Tuesday, August 26, 2014

UP THE WANG POO RIVER



May I introduce Captain Robert Aurelius King? Master mariner and commander of the Emily Jane. Opium smuggler. An “old wretch” according to a contemporary diarist, a woman who met him in Shanghai and didn’t like him. My great grandfather.

Captain King has been in my mind lately because I have been writing discussion notes for Jung Chang’s fascinating biography of the Empress Dowager Cixi. The year that the then concubine Cixi gave birth to the next emperor of China was 1856, which was also the year that my great grandmother Muriel, aged eighteen, arrived in Shanghai in her father’s ship Egmont and met great-grandpa. According to the diarist quoted earlier, Muriel “saw Captain King on a Sunday, he proposed on Monday, she accepted on Tuesday, and they were married soon after.”

The Emily Jane was in Shanghai loading opium. This was four years before the opium trade was legalised by China although it was legal in the United Kingdom and opium was widely used there for medicinal purposes. However, Shanghai was one of the so-called Treaty Ports – Western settlements subject to Western rather than Chinese law – and the illegal cargo was ferried out to the mouth of the Wang Poo River and the waiting ships by pirates – yes, pirates. So romantic! So exotic!

And apparently so fragrant! It seems that the “very wicked Emily Jane” was “crammed with opium, and the odour of the drug [was] strong in her spacious cabins” according to journalist George Wingrove Cooke at around that time. He went on to report that he lunched on board at the invitation of the “frank and hospitable commander” and enjoyed a meal with “well cooled sauterne, a joint of capital Shanghai mutton and a successfully concocted ice pudding”* before making his way seven miles back up the Wang Poo River to his accommodation.

Captain King and his new wife spent some months in Shanghai while the Emily Jane was being loaded. They must have been exciting, even dangerous, times for the pair because later that same year, 1856, a pirate ship called Arrow was arrested by Chinese authorities and the Second Opium War broke out. It was to last four years, during which time the Kings marked time in England. They returned to China afterwards, and at least two of their children were born in Shanghai.

Captain King couldn’t have been such an old wretch really. George Cooke found him amiable enough after all. And he must have had a sense of humour, because in the UK census of 1881 he gave his occupation as “retired opium smuggler”.

* from “China: The Times Special Correspondence from China in the Years 1857-58” by George Wingrove Cooke  pp94-95



 

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