Macartney Embassy

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Lord Macartney's embassy, 1793
The Reception, a caricature of the reception that Lord Macartney received from the Qianlong Emperor by James Gillray

The Macartney Embassy, also called the Macartney Mission, was a British embassy to China in 1793. The Mission ran from 1792 to 1794.[citation needed] It is named for the first envoy of Great Britain to China, George Macartney, who led the endeavour. The goal of the embassy was to convince the Qianlong Emperor of China to ease restrictions on trade between Great Britain and China by allowing Great Britain to have a permanent embassy in Beijing, possession of "a small unfortified island near Chusan for the residence of British traders, storage of goods, and outfitting of ships," and reduced tariffs on traders in Guangzhou. The mission failed badly in its attempt to win the trust of the Chinese authorities.


The Canton system of single port trade, informally in place since the 17th century, became official by edict of the Qianlong Emperor in 1757. Essentially, the rules channeled formal trade through a group of thirteen merchants (in Cantonese, Hongs), known as the Cohong who were appointed by the central government. As trade increased, disputes broke out between the British traders and the Hong merchants. This forced local authorities to issue edicts formalising the system of trade and restrictions thereon.

By the late 18th century, British traders felt confined by the restrictive system and in an attempt to gain greater trade rights, they lobbied for an Embassy to go before the Emperor and request changes to the current arrangements. British politician and later Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville stated that the "great part of the hopes which are entertained of the success of this mission rest on the greater degree of attention which, it is supposed, the Government of China will show to a person coming there, as authorised by the King, than if he came, only in the name of a trading company." This was especially important to the powerful East India Company, who held a trade monopoly in the East and wished to prevent independent traders encroaching on its lucrative operations in Guangzhou.[1]

The first Embassy dispatched, the Cathcart Embassy of 1788, was called off with the sudden death of the Hon. Charles Cathcart M.P. before his arrival in China. Another Embassy was quickly organised, with Lord Macartney as its head.


The Manchu Qing dynasty had long considered all other states to be subordinate to itself. However, the Macartney Embassy was given special notice for two reasons. First, it was sent by Britain on the pretext of commemorating the emperor's 80th birthday. Second, the Embassy had travelled a great distance, and had not previously come before the emperor's court. The matter was complicated somewhat by the Embassy's insistence on meeting with the emperor without previous announcement, and Macartney's refusal to observe court traditions. Nonetheless, the Emperor instructed his officials to lead the Embassy to him with the utmost civility.

As a result of the tribulations of East India Company supercargo and translator James Flint in the 1750s at the hands of the Chinese, the East India Company, the only quasi-official British government presence in China, had become hostile to the idea of training its employees as Chinese interpreters and were unable to provide Macartney with assistance. Instead, the embassy employed two Chinese students from the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Naples. The students were tasked with teaching Chinese to Thomas Staunton, 12-year-old son of mission secretary Sir George Leonard Staunton, and to John Barrow, later Sir John Barrow, 1st Baronet.[2] Although the delegation had access to missionary interpreters in Beijing, as non-embassy members they were not permitted to attend the audience with the Emperor leaving Macartney with a child and a student of Chinese as his sole interpreters. Furthermore, memories of the execution of James Flint's scribes meant that no Chinese scholar-official dared to translate Macartney's speech. Instead, his words were translated into Latin then transcribed into conversational Chinese and finally rewritten in accordance with official protocol with the draft destroyed to protect the scribe.[2]

Proposed embassy to Japan[edit]

Macartney's ambassadorial instructions were signed by Secretary of State Henry Dundas on 8 September 1792, and included letters of credence to the Emperor of Japan, to be executed after completing his mission to China. The instructions stated that it may be useful for him to visit Japan to establish trade relations, particularly to enable a trade in tea. [3] If Britain were to import tea from Japan, it would have obliged the Chinese suppliers at Guangzhou to lower their prices. Macartney's letters of credence from George III to the Emperor of Japan stated that he had been sent "for the purpose of cultivating a mutual intercourse and friendship, and for the purpose of entering upon treaties of commerce mutually agreable to our peoples".[4]

Upon reaching Tianjin in July 1793, Macartney gave instructions to Captain Sir Erasmus Gower, commanding the Lion, which had carried the embassy, for a voyage of reconnaissance to Japan. Gower was to proceed to Edo and deliver a letter to the shogun. Nautical observations were to be made and an assessment made as to how far Japanese needs might lead them to purchase British manufactures and if the country afforded any primary products (apart from copper) which might profitably be imported into England. Gower would also have an opportunity to establish whether the Japanese remained averse to foreigners. Gower's crew, however, were too sick to undertake the voyage to Japan before Macartney rejoined the ships at Guangzhou on 19 December 1793. From Guangzhou, Macartney wrote to Dundas on 23 December expressing his continued belief in the desirability of a mission to Japan:

Japan appears the only place capable of supplying Tea to any considerable amount in case of failure in the quantity or exorbitancy in the price of that article from China, until we can have plantations of it in Bengal. In the meantime the expediency of attempting an intercourse with the Japanese subsists in its full force.[5]


Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.

Qianlong Emperor, Second Edict to King George III of England, 1792, [6]

Chinese soldier, by William Alexander, who accompanied the embassy in 1793.

Although ultimately unsuccessful in its primary objectives, the circumstances surrounding the mission provided ample opportunity for both British and Chinese parties not to feel totally disgruntled about the compromises and concessions they had made. The failure of the primary objectives was not due to Macartney's refusal to kowtow in the presence of the Qianlong Emperor, as is sometimes believed.[citation needed] It was also not a result of the Chinese reliance on tradition in dictating foreign policy, but rather a result of competing world views which were uncomprehending and to some extent incompatible. After the conclusion of the embassy, Qianlong sent a letter to King George III, explaining in greater depth the reasons for his refusal to grant the several requests presented to the Chinese emperor by Macartney. The requests had included a call for 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. However, Qianlong's letter's continuing reference to all Europeans as "barbarians", his assumption of all nations of the earth as being subordinate to China, and his final words commanding King George III to "...Tremblingly obey and show no negligence!"[6] used the standard imperial sign off as if the king were a Chinese subject.

The Macartney Embassy is historically significant for many reasons, most of them visible only in retrospect. Whilst it marked a missed opportunity by both sides to explore and understand each others' cultures, customs, diplomatic styles, and ambitions, it also prefigured increasing British pressure on China to accommodate its expanding trading and imperial network. The mutual lack of knowledge and understanding on both sides would continue to plague the Qing dynasty as it encountered increasing foreign pressures and internal unrest during the 19th century.

Although the Macartney Embassy returned to London without obtaining any concession from China, the mission could have been termed a success because it brought back detailed observations of a great empire. The painter William Alexander accompanied the embassy, and published numerous valuable paintings. Sir George Staunton was charged with producing the official account of the expedition after their return. This multi-volume work was taken chiefly from the papers of Lord Macartney and from the papers of Sir Erasmus Gower, who was Commander of the expedition. Sir Joseph Banks was responsible for selecting and arranging engraving of the illustrations in this official record.[7]


  1. ^ Black 1994, p. 476.
  2. ^ a b Golden 2000, p. 210.
  3. ^ V. Harlow and F. Madden, British Colonial Developments, 1774–1834, Oxford, 1953, p.48.
  4. ^ Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Macartney Papers, D/2731/3 and D2731/4.
  5. ^ Macartney to Dundas, 23 December 1793, British Library, India and Oriental, Factory Records, China, 1084 G/12/20.
  6. ^ a b "Qianlong Letter to George III (1792)". University of California, Santa Barbara. Retrieved January 30, 2014. 
  7. ^ Banks, Joseph. Papers of Sir Joseph Banks; Section 12: Lord Macartney's embassy to China; Series 62: Papers concerning publication of the account of Lord Macartney's Embassy to China, ca 1797. [State Library of New South Wales.]


See also[edit]