BRITISH RETREAT IN THE FAR EAST
To British servicemen garrisoned in Singapore between the wars, imperial power in the Far East seemed as pervasive and enduring as the tropical scenery. Singapore itself was a mighty bastion of the Empire, dominating the sea routes to India and Australiasia. Just north of Singapore, the Malay peninsula lay under undisputed British suzerainty. To the east of Malaya, Britain held North Borneo, extending ‘protection’ to Sarawak, which was still ruled by its own British Rajah. Off the coast of China, the Union Jack flew over the colony of Hong Kong, while on the mainland British traders and missionaries helped to shape the destiny of the world’s most populous nation. But the clouds were already gathering on the far horizon and imperial tranquility was soon to be disrupted.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, British imperialism was making swift and extensive advances in the Far East. China was humbled by the crushing of the Boxer rebellion of 1900; valuable Japanese co-operation was secured through a treaty signed in 1902; and colonial institutions seemed to be taking firm root in Malaya. Yet by the 1970’s Britain’s one remaining Far East possession was Hong Kong; she had suffered humiliating military defeats in the 1940’s at the hands of the former Japanese ally; her trade with China was virtually what China not Britain, chose to make it; and following a prolonged and murderous Communist guerrilla war, Malaya was an independent state.
Fifty years before, Britain’s prospects in the area, particularly for commercial advancement, had seemed limitless. The only shadow was cast by Russia, whose own expansionist policy in the Far East offered a threat to India, the Empire’s most treasured possession, and menaced British trading interests in China, which included tea and opium. The Japanese also feared Russian expansion into China and Korea and the British based their Far East policy on an alliance with Japan.
It was the first time the British had ever treated an non-European nation as an equal: further, it was the first treaty alliance with any country which Britain had signed since the Napoleonic wars. It was with the Japanese that the British Empire ended its traditional policy of “splendid isolation.”
Ties between the two nations were already quite close. Most of the modern, efficient Japanese navy had been built in British shipyards and British officers had been prominent in training its seamen. In the year 1902 over 1/5 of Japans export were to countries in the British Empire and nearly 40% of her imports came from them
The British themselves often referred to Japan as the “England in the East,” an island power like themselves. Sir Claude McDonald, British Minister in Tokyo, wrote of “ the alliance between the Island Empires of the East and West.” Japan wanted freedom of action in Korea, still an independent state, and was contending with the Russians for influence there. (In 1905 Japan was to proclaim a protectorate over Korea and in 1910 annexe it outright.) Japan also feared the British would reduce their Far Eastern fleet. The treaty was to run for five years and was thereafter subject to cancellation by either party on one year’s notice. If either party started a war with a third party, the other would remain neutral. If either was attacked by two other powers, the other would come to its assistance. In times of peace, British and Japanese warships would coal in each other’s harbours, a clause of particular benefit to Britain, who was short of coaling stations in the Far East.
SINGAPORE & MALAYA
The greatest port of South Asia, was, however under direct imperial control. Founded in 1819 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles of the East India Company, it was by the 1900’s being used by some 50 shipping lines. Situated at the foot of the Malay peninsula, it was the outlet to the world for the thriving Malayan rubber and tin industries.The bulk of its population was made up of Chinese immigrants, a few of whom had amassed great fortunes, many men had come to work temporarily, leaving their families behind. The British had expanded northward from their old Straits Settlement colony, composed of the East India Company’s four trading emporia of Penang, Singapore, Malacca and Lubuan. During the last quarter of the 19th Century they had acquired with but one display of force, the Malayan Sultanates of Perak, Selangor, Negri , Sembilan and Pahang.
These were termed”protected states”; their hereditary rulers retained office and the states were not, technically, British territory. However, British “residents” acted virtually as prime ministers to the rulers and held all effective power. In 1895 the four states were federated under a “Resident General,” with the capital at Kuala Lumpur and the Malayan Civil Service was carefully modelled on the Indian Civil Service.
The British Empire was expanding in Malaya chiefly for economic reasons. The growth of the motor-car industry in the 1900’s meant a rapidly rising demand for Malaya’s main commercial crop, rubber, of which she remains the world’s largest supplier. British planters carved new rubber estates out of the jungle. Manning the estates was an agreeable, profitable activity for the planters, and to work the plantations, a vast labour force of Chinese and Indians was imported. (The Malayans on the whole preferred to work their own land rather than enter paid employment.)
Malaya became a hodge-podge of peoples: Hindu gongs and Chinese fire crackers sounded, and the smells of Indian curry and Chinese roast pork mingled.
Britain’s interests in Malaya were commercial. She had commercial interests in China too,but there her missionary activities were also of great importance. Malaya was Muslim and therefore not strictly “Pagan.” As in other Muslim countries in the Empire, there was relatively little missionary work. The great missionary proselytising effort was made in China.
Christian Chinese, Hangchow Hospital around year 1900
Seen in retrospect, the attempt to convert China to Christianity is an extraordinary mixture of arrogance and naivety. China had a civilisation and philosophical and religious values that extended back for 4,000 years. Many of its traditions were older and seemingly more durable than those of Europe. Yet many westerners did think that China could be Christianised.
By 1906 there were 64 Protestant missionary societies working in the field - mostly British, but with a large American minority. By 1925, after which the missionary movement, for internal Chinese political and military reasons, slowed down, there were more than 8,000 staff, more than half of which were American, and a Chinese Christian community which was said to exceed 800,000. The missionaries were encouraged by the fact that many Chinese institutions were decaying as a result of contact with the technologically more advanced west.
Missionary education had its quaint side. British and American curricula were often transplanted to China with only minimum adjustment. As an American observer put it in 1929, : “Every mission school was an instrument of denationalisation . The pupils were taught, not as Chinese children preparing to share in the life of the Chinese race, but as American children....Of literature, the Chinese learned English literature etc..
But this is not to say that the intellectual and moral standard of most missionaries was not a high one. Many felt the “call” for China and only the best were chosen. They were virtually all graduates, excepting some wives working alongside their husbands, and they needed the intellectual capacity to master the Chinese language.
Inquisitive, indigent, sick and hostile Chinese flocked around the missions. Many of the Chinese converts lapsed and many became Christians for what their teachers considered the wrong motives. An outstanding example of an effective missionary-educational career was that of Lavington Hart. He gained a first class in the Cambridge science tripos and became a lecturer in physics. He began preaching in his spare time, but this did not satisfy him. In 1892 he went to China as a full-time missionary and ten years later founded The Hall of New Learning” at Tientsin.
Almost all British missionaries in China were Protestants. The Roman Catholic missions were predominantly French, with Germans and Italians also active. The two Christian faiths pursued fundamentally different approaches and were quite often at odds with each other. The Protestants concentrated principally on the educated classes, in the hope that if they could win over the Chinese elite, the rest of China would automatically follow. They also issued masses of written material, an approach of which the Roman Catholics disapproved. The Catholics discouraged individual conversion if it meant that the convert, because of his Christianity, would be socially isolated. The Catholic aim was to create Christian Communities among the peasants. They sought, and with some success, to win over whole villages, especially the poorest and most backward.
But in 1911 the old imperial Chinese framework finally collapsed, with consequences that were to be disastrous to British interests in the country. On October 10, 1911, a revolution began. Three months later a provisional government was formed and on February 2, 1912, an official edict announced the abdication of the last Manchu Emperor, the six-year-old Henry P’u Yi.
The revolution was not as a result of any direct foreign intervention: nevertheless, it was the foreigners who had contributed to the general decay of Chinese institutions. Dynasties had fallen often in the past but there had always been successor dynasties to replace them. This time there was no real successor, and China was to have no truly effective central government until the Communist victory in 1949.
Sun Yat-sen the leading political figure in the revolution, was born in 1866 to a Cantonese peasant family which had adopted Christianity. He qualified as a medical doctor in a Hong Kong college and, after practicing some years in China, travelled widely in in Europe, the United States and Japan. In London in 1896, Sun already deeply committed to radical politics , was involved in a bizarre incident with the Chinese imperial legation. Sun had been befriended by Sir James Cantile, a former lecturer at the medical school in Hong Kong, who entertained the young man almost daily. One day, Sun recalled, Sir James “alluded to the Chinese Legation being in the neighbourhood and jokingly suggested that I might go around and call there; whereat his wife remarked, “You had better not. Do not go near it; they’ll catch you and ship you off to China.” But one Sunday soon after Sun was approached in a surreptitious manner by a Chinese and persistently compelled to enter his lodgings which turned out to be part of the Chinese legation and Sun upon whose head the Chinese had placed a £100,000 price, learned he was to be shipped back to China for decapitation. He managed however, to get word to Sir James who created such a disturbance that Sun was released.
Sun worked indefatigably against the Chinese imperial system, and consequently, perhaps without intending it, against British imperial interests in China as well. He organised plot after plot. When the October revolution began he was abroad, but hastened back to China where, on January 5, 1912, at the request of the national convention in Nanking, he became Provisional President.
The following month, however he resigned in favour of the military commander, Yuan Shih-k’ai, in the expectation that Yuan would establish the republic which had been proclaimed in the Emperor’s abdication edict. Yuan had no intention of doing so, and in 1913 Sun started another revolution against Yuan: the latter easily suppressed it and Sun fled to Japan.
For almost the whole of its existence, until the Communist take over, the Chinese republic was run by the army, a form of regime which Sun supported as a necessary transitional stage.
The First World War, unlike the Second, had only minimal effects on the Far East. The allied victory did, however, lead to a redistribution of imperial possessions. German colonies in the area were parcelled out among Japan, Australia and New Zealand. In 1923 there occurred another event that was to have profound on imperial interests in the Far East: Britain ended her alliance with Japan, largely due to American pressure.
At the end of the war, Britain the United States, and Japan each had vast naval building programmes still in progress and each feared to stop unless the other did The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was used by Congress to justify the American programme, although in December 1920, Britain denied that the pact would be valid in the event of war between the United States and Japan.
But American public opinion, Congress and President Harding wanted further reassurance against Anglo-Japanese naval dominance in the Pacific. At a convention in Washington on November 1921, a 5:5:3 ratio of capital ships was agreed upon by Britain, the United States and Japan as well as other limitations on Pacific fortifications, including those in Hong Kong, but excluding Singapore and Hawaii. In the event, (this ratio ensured Japan’s superiority in her home western Pacific waters.)
Now that British warships could no longer rely upon Japanese harbours,they needed a secure new base in the Far East and intensive work began on turning Singapore into an impregnable fortress. Two huge docks, each capable of taking a battleship, were constructed. Great concrete placements held 18-inch guns, said to be the largest in the world. Singapore was considered to be the “Gibraltar of the east”. The fortification of Singapore was the largest construction task of its kind in the entire history of the British Empire and was completed in 1938. It had however the staggering weakness that the defences were against sea attack only. Nobody seems to have considered the possibility of attack from the Malayan mainland.
It was because of the Americans that the British had given up the Japanese alliance and their hope was that the Americans would support them in the Far East. Their hope was never properly fulfilled. The Americans were deeply interested in trade with China and they had an almost sentimental paternalistic attitude towards the country. They also had an instinctive distaste for British imperialism. But although there was a dispute in 1929, about the number of naval cruisers which Britain, the United States and Japan should be allowed to build, British policy in the Far East was to follow the American lead.
As an official in the Far Eastern section of the British war Office remarked: “Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States as equals, our policy was to stand behind her like a well-trained dog.” The main concerns of the Empire, as it moved towards its end in the Far East, were with China, Japan and the United States. But there was one area of the Empire where there was some light relief - the tiny state of Sarawak, in Borneo. It had a population of half a million and an area of 48,000 square miles.
WHITE RAJAHS OF SARAWAK
It also remained as the private domain of the British Brookes family. The first white Rajah of Sarawak was the 19th Century adventurer, Sir James Brooke. He had been appointed Rajah of a large area of Sarawak in 1841, by the Sultan of Brunei, then the overlord, as a reward for his services in putting down Chinese pirates and rebel tribesmen. Brooke rule was, by local standards, efficient and during the years he and his heirs extended their control over Brunei territory, under the excuse that the Sultan’s rule was ineffective or oppressive. In 1864 the British government recognised Sarawak as an independent domain after the USA had done so in 1850, and in 1888 an agreement with the British placed it under British protection, although the Brooke family retained control over all domestic affairs. The first Rajah had been emasculated by a bullet during fighting in Burma and had no children. Thus, to the accompaniment of great family vows, he chose his sister’s son Charles Johnson, as his heir, and Charles added the surname Brooke to his own name. Charles Johnson Brooke reigned from 1868 to his death in 1917 at the age of 87. He was a pompous chilly man with the most startling face. For years, following the loss of his eye in an accident, he lived with one empty socket. Then, during a visit to London he stopped on impulse at a taxidermist’s and bought an eye intended for a stuffed albatross. Wearing this in his empty eye socket, gave Brooke a wild look.
In Sarawak he inaugurated a water-works and a wireless transmitter. He believed that it was his duty to shelter the head-hunting Dayak tribesmen from the realities of the world and would not allow their primitive lives to be changed by commercial developments or consumer goods from the West.
The old autocrat had three sons who were so shy of women that, at one point, they looked like becoming permanent bachelors. Then their mother, the Ranee, (she was estranged from her husband and lived in England) recruited an orchestra consisting entirely of eligible young women, and had it perform before her sons.
The choice of the eldest, Vyner, fell on the drummer, Sylvia Brett, daughter of Viscount Esher, and as a token of his love, he sent her a silver model of her drum. Vyner was so shy he bought a book of jokes on their honeymoon and read from it rather than make conversation.
Once installed as Rajah, Vyner proved to be a conscientious ruler. He worked to suppress slavery and head-hunting and sat as a judge in his own court. He mixed with tribal chiefs, drank their potent liquor and got to know them well. Some of his more primitive subjects, such as the Dayaks and Kayans, believed that he had an interview with God every day: they asked him whether God was clean-shaven or wore a beard.
His personal habits were also somewhat eccentric: he would stroll around the garden of his riverside palace accompanied by pet monkeys and occasionally, a pet boa constrictor or porcupine.
Sarawak made headlines in the British Press in the 1930’s when Rajah Vyner’s three daughters entered British society. The newspapers dubbed them incorrectly “the three princesses,” eagerly chronicled their doings. They even inspired a popular song, “My Sarawak.” One married an all-in wrestler: another the bandleader, Harry Roy.
Back in Sarawak, Vyner took on an official named Gerald McBryan who had the most grandiose ambitions. He became a Muslim, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and dreamed of creating a united Muslim empire extending from Morocco to the Philippines, with himself as ruler in Sarawak. However, McBryan went clinically insane and the last great event of Brooke rule was the introduction of a constitution, with a representative assembly. This was Vyner Brooks gift to his people in 1941 after a century of family rule.
In China the empire had collapsed and, although neither the British nor the Chinese knew it, Britain’s imperial interests in China had been doomed from the start of the revolution in 1911.The most significant but by no means the only, catalytic force was the Nationalist movement created by the radical leader , Sun Yat-sen.
After the failure of his attempt against Yuan, Sun, from his exile in Japan, became the leading ideologue of a “New China,” which was to be free from foreign penetration and control and develop as a modern nation-state. Sun’s three great principles were “Nationalism, Democracy, Socialism.”
He was a consummate agitator and propagandist rather than an organiser, and was particularly skilful at attracting money from Chinese living abroad, especially those in the United States. The Peking government, although it continued to receive international recognition, had no authority outside its own immediate area, and China was actually controlled by a number of War lords, each supreme only in his own province. In 1917 after trying to make himself Emperor, Yuan died. Returning from exile, Sun attempted to set up an independent republic in south China, but his alliances with the local war lords were shifting and it as not until 1923 that he properly established himself, although even then his authority did not extend much beyond Canton.
In that year he asked the soviet leader, Lenin, for assistance. Lenin sent him the skilled revolutionary, Michael Borodin, and a number of Red Army officers. In view of future relationships between Britain and China, the choice of Borodin seemed ironic. He had emigrated to the United states from Russia, but after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 he had returned home and then worked as a Communist agent in several countries, including Great Britain In 1922 he had been sentenced in Glasgow to six months imprisonment on a charge of stirring up revolution and was deported by the British government. The next year he was in China.
Sun had no desire to create a Communist China; he was merely prepared to accept help from wherever it was available. But as part of the arrangement with Lenin he was obliged to admit to membership of the Kuomintang the infant Chinese Communist Party, one of whose founders in 1921 had been the young Mao Tse-tung.
With Soviet help, Sun established at Canton in 1924, the Whampoa Military Academy, a school intended to train a new Nationalist army to break the power of the war lords and to gain control over the whole of China. The first principal of the academy and one of the first Major-Generals in the new army, was Chaing Kai-shek, then aged 36. Chaing had served for two years in the Japanese army and was determined to bring Japanese standards of discipline and austerity to China.
In 1923 he was sent by Sun to Russia to study Soviet institutions, particularly the Red Army. Compared to his great antagonist, Mao, who had never been out of China in his life, Chaing was a travelled man. In 1927 he became a Christian, largely because of his marriage to Mayling Soong, a Christian who had been educated in America. Mayling Soong’s sister had married Sun Yat-sen.
Sun died in 1925, and Chaing emerged as his successor. The mid 1920’s were a period of Nationalist military gains - and rising Nationalist resentment against foreign interference in Chinese affairs. At first, this resentment focused on the British. In May 1925, nine Chinese were killed when police commanded by a British officer fired into a crowd that was attacking the prison at Shanghai’s International Settlement.
Following the shootings, there was a Nationalist boycott of British goods, strikes in British-owned factories , and riots in Shanghai, Hong Kong and elsewhere. The following year British gunboats bombarded Wanhsien, a city on the Yangtse River within the British “sphere of influence,” and a mob then occupied the British consulate in Hankow.
By the end of the 19th Century, Britain had succeeded in creating a massive commercial empire in China. Her businessmen enjoyed extra-territorial rights in major ports; her officials ran the Chinese Maritime Customs Service; her nationals advised the Chinese Fleet; and her gunboats protected trade on the Yangtze River.
When the fanatical Boxer nationalists attempted to drive out the “foreign Devils” in 1900, they were crushed by an international force, including a contingent of British troops. Despite the Boxers defeat, Sir Robert Hart, head of the Chinese Customs, predicted that the Chinese nationalists of the future would “take back from foreigners everything foreigners have taken from them and pay off old grudges with interest.”
British take tea with the Chinese
British Off-Duty Troops
Lightly Armed Chinese Troops, Shanghai 1932.
Japanese bombing of Nanking 1937
Shadow of the Rising Sun
In July 1937, hostility between China and Japan again burst into open war and in August fighting broke out between Chinese and Japanese troops on the perimeter of the International Settlement in Shanghai. Destruction and chaos increased when almost 2,000 Chinese refugees were killed during an accidental Chinese bombing raid on the Settlement. European shops closed, the Country Club was converted into a hospital and the exclusive Shanghai Club, which by tradition admitted women only for the annual ball, became a reception centre for European families wishing to evacuate the beleaguered city.
Europeans exchange greetings as decapitated victims of the October 1911 Nationalist revolution lie where they fell.
Most of the merchants however, refused to abandon their businesses and lived in a state of partial siege until the Chinese were bombarded into submission in November. The Japanese celebrated with a great victory parade through Shanghai. For China, the event marked humiliating defeat; for Britain, it was an ominous sign that her long years of profitable and unchallenged supremacy in the Far East were coming to an end.
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