Friday, May 23, 2008


Events such the disturbances in Tibet, the Sichuan earthquake in south-western China and the forthcoming Olympics Games in Beijing have contributed to a heightened interest in China and all things Chinese. With a population of 1.33 billion, China is the most populous country in the world. Currently it has the world’s fastest-growing economy. Having over taken the UK, China is now the world’s fourth largest economy after the USA, Japan, Germany and is well on the way to becoming the world’s second superpower. Some commentators even believe that China’s economic performance will outstrip that of the USA by the 2040s.

Even two centuries ago the huge economic potential of China was appreciated. In 1803 Napoleon described China as ‘a sleeping giant’ which ‘when it awakens the world will tremble’. Napoleon thought the best policy was not to disturb China’s slumber. The British had recognized China’s huge potential a decade earlier in the 1790s. The British approach was also different: William Pitt the Younger, the British Prime Minister, sought to engage with the Chinese and establish diplomatic and commercial relations with the great empire.

The man chosen to head this important diplomatic mission was George Macartney who was descended from an old Scottish family, the Macartneys of Auchinleck (a village few miles north-west of Cumnock in East Ayrshire), which had settled in 1649 at Lissanoure, near Loughguile in north Antrim.

Macartney was extremely bright, formidably well connected and enjoyed a long, distinguished and varied career in politics, diplomacy and colonial administration. He had entered Trinity College, Dublin, on 16 July 1750, giving his age as 15, whereas he was actually only 13. On the Grand Tour of Europe he had met and befriended Stephen Fox, the elder brother of Charles James Fox, the future leader of the Whigs, and in 1768 he married Lady Jane Stuart, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bute, who had served as Prime Minster between 1762 and 1763.

Although Macartney’s strengths emphatically lay in diplomacy and colonial administration, Macartney was an MP in both the Irish and British Parliaments, serving as MP for Armagh Borough in the Irish House of Commons between 1768 and 1776. Between 1769 and 1772 he was Chief Secretary for Ireland. Macartney and Lord Castlereagh were the only two Irish-born Chief Secretaries of George III’s reign and both were men of outstanding of ability, albeit in different ways. In the British House of Commons Macartney represented a variety of different constituencies: Cockermouth (1768-9), Ayr Burghs (1774-76) and Bere Alston (1780-01).

As a colonial administrator Macartney was Captain General of the Southern Carribean (1775), Governor of Grenada (1775-9), President of Madras (1781-5) and Governor of the Cape of Good Hope (1796-8).

In 1764 he had been appointed envoy extraordinary to Russia and successfully negotiated with Catherine the Great an alliance between Britain and Russia. No doubt it was the success of this diplomatic mission which made Macartney the obvious person to lead the British embassy to China in the 1790s.

In September 1793 three ships (HMS Lion, the Hindoostan and the Jackall), with almost 800 diplomats, soldiers, scientists and artists aboard, set sail for China from Spithead. The little armada sailed via Maderia, Tristan da Cunha, Rio de Janeiro to Cochin China (now modern Cambodia). In June 1793 Macartney had his first sight of China. The journey overland to Beijing took many months, travelling by canal, horseback and palanquin.

In September 1793 Macartney met the 82 year-old Emperor Qianlong, surrounded by mandarins and seated in a yellow silk tent, in the gardens of Jehol, just outside Beijing. A greatly impressed Macartney noted in his journal that he had seen ‘Solomon in all his glory’.

The Chinese had no conception of conducting diplomatic relations on the basis of both parties being on an equal footing. Chinese court protocol required visitors to Kòu tóu to the Emperor. In other words, they were expected, as an act of deep respect, to kneel and bow so low as to touch their head to the ground. As the representative of King George III, Macartney felt that this was demeaning and wholly inappropriate and instead bowed to the Emperor in the European manner. The Chinese court regarded this as an appalling breach of etiquette.

Gifts were exchanged, there was a sumptuous banquet and Macartney had an audience with Qianlong which lasted five hours. Other meetings took place as well. Macartney sought the relaxation of the restrictions on trade between Britain and China, the acquisition by Britain of ‘a small unfortified island near Chusan for the residence of British traders, storage of goods, and outfitting of ships’ and the establishment of a permanent British embassy in Beijing. On these three objectives, Macartney made no discernable progress.

On 3 October 1793 Macartney was summoned to the Forbidden City. On a yellow chair there was a letter from Emperor Qianlong to George III dismissing the embassy. The failure of the mission owed nothing to Macartney’s failure to Kòu tóu to the Emperor. The letter was written before the Emperor and Macartney had even met.

The mission’s ostensible failure did not have any obvious adverse effect on Marcartney’s career. He was appointed unofficial envoy to the court of Louis XVIII in exile in Verona between 1795 and 1796. And, as we have seen, he was appointed Governor of the Cape of Good Hope in 1796. Nor did the mission to Beijing prevent his steady advance in the peerage. Before the mission to Beijing Macartney had been a Baron in the Irish peerage and subsequently a Viscount in the Irish peerage. After the mission to Beijing he was awarded an Earldom in the Irish peerage and made a Baron in the English peerage.

When not on official business Macartney often resided at Lissanoure, developing and expanding his estate and rebuilding the nearby village of Dervock. Macartney died in London on 31 March 1806 and was buried at Chiswick on 9 April. Like Lord Castlereagh in 1822, he died without leaving a direct heir.