Book Review: Free Trade’s Ardent advocate

Sir John Bowring was a remarkable if today unremarked figure in British history, ”here the intellectual, there the self-seeking opportunist, here the selfless radical involved in every kind of worthy cause, there the speculator and entrepreneur using his parliamentary and government connections to advance his family and other interests,” according to a new and deeply detailed biography by his distant relative, Philip Bowring.

Take any of those contradictions one by one true, they remain all true. Born in 1792, Bowring seems to have been everywhere, involved in every major event of the 19th Century until his death at 90 in 1892, a polymath who spoke scores of languages, by one count 23 of them extremely fluently. He became the primary voice in advocating free trade at a time when Great Britain was becoming the world’s premier trading power.

Indeed, Philip Bowring (full disclosure: founding member and contributing editor of Asia Sentinel), in the title of the book, calls him “Free Trade’s First Missionary.”

It is an entertaining, warts-and-all account of a man who was at least part parvenu, part reforming radical. Despite springing from a relatively modest family, he became a major intellectual and political figure as early as his 20s, involved in the disbursement of British funds during the Greek fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s. Famously, he accompanied home the body of George Gordon, Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, who died of fever in Greece and who arrived back in England pickled n a puncheon of rum. Bowring was a disciple of the Unitarian leader Jeremy Bentham. He edited the Westminster Review, which promoted Coleridge’s famed poem Kublai Khan, and spent time happily chiding former revolutionary poet William Wordsworth for joining the government.

He was sometimes a figure of derision as well as considerable veneration as he continuously sought reform of Britain’s nascent, fetid industrial process as a parliamentarian representing the city of Bolton, a hotbed of worker unrest, fighting to better their conditions in that and other cities. He involved himself in the struggle of Ireland for some degree of latitude from the UK. He was a strong advocate of women’s rights and pushed the British to adopt the decimal system, an achievement, as Philip Bowring writes, some 122 years later. He made a fortune manufacturing rails for the burgeoning British rail system but lost it when the boom in rail came to a stop and he was caught badly overextended.

To save his family after the disaster of the rail venture, Bowring took up government service, first as consul to Guangzhou and later as governor of Hong Kong, which he called “a great receptacle of thieves and pirates protected by the technicalities of British law. To those of us in Asia, Bowring’s service in the “great receptacle” is notable because he was the colony’s greatest advocate for free trade, which he also pushed in Thailand through his friendship with Monkut, Rama IV, the King of Siam who modernized that country and opened it to trade, which today makes Thailand one of Asia’s freest trading countries.

Bowing served as consul in Guangzhou and governor, rather disastrously for him, of Hong Kong during the years 1854 to 1859. He inadvertently managed to start the Second Opium War between China and Great Britain when the British granted Chinese merchants British registration in the hope that the Chinese, smarting over the Treaty of Nanking, which had been forced on them, would leave such chips alone. However, in Guangzhou they seized a vessel called the Arrow, formerly registered as a British ship, flying the British flag and carrying a British crew. When they ultimately released the Arrow without an apology to the supremely arrogant British, Bowring ordered the bombardment of Guangzhou. Eventually the British prevailed, but Bowring’s reputation was wrecked. The Cantonese, led by Ye, the wily viceroy of Canton, continued to lead an undercover insurrection. At one point a restaurant served food poisoned with arsenic, sickening more than 100 people including Bowring’s wife, who eventually was forced to return to England, where she eventually died. Against calls to stand up the Chinese restaurateur in front of his shop and shoot him, Bowring ordered a trial – and the restaurateur was acquitted.

“Bowring’s ideas and deeds were a microcosm of his age but the man himself does not fit readily into any simple category,” the governor’s distant nephew writes. “Coming to a conclusion about his wok depends on one’s starting point. Was he potentially a great man who never quite made the top rung? Or one whose sheer diversity of talent and long-term impact on history overcame the fact that he could claim leadership in a very limited number of fields?”

Whatever he was, the astonishing range of his endeavors, his eccentricity and his contradictions make for a compulsively readable book, not the easiest thing to find in biographies or histories. It is extremely readable partly because the author paints a complete and vivid picture – drawn from 50 pages of notes and bibliography -- not just of Sir John and his family but of Victorian England when it was becoming a confident, growing and sometimes ugly imperial power on both land and sea. Bowring was everywhere, seeking quite successfully to spread the word of free trade across Europe and eventually across Asia, to the sometime pain of numerous economies. That remains the case today, where mercantilist Asian countries continue to duel.

By and large, if we can draw any conclusions from Philip Bowring’s powerful rendering of his predecessor’s book, Sir John’s ideas, “carried forward by stronger voices than his own, especially free trade, remain valid today in the economic headwinds against free trade and for protectionism, which should have been buried 100 years ago.”