasters that befell British forces is best surmised by his statement that these tragedies were ‘completely in the control of man’.Footnote 107 Thus, although McPherson does show irritation at British commands’ seeming desire to avoid insulting the Chinese natives at any cost, this is not driven by necessarily a desire for conflict not disrespect for local customs in-and-for-themselves. Rather, it is because such a desire to meet the demands of custom came at the expense of listening to the expertise of medical science, and this cost British lives. This, for McPherson, is irrational. Indeed, a sense of irrationality in British command is conveyed by his claim they became ‘infatuated’: it is like they fell victim to the mysterious spell and lost sense of their rational faculties.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that it is not only blind adherence to Chinese that McPherson criticises. Cleary a rigid adherence to British practices is also identified as problematic, most notably the rigid obsession with having ‘full dress’ parades under the tropical sun. Thus, it is not ‘Chinese custom’ that McPherson is particularly angry at or dismissive of. Rather it is any custom or ingrained tradition that is categorically respected or zealously carried out despite expert knowledge. It is the blind following of custom and tradition instead of engaging one’s rational faculties which McPherson finds infuriating.
Thus, in many ways, British leadership is made uncanny just like the Chinese. McPherson’s superiors share in his common humanity and, more than this, his British traditions. Thus, he might expect them to share in his rational capacities and be able to recognise and consult good scientific advice. However, the effects of emotion and custom seem to take a grip of them, overpowering them, and subsequently making them deaf to good advice. They are thus also in a way suddenly deformed, not in a moral or physical capacity this time, but in an intellectual capacity. This ‘infatuation’ which comes over them suddenly makes them intellectually ‘other’ to McPherson and creates epistemic gap which cannot easily be bridged. The cost of this sudden intellectual othering that occurs is however much more costly than the more obvious and cultural ‘other’ that erupts from the Chinese. British loss of rational sense—command’s sudden ‘infatuation’—costs the lives of British troops.
In light of this, we might also consider what truly ‘haunts’ McPherson’s account: what is it that erupts suddenly from his encounters that distorts his surroundings and makes his fellow humans ‘uncanny’. The answer is the emotions and passions of men, and their stubborn desire to hold on to irrational and damaging customs and traditions.Footnote 108 It is this spectre which, just when the Chinese are showing a common humanity and building rapport, threatens to erupt from them and render them physically and morally ‘other’. It is this spectre which also erupts from his own British, causing them to make incomprehensibly poor decisions which prove, for many, fatal.
Such reflections shed interesting light on both the construction of identity and knowledge in McPherson’s account. McPherson approaches the issue from the perspective of a surgeon, and this profession gives him a position of epistemological superiority: as a medical professional with experience in India, he comes with greater insight into the nature of diseases in a tropical climate. However, this hierarchy of knowledge does not map on to a hierarchy of identity: McPherson may have an enhanced insight because he is a British surgeon, but this does not mean the British have a superior knowledge of this situation, as is evident by British command ignoring medical advice and making mistakes. Indeed, the Chinese are in fact here portrayed to be in a position of superior knowledge of how to remain healthy and avoid disease on the Hong Kong Islands, effectively reversing the west-over-east hierarchy usually associated with orientalist perspectives and instead putting the Hong Kong islanders in the superior position. Thus whilst professional identity may contribute to a hierarchy of knowledge in McPherson’s account, it should be stressed that this does not map on to national or cultural identities.
McPherson’s account is notable for being acutely observant and bluntly honest. His curiosity is driven by both his medical background and what he has heard about China, and he subsequently takes every opportunity to seek out answers and record what he finds. The surgeon also does not mince words. This is true regarding both the Chinese practices he encounters and the decisions of British command. Such an approach makes McPherson’s account observant and analytical, but also normative. This makes him very different from a traveller such as Antonio Pigafetta who, as Matteo Salonia has so interestingly discussed in this volume, leaves the ‘audience free to complete the author’s thoughts and to guess the rationale of what is described’.
As a result, unlike Pigafetta, McPherson creates dichotomies through his normative assessments. The most obvious one is between the guiding light of rational scientific knowledge and expertise (especially when pertaining to medical science) and the obscuring effect of the passions and the blind following of custom. In this, McPherson very much resembles the tradition of the European Enlightenment. Indeed, one might compare this dichotomy emerging from McPherson’s account to the views of physician-come-philosopher John Locke: reason is what is central and common to humanity; but those who rely on only tradition and custom are as blind as ‘brute beasts’ and likely to fall into ‘barbarous habits’ and ‘evil customs’.Footnote 109
Yet, to simply map this dichotomy onto a West/East or European/Chinese distinction would be a mistake. Admittedly, McPherson often highlights, and condemns, Chinese practices and customs as ‘barbaric’. Yet, despite this, he does not hesitate to admit that they are also highly skilled. McPherson does praise the ingenuity and technology of the British, especially evident in his depiction of Nemesis. Nonetheless, he does not hide from the fact that the British can be irrational and also follow tradition blindly, such as when insisting on full dress parades under the tropical Hong Kong sun. McPherson will not hesitate to pay tribute to Chinese ingenuity, nor will he shy away from calling out British command as imbecilic. In McPherson’s account, rationality subsequently emerges, not as the sole property of any one race, but rather a faculty common to humanity. Passions and misguided customs haunt all, threatening to erupt from amongst any group to distort and alienate them from humanity’s common stock. It is again very telling of McPherson’s worldview that he perceives foot binding on a par with the ‘squeezing’ of English women’s wastes. The Chinese are not unique in inflicting physiologically damaging practices on women out of misguided notions of beauty. This is something that is unfortunately inflicted on all females of the human species.
McPherson describes the 1840 expedition as voyaging into a haunted house, and, despite his clinical prose, one does indeed get a sense of unease throughout the account (though what seems to disturb him most is the folly of his fellow British rather than any spectral presence he encounters in China). Nonetheless, we shall take leave of McPherson at a point where he appears most at ease: wintering in Ningpo. McPherson records how confidence between the British and the Ningpo people had been established and excellent markets had been opened. ‘The inhabitants were daily nocking back, and now expressed a wish to be taken altogether into British protection’.Footnote 110 Common interest in trade here notably forms the shared understanding between British and Chinese, whilst there is no mention of archaic practices which rupture their common humanity. Yet, what is perhaps most telling of McPherson’s ease is that the men were now being taken properly care of and were in good health. Good sense has prevailed and the surgeon can calmly report:
[S]uch was the care and attention […] that regimental hospitals […] did not contain half-a-dozen patients, instead of the hundreds of last year’s campaign, and a death was now quite a rarity amongst them. The Navy, too, were equally healthy.Footnote 111
Wolfreys (2002, 18).
For orientalism see especially Said (1978, 78).
Gadamer (2012, 301–302).
Koselleck’s distinction is best illustrated in the essay ‘“Space of Experience” and “Horizon of Expectation”: Two Historical Categories’. Available in English in Koselleck (2004).
For examples of the Opium trade being at the foremost of modern British understanding of the conflict see for example see the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the National Army Museum which explain the origins of the conflict predominantly as a dispute over the drug: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Opium-Wars; https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/opium-war-1839-1842. See also The Conversation which has ran a series of articles challenging the ‘benevolent’ image of the British Empire. Examples focusing in the Opium War include: Lester A. (2016), ‘Britain should stop trying to pretend that its empire was benevolent’, The Conversation, Available at: https://theconversation.com/britain-should-stop-trying-to-pretend-that-its-empire-was-benevolent-59298; Neal S. (2017), The Commonwealth and Britain: the trouble with ‘Empire 2.0’, The Conversation, Available at: https://theconversation.com/the-commonwealth-and-britain-the-trouble-with-empire-2-0-73707.
As Gadamer remarks, in order to properly understand a text we need to allow it ‘to tell us something, and this requires us to allow our historical witness to speak on his terms’. Gadamer (2012, 271).
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Lovell (2011, 198–199). In order to fully open ourselves to the horizon in which McPherson (2013) speaks from, place names have not been altered to match their modern titles. Thus Amoy is used rather than Xiamen; Canton rather than Guangzhou; ‘Canton River’ rather than ‘Pearl River’; ‘Ningpo’ rather than Ningbo, and so on.
Medhurst (1838, 85).
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Medhurst’s Fifth Chapter ‘The Civilisation of China’ includes dedicated discussion to the invention of gunpowder, porcelain, and paper amongst other things. It is interesting to note that this section also includes a discussion on surgery which, as will be discusses, is a central curiosity of McPherson’s. Yet McPherson makes not reference to this. The answer to this may be that Medhurst dismisses Chinese knowledge of medicine to ‘quackery’, and thus perhaps McPherson, a recognised medical expert trained at the University of Edinburgh, believed he could learn nothing from it and thus took no interest. Nonetheless, this is just conjecture, though the absence of commentary is notable. For Medhurst on surgery see McPherson (2013, 111–112).
It is notable that McPherson’s military campaigns often give him opportunity to engage in his own curiosities. Whilst serving in Crimean War, for example, he would take the opportunity to engage in archaeological research. The result was a published book: McPherson (1857).
See Bob Carruthers’ biographical note in McPherson (2013, 5).
This vantage point is most clearly directed at his assessment of British command, which I will consider in detail section four.
McPherson (2013, 27).
McPherson (2013, 26).
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McPherson (2013, 29).
McPherson (2013, 26–29).
McPherson (2013, 29).
It is Chapter XXI of the account.
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This is also reflected in McPherson’s thoughts on the Indian soldiers serving in the British Army. McPherson often reflects with pride how Indian and European (British) troops share in a common humanity when serving. When divisions and problems emerge, this is almost always due to the influence of archaic customs, most notably the Indian caste system. See for example McPherson (2013, 73).
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Beyond the discussion of Elliot which will be discussed, McPherson other criticisms included the ‘inferior vessels’ used as transport ships and the Hong Kong administration’s reluctance to aid in the recovery of those captured by the Qing. McPherson (2013, 35, 111).
Le Pichon (2006, 39–40).
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‘Elliot’, McPherson writes, ‘out of “dread of exciting bad feeling… among the natives”, ordered the “men to live in tents when there were thousands of houses available for that purpose”. Tents were “pitched on low paddy fields, surrounded by stagnant water, putrid and stinking from quantities of dead animal and vegetal matter”’. McPherson (2013, 14, 18).
McPherson (2013, 14).
McPherson (2013, 33).
McPherson (2013, 18).
McPherson (2013, 33).
McPherson (2013, 34).
McPherson (2013, 34).
It may be noted that this ‘infatuation’ is not the only passion in McPherson’s account that cause the British to become ‘uncanny’. McPherson also notes how bloodlust render many of his comrades suddenly ‘inhuman’. In this sense, McPherson’s anti-war sentiments appear to be driven by the observation that war dehumanises his comrades, alienating them from and setting them against their fellow man in the most beastly manner. McPherson (2013, 40).
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Brown, R.J. (2022). Travels in a Haunted House. Rational Curiosities and Overlapping Dichotomies in Duncan McPherson MD’s Account of the ‘Chinese Expedition’ of 1840–1842. In: Mueller, C., Salonia, M. (eds) Travel Writings on Asia. Palgrave Series in Asia and Pacific Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-19-0124-9_6
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