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.[1] 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 Emperor Qianlong 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 Canton (modern day 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 Canton.[2]

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 Empire had long considered all other states to be tributary 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.[3] 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.[3]

Macartney's 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. His instructions stated:

It is possible that you may find it either necessary or expedient to touch upon the Coast of Japan. That Country produces Tea as good as, and probably cheaper than, that of China. The difficulties of trading there, which have so long deterred other nations from attempting it, are now said to be almost ceased.[4]

These instructions confirmed suggestions made by Macartney himself in a memorandum to Dundas dated 4 January 1792.[5] Macartney had been shown a memorandum written by an East India Company officer in Calcutta proposing that the projected British embassy to China also be sent to Japan:

…where I understand there is every reason to apprehend he will be well received from the Japanese Administration being perfectly relieved from the Apprehensions of the Christian Religion being again imposed or renewed by granting a free Commerce to the other European Nations as the Dutch who reside in Japan are no longer under the restraints imposed upon them about the beginning of this Century specified in Kempfer's relation, but at present enjoy the most liberal Encouragement and enlargement from their former fetters. This information I have from Mr. Titching [Isaac Titsingh] the present Governor of Chinsurah [near Calcutta] who resided there many years.[6]

The importation of tea from Japan would have obliged the Chinese suppliers at Canton 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".[7]

Attempts were made to find a Japanese interpreter, which included Secretary of State William Grenville writing to the British Ambassador to St. Petersburg, Charles Whitworth, about a Japanese castaway who was reported to be in Russian hands. This was the shipwrecked merchant, Daikokuya Kodaiyu (大黑屋光太夫), who had been met in Nizhni Kamchatsk by Barthélemy de Lesseps, the interpreter with the Lapérouse Expedition, who was conveying the journal of Lapérouse from Petropavlovsk to Paris.[8] The Russians prevented any access to Daikokuya by the British when he was brought to St. Petersburg, and used him themselves as an interpreter in 1792 during the expedition to Japan led by Adam Laxman, as reported by Lloyd's Evening-Post of 25–26 April 1794:

A new channel of commerce has been proposed between the Japanese and the Russians, by a person from Japan who was shipwrecked on the Russian coast some years since, but returned home with the son of the Professor Lakman [sic]. He is now charged with a kind of treaty to the Japanese, promising to send a ship to Russia every year; but the want of ship-timber in Kamschatka is supposed to be a drawback upon this undertaking.

Upon reaching Tientsin in July 1793, Macartney gave instructions to Captain Sir Erasmus Gower, commanding the Lion, which carried the embassy, for a voyage of reconnaissance to Japan. Gower was to proceed to Edo and deliver a letter to the "Cubo, or Temporal Sovereign of that Country" (公方 i.e. 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 their remained the marked Japanese aversion to all foreigners, which had been attributed to them formerly by persons "who might indeed have been influenced in their accounts by a desire of deterring us". The failure to find a Japanese interpreter in Europe would make it difficult for Gower to conduct specific negotiations with that Court, but for the purposes of this preliminary encounter three individuals were sent who spoke Chinese and Malay. As soon as a reply was received from the Japanese Sovereign, or if no reply had come after a fortnight, Gower was to sail for Manila, where he might find some individuals who had been to Japan and had learned the language. If the services of such a person could be secured Macartney was ready to pay him handsomely: he would be "a vast acquisition in the event of my going to execute my commission of Embassador to the Emperor of Japan". In conclusion, Macartney said: "It will give me additional satisfaction, if it should so happen that you could see and gain information also as to .... the eastern part of the island of Formosa ... the several smaller islands to the eastward of Formosa, and the Lukay Islands to the Southward of Corea."[9]

In the event, Gower's crew were too sick to undertake the voyage to Japan and the Philippines before Macartney rejoined the ships at Canton on 19 December 1793. During his journey from Peking, Macartney had encountered two young men who had been sent by the King of Ryukyu to China on an official mission. The meeting prompted Macartney to record in his journal: "If circumstances will permit, I think it may be worth while to explore these Lieu-kieu islands."[10] From Canton, he 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. Tho from the conversations I had at Batavia with a Dutch Gentleman of a very liberal disposition who was several years resident in Japan [Isaac Titsingh], I collected nothing that could induce me to depend on a favourable reception there, I learned nothing to deter me from the trial. The risk would, at least, be personal, as we have hitherto there no trade to lose. And no moment, if any, could be so propitious for opening up a new trade with them , as when, from the present general confusion of affairs of the Dutch East India Company, their connexion with the Japanese is greatly on the decline.[11]


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, [12]

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 [13] 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, Emperor Qianlong's letter's continuing reference to all Europeans as "Barbarians", his assumption of all nations of the earth as being tributary to China, and his final words commanding King George III to "...Tremblingly obey and show no negligence!"[12] 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. One wonders if there were any way either side could have known about, understood, and accommodated the other's position more adequately.[14] 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.

The painter William Alexander accompanied the embassy, and published numerous valuable paintings. He is sometimes described as the first image reporter of all times.[15]

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. 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.[16]


  1. ^ Watt, John R. (Winter 2000). "Qianlong Meets Macartney". Education About Asia (Association for Asian Studies) 5.3. (Winter 2000). Retrieved 26 January 2009. 
  2. ^ Black, James (1994). British Foreign Policy in an Age of Revolutions, 1783-1793. Cambridge University Press. p. 476. ISBN 978-0521466844. 
  3. ^ a b Golden 2000, p. 210.
  4. ^ Henry Dundas, Instructions to Lord Macartney, 8 September 1792, India Office, Factory Records, China, G/12/91, pp.341ff. Quoted in V. Harlow and F. Madden, British Colonial Developments, 1774–1834, Oxford, 1953, p.48.
  5. ^ British Library, India and Oriental, Factory Records, China, G/12/91, f.37; cited in V.T. Harlow, The Founding of the Second British Empire, Vol.II, London, Longmans, 1964, p.569.
  6. ^ British Library, India and Oriental, Factory Records, China, G/12/20; cited in V.T. Harlow, The Founding of the Second British Empire, Vol.II, London, Longmans, 1964, p.583.
  7. ^ Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Macartney Papers, D/2731/3 and D2731/4.
  8. ^ Barthélemy de Lesseps, Travels in Kamchatka, London, 1790, pp.208–17. Whitworth to Grenville, 18 May 1792 with enclosure no.2, Wason Collection, Cornell University, docs. nos. 119 and 359, quoted in J.L. Cranmer-Byng, "Russian and British Interests in the Far East, 1791–1793", Canadian Slavonic Papers, vol.X, 1968, pp.357–75). Kisaki, Ryohei, Kodaiyu to Lakusuman: Bakumatsu Nichi-Ro Kosho no Isshokumen (Kodaiyu and Laxman: An Aspect of Japanese-Russian Relations in the Late Edo Period), Tokyo, Tosui Shobo, 1992.
  9. ^ British Library, India and Oriental, Factory Records, China, G/12/92, pp.137–50; published in Sir George Staunton, An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China, Philadelphia, 1799, pp.250–1.
  10. ^ Helen H. Robbins, Our First Ambassador to China, London, Murray, 1908, p.362.
  11. ^ Macartney to Dundas, 23 December 1793, British Library, India and Oriental, Factory Records, China, 1084 G/12/20.
  12. ^ a b "Qianlong Letter to George III (1792)". University of California, Santa Barbara. Retrieved January 30, 2014. 
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ Images de l'Empire immobile, Alain Peyrefitte, Fayard, 1990, p.9. Original French: "Son ardeur et son courage nous valent le premier reportage en image de tous les temps."
  16. ^ 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]