The Reason behind the resistance by the New Territories inhabitants against British takeover in 1899

In 9 June 1898, the British Government used the excess of "proper defence and protection of the colony (i.e. Hong Kong)" , forced the Chinese Government to lease the land what became known as the New Territories for 99 years. It was the Convention of Beijing 1898 (or usually rendered as "Convention respecting an extension of the Hong Kong Territory"). However, the British Colonial Government in Hong Kong did not fully assume authority over the land until 26 April 1899. It was because of the strong resistance by the New Territories inhabitants against the British takeover. This essay is going to explain why the New Territories inhabitants resist the British, based on both Chinese and British perceptions.

Though the New Territories was leased to Britain in 1898, the British did not know the place very well. There was no reliable statistics possessed by the Chinese Government of the present population of the San On district then. Therefore, Stewart Lockhart, the Colonial Sectary, was appointed as the Special Commission to report on the region, and wrote what became known as the Lockhart Report on the New Territory, 8 October, 1898. In his report, "the New Territories' population is contained in six main divisions, inhabiting 423 villages. These villages vary in population from 10 to 5000 persons…The inhabitants are composed of three races of the Chinese, the Puntis (Cantonese), the Hakkas (non-Cantonese "strangers") and the Tankas (boat people)". Moreover, the territory was mainly occupied by four major lineages, namely Tang, Liu, Pang and Man. The research done by Lockhart was very important in understanding the New Territories. However, the inhabitants at that time did not know that the land had been leased to the British. All decisions were made in Beijing, and due to the poor communication the inhabitants did not know the fact until the colonial government sent Lockhart to the place. The "visit" of Lockhart was suspicious to the inhabitants, and was unwelcomed by the villagers in Kam Tim. The Report provided the prologue of conflicts between the indigenous and the British, and turned into the resistance movement when the British hoisted the British Flag in Tai Po on 4 April 1898.

Before we go into the detail of discussing the reasons of the movement, we should be aware that actually not all New Territories' inhabitants joined the campaign against the British. Some division of the New Territories, for example, Tsuen Wan did not resist the British. In the late 19th Century, a great many men seem to have been absent from their home in Tsuen Wan but working abroad. The resistance movement was mainly in Tai Po and Yuen Long. The major resistance lasts from 14 April to 26 April 1899, when Governor Blake reported to the Queen in Britain that "all resistance movement has been suppressed" on that day.

Both the Chinese and British historians agreed that the primary reasons of resistance was "the inhabitants' fear that government by the British would mean interference with their established rights and customs". In the other words, the fear of uncertain future was the foundation of resistance. In the times under the Qing rule, the local lineages have a lot of power and special rights. They can have their own jurisdiction on the minor affairs by the custom and practices by themselves. They were also allowed to organized militia (t'uen-lien) to protect themselves. Normally speaking the Qing Government would not interfere the daily living and organizations inside the village. The lineages have a high social status and social influence due to the kinship. They also got the control over the best agricultural lands. These are the "rights" of the inhabitants in the eyes of Chinese, however are consider as the "privileges" in the eyes of the British. So, even the Captain Superintendent F.H. May arrived at Ping Shan and proclamated that "the Hong Kong Government would not interfere with the land, buildings, or customs of the people" , the Chinese did not trust him. What the villagers have seen was the British was going to build a police station on the hill behind their village. The building of police station was seemed to be normal and essential to patrol the place in the colonial policy, but was an offence of their rights and "Fung Shui" (geomantic protitiousness) in the eyes of Chinese. At the Ha Tsuen Meeting the lineages expressed their anxieties:

"…under English law a poll tax would be collected; that houses would be numbered and a charge made therefor; that fishing and wood-cutting would be prohibited; that women and girls would be outraged; that births and deaths would be registered; that cattle and pigs would be destroyed; that police stations would be erected, which would ruin the Fung Shui of the place…"

The different perception and interpretation of the old Chinese customs and social behavior widened the misunderstanding and accreting conflicts. Such mistrust led to the refusal of the British colonial rule over the New Territories, and thus sparked off the resistance movement.

The other factor that contributed to the resistance movement was the organization of villages by the gentry. The gentry class was the privileged groups and have a strong influence on the society. They were well educated as well. The gentry have organized the villagers of the four lineages on 1 April and had presented a letter to the Governor in Hong Kong:

"We hate the English barbarians, who are about to enter our boundaries and take our land…Certainly people are dissatisfied at this and have determined to resist…Let all our friends and relatives bring their firearms to the ground…This is our sincere wish".

It was clear that according to the gentry themselves, the organization of the resistance movement was targeted to protect their homeland from the British takeover. The villagers in the New Territories have a strong homeland feeling and were ready to raise up to protect their land. However, the British have a different perception of the work done by the gentries. Stewart Lockhart, in his investigation for the disturbances he concluded that "the gentry, hoping to enrich themselves by posing as patriotic defenders of the homeland…intended to extort money from rich inhabitants…(If they won over the British) the gentry could continue to squeezing the people". Here we should be careful that though both China and Britain agreed that the gentry organized the resistance, the explanation of the reason of why they did so was totally different. It should be fair to say that despite some gentry were actually using the chance to gather wealth (as shown on Lockhart's report after the campaign), many gentry have actually got the strong will of protecting their homeland. In most of the campaigns fought in Tai Po and Lam Tsuen, the gentry were also the leaders of the militia.

Another reason of the resistance in the New Territories, according to the British was the support of the Chinese Government to the movement. The British army was surprised when they came to the resistance. They found that the villagers were well organized and have a good tactics in fighting against them. On the report of F. H. May, he wrote, "what struck me most…was the evidently organized manner in which members from the surrounding village concentrated to take part in the attack…This is no doubt a method…adopted both for offence and defence". Captain E L C. Berger commented that, "the Chinese were uniformed and that the units nearest him occupied good tactical positions". They also discovered that the Chinese villagers were equipped with light as well as heavy weapons like crackers, guns gongs etc. The main evidence of the Chinese Government support was due to two foundlings: the British army got a militia flag which written "Tai Kai Imperial Militia" (大溪奉憲團練) , as well as Major Fong (stationed at Shenzhen) took no steps to preserve order. The British case merely assumed that Chinese officials (i.e. the viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi as well as his subordinates in San On district) must have known and must have been deliberately neglectful of their responsibility (to suppress disturbances in the New Territories).

The evidence and reasons presented by the British at that time were debatable. During the resistance movement, neither regular Chinese troops nor yung (braves) were involved in the fighting. It seems a quite sufficient explanation that the viceroy and his underlings were unable to prevent the disturbances. The system of rural control had declined so far in one institution after another that no amount of imperial effort could revive it. Without the support from the Chinese Government, a slogan has developed among the lineages when they face the British:

"Since our Emperor has leased to the British over territory, it is the duty of our brethren to hold the land ourselves, collect troops, gather taxes, and govern it ourselves."

In fact the villagers had received no support from the Chinese Government, and even anger that Major Fong did not cross the Shenzhen River to help them in resisting the British! The weapons were traditional used by the militia in defending themselves. The British got the perception that the New Territories villagers got the help form China may due to the kinship ties and the flight of the resistance leaders to San On after the movement.

In conclusion, the resistance of the inhabitants of the New Territories against the British takeover in 1898 was due to three major factors: The villagers' sense of protecting homeland from being invaded, the fear of uncertain future under the colonial rule, and the organization of militia by the gentry. Among them, the sense of homeland protection was the primary and the most fundamental reason for the movement. It is without doubt that the lineage, as established in the place since the Sung Dynasty, which was 800 years time, had a strong sense of homeland and has a strong root over the place. It was natural that the villagers raised up to fight against any "invaders", especially foreigners which can arouse their patriotic feeling.

David Wong Wing Chung

March 1998