Robert Thom (translator)

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Lithograph of Thom

Robert Thom (simplified Chinese: 罗伯聃; traditional Chinese: 羅伯聃; pinyin: Luóbódān; 1807 – 14 September 1846) was an English nineteenth century Chinese language translator and diplomat based in Canton (modern day Guangzhou) who worked for the trading house Jardine, Matheson & Co. and was seconded to the British armed forces during the First Opium War (1839 – 1842).


Thom worked in the piece goods department of Jardine, Matheson & Co. where he acquired a knowledge of the Chinese language.[1]

When hostilities began between the British and the ruling Chinese Qing dynasty in late 1839, Thom, along with other Chinese translators including John Robert Morrison and Karl Gützlaff provided the necessary language interface between the warring factions. In July 1840, during the First Opium War, Thom sailed north from Canton aboard HMS Blonde as translator to Captain Thomas Bourchier. The ship anchored outside Namoy (modern day Kinmen, formerly also known as Quemoy) to deliver a letter from British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston laying out demands for the opening of China to foreign trade. After Bourchier noticed cannons being mounted on a nearby fort, Thom rowed towards the shore in a small boat carrying a placard warning that if the ship was fired on, Bourchier would retaliate. A number of Chinese from a mob gathered on the shore swam towards Thom's boat and he narrowly missed being hit by an arrow and musket fire as he shouted out the warning written on the placard. Bourchier made good on his promise and shelled the fort and nearby warships before eventually withdrawing.[2] In 1841, Thom assisted the British during the expedition up the Broadway River from Macao to Canton.[3] He later served as British Consul in Ningpo where he died on 14 September 1846.

Literary works[edit]

Thom produced an 1840 Chinese translation of Aesop's Fables and was said to be one of the very few westerners who spoke the Beijing dialect of Mandarin Chinese very well.[4] He also translated the Ming dynasty Chinese story The Lasting resentment of Miss Keaou Lwan Wang, a Chinese Tale and wrote several text books for students of the Chinese language.[5]


  1. ^ Fairbank, John King (1953). Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports , 1842-1854, Volumes 1-2. Harvard University Press. p. 126. ISBN 0-674-89835-4. 
  2. ^ Hanes, William Travis; Sanello, Frank (2007). The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Sourcebooks. p. 90. 
  3. ^ Bernard, William Dallas; Hall, William Hutcheon (1847). The Nemesis in China (3rd ed.). London: Henry Colburn. p. 139.
  4. ^ Kaske, Elisabeth (2007). The Politics of Language in Chinese Education, 1895-1919. Brill. p. 68. ISBN 978-9004163676. 
  5. ^ Le Pichon, Alain (2006). China Trade and Empire: Jardine, Matheson & Co. and the Origins of British Rule in Hong Kong 1827-1843. Oxford University Press. p. 184. ISBN 978-0197263372.