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COMMITTEE WITHDRAW FROM CANTON. 103
unless they were totally separated and absolved from the proceedings of his Majesty's ships. Captain Richardson being present, took occasion to state formally, that the time of his departure was approaching, in order to prevent their misrepresenting his motives hereafter.
On the 1st February a letter was received from the merchants, stating that an officer of Government would be sent to Lintin to investigate the business ; and on the 4th a mandarin proceeded by leave of Captain Richardson to a conference on board the Topaze, where he saw some of the wounded seamen. Visits of civility passed between the President, Captain Richardson, and the Chinese Admiral, as well as the deputed officer from Canton; and on the 8th of the month, the frigate, having no further occasion to remain in China, set sail. A number of attempts were subsequently made to induce the committee to make a false statement to the Viceroy; but when all these had failed, a paper was received from the Chinese authorities, fully and freely opening the trade, and absolving the committee from responsibility. They accordingly returned to Canton on the 23d February, the discussions having lasted just six weeks.
The local government was on this occasion for the first time brought to acknowledge that the committee had no control over, nor connexion with, his Ma. jesty's ships. The subject of the two men's death was subsequently renewed in 1823, but eventually dropped. The first lieutenant of the Topaze, having been tried by a court-martial on his return home, was honourably acquitted; and the result was conveyed in a letter from the President of the Board of Control to the Viceroy. It was, however, left to the discretion of the committee to present this letter or not, as they might deen most proper; and as an
edict had in the mean while been received from the Emperor, acquiescing in the conclusion of the discussions, the letter was withheld.
A calamity of fearful extent, affecting equally the Chinese and Europeans, and which will not soon be forgotten at Canton, occurred towards the end of 1822; this was the great fire, which has been calculated to have equalled in its ravages that of London, in 1666. At nine o'clock, on the night of the 1st November, a fire broke out at the distance of about a mile northeast of the factories, and, as the wind was then blowing with great fury from the north, it soon spread with such fearful rapidity that at midnight the European dwellings appeared to be threatened. Representations in writing were sent from the British factory to the Viceroy, offering every assistance with engines and men, and recommending that the houses nearest to the fire should be pulled down to prevent its spreading. This, however, was not attended to, and at eight o'clock on Saturday morning the factories were on fire. All efforts during that day to arrest the flames were rendered ineffectual by the violence of the wind, and on Sunday morning every thing was consumed, with the exception of a few sets of apartments. The Company had goods to a very considerable amount burned in their warehouses; but their treasury, which was arched with solid blocks of stone, and secured by treble doors, and which contained not much less than a million of dollars, remained safe and entire, though surrounded by the ruins of consumed buildings. It was said that full 50,000 Chinese were rendered houseless by this calamity, and the numbers who lost their lives were very considerable. A police and guard was appointed by the Government to protect property near the river and about the factories; but this was greatly aided by a well-organized body of armed men and officers from the Company's ships,
FAILURE OF HONG MERCHANTS.
who relieved each other by turns. Without these precautions, there was every reason to fear a general pillage from the multitudes of vagabond Chinese which had been brought together, and seemed ready to take advantage of the confusion. A considerable amount of property was saved by means of boats on the river, and these boats for some time served many of the Europeans as their only available lodging; but, through the assistance of a Hong merchant, who lent them his house, the Company were able to recommence their business in a week after the fire. Such is the frequency of Chinese conflagrations near the foreign factories, that the recurrence of a similar catastrophe may at any time be viewed as a probable event.
From this period a number of years elapsed during which affairs at Canton proceeded tranquilly, without accident or hinderance of any kind; but in the mean while the mismanagement or dishonesty of some of the Hong merchants, were preparing embarrassments of another description. Their number had of late years consisted of ten or eleven, and of these one or two of the poorer individuals, who had never enjoyed much credit or confidence, failed for a small amount, without producing much effect on the general trade; but about the beginning of 1828, the known difficulties of two of the principal Hongs began to display the evil effects of a system of credit, which had grown out of the regulations of the Government in respect to the payment of the Hong debts.
It had been for many years enacted, by an order from the Emperor, that the whole body of Hong merchants should be liable for the debts of their insolvent brethren to Europeans. It was at the same time ordered, that no money obligations should be contracted by them to foreigners; but the prohibition proved utterly ineffectual. The solid guarantee of
the Consoo, or general body, which afforded every certainty to the European or American capitalist, that he should ultimately recover his loan, whatever might be the fate of the borrower, gave to the Chinese merchants such a facility in obtaining credit, as led some of the more prodigal, or less honest ones, to incur very large debts at the usual Chinese rate of 10 and 12 per cent. One of them failed in 1828 for the amount of more than a million of dollars. He was banished to Tartary, which, in Canton English, is called “going to the cold country;" but being a broken constitution, and withal, a smoker of opium, he died on his journey. In the following year, 1829, another Hongist, who had borrowed very largely of Europeans and Americans, failed for a nearly equal sum. This last, however, was altogether a fraudulent transaction, for Chunqua (which was the man's name) made off to his native province with a large portion of the money; and such was the influence of his family, some of whom were persons of high official rank, that he contrived to keep his ill-got gains, and to make the Consoo pay his creditors.
These two failures, to the aggregate amount of about two millions of dollars, produced, as might be expected, a considerable sensation and loud clamours among the foreign merchants at Canton. Discussions subsequently arose with the Consoo, as to the period in which the debts were to be liquidated, the Hong merchants contending for ten annual instalments, while the creditors would not extend it beyond six. At length, by the powerful influence of the select committee, which was exerted on the side of the Europeans and Americans, it was settled that both the insolvents' debts should be finally liquidated by the end of 1833, which was about six years
from the occurrence of the first failure. The eyes of the Government were, however, opened to the mischievous
STRICT MONOPOLY OF THE HONGS.
consequences of the regulation, which obliged the corporation of Hong merchants to be answerable for the debts of any member of the Consoo, however improvident or dishonest; and it was enacted, that from henceforth the corporate responsibility should cease. The whole amount of the two millions was strictly paid up at the end of the limited period; and there was no real cause of regret to the foreign merchants in the rule which made every man answerable for his own debts; for, in the first place, the previous arbitrary system had generated a hollow species of credit, which was any thing but favourable to the trade at large; and, secondly, the debts, though they might seem to have been paid by the Hong merchants, were in reality paid by the foreigners; as a tax on imports was expressly levied for the purpose, and this had even been known to remain unremitted, after the object of its creation was answered.
The last two failures had reduced the number of Hong merchants to six, a body altogether inadequate to conduct the European trade; in fact, very little better than the Emperor's merchant, or monster in trade,” noticed in the last chapter. The six themselves were, of course, in no way anxious that the number should be augmented ; but the attention of the select committee became seriously directed to that object. It is a singular fact, that, notwithstanding the close monopoly enjoyed by the Consoo, and the orportunities of making money possessed by its members, the extortions and other annoyances to which a Hong merchant is at any time exposed, by being security for, or having any connexion with, foreigners, are such, that most persons of capital were disinclined to join the number. As the local government seemed disposed to show its usual indifference and contempt for the representations of strangers, the Company's fleet of 1829 was detained outside the