Parkes (Sir Harry)
Born at Birchill's Hall, near Walsall, Staffordshire, in 1828, Sir Harry Parkes was left an orphan at the age of five, and came out to Canton, when still a lad, to be under the charge of his kinsman, the Rev. Charles Gutzlaff, a missionary and consular interpreter well-known for his writings on Chinese subjects. Sir Harry thus acquired at an early age that intimate knowledge of the Chinese language and of the Oriental character, which helped to make of him England's most trusty and able servant in the Far East for a period of forty-three years, that is, until his death as British Minister to the Court of Peking, in 1885. Beginning as what would now be termed a student interpreter on the staff of Sir Henry Pottinger during the first China War of 1842, he occupied in turn most of the Chinese consular posts, notably that of Canton, where he was appointed Commissioner during the occupation of the city by the British troops. He was also instrumental in negotiating a treaty with Siam. But the most striking episode of his life was his capture by the Chinese during the war of 1860, when, together with a few companions, he was sent by Lord Elgin under a flag of truce to Sign a convention of peace with Prince Tsai, the Chinese Emperor's nephew, but was treacherously seized, cast into a dungeon, and put to the torture. Most of the party fell victims to Chinese barbarity; but Sir Harry's unflinching resolution triumphed equally over torture and over diplomatic wiles, and he was eventually set free. In 1865 he was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary to the Court of Yedo, which post he continued to hold till 1883, when he was promoted to Peking. His career in Japan coincided with the most stirring years of modern Japanese history. He even helped to mould that history. When, at the beginning of the civil war of 1868, all his diplomatic colleagues were inclined to support the Shōgun, Sir Harry, better informed than they as to the historical rights of the Mikado and the growing national feeling in favour of supporting those rights, threw the whole weight of British influence into the loyal side against the rebels;-not only so, but he carried his reluctant colleagues with him.
Sir Harry was always a staunch supporter of his country's commercial interests, and a believer in the "gunboat policy" of his master, Lord Palmerston. His outspoken threats earned for him the dread and dislike of the Japanese during his sojourn in Japan. But no sooner had he quitted Tōkyō, than they began to acknowledge that his high-handed policy had been founded in reason. The respect felt for his talents was pithily expressed by a high Japanese official, who said to a friend of the present writer: "Sir Harry Parkes was the only foreigner in Japan whom we could not twist round our little finger." But courage, talent, and patriotism were not Sir Harry's only titles to lasting fame. We like him better still as a practical philanthropist labouring for the good, not merely of his own people, but of aliens. He it was who persuaded the Japanese to adopt vaccination, with the result that whereas the percentage of pockpitted persons was enormous only a quarter of a century ago, such disfigurement is now scarcely more common than at home. Lock-hospitals were another of his creations, as was also the elaborate lighthouse system which has so greatly lessened the chance of shipwreck on this dangerous coast. We cull but two or three items out of a score,-enough perhaps, though, to indicate the difference between this truly great man and the scurvy pack who used to yelp at his heels.
Even now, some twenty years after his disappearancce from the Japanese political scene, the British residents in Japan-and not they alone, but the "old hands" of all nationalities-continue to hold his memory dear. How often, under every one of his successors, have we not heard the exclamation, "Oh! for an hour of Sir Harry Parkes!" But we incline to think that the comparisons made by local people are sometimes tinged with injustice, and that these critics fail to realise that the deterioration of which they persistently complain results partly from circumstances beyond the reach of any personality to control. Rapid transit, and especially telegraphy, have revolutionised diplomacy since about 1880, or rather they have killed it. There may, it is true, still be one great diplomat at headquarters, as minister for foreign affairs; but under existing conditions, he will
"Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne."The title of "Plenipotentiary," with which the diplomat accredited to a foreign court continues to be nominally decorated, has become simple irony in clays when the force of events has reduced him to the position of a clerk, whose work it is to translate cypher telegrams which make of himself a mere cypher. The field is no longer open for original thought and daring action; there is no longer any responsibility to take, for every point must be referred home. Only the outward show survives, - the grand house, the elaborate dinners to les chefs collègues, the congratulatory visits on various august occasions, perhaps an occasional chance of snatching some snippet of a "concession" for railway iron, or what not, for his nationals. But that is all, and Sir Harry Parkes himself, if brought to life again, could scarcely do more. What has happened in Japan has happened simultaneously all over the world. In time, we suppose, the fate which has overtaken so many other venerable institutions will overtake the diplomatic career:-it will die a natural death, drop out of modern life, because no longer suited to modern conditions.
Book recommended - The Life of Sir Harry Parkes, by S. Lane-Poole and F. V. Dickins.