Reblogged from the Centre for Public History, Queen’s University Belfast.
Photographs Between Two Worlds: the Hart Photographic Collection
In 1854, a nineteen-year-old from Portadown set sail for Hong Kong. His name was Robert Hart, and he was a recent graduate of the newly established Queen’s College Belfast. He had been nominated by Queen’s to join Britain’s Chinese Consular Service as a trainee interpreter, though he had no connections in China, and spoke no Chinese.
The son of a distillery manager, Hart had no experience of politics or foreign affairs either. On his way east, he stopped off in London, where the genteel diplomat Edmund Hammond gave the teenage Hart some words of advice for life in China: ‘Never venture into the sun without an umbrella, and never go snipe shooting without top boots pulled up well to the thighs.’
On his arrival in Hong Kong, Hart reached a typically phlegmatic assessment of his circumstances. ‘This climate – the diseases it produces – may lay me in the dust,’ he told his diary. But, he consoled himself, ‘shall I not rest as well beneath the rocky soil of this "Happy Valley" as though I lay in Drumcree Churchyard, mine mingling with the dust of my forefathers?’
Robert Hart c. 1867. MS 15/6/1/B2.
All images courtesy of Special Collections, Queen’s University Belfast. All rights reserved.
Despite this inauspicious start to his career, in 1863 Hart became Inspector-General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs aged only twenty-eight, a post he went on to hold for forty-five years until 1908. In a generally indulgent biography, Hart’s niece Juliet Bredon noted her uncle was once described as ‘a small, insignificant Irishman’. Few of his contemporaries would have recognised that assessment, however.
By 1900, the customs service over which Hart presided had a staff of almost twenty thousand and raised the bulk of Qing imperial revenue, and his influence extended far beyond the Customs. Hart transformed China’s infrastructure, establishing a postal service and a network of lighthouses, and helped to shape the foreign relations of late imperial China. Hart exerted such wide-ranging influence that the historian John Fairbank called him one-third of the ‘trinity in power’ in China in the later nineteenth century.