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The British “Dog” and the Chinese “Liar”: How Name Calling Started a War

Lord William Napier

In January 1834, while Chief George of the Makah tribe took possession of the Japanese castaway Otokichi and his ship the Hojunmaru on the shores of Cape Flattery, Chief Superintendent Napier of the British tribe was dreaming of a bigger catch.

William Napier declared, “the empire of China is my own.” He envisioned a “blockading squadron on the coast of the Celestine Empire,” and how “easily a gun brig would raise a revolution and cause them to open their ports to the trading world.” The country of 40,000,000 was hanging together by “a spider’s web,” and he would be “the medium of such a change” to blow open wide the doors to trade. In his mind’s eye, he was born for the job.

During the six-month journey to Canton, he laid out a diplomatic approach that would be his guiding principles when he spoke with the Chinese:

First: “Every act of violence on our part has been productive of instant redress and other beneficial results.”

Second: “Any threats or concessions had to be carried out or else ‘oppression and spoliation’ would follow.”

On July 15, 1834, he sailed directly to Canton (without the necessary passport issued to all foreigners), took residence at the factories within the city (unprecedented in the face of hundreds of years of tradition), and communicated directly with Governor General Lu (without going through the intermediary of an official Chinese merchant).

Yes, for Napier, some trifling laws were broken, but he was probably too clouded by the vision of glory playing over and over in his mind to see the growing resentment around him.

The Chinese officials ordered Napier to leave, but he refused, believing any concessions he made now could lead to further problems in the future. After all, he was not just any low-level bureaucrat but the official representative of the British Crown. He should be treated as such.

His actions echoed what Foreign Secretary Palmerston once proclaimed in a speech in the House of Commons that “I am firmly persuaded that among nations, weakness will never be a foundation for security.”

Unfortunately, Napier took these words literally, instead of the rhetoric of a populist demagogue.

In response, the official Hong merchants, afraid that tensions would escalate, added further pressure on Napier to comply to regulations by stopping trade altogether.

Rumours abound that Chinese officials were spreading derogatory stories about the English and when Napier heard of this, he posted messages all over town, thoughtfully translated into Chinese, to rouse the people against the “liar” General Lu, whose “perversity” was working to the ruin of industrious Chinese who lived by the European trade.” It seemed Napier had forgotten Palmerston’s warning “to abstain from all unnecessary use of menacing language.”

The Chinese authorities promptly replied that “such a dog barbarian of an outside nation as you, can have the audacious presumption to call yourself Superintendent.” Being such an official, he should at least have “some little knowledge of propriety and law.” The reply ended with a threat that would in years to come help boost the aggressive stance of the English populace that demanded military action against China:

You have passed over ten thousand miles in order to seek a livelihood; you have come to our Celestial Empire to trade and control affairs…How can you not obey well the regulations of the Empire? According to the laws of the nation, the royal warrant should be respectfully requested to behead you; and openly expose [your head] to the multitude.

With this threat, services for foreigners were also denied, including access to communication, servants and provisions. All trading ceased.

Palmerston’s instruction to Napier to not lose any of the trading privileges already obtained in the past fell to pieces when troops were mobilized to surround foreign factories from both land and sea. Instead of backing down, Napier thought it was an act of aggression, preliminaries of war, that needed to be answered.

He was undeterred for he had yet to play his final hand. If words (albeit impassioned ones) did not work, then perhaps two British navy frigates with a contingent of marines in Canton could do the job. In one of his final letters to the Hong merchants and Governor Lu, he wrote that his “His Imperial Majesty will not permit such folly, wickedness, and cruelty as they have been guilty of, since my arrival here, to go unpunished.”

The full force of British military was about to blow open the trade doors of China. He warned the governor of his imminent fall: “Therefore tremble Governor Loo, intensely tremble.” We may never know if the misspelling of the Governor’s name was entirely accidental.

The 28-gun frigate Andromache and Imogene sailed towards Whampoa Anchorage at Canton. On the way, they breached the narrow straits of Boca Tigris and encountered cannon fire and shore batteries. The ships fired back. Both sides suffered fatalities. The skirmish continued for days until Napier realized it was no use prolonging the stalemate. He withdrew on September 21, 1834.

Besides his growing animosity towards the Chinese, something else began to spread inside him. He felt unwell with sudden onset of fever, chills, and headaches. He might have thought that the stress of the preceding days had affected his nerves, but that did not explain the rash that broke out on his chest and then his arms and legs.

When the Chinese got word that Napier was withdrawing from Canton to Portuguese-controlled Macao, they even delayed his journey and prolonged his humiliating retreat. Without the proper medical treatment, typhus eventually took over. Lord William Napier died on October 11, 1834, just three months after having arrived in China.

Known at the “Napier Fizzle,” this confrontation planted a seed of mistrust between China and England that would later bloom into a full-out war known as the Opium Wars. In it, the Japanese castaway Otokichi would eventually play a role for the British as an interpreter. By that time, he had already circumnavigated the world, spoke three languages, and was capable of wading through various cultures.

But still with all his knowledge and understanding of the world, he was still a castaway and forbidden to return home to Japan.

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