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3. The Coast Inspector's Work

The functions of the Marine Department grew; I obtained sole charge of it — a new Department of Works being created for the Engineer-in-Chief — and it approached a semblance of what had been originally intended. The fleet of Customs cruisers was placed under my control and the building of all new craft; hydrographic work grew until we published our own charts and the British Navy withdrew their surveying vessels; harbour and river conservancy matters — except where there were special organizations — fell into my hands; meteorological work in conjunction with Siccawei Observatory became an affair of Far Eastern international importance in which we took the lead. And this was in addition to the older functions of administration of lights and other aids to navigation on the coast; keeping track of changing channels and marking them; issuing Notices to Mariners; pilotage, harbour control and quarantine affairs; courts of inquiry and arbitration about shipping accidents; and dealing with the Consuls and other local authorities on terms of equality. Just ordinary administrative work? Quite so; but there were more technics in the hands of one man than could be the case in any other country.

But, outside the duties pertaining to my post, circumstances forced on me another set of activities. My previous service with the Chinese Navy resulted in a continued connection with it, sometimes as an informal adviser, sometimes with an official appointment. Those were years of steadily increasing ferment in Chinese affairs — the Boxer outbreak; the Russo-Japanese War, fought mainly on Chinese soil and in Chinese waters; the revolution which ousted the Manchu dynasty; Yuan Shihkai's attempt to make himself Emperor; the effect of the Great War in which China, late in the day, became an ally; the period — not yet for certain ended — of independent military satraps. In all those affairs I acted as adviser to the Navy.

And there was something more.

My friend Ludwig Basse became a trusted man to the three satraps at Tientsin, Tsinanfu and Nanking, and so I got to know them, had the entrée to their Yamens, and was given certain missions by them. Those extra-Customs functions were a curious feature in my life.

Some were permitted rather than authorized by the Inspector-General; others were definitely authorized, and in most of them I had the great advantage of my chief's advice and warnings.

My Customs work came first, — it was what I drew my pay for; for the other work I got nothing except some decorations. Yet what I have to say about my life in China is mostly about my extra-Customs work. That is because it better lends itself to telling; and so the greater part of what I have to say about my Customs life will be concentrated in this single chapter.

The work of the Department was very interesting. It was varied and pleasant — a few months in the office, then handing over to my deputy and going on a trip in a large yacht-like steamer, inspecting lights, perhaps, or starting a survey dealing with a harbour question at a port, or something of the sort; then Shanghai again.

My two deputies, Eldridge and Myhre, were my personal friends, former shipmates and my own nominees. Both were senior to me in the Service; it was just that war and opportunity that made me be their chief; they were such splendid fellows, so capable and so loyal. I should like to mention all the other members of my staff, both foreigners and Chinese; of course I must not, but I look back on them with strong feelings of affectionate regard and gratitude.

Every year or so I made a visit to Peking and talked things over with Sir Robert Hart, and later with his successor. I have already told the story of that first interview with him, when I was very crude and he resented it. That he did not score it up against me is very plain. My other visits to him were always a great pleasure — invariably I left gratified and pleased.

With many others whom he treated well or who have not nursed a grievance I feel a reverence for his memory that tends to prevent anything being said about him except in adulation.

That tendency is wrong, for to throw a decent light on the human nature of a man of fame should be of interest.

I saw little of him, and yet I seem to know a fair amount about him. A frequent contact is often not the closest. The mask, which such a chieftainship as his demands, is more likely to be lifted to the transient than to the more permanent; besides, one hears of things, and some hear more than others; and so, from this and that, I get an impression of his inner self.

He was a man of deep emotion that, however much controlled, demanded outlet; and one side of him was highly spiritual. But the spiritual side in emotional natures has often a reverse one that is very different, giving rise to those incongruities of character that one hears of now and then.

And thus it was — in some degree — with Hart.

To me he lifted the screen but once. I had written a booklet on Religion and the Fourth Dimension — a sort of transcendental thesis.(1) Sir Robert Hart had seen it and now discussed it.

He had read it through without a stop, he said, and found it intellectually very interesting; but he went on to say that from the religious point of view it had no interest for him. The intellectual and the spiritual were two quite different things.
1 — It seems worth noting that in that booklet, written in tool, I stated in effect that, while we can think of the Fourth Dimension in terms of Time, it cannot really be Time.

Then in his quiet and very simple way he spoke about his certain faith and hope — the faith he had been brought up in, modified but slightly by the facts of science. It was a most illuminating thing to hear him talk in that esoteric language of the Church, and I went away abashed.

He exercised autocratic power over a staff of several thousands for a period of very many years. In that respect his position was unique. Such a power is apt to sap the finer susceptibilities, and it may well be doubted if any man could use it without grave lapses in the exercise of justice. It should be remembered too that strength and greatness rarely march with all the virtues. So there are some, including two or three of high ability, who bitterly consider that their lives were spoilt by him. But so, I think, it must always be.

I had suggested that he revert more to his original scheme for the Marine Department and appoint me Marine Commissioner or Marine Secretary. The next day we were sitting in his garden having tea. There was silence for a time, and then I said: ` Sir Robert, have you ever noticed the difference between a tree of that kind ' — I pointed to a juniper — ` and an oak tree, which explains the difference in their size? ' His sharp shrewd eyes met mine over the edge of his tea-cup. ` Tell me what is in your mind.' ` Well, the juniper has a trunk and twigs. The oak has trunk and boughs and twigs.' I paused a bit and added, ` Won't you let me be a branch, sir? '

Could presumption have been greater ! But he took it, as I knew he would, quite well. He smiled and said: ` So you are returning to the charge ! I have thought that matter over.

It is now too late for me to make the change. You must tackle my successor.'

Sir Robert's brother-in-law — the late Sir Robert Bredon — succeeded him for a time as Acting Inspector-General. He had been deputy before with his office at Shanghai and was very popular with the community — chairman of the race and other clubs; a social notable. Clever and quick and with big ideas, he seemed the very man to be a leader; yet when the confirmation of his post was mooted, Shanghai rose up against him — and he got a knighthood in exchange. An instructive illustration, this, of the detriment of a certain kind of popularity.

There is not a doubt about it that reserve is a good asset to a leader. He is human, and there must be facets of his nature which, if known, would tend to make him cheap — ignorance is to some extent involved in faith.

I was travelling with Bredon on a coaster, and we paced the deck in silence. Then apropos of nothing Bredon said: ' What do you consider are the factors making for a great success in public life? ' I had thought of it before, so had my ,answer ready: ` The gift of expression, for only thus can one justify one's judgments and gain faith; absolute unselfishness, because one's cause is quite enough to think about; and a measure of unscrupulousness exercised with great discretion in emergencies.' — ` That is quite well put,' said Bredon, ` but I don't agree about unselfishness. One must look first after oneself in order to be there to do the work.' It was the Chinese point of view so necessary for them, but so unsuitable for us, and the answer was significant of Shanghai's attitude.

I have already told some stories about the work of the Department when I was acting in Bisbee's place; and now I will tell some of a later date. If there is any virtue in them, it is in indicating how things were done in China, for stories of this kind tend to be selected because I look back upon them with a sense of satisfaction as exploits in a sense — though stunts is nearer to my meaning: something that is lighter hearted and less ambitious. I regret this fact. I should so much rather have been a man of no affairs, who could tell the tales of what he saw and heard; or — a more ambitious wish — a man of great affairs who could sink himself in the story of the important and interesting events with which he had to deal. But I was neither. I was a man of comparatively small affairs, and because of that my memory and vision tend to be dominated by my little problems of the past. Yet it may be that these personal accounts will throw some special light on conditions as they were in China.

The subject of improving the waterway to Shanghai had long been agitated. Mr. Hewett, the P. & O. Agent, a man prolific of ideas, drew up a scheme in about '98 and tried to get me to support it. But it was teeming with defects; it took away from China the sovereignty of the river; it required China to pay half the cost, and the only representation given to her on a board of nine was the Customs Commissioner — a foreigner. Hewett was stubborn; it was his pet creation and he would not modify it. The Chamber of Commerce, attaching no importance to the details, which they believed would be amended later if the application came to anything, gave it their approval and sent it to the Legations at Peking. The Legations also put their imprimatur on this hopelessly impracticable scheme; then filed it in a pigeon-hole.

In 1901 there carne the framing of the Boxer peace protocol, and some one took that scheme of Hewett's from its hole and made it Annex No. 17. I find this entry in my diary: ` 11th September 1901. Called on some of the Chamber of Commerce Committee about the Conservancy Annex. They all express regret for having put forward such a rotten scheme.'

It was A. E. Hippisley — one of the Customs Commissioners assisting the Chinese plenipotentiaries in the framing of the new commercial treaty — who made a suggestion for a change, and, as a result, China agreed to pay the whole cost based on the other scheme's estimate, the work being conducted under the direction of the Chinese Taotai and the Customs Commissioner; but this scheme — the best that could at the time be arranged — also had grave defects. There could be no certainty of what the work would cost, and a fixed sum had, in effect, been provided, and nothing for later maintenance.

The Engineer appointed was de Rijke, a distinguished Dutch expert and a personal friend of mine. He had enough to do with the difficult technicalities of his task; finance and looking to the future was not his job. The Taotai, of course, was a figurehead; and the third was Hobson, the Shanghai Commissioner, and what he thought about the future I never knew.

After four years' strenuous work the notorious Woosung Inner Bar no more existed. The work was a notable and creditable performance; but of course other operations were now needed, to say nothing of maintenance; and the funds were nearly spent ... A further eight million dollars were asked for from the Government — something like twice as much as the original grant. The Chinese Government was quite naturally very angry at this unexpected situation and refused to renew the contract of de Rijke, which expired about this time.(1)
1 — Mr. H. von Heidenstam, a Swede, was then appointed by the Nanking Viceroy. The choice — as it happened — was very good.

A farewell dinner was given to de Rijke, and a group of leading Consuls-General and of leading business men attended. There were speeches at that dinner which I did not hear; but de Rijke spoke of the perils impending over the situation and advised that faith be placed in me.

And now I have a story about a sudden opportunity and the grasping of it. I had attended that dinner merely as a social function. Shanghai conservancy affairs should have been, but had not been, my business; I had always had — as an onlooker — an anxiety about it, but I had never even turned over in my mind a constructive scheme. But after dinner when we were standing about in groups and I had been silent, some one said: ` WeII, Tyler, haven't you any ideas about it? ' And an inner prompting came to me. ' Yes, I have ideas; would you really like to hear them? ' and the group increased around me.

' For years Shanghai has talked a lot about conservancy and complained and criticized, but never yet has it put forward a practicable scheme. Do it now. A more suitable management is needed for one thing — that can easily be arranged; but the dominant matter is the provision of money. The Chinese will not give it; it is not desirable that they should; the obvious thing to do is to find the funds yourselves. Why not?

A tax on trade that would meet all needs would not be felt; it would be incident not on Shanghai but on the millions that Shanghai trade supplies.' This expression of opinion and its practical acceptance took about five minutes. It was arranged that on the morrow I should discuss the matter further with Warren, the British Consul-General, and Landale of Jardines.

I got up early in the morning and drafted out my scheme. The same board as before with the addition of either myself or the Customs Engineer-in-Chief; but now there would be a consultative committee of commercial interests. At eleven I started for the British Consulate; but on the way I got a brain wave. The crux of the matter lay with the German Consul-General. He had not been present at that dinner; he had always been in opposition to the Board; he had got out a German river expert to criticize de Rijke in the hope of getting the work in German hands. Unanimity among the Legations in Peking was necessary for success; the Germans, if they liked, could block it; so I changed my course, crossed the Soochow Bridge and called on Dr. Knappe, the German Consul-General.

I told him exactly what had happened, including the brain wave that made me visit him before seeing Warren; that if I could not get him on my side I would give the matter up, for otherwise it would be useless. He read my draft, and then with some impatience said: ` Can you not see the difficulty I have in agreeing to this? The Commissioner may be of any nationality, but you and the Engineer-in-Chief are British and you are never changed; and, of course, you will use your position to further your nationals' interests. I cannot blame you for it; it is natural; but it is very disadvantageous for us.' To this I replied with genuine deep feeling: ' Dr. Knappe, really and truly you are wrong. So far as I'm concerned my only fear would be that, to avoid a suspicion that I might be favouring my co-nationals, I might act unjustly to them.'

Then Knappe got up from his chair and moved about the room with his fingers in his hair and used quite unintentionally a curiously biblical expression: ` Almost you persuade me ! But it is incredible ! It is impossible ! '

In my other dealings with Knappe I had always found him eminently reasonable, and now he calmed down and agreed that some such scheme as mine was the only practicable one.

He would tell the German Chamber, and I could go ahead at once. At the time I took the credit of persuading him to myself; but later I had some reason to believe that a German — I think a member of his staff — had made about the same proposal.

Within a week the scheme was sent to the Legations with the unanimous approval of all those locally concerned. It was some years before it was put into operation. It is in force to-day, and believing, as I do, that in due course Shanghai will handle a larger trade than that of any other port in all the world and will require the greatest river engineering works to do it, I can look back with some complacence on the part I took in its creation.(1)
1 — This organization was preceded, as has been stated, by Hippisley's scheme. The genesis of that one was also curious, and, if not recorded here, is likely to be lost for ever.

Hippisley was a Treaty Commissioner and as such was in touch with Liu Kung-yi, the Nanking Viceroy. Old Liu was sick and very feeble — he died soon after; but his mind was sharp as needles, and he was furious at the imposition of that annex, and not only on account of its perniciousness, but because, on a matter within his jurisdiction, he had not been consulted.

So he begged Hippisley to do all he could to get the monstrosity removed and replaced by something else. Hippisley did his best, pulled all the strings he knew, and failed — the protocol was the price that China had to pay for peace. But later there came an incident that turned defeat to victory. It was found that, under the complicated taxation clauses of Hewett's scheme, certain properties would be taxed twice over, and to remedy this injustice the foreign ministers decided that those clauses should be interpreted in such and such a manner. Then Hippisley with fine perception saw the opportunity. He notified the Viceroy that, as an instrument of the peace protocol, the annex could not be amended; it could only be amended by ordinary negotiation on equal terms. That argument was irresistible, and so Hewett's scheme was scrapped.

In 1902 — as an offshoot of the Boxer peace protocol — came the revision of the commercial treaties with Great Britain under the leadership of Sir James Mackay, now Lord Inchcape; there was a mass of stuff about Customs duties and other matters; and there was a searching for odds and ends of claims to be inserted — such an opportunity might never come again. I was in close touch with A. E. Hippisley at this time — a man of wisdom and great breadth of vision; and by him I was kept informed of what was going on. In the draft convention I read that China undertook to remove the rocks that obstructed the approaches to Canton, as well as the artificial barriers which had been placed during the French and Japanese hostilities.

Hippisley had done his best to get these impracticable clauses taken out, but without success. I was personally concerned because the onus of the work would most likely fall on me, so I approached Sir James directly, and in the end I struck a bargain with him. I would tell him of a port to open if he would delete the clause about the Canton rocks; and that was how Wanhsien was opened. So the clause about the rocks was taken out, but about the barriers — massive structures of blocks of stone and steel screw piles — Sir James stood firm.

Two years later I got brief instructions to consider what had best be done to meet the treaty stipulation. To remove the barriers would cost many million taels; it would upset the regimen of the channels, and instead of helping navigation would seriously embarrass it. The interest in the matter was chiefly that of Hongkong shipping, so I called upon the Governor, Sir Mathew Nathan, and explained the situation about that silly clause. I suggested that I should widen the entrances through the two barriers, and with that done the question of the treaty clause should without formality be allowed to drop. In this and other matters I found the Governor most approachable and reasonable; he had a clear vision of the matter and agreed.

For that work I needed divers, and I had not any; so I called on Admiral Noel at his office at the Naval Yard.

He was in plain clothes, and he looked much more like a country squire than an admiral. Across the desk I told the story of my job and how I needed divers. He spoke, but not to me; he spoke to himself and quite loudly: ` Ah! — an Englishman — and he comes to me for help — important operation — for a foreign Government too — and an Englishman to do it — a sailor too — h'm, h'm — yes, he deserves assistance.' And then he let out a yell, which could have been heard half-way across the harbour; it was for the signalman who was just outside the door. ` General Signal: Volunteer divers required for service under the Chinese Government.' The Admiral now looked me in the face with a smile of wide benevolence and held out his hand to end the interview; and all the time he never said a word to me.

While that work on the barriers was being done — it took a year or so — I interested myself in the bunding of the Canton frontage. Something had already been begun in haphazard fashion, but now I got it systematized and laid down lines of clean curved bund 'walls of several miles in length. There was a curious feature in this undertaking which, much more than the work itself, deserves recording.

In about 1370 the conquering Ming dynasty ordered that the soldiers of the previous Mongol garrisons — the descendants of the famous hordes of Ghengis Khan — and their families should be slaughtered. At Canton there had been intermarriage and absorption in a century of Mongol rule, and enmity was dead, so there was reluctance to fulfil this drastic order; consequently it was reported to the capital that they had been driven into the river, and by inference drowned. They were not drowned; they were allowed to live in boats and in piled shacks below high-water line. And so they had lived and bred and grown for five hundred years and more, and it was no one's business to institute a change.

These were the Tankas; fine-looking men and pretty girls, from the latter of whom the famous flower boats drew their staff. Now, when I dealt with that matter of the bund, I found great areas of foreshore, the value of which reclaimed was needed for the project; but these areas were studded thick with Tanka squatters. So I approached the high officials and pointed out that the time had come to remove the ban from these hard-treated and deserving people; and it was done.

There was money in the business, so that was why.

It is only the older generation who remember when in England there was railway time — which was Greenwich time — and local time, which differed in each town and village.

Now in China we had local time, and it was Father Froc, the eminent Director of Siccawei Observatory, who made the suggestion that I attempt to get standard time adopted — a seven hours' difference from Greenwich for the coast, and six, five and four hours' differences for the interior.

It seems some undertaking, does it not? It would really be so in any other country and would require at least an act of Parliament. But in China, in those days, — well, let us see how it was done.

I wrote to the Inspector-General on the subject and explained how, if he approved and later would give the necessary instructions to the Service, I could arrange the whole affair informally, quietly and without publicity.

The Inspectorate approved. Over a cocktail at the Shanghai Club I discussed the matter with the foreign adviser of the Chinese telegraphs. Quite a sound idea, he thought; he would do his part and a week's notice would suffice. Then a visit to Tientsin to see the manager of the Peking railway — the only railway in the country at the time; and he concurred.

Now came the question of Hongkong, with Canton sixty miles away; and there lay the only snag.

If coast time was established, Hongkong would sooner or later have to fall in line; but unless she did so willingly and concurrently there would he a lot of fuss and the undesired publicity, and the Peking Government would be incensed at the Customs undertaking such a matter. So I called on the Honourable the Harbour Master, a member of the Legislative Council, and on the Astronomer Royal — it is a fact that little Hongkong has one — as these would be the two that the Governor would look upon as experts on the subject; but I failed entirely to bring them to my side. The sailor-man an Irishman and as stubborn as they make them — knew me well enough to say that he would see me go to hell before he would agree that a British colony should take a lead from China.

The Astronomer — an old, old man — said that the change would affect the sequence, and thus the value of his twenty years' collection of observations of temperature and humidity.

He was sorry but he could not possibly concur. It was an example in miniature of how big affairs are often dealt with.

I was disappointed but not downhearted. These two were the expert factors; the factor of common sense lay with the Chamber of Commerce, and would be reflected by the unofficial members of the Council. The problem was now to get them prompted with the facts.

My friend Hewett, the P. & O. agent, who had originated that detrimental scheme for the conservancy of the Whangpu river, was now stationed at Hongkong. I knew well the active nature of his mind, his imperviousness to reason, his love of leading in some new idea and his fondness for a speech. So I had him to dinner at the Club. I told him of my aim, of the facts about it, of the Astronomer and the Harbour Master; and I showed some measure of despondency. I did not ask for his assistance, nor mention the Chamber of Commerce or the unofficial members of the Council; but I filled him up with the technics of the matter — about zones of longitude and the rather complicated benefits that would result to typhoon warnings. I spoke of the history of the movement in the world; what America had done; the fact that distant Kashgar would be affected and that other states would follow suit. And so I left my seed in the fertile soil of Hewett's brain; and it was the last I ever saw of my active-minded friend.

I was working on the Canton barrier business at this time, and when I next paid a visit to Hongkong a friend said at the Club: ` That scheme of yours came up last week before the Chamber. Hewett made a perfectly marvellous speech about it. Where he manages to get his detailed facts, God only knows.'

So things had gone exactly as I planned — a rather snivvy business, but quite successful.

A few weeks later an I.G. Circular was issued ordering that on a certain date the clocks at customs houses should be altered in such and such a way. So as regards the coast the thing was done, and, as far as I remember, no reference to the fact was made in any paper. Subsequently the other zones were instituted; and daily from Shanghai was tapped out standard time to every telegraph station in the Empire.

Whether Japan was ahead of us in this I have forgotten; but the Malay Settlements and India followed suit. The Siamese Government, which I approached informally, declined to join the movement. To round off my ambition in this matter Siberia and Russia should have copied us; but they did not, either then or later.

Is that the end of progress in the matter? No. There must be one step more, but only one. You know that a cable sent from England will reach America at a date some hours before the sending of it. Well, it will not be in our time that we can fly the Atlantic at such a speed as to arrive before we left — as shown by standard time. But unquestionably this generation will make that journey at such a speed that time, as measured by the sun, will be nearly stationary; and in a flight to China, a day — as measured by the sun — will be but little more than half a normal day. Thus for travellers' time-tables our present standard time will be a useless thing. It will be discarded for that purpose, and Universal or Greenwich Time will be used instead; and later Universal Time will be in general use for all purposes except those which depend on light and darkness, such as hours of work and feeding and amusements. To meet those purposes the clocks will have a second hour hand, painted red perhaps, to indicate a Routine Time. With that extra hand each country, county, town or even village will be able to play about to its heart's content in saving daylight, and then will cease that cruel prostitution of real time, which now takes place.