The Macartney Embassy, also called the Macartney Mission, was a British embassy to China in 1793. 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 to achieve its official objectives, but was noted for the extensive cultural, political, and geographical observations its participants recorded in China and brought back to Europe.
Foreign maritime trade in China was regulated through the Canton System, which emerged gradually through a series of imperial edicts in the 17th and 18th centuries. This system channeled formal trade through the Cohong, a guild of thirteen trading companies (known in Cantonese as hongs) selected by the imperial government. In 1725, the Yongzheng Emperor gave the Cohong legal responsibility over commerce in Guangzhou. By the 18th century, Guangzhou, known as Canton to British merchants at the time, had become the most active port in the China trade, thanks partly to its convenient access to the Pearl River Delta. In 1757, the Qianlong Emperor confined all foreign maritime trade to Guangzhou. Qianlong, who ruled the Qing dynasty at its zenith, was wary of the transformations of Chinese society that might result from unrestricted foreign access. Chinese subjects were not permitted to teach the Chinese language to foreigners, and European traders were forbidden to bring women into China.
By the late 18th century, British traders felt confined by the Canton 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. The need for an embassy was partly due to the growing trade imbalance between China and Great Britain, driven largely by the British demand for tea, as well as other Chinese products like porcelain and silk. The East India Company, whose trade monopoly in the East encompassed the tea trade, was obliged by the Qing government to pay for Chinese tea with silver. To address the trade deficit, efforts were made to find British products that could be sold to the Chinese.
At the time of Macartney's mission to China, the East India Company was beginning to grow opium in India to sell in China. The Company made a concerted effort starting in the 1780s to finance the tea trade with opium. Macartney, who had served in India as Governor of Madras (present-day Chennai), was ambivalent about selling the drug to the Chinese, preferring to substitute "rice or any better production in its place". An official embassy would provide an opportunity to introduce new British products to the Chinese market, which the East India Company had been criticised for failing to do.
In 1787, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and East India Company official Henry Dundas dispatched Colonel Charles Cathcart to serve as Britain's first ambassador to China. Cathcart became ill during the voyage, however, and died just before his ship, HMS Vestal, reached China. After the failure of the Cathcart Embassy, Macartney proposed that another attempt be made under his friend Sir George Staunton. Dundas, who had become Home Secretary, suggested in 1791 that Macartney himself take up the mission instead. Macartney accepted on the condition that he would be made an earl, and given the authority to choose his companions.
Macartney chose George Staunton as his right-hand man, whom he entrusted to continue the mission should Macartney himself prove unable to do so. Staunton brought along his son, Thomas, who served the mission as a page. John Barrow (later Sir John Barrow, 1st Baronet) served as the embassy's comptroller. Joining the mission were two doctors (Hugh Gillan and William Scott), two secretaries, three attachés, and a military escort. Artists William Alexander and Thomas Hickey would produce drawings and paintings of the mission's events. A group of scientists also accompanied the embassy, led by James Dinwiddie.
The mission brought along four Chinese Catholic priests as interpreters. Two were from the Collegium Sinicum in Naples, where George Staunton had recruited them. They were familiar with Latin, but not English. The other two were priests returning to China, to whom Staunton offered free passage to Macau.
Among those who had called for a mission to China was Sir Joseph Banks, 1st Baronet, President of the Royal Society. Banks had been the botanist on board the HMS Endeavour for the first voyage of Captain James Cook. He was also the driving force behind the 1787 expedition of the HMS Bounty to Tahiti. Banks, who had been growing tea plants privately since 1780, had ambitions to gather valuable plants from all over the world to be studied at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the newly established Calcutta Botanical Garden in Bengal. Above all, he wanted to grow tea in Bengal or Assam, and address the "immense debt of silver" caused by the tea trade. At this time, botanists were not yet aware that a variety of the tea plant (camellia sinensis var. assamica) was already growing natively in Assam, a fact that Robert Bruce was to discover in 1823. Banks advised the embassy to gather as many plants as possible in their travels, especially tea plants. He also insisted that gardeners and artists be present on the expedition to make observations and illustrations of local flora. Accordingly, David Stronach and John Haxton served as the embassy's botanical gardeners.
Henry Dundas laid out his reasoning in Macartney's official instructions. More British subjects had been trading in China than any other Europeans. Despite this, the British had no direct contact with the emperor, in contrast to the Portuguese, whose Jesuit missionaries retained permanent positions at the imperial court. Macartney was instructed to negotiate a relaxation of the Canton System, such that British traders could operate in more ports and markets, and to obtain a small island on the Chinese coast from which British merchants could operate under British jurisdiction. He was also to establish a permanent embassy in Beijing so as to create a direct line of communication between the two governments, cutting out the Cantonese merchants who had served as middlemen. Finally, he was to gather intelligence on the Chinese government and society, about which little was known in Europe at the time.
The instructions from Dundas also stipulated that Macartney should establish trade relations with other nations of the East. To that effect, Macartney was given 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.
Despite the misgivings of the East India Company about the potential downsides of the mission, the Company was compelled by the government to fund the mission. Dundas and Macartney pioritized national interests over those of the Company, which feared the loss of its monopoly position, and the possibility that the embassy would strain diplomatic relations instead of improving them. By sending a direct representative of the British crown, British politician and later Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville reasoned that the mission would be given greater attention than if it had been sent "only in the name of a trading company".
One of the goals of the embassy was to demonstrate the utility of British science and technology, in hopes of simultaneously portraying Britain as a sophisticated, modern society, as well as encouraging Chinese purchases of British goods. In keeping with these objectives, the mission was to bring with it a number of gifts including clocks, telescopes, weapons, textiles, and other products of technology. Macartney intended the display of technical prowess to reflect Britain's "national character", one of ingenuity, exploration, and curiosity about the natural world. Nevertheless, Dundas reminded him that the mission was not "a delegation of the Royal Society".
Voyage to China
The delegation departed Portsmouth aboard three ships on 26 September 1792. The HMS Lion, commanded by Captain Sir Erasmus Gower, was a warship tasked with escorting the mission. The Hindostan, belonging to the East India Company (and later purchased by the Royal Navy as HMS Hindostan), was commanded by Captain William Mackintosh. These two vessels were accompanied by a brig, the Jackall. A storm soon hit the squadron, forcing it to stop temporarily at Tor Bay. After making repairs, the Lion and Hindostan resumed their voyage without the Jackall, which had gone missing in the storm. Fortunately, the gifts to be presented to the emperor were stored on the Lion and the Hindostan. Thomas Staunton spent the voyage studying Chinese with the mission's interpreters.
The squadron stopped at Madeira in early October, and at the Canary Islands later that same month. On 1 November, they arrived at Cape Verde. There, they encountered a ship flying French colors, which they thought to be Captain Cook's HMS Resolution, which had been captured by the French and renamed La Liberté. After waiting five days for the Jackall, they continued on their journey. The trade winds off the coast of Africa forced them to sail west all the way to Rio de Janeiro, where they arrived at the end of November. Macartney suffered an attack of gout which lasted a month. While young Thomas Staunton studied the Chinese language, Macartney learned everything he could about China from the books he had placed in the Lion's library.
The expedition departed Rio de Janeiro on 17 December and sailed east once more, rounding the Cape of Good Hope on 7 January 1793. They came within sight of Java on 25 February, and reached Jakarta (then known as Batavia) on 6 March. There, they bought a French brig which they christened the Clarence, to replace the Jackall. The Jackall itself, however, rejoined the squadron at Jakarta, having finally caught up to the Lion and Hindostan after turning back for repairs after the storm that had struck the ships at the start of their voyage. The full squadron sailed on to Macau, where they arrived on 19 June 1793. There, George Staunton disembarked to meet with officials of the East India Company. The two Chinese Catholic priests who had been offered free passage to Macau departed there, along with one of the two priests from Naples, leaving only one Chinese interpreter with the mission. For the next leg of the trip, Macartney and Dundas had intended to avoid Guangzhou altogether. Accordingly, instead of proceeding overland via Guangzhou, the plan was for the embassy to continue by sea to Tianjin, the closest major port to Beijing.
Representatives of the East India Company met with the military governor of Guangdong ahead of Macartney's arrival, in order to request permission for the embassy to land at Tianjin instead of Guangzhou. The governor at first refused, as it was considered improper for a tributary mission to select its own port of arrival. The British officials pointed out, however, that the ships carried many large, precious items that might be damaged if taken overland. Moreover, as the governor noted in his report to the emperor, the embassy had journeyed a great distance, and would be greatly delayed if sent back to Guangzhou from Tianjin. The Qianlong Emperor agreed to the request, and instructed his officials to lead the embassy to him with the utmost civility. The emperor's response was brought back to Guangzhou by General Fuk'anggan, Viceroy of Liangguang, who had recently returned after fighting in the Sino-Nepalese War.
The embassy departed Macao on 23 June. It stopped in Zhoushan, where Staunton went ashore to meet with the military governor of Dinghai. The emperor had sent instructions to every port in China to provide pilots to guide the British visitors, and the governor did so. However, Chinese officials had not anticipated that the British intended to sail the high seas rather than hopping from port to port in shallow waters along the coast, as was typical of Chinese vessels. Chinese officials expressed surprise at the size and speed of the British ships. Macartney noted that Chinese ship designs did not appear to have changed over the last two centuries, despite contact with the seafaring nations of Europe. Two Chinese pilots boarded the Lion and the Hindostan, but were of little use when the squadron ventured far from shore, after it departed Zhoushan on 8 July.
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.
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. 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!" 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. While to a modern sensibility it marked a missed opportunity by both sides to explore and understand each other's 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 engravings after his valuable watercolorss. 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.
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