Sipping sangria in a tapas bar at Hong Kong’s Soho District, looking out the window, one could spend hours watching cosmopolitan humans spewing out one of the world’s longest elevator systems. Next to it, a street sign reads “Elgin Street.” Hardly anybody knows who Elgin was, or what he had done to deserve a street named after him. If not because of a recent deliberation with a quaint academic about Hong Kong’s early colonial days, I would not have bothered to research about him either. By reading up on the history which embroiled the life of this forgotten character, however, I’ve discovered the justice in history.
The Wikipedia summary of Lord Elgin is as follows:
James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine, KT, GCB, PC (20 July 1811 – 20 November 1863), was a British colonial administrator and diplomat. He was the Governor General of the Province of Canada, a High Commissioner in charge of opening trades with China and Japan, and Viceroy of India. As British High Commissioner in China during the Second Opium War in 1860 he infamously ordered the destruction of one of Asia’s most important historical sites, the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.
This condensed profile seems representative enough but for the description of “diplomat”. He did not seem to be a very diplomatic kind of person to me.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that back then in Britain, there were in fact fierce parliamentary debates about the country’s behaviour towards China. But Prime Minister Palmerston had the press behind him. Facts were grossly distorted and disproportionally exaggerated to incite public outrage against the Chinese, which eventually gave Palmerston the democratic mandate to “do something about China”. Using the free press to propagate lies and fabricate casus belli is evidently an old trick.
Elgin’s leadership in the looting and burning of the old Summer Palace was well documented. Consulting only “Western” sources for this piece, I’ve selected a few typical records to provide a taste of the scale of this historic vandalism:
Baldwin Project: On Sunday morning, the 7th of October, the orders against looting were withdrawn, and officers and men, English and French alike, rushed excitedly  about the place, appropriating every valuable which it was within their power to carry. What could not be carried away was destroyed, a spirit of wanton destruction seeming to animate them all. Some amused themselves by shooting at the chandeliers, others by playing pitch-and-toss against large and costly mirrors, while some armed themselves with clubs and smashed to pieces everything too heavy to be carried . . .
In many similar accounts, the soldiers were described as being totally drunk. Surprised? The French, to give them credit, were against the senseless arson ordered by Elgin, evidently an Empire fanatic whose unhappy life would end in a few years.
Lord Elgin gave orders that its palaces should be levelled with the ground. The French refused to aid in this act of vandalism, which they strongly condemned —a verdict which has since been that of the civilized world. But Lord Elgin was fixed in his purpose, and the work of destruction went on.
A couple of weeks later, after signing the Treaty of Tianjin, Prince Kung tendered a banquet which the British refused to attend, worrying about poisoning. The French could not refuse the offer of good food, and no doubt bragged afterwards to their culinarily less refined ally how amazing it had been.
Milwaukee Sentinel Feb 9, 1976: Sir John Michel and the British First Division marched in a light powdery snow on Oct 18, 1860, and set the Park and its 200 buildings on fire.
The burning took three days. Interestingly, the two brass lions outside the Summer Palace, being too heavy and perceived worthless, were spared. Elgin had no idea that they were solid gold with brass coating, and could have easily paid for the whole war.
In his 1975 history of the two Opium Wars, English poet Jack Beeching described the incalculable value of the real estate that was lost to posterity:
The [old] Summer Palace was the treasure-house of China – such a concentration of visual beauty, artifice and wealth as neither existed nor could once again have been brought into being anywhere else in the world. Here had been brought together and put in order irreplaceable libraries and collections of splendid paintings.
Incontrovertible as the looting and senseless destruction were, one could still find contrived justifications that are more pathetic than infuriating now. One being that “almost twenty” British and Indian prisoners were abused. When such a small number is given in approximation, I always suspect generous rounding up. Still, it was only “almost twenty”. This was 1860, before any Geneva Convention (which hasn’t done any good in Vietnam, Guatanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib etc. etc. anyway). The invaders were viewed as hired-guns of drug smugglers, and no doubt treated like pirates. Were they not? In any event, this triggering excuse is equivalent to accepting modern “terrorists” burning down the British Museum and Windsor Castle, probably the Buckingham Palace as well, to revenge the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis tortured in their own country, in the 21st century.
Another popular argument is that “the Chinese were weak and corrupt, totally screwed up, so it served them right.” This statement is true. But using China’s weakness as justification for aggression and senseless destruction is as cynical as a murderer telling a man: “Good thing I killed your dumb and crippled parents, otherwise you’d not have had the chance to become the tough and independent man that you are.”
I did not mean to dwell on what happened one and a half centuries ago, in a very different world. My interest was accidentally piqued. But in researching the subject, it occurred to me that given a long enough vision, history seems to maintain justice through its ironies.
The victor, ego inflated by military success, industriousness and productivity sapped by easy money, commenced a downfall which soon accelerated into the collapse of a global empire. Guns and lucre were much more addictive and impairing than opium. After a fleeting spike on history’s timeline, the Empire’s only lasting legacies are a globalised language, scientific milestones, music, theatre, and great beer! — all civilisation products of talents who in all likelihood never shared the imperialists’ violent ambitions. The gunboats — the pride of fanatics such as Elgin — have virtually disappeared but for the occasional appearance as supporting actors in skimpy “coalitions of the willing”.
The loser, no thanks to the invaders’ brutal alarm, did eventually wake up to it. In the ensuing century, it suffered further humiliation, and struggled through one painful transformation after another, to be reborn.
Meanwhile, Lord Elgin remains hoisted on mild-steel poles, in a bohemian restaurant district in Hong Kong, China. In principle, Elgin Street seems incongruous, like an “Osama bin Laden Square” in Washington, or a “George W Bush Avenue” in Bagdad. But his name has long faded into obscurity, lost the emotional power needed to warrant the hassle of renaming a side street. Elgin is nothing more than a street name now.
Originally posted at the Guo Du Blog