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2. The Marine Department

No chief could have been better to his deputy than Bisbee was to me — always kind and courteous and more, for he treated me with a sort of distinguished consideration, partly perhaps because I was to take his place. This fine treatment was the more remarkable as he tended to be rough and curt with many others, and his ' What? ' strongly aspirated, was like the snapping of an angry dog. In serious affairs, as president of an arbitration court or a court of inquiry, and we had a lot of those, Bisbee's manner was perfect — assured and dignified and courteous; but in minor intercourse, when he was nervous in his shyness, he put on, as a sort of armour plating, an attitude of heavy jocularity which often missed its purpose.

The Statistical Secretary, von Möllendorf, was transferred and visited our office to say good-bye, and, as he was leaving, said, ' Well, Captain Bisbee, if there is anything I can do for you at Ningpo, I hope you will let me know.' And after a pause, the length of which was quite embarrassing, came Bisbee's typical response, ` Mr. von Möllendorf, Commissioners please me most when they interfere with my business least.' And certainly he did not mean to be unkind or rude.

I persuaded him to join the Shanghai Club, and after his election took him there, having arranged that my friend Pym should be on the spot to put him at his ease by some one's welcome. So Pym came forward with a smile and hand outstretched and said, ` Captain Bisbee, I know you,' and was going on to say ` even if you don't know me.' But Bisbee cut him short. ' Oh do you? Well, I don't know you.' Pym understood and stayed and chatted for a time. Then Bisbee said, I am afraid Mr. Pym was a little hurt at my remark. I merely stated a fact. Please tell him that I intended no discourtesy.'

And over poor Bisbee there loomed a cloud, which his imagination greatly magnified and which he thought his whole world knew of; but, of course, it did not. We were far too busy with to-day's affairs and scandals to bother about what had happened years before.

His tragedy was this. He quarrelled with his wife just incompatibility and nothing more; and at Washington, where he had gone as China's delegate to a Marine Conference, a reporter came into his room without announcement, saw a scene of violent quarrelling, promptly snapped the couple with his camera and then decamped. So in the next issue of the New York Police Gazette there appeared a full-page illustration entitled ` Domestic amenities of China's delegate.' It would have been a tragedy for any one; it was doubly so to Bisbee with his sensitiveness and his shyness; and drove him in his shell to live just like a hermit crab.

It was the mixture of his weaknesses, his strength of character, his great ability and his ever-charming kindness to me that was the reason for the strong affection that I bore my chief.

In May 1898, just twelve months since my date of joining him, Bisbee went on two years' leave; and now I was appointed Acting Coast Inspector and Acting Shanghai Harbour Master with the full pay of the post — a treatment as exceptional as it was gratifying. My age was thirty-four — not so very young, but I had no experience of this sort of thing. For six months I had been in Szechuen, and the other six I had mostly spent surveying; but I had read the archives of the office, and that was the limit of my preparation. Things, however, were made extraordinarily easy for me in certain ways. Old Carlson, the Chief Berthing Officer, and Taylor, the Secretary, plainly wished me to succeed — whatever were their motives — and helped me all they could; but it was to Louis Rocher, the Commissioner and a Frenchman, that I owed the greatest debt, for it was his strong support and tactful praise that early made me find myself. I started with the advantage that my experiences in the war gave me confidence in dealing with officials, and even my deafness was a kind of asset, as it kept me from the giddy crowd and made me concentrate. I needed all the advantages I had, because those two years of Bisbee's absence were exceptionally strenuous. Here are a few of those early episodes.

Shanghai was growing rapidly, its shipping was increasing and especially in draught; but the pilots were still governed by the rules which had been framed in the 'sixties. These rules laid down the tariff, the power of the Harbour Master to investigate complaints and to suspend or withdraw licences, but subject always to the veto of whatever Consul might be concerned. The pilots owned their schooners independently and worked in mutual competition; and under the scheme the service was grossly inefficient; and now they asked for an increase in their tariff. Quite obviously this was the opportunity to effect the long-needed reorganization. I suggested a Pilot Master to be a member of my office. This drove the pilots to form an Association — I think a limited liability company — for the main purpose of opposing me; and then I played ju-jitsu. I welcomed the Association and offered it an official charter of self-government on certain terms. The Pilotage Authorities besides myself were the Consular Body and the Chamber of Commerce. I got the latter on my side, but the Consuls opposed bitterly my claim to abolish their right of veto. But in the end I got my way, and that Pilots' Charter — or something very like it — exists to-day. As a first shot at public affairs it was a gratifying success; gratifying too was the I.G.'s message of ` thanks for good work well done.'

Bisbee had explained how impossible it was to call on Naval Captains — there were so many of them; but that I ought to call on Admirals. And now Prince Henry, the Admiral of the German fleet, came to Shanghai. I had heard of his charm of manner, of his geniality and also of his waywardness — his sudden favouritisms and his equally sudden discarding of those he had so honoured. I met him alone in the drawing-room of the German Consulate — a smart torpedo-bearded officer with far less airs of the Admiral than any of them I have met. At first there was an easy social conversation about local sport and games and other things, and then he said with obviously genuine feeling: ` I am glad that you have come to see me; I had wished to meet you.' Then a thoughtful pause as if he were considering his words. ` You will doubtless realize that a man in my position does not often ask for a personal favour. Well, I am going to ask you one. I want you to let me have a German naval buoy. It lies within your power, and I ask you to exercise that power on my behalf. The British have a naval buoy; why should not we? '

Here was a pretty situation for me to handle with such tact as I could muster. I explained how the British were the firstcomers and had established their buoy before any harbour authorities existed; how the Japanese and French had in recent years demanded buoys and had to be refused — I blessed my reading of that correspondence — and the reasons why; and how, if I exercised my authority to give him what he asked for, I should raise a storm of protests, and the Inspector-General would intervene. Then I made reference to the personal nature of his request, and feelingly expressed my great regret at not being able to meet it. The Prince took my explanation very nicely and said, in effect, that he had had his shot at getting what he wanted and had failed. This interview was early in the forenoon. An hour or so later I received a formal invitation from the Captain of the German mail-ship Bayern to meet the Prince at lunch.

At that long narrow table with its score or so of guests I found myself the only non-German present, and my seat was opposite the Prince's; and throughout that meal he spoke in English not only to myself but to the others.

The psychology of that invitation puzzled me.

From the Soochow Creek to the French settlement lay the Shanghai bund, the river front of which we were so proud. At one end a public garden with a bandstand, then a paved pathway along the curve of the sloping river wall, and between that and the street a long stretch of well-kept lawns; the street lined with large houses where the merchant firms made their fortunes.

Off the frontage were pontoons for cargo-boats and tenders, but we allowed no roofing to them that would spoil the view.

In the river — the Whangpu — a British cruiser at her buoy; one of our Customs steamers ready to go out at any moment; our River Police hulk; and further up were mail-ships or other men-of-war; and on the Pootung shore were docks and factories. I know of no other river port possessed of such a charming frontage, and I walked it with a sense of satisfied authority. I took a keener interest in my connection with it than I did in my wider functions on the coast and at other ports.

Now there were tens of thousands of cargo-boats — lighters on the river; and in the evening, when their work was done, a vast number of them congregated off the bund. They filled the space between the pontoons, and the River Police had great difficulty in preserving access to those landing places. This was because of the attraction of the Foochow Road — the Piccadilly Circus, as it were, of China — with its theatres and restaurants and sing-song girls. This congregation of cargo-boats with their crowd of boatmen formed the one blemish to our bund; it had long been criticized, and I — the new broom — decided that it must be remedied. It was in March 1900 that I did this thing and got myself in the very devil of a mess. I issued a notification that after a certain date only a limited number of cargo-boats would be allowed to lie off the bund in the evening. The next day all the boatmen went on strike, not only those for general hire but those of the large lighters of the shipping companies. So here was a pretty kettle of fish — the whole business of the port hung up, and through my act.

There had been a wheelbarrow riot some time before, owing to some new Municipal regulation about them, and the Council had been blamed for weakness in the matter. This affair of cargo-boats was far more serious with its great resulting losses, yet to give in would be most harmful. So I called upon the heads of shipping firms and asked them for their views. They had evidently met before, because all their answers were the same. The loss concerned was serious; I was responsible for the situation and the responsibility for getting out of it rested on me solely; no, they would express no opinion as to whether I should give way; they declined to share any responsibility about the matter.

The strike lasted for seven days, and for that time no ship could load or be unloaded. A very anxious week for me; meetings with the laodahs and the heads of native shipping hongs; proposals and refusals; acceptance and then repudiation; again acceptance which intimidation by extremists spoiled; police action against the intimidators; Mellows, the head of the River Police — the man from Weihaiwei — and I, revolvers in our hands, discuss the matter on a Pootung wharf with a very nasty crowd of malcontents.

In the end the boatmen used a merchant, Mr. Iburg — if my memory is right — as an intermediary, and he and Chen Fei-ting, the head of the China Merchants Shipping Company, and representatives of the Chinese shipping hongs called at my office and made a new proposal:
The boats to use the front without restriction except keeping the channel and approaches clear and all to leave the front at eight each evening. I agreed, and next day all were gaily back at work. During that week I effaced myself and did not pay my usual visits to the Club; but the public and the papers took the matter very well and I never heard a word of blame.

One day I received a telegram from Sir Robert Hart: — ' Proceed Wuhu and settle hulk question in consultation with Commissioner.' I had not the slightest idea what it was all about, but I took the next boat up the Yangtsze. The only other passengers were Mr. Rickmers — the head of the German Rickmers Line — and his son-in-law, a soldier. I had a sister with me, and the four of us made friends. From Rickmers I learnt the purpose of my trip. His firm had applied for a berth for a hulk at Wuhu; the application had been refused by the local Harbour Master and the Commissioner on the grounds that there was no space available; it had already become a diplomatic question, and a German cruiser had been sent to press the matter, but without avail; and now Rickmers himself had come all the way from Germany about it.

He was an old man with a long white beard, and we spoke of many things. On the second day he and I were lying in our chairs on deck. There had been silence for a time between us; but now he said: ` There is something I should like to say to you, but I am afraid I might offend you; and, considering what your mission is, it is the last thing I would do.' — ` Go ahead, Mr. Rickmers, and say just what you like. You are a bit older than I am, and I am sure that nothing you can say will hurt me.' — ` Well, as you put it like that, I think I'll venture.

I have been taking stock of you more than you know — that is my way — and the conclusion I have come to is that you are just such another damned fool as that son-in-law of mine.' I withstood the shock successfully and did not say a word. ` You see, that son-in-law of mine is just a soldier. He is paid a pittance and his private means are small; he is capable enough, and could help me in my work and make a fortune for himself.

But he won't. He sticks to his silly soldiering.' And then he paused a bit. ` Your job is something better than my son-in-law's. At least it is useful — to others. Your pay, I have no doubt, is better, yet for a man of your calibre must be but a pittance also. Don't you see how silly it is to work for others instead of working for yourself? It is so damned silly that it irritates me to see it. What are you doing on this trip? You are going on my business, not yours; and, if you do your duty and get me what I want, I shan't say thank you, while if you don't, you will never hear the end of it.'

Then the old man said that he would like to tell me the story of his life. I made no note of it in my diary, but I am fairly confident of my recollection of it: —

His father was a barge builder, and a friend persuaded him to build, on his behalf, a deep-sea sailing ship; and, when the hull was near completion, that friend went bankrupt. The builder was in despair and feared bankruptcy himself, but his son said: ` Father, turn this misfortune to our benefit; mortgage the hull, complete the ship, start her trading, and I will go as supercargo '; and that was the beginning of the great Rickmers Line. ` And now,' said Mr. Rickmers, ` I am a very wealthy man; I made up my mind I would never work for any one but myself; money — all the time — had been the object of my life.' And then I made my only comment on his lecture and his story. ' You've been lucky, Mr. Rickmers.

Others who have followed your procedure have found themselves in jail.' — ` A bit of your own back because I was so rude? Well, well ! I deserved it, and besides that, you are quite right.'

We reached Wuhu. I found the refusal of the application was quite unjustified, and settled the matter in a couple of hours to every one's satisfaction.

It was such episodes as this, showing the incompetency of Commissioners and their untrained Tide-surveyors — Harbour Masters (1) — to deal with the increasing number of technical questions, that caused the Inspectorate to take a somewhat altered view of the Marine Department; and later questions of the kind were immediately referred to me.
1 — A Tide-surveyor was the head of the outdoor staff of the Revenue Department at a port, and he always rose from the ranks. Under the Marine Department scheme they functioned as Harbour Masters of ports other than Shanghai. As Harbour Masters they had important duties assigned to them by treaty stipulations in which they were nominally independent of their own Commissioners.

On the 1st June 1900 I handed over charge to Bisbee. I had corresponded with him freely while he was on leave and told him of events. It was a delicate affair to reorganize the pilots in the absence of my chief, and I had been warned he would not like it. But that was not the case — he was far too great a man; he approved and warmly complimented me.

I had known that his heart was weak. Since he had come on shore he had lived a life of rage — a rage of work and keenness; a rage against the limitations of his post and at what he thought the injustice of his treatment; a rage, perhaps, against his own social limitations. I always thought that it was that tragic turmoil of his soul that caused his heart disease.

A month after his return from leave he laid up, and I was told that he was doomed. He had that terrible complaint, aortic aneurism. The wall of the great artery had weakened and bulged under normal blood pressure; the bulge pressed on the windpipe and so suffocated him; then, when nearly dying from the suffocation, the weakened pressure caused the bulge to lessen and breathing to be possible once more. So there was alternate tortured dying and resuscitation — a martyrdom of suffering. The doctor told me that with a man as strong as Bisbee this condition might go on for weeks. I think the pair of them had come to an arrangement, for one day I was sent for by the doctor. Bisbee asked me the time of high water and I told him it had occurred an hour before. ` That's fine ! I 'll go out on the ebb.' Then when his attack began again and he was already gasping, he beckoned to me to come close and whispered so that the doctor should not hear. ` I hope that your ambition will be fulfilled.' — ` What ambition, Captain. Bisbee?' And through his pain he smiled and answered, ' That you go to Peking.' I had no such ambition at the time, but perhaps in his condition he delved in my subconsciousness and became prophetic. Then came another dreadful suffocation, and that fine old doctor, using morphia, saw to it that it was the last. I wept, and the doctor nearly did so too.

Shaweishan Island lies off the northern entrance to the Yangtsze river. It is conical and has a lighthouse on the top. Bisbee wished that island to be his monument, and on his deathbed made his last request. So, later, I had his initials A. M. B. cut in twelve-foot letters on a cliff face and painted white, for all the passing world to see. Of course the paint has gone, but those outlined letters will for some centuries to come face the sea that Bisbee loved.