Sir George Thomas Staunton

This Tuesday (10th August), marked the anniversary of the death of Sir George Thomas Staunton, 2nd Baronet (26 May 1781- 10 August 1859) who was a former Vice President and one of the founding members of the Society.

Staunton was proficient in Chinese from an early age, having accompanied his father to China as part of the Macartney Mission in 1792. During this mission, Staunton served as a page to Lord Macartney. This experience meant that when he returned to China in 1798 to work for the East India Company, he was more knowledgeable about Chinese than most of his countrymen. During this period, he translated a number of Chinese texts into English including elements of the Chinese legal code.


RAS 05.001 ‘The approach of the Emperor of China to his Tent in Tartary to receive the British Ambassador’ (1799) which depicts the meeting between Lord Macartney and the Chinese Emperor on the 14th September 1793. This watercolour was painted by the artist William Alexander who was selected to accompany Lord Macartney’s embassy to China. The artist was not present at this scene and relied on engravings and detailed drawings by a Lt. William Parish.


The painting, ‘The Chinese Court of Justice in the hall of the British factory at Canton, 9th April, 1807’, that Staunton donated to the Society portrays an important event in his career. It depicts a trial for murder of a Chinese man by sailors from the East Indiaman ‘Neptune’ held by the Chinese Court of Justice in the hall of the British factory at Canton. This celebrated trial marked the first occasion that foreigners were permitted to be present in a Chinese court thereby accepting the formal authority of Qing law. Sir George acted as an interpreter and several accounts describe the proceedings and the circumstances that led to the trial: H.B. Morse, ‘A Chinese Court of Justice’, JRAS, (1922), pp. 573-5; Archibald Campbell, (seaman from the East Indiaman ‘Thames’), in ‘A voyage round the World from 1806 to 1812, (Edinburgh,1816) and in the archival papers of Thomas Manning. The painting was presented to the Society by Staunton in 1834.


RAS 01.001 Indoor scene (detail) of the Chinese Court of Justice held at the British factory of Canton, 9th April, 1807. This can be found on the Society’s Digital Library.


The ‘Neptune’ Incident:

In February 1807, the ‘Neptune’ docked in Canton on its way back to England from Penang. While on shore, sailors from the ‘Neptune’ became embroiled in a fight with a group of Chinese resulting in the death of one Chinese man. The Chinese government demanded that the British surrender the seaman but was told it was impossible to determine who had dealt the fatal blow and that it would be unfair to pick out a seaman at random. Trade by English ships was stopped for 2 months and the Chinese government forbade the entire fleet of Indiamen from leaving, ordering that the guilty seaman be found within 10 days.

A seaman was offered as hostage and a series of three trials were held to investigate the murder and identify the culprit; the painting represents the first trial on the 9th April, 1807. The Chinese magistrates found one seaman guilty of accidental homicide and ordered that he be detained in the English factory. The other 52 men were acquitted. However, on 8 November 1807, the Mandarin of the Chinese court demanded that the hostage be surrendered to the court. The British refused and the situation worsened until the Chinese government agreed that it would not pursue the matter further and that the hostage could leave with the next fleet of Indiamen once the sentence of expulsion had been passed. The seaman was released on payment of about £4, the penalty prescribed by Chinese law for accidental killing and Chinese officials also received 120,000 dollars from Neptune‘s Chinese security merchant.

The Painting:

The painting is by a Chinese artist of great skill who includes several careful details in his depiction of the costume of the officials and in the faces of the crowd of onlookers. Crossman (The China Trade, p.108-9) suggests that Lamqua (1801-60) may be the artist who had trained under George Chinnery and is known for his portraiture.

Seated at the centre of the painting are 3 Chinese officials, The Prefect of Kwangchow, in the middle, with his predecessor on his left (the Chinese side of honour), and on his right the Kunming Fu, the official who held jurisdiction over Macao. On the side table at the left is the Punyii Hien, the magistrate responsible for the eastern part of Canton where the port was located and at the side table to the right the magistrate responsible for the western side of Canton where the fight had taken place and where the European factories were located.

On the right of the court are the Hong merchants who controlled trade between China and Europe, Puankhequa, Mowqua, Puiqua and Consequa. Mowqua was on the point of retirement and the payments he had to make taking responsibility for the ‘unruly barbarians’ almost ruined him. Facing them are the leading British merchants and officials in Canton, Captain Robert Rolles of HMS Lion, (Lord Macartney’s ship in 1792), John Roberts, President of the Select Committee, Thomas Pattle,2nd Member of the Select Committee, William Bamston, 3rd Member of the Select Committee, and George Thomas Staunton, interpreter. Staunton was only 26 at the time and his slim, lithe figure stands in contrast to the rather corpulent ‘fat controllers’ of the East India Company.

In front of the three judges, a British seaman is being questioned by a Chinese official and four more seamen stand in a group in the centre left foreground. Two British soldiers are positioned on either side in the front of the scene. The painting shows men crowding in from the right in an effort to hear the proceedings. There is close attention to architectural detail and the inclusion of the curtain at the back gives the scene a theatrical appearance. The painting was probably made from an engraving done by a local artist and there are several other versions in existence: The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, The Hong Kong Museum of Art and The Peabody Museum of Art, Salem. The Society also possesses a lithograph which was made of the picture by M.Gauci (fl.1810-46) and published by Graf and Soret, c.1830.


Similar painting of the trial held at the Royal Museums Greenwich, 1 October 1807 (BHC0581)
‘Scene Outside the Court’, attributed to Spoilum, after 1807. Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Lectures and Events Archive:

The first two sections of the lectures and events archive have now been catalogued and are available for readers to view on the Society’s Archives Hub page.

The ‘Event Administration and Planning’ section illustrates the decision-making processes which have gone into arranging events that reflect the interests of the Society and its Fellows throughout its history. This includes: notable correspondence, event committee minutes and policy documentation. The ‘Event Material’ section consists of both paper-based and digital material that have been created from events that have taken place either on the Society’s premises or externally. Examples include: photographs, recordings, programmes, tickets, menus and table plans.

The archivist is now working on the ‘Publicity’ section which will highlight the different approaches that the Society has taken since its creation in helping to promote events.

Book Launch:

On Tuesday evening (10th August) the Society held the virtual book launch of ‘The Making of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom’. Chaired by Professors Robert and Carole Hillenbrand, the launch was well attended with over 80 participants joining. We hope to place the recording of the launch on the Society’s YouTube channel in the coming days.