How Britain lost chance to keep its last major colony

Stephen Vines traces the origins of talks on Hong Kong's return to China

Negotiations for the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule may have begun in 1982, but Britain's real chance of hanging on to its last remaining major colonial possession came many years earlier. Governor Sir Frederick Lugard in 1909 suggested a way of resolving the complex issue of Britain's temporary lease on the New Territories alongside its permanent lease on the rest of Hong Kong; but it was blithely ignored.

Sir Frederick's plan involved trading the permanent cessation of the New Territories as a condition for the return of the British concession of Weihaiwei to China. Weihaiwei was occupied by Britain during the West's 19th-century colonising frenzy.

Sir Frederick's superiors in the Colonial Office took the view that the poor chap had been out in the sun for too long and consigned his suggestion to the rubbish bin. However, at the time China was rather more worried by the British occupation of a central part of the Chinese mainland than it was about the remote southern colony of Hong Kong. In 1930, Weihaiwei was returned to China without any of the conditions suggested by Sir Frederick.

There is no guarantee that China would not have reneged on a deal involving the swap of Weihaiwei for the New Territories. However, the fact that Hong Kong is being returned tonight at the moment when the 99-year lease on the New Territories expires suggests that although China was unhappy with the treaties under which Hong Kong came under British rule, it was not bent on ignoring them.

When Britain first arrived in Hong Kong it was riding on the crest of the imperial wave. Its gun boats were out in the South China Sea and the government in London was being egged on by both the opium traders and other merchants to force China into opening the door to commerce. The ailing Qing Dynasty, which had informed the British that China had everything it could want and needed nothing from beyond its shores, was unable to back up its bravado with military might sufficient to repel the British.

The British were not clear what they wanted from China, aside from the notion that it should open its doors to British trade, particularly in opium. London had the idea of a trading base in Macau or even Canton, the heart of the opium trade; Hong Kong was certainly not on the agenda. On the ground, Captain Charles Elliot saw problems with British settlement but liked the look of Hong Kong's natural harbour. So, without orders to do so, he decided to claim this tiny "barren island" in 1841.

Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, was furious. "You have disobeyed and neglected your instructions," he raged in a letter to Captain Elliot. Notwithstanding these reservations Hong Kong was recognised as a colony two-and- a-half years later. However, it was given few resources and administered, in its early days, by the lowest officials of the colonial service. China has never recognised the "unequal treaties" which forced the Qing Dynasty to cede Hong Kong to the British. The first Hong Kong treaty, the Treaty of Nanjing, signed in 1842, ceded the island of Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity.

In 1860, as Britain's imperial appetite increased, China was forced to cede the Kowloon peninsula under the first Convention of Peking, which gave Britain a slice of Chinese mainland on the peninsula which juts out to meet Hong Kong island. It was not until 9 June 1898 that the third, and as it turned out, crucial, treaty was signed. This was the second Convention of Peking, which leased the New Territories to Britain for 99 years, starting on 1 July. It is this treaty which expires tomorrow.

The British empire was thus temporarily extended by an area of just over 365 square miles, covering the land area between the Kowloon peninsula and the new Chinese border as well as 235 islands.

Theoretically Britain was entitled to maintain its presence on Hong Kong island and the Kowloon peninsula indefinitely, but it was clear the colony could not function without its New Territories hinterland, accounting for more than 90 per cent of Hong Kong's land mass.

When the second Convention of Peking was signed neither the British nor the Chinese thought that this would impose a timetable on the length of imperial rule. Nor did either party give much thought to the 99-year time span of the treaty which was almost casually fixed.

The first Convention of Peking came about because the British garrison wanted more space for military exercises; the second convention was largely motivated by the general idea that as other foreign powers were seizing more Chinese territory, it would probably be a good idea if Britain were to do the same. There was no thought given to the notion that the colony might grow to a degree where extra space would be a necessity. All attention was focused on Hong Kong island.

The only time Britain was called upon to defend its sovereignty over Hong Kong came during the Second World War when Japan invaded. Winston Churchill decided that this colony was indefensible. As a result Hong Kong was given no real resources to halt the Japanese advance and there was considerable loss of life among the troops making a heroic last ditch stand.

After the war Churchill decided that, despite American pressure, and the claims of Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist government in China, Hong Kong would remain a British colony. "`Hands off the British Empire' is our maxim," he declared.

9 An extract from Stephen Vines' forthcoming book, Awaiting the Avalanche: An Eyewitness Account of Hong Kong's Return to Chinese Rule.

Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
News
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution
peopleFilm star says he is 'not interested in making money anymore'
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksChristmas comes early for wizard fans
News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
filmsOculus Rift offers breathtakingly realistic simulation of zero gravity
Sport
footballAccording to revelations from Sergio Aguero's new biography
Life and Style
tech

News
people'When I see people who look totally different, it brings me back to that time in my life'
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker