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Sir John Bowring (1792-1872)

This article was written by George Barnett Smith and was published in 1885

Dr (Sir) John BowringSir John Bowring, linguist, writer, and traveller, was born at Exeter on 17 October 1792. He was descended from an ancient Devonshire family, which gave its name to the estate of Bowringsleigh, in the parish of West Allington. For many generations the Bowrings had been engaged in the woollen trade of Devon, and in 1670 an ancestor coined tokens for the payment of his workmen bearing the inscription, with a wool-comb for a device, ‘John Bowring of Chulmleigh, his half-penny.’ Sir John was the eldest son of Mr. Charles Bowring, of Larkbeare. He was first placed under the care of the Rev. J. H. Bransby, of Moretonhampstead, and subsequently under that of Dr. Lant Carpenter.

Bowring entered a merchant's house at Exeter on leaving school, and during the next four years laid the foundation of his linguistic attainments. According to the brief memoir written by his son, he learned French from a refugee priest, Italian from itinerant vendors of barometers and mathematical instruments, while he acquired Spanish and Portuguese, German and Dutch, through the aid of some of his mercantile friends. He afterwards acquired a sufficient acquaintance with Swedish, Danish, Russian, Serbian, Polish, and Bohemian, to enable him to translate works in those languages. Magyar and Arabic he also studied with considerable success, and in later life, during his residence in the East, he made good progress in Chinese. In 1811 Bowring became a clerk in the London house of Milford & Co., by whom he was despatched to the Peninsula. He subsequently entered into business on his own account, and in 1819-20 travelled abroad for commercial purposes, visiting Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Russia, and Sweden. In France he made the acquaintance of Cuvier, Humboldt, Thierry, and other distinguished men. On his return from Russia in 1820 he published his ‘Specimens of the Russian Poets.’

In 1822 he was arrested at Calais, being the bearer of despatches to the Portuguese ministers announcing the intended invasion of the Peninsula by the Bourbon government of France. He was thrown into prison and passed a fortnight in solitary confinement. The real object of his imprisonment was to extort from him admissions which would enable the Bourbon government to prosecute the French liberals. Canning, then British foreign minister, insisted upon an indictment or a release. Bowring was eventually released without trial, but as he had been accused of complicity in the attempt to rescue the young sergeants of La Rochelle, who were executed for singing republican songs, he was condemned to perpetual exile from France. Lord Archibald Hamilton brought the illegality of the arrest before the House of Commons, but Canning explained that the proceedings, however despotic, were warranted by the then existing laws of France. Bowring published a pamphlet entitled ‘Details of the Imprisonment and Liberation of an Englishman by the Bourbon Government of France’ in 1823. In 1830, Bowring was the writer of an address from the citizens of London congratulating the French people on the revolution of July. He headed the deputation which bore the address to Paris, was welcomed at the hôtel de ville, and was the first Englishman received by Louis-Philippe after his recognition by the British government.

Bowring's intimate friend and adviser, Jeremy Bentham, founded, in 1824, the ‘Westminster Review,’ intended as a vehicle for the views of the philosophical radicals. The editorship was first offered to James Mill, but declined by him on the ground of the incompatibility of the post with his official work. Bowring and Southern eventually became the first editors of the ‘Review,’ the former taking the political and the latter the literary department; but subsequently the management passed into Bowring's hands alone. Bowring not only wrote many of the political articles, but also papers on the runes of Finland, the Frisian and Dutch tongues, Magyar poetry, and a variety of other literary subjects.

In 1824 Bowring issued his ‘Batavian Anthology’ and ‘Ancient Poetry and Romances of Spain;’ in 1827 appeared his ‘Specimens of the Polish Poets,’ and ‘Serbian Popular Poetry;’ in 1830 ‘Poetry of the Magyars;’ and in 1832 ‘Cheskian Anthology.’ He published Bentham's ‘Deontology’ (1834) in two volumes, and nine years subsequently he edited a collection of the works of Bentham, accompanied by a biography, the whole consisting of eleven volumes. The university of Groningen conferred upon him, in 1829, the degree of LL.D.

In 1828 Bowring was appointed a commissioner for reforming the system of keeping the public accounts, by Mr. Herries, then chancellor of the exchequer; but his appointment was cancelled at the instance of the Duke of Wellington, who objected to Bowring's radical opinions. He was, however, authorised to proceed to Holland, for the purpose of examining the method pursued by the financial department of that country. He prepared a report, the first of a long series on the public accounts of various European states. It was during this visit to the continent that he translated ‘Peter Schlemihl’ from the German at the suggestion of Adelung.

During a stay in Madrid Bowring had published in Spanish his ‘Contestacion à las Observaciones de Don Juan B. Ogavan sobre la esclavitud de los Negros,’ being an exposition of the arguments in favour of African slavery in Cuba. At a later period he translated into French the ‘Opinions of the Early Christians on War,’ by Thomas Clarkson. His ‘Matins and Vespers’ (1823) went into many editions, both in England and the United States, and his ‘Minor Morals’ (1834-9), recollections of travel for the use of young people, were likewise very popular. For his ‘Russian Anthology’ he received a diamond ring from Alexander I, and for his works on Holland, some of which were translated into Dutch, a gold medal from the king of the Netherlands.

In 1831 Bowring — who had sought official employment in consequence of commercial disasters — was associated with Sir H. Parnell in the duty of examining and reporting on the public accounts of France, ‘a task which was so satisfactorily performed that he was appointed secretary to the commission for inspecting the accounts of the United Kingdom.’ Bowring visited Paris, the Hague, and Brussels, and examined the finance departments of their various governments. The first report made by the commission led to a complete change in the English exchequer, and was the foundation of all the improvements which have since been made. The second report, dealing with the military accounts, was carried into immediate effect. Bowring and Mr. Villiers (afterwards Earl of Clarendon) were appointed, in 1831, commissioners to investigate the commercial relations between England and France, and presented two elaborate reports to parliament.

On the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832 Bowring appeared as a candidate for the representation of Blackburn, but, though popular with the mass of the people, he lost the election by thirteen votes. He now went over to France, where he made close investigation into the silk trade; and in 1833 he visited Belgium on a commercial mission for the government. His exertions in the south of France in the succeeding year led to a free-trade agitation in the wine districts. In 1835 he went through the manufacturing districts of Switzerland, and reporting to parliament on the trade of that country, he showed the great advantages that had been reaped from the system of free trade. He was in Italy in the autumn of 1836, when he reported to parliament on the state of our commercial relations with Tuscany, Lucca, the Lombardian and Pontifical states. Bowring had been returned to parliament for the Clyde burghs in 1835, but losing his seat at the general election of 1837, he now travelled in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey on another commercial mission for the government. During this tour Bowring visited every part of Egypt as far as Nubia in the south, traversed Syria from Aleppo to Acre, and returned by way of Constantinople and the Danube. Shortly after his arrival in England he accepted an invitation to a public dinner at Blackburn. This was in September 1838; and, halting at Manchester on his way to Blackburn, Bowring met Cobden and others at the York Hotel, the result of this meeting being the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League. In 1839 Bowring was deputed to proceed to Prussia with the object of inducing that country to modify her tariff on English manufactures. He was met by the objection that, ‘so long as the English corn laws imposed a prohibitive tariff on foreign grain, it was useless to ask Germany to relax her heavy duties on English goods.’ Bowring was the chief author of the important report to parliament on the import duties, which led to the proposed but unsuccessful measure for the relaxation of the English tariff by the whigs, and to Sir Robert Peel's great revised tariff scheme of 1842.

Convinced of the necessity for the abolition of the corn laws, Bowring again sought a seat in parliament for the purpose of advocating this measure. Defeated at Kirkcaldy, he was elected for Bolton in 1841. He was a frequent speaker on commercial and fiscal questions, on education, the factory acts, and similar subjects. He took an active part on the committee of inquiry into the distress of the hand-loom weavers, on that in connection with Irish education, and on that on the state of the arts as applied to commerce and manufactures, and he was an eloquent advocate for the abolition of flogging in the army. Bowring received services of silver plate from the electors of Blackburn, Kirkcaldy, and Kilmarnock respectively; from the Manxmen for his valuable aid in obtaining an act of parliament for their emancipation from feudal tyranny; and from the Maltese in recognition of the success of his advocacy as their unofficial representative in the House of Commons. Supported by the prince consort, Bowring obtained, after a discussion in the House of Commons, the issue of the florin, intended as the first step towards the introduction of the decimal system into the English currency. He subsequently published a volume on ‘The Decimal System in Numbers, Coins, and Accounts, especially with reference to the Decimalization of the Currency and Accountancy of the United Kingdom’ (1854).

After his election for Bolton, Bowring embarked all his fortune in ironworks in Glamorganshire. In 1847 a period of severe depression set in, and as there was no prospect of the cloud lifting, Bowring became seriously alarmed at the aspect of his affairs. He consequently applied for the appointment of consul at Canton, and, obtaining it through the friendship of Lord Palmerston, resigned his seat in parliament. The general relations between England and China were even then in a somewhat critical condition. It was understood that the gates of Canton, hitherto closed against foreigners, were now to be opened, and Bowring hoped that the mandarins would at least receive him officially within the walls of the city, thus paving the way for the entrance eventually of all Europeans. But the Chinese treated him with the same contumely as they had done his predecessors, and the governor-general wrote him offensive letters. Yet the Cantonese, with whom Bowring mixed a great deal, received him with good feeling, thus proving that the mandarins were the sole ground of opposition.

From April 1852 to February 1853 Bowring had charge of the office of plenipotentiary in the absence of Sir George Bonham; but on the return of the latter Bowring applied for leave of absence for a year, visiting the island of Java on his way home. In 1854, when his leave was expiring, he was appointed plenipotentiary to China, and governor, commander-in-chief, and vice-admiral of Hong Kong and its dependencies, as well as chief superintendent of trade in China. He was also accredited to the courts of Japan, Siam, Cochin-China, and the Corea. On receiving these appointments he was knighted by the queen. The Taiping insurrection shortly afterwards broke out in China, trade was paralysed, smuggling was largely carried on at Shanghai, and the imperial dues could not be collected. Sir John Bowring resolutely endeavoured to put an end to the disorder.

Bowring has stated (Autobiographical Recollections) that one of the most interesting parts of his public life was his visit to Siam in 1855. He went upon a special mission, being authorised to conclude a treaty of commerce with the two kings of that country. There had already been many unsuccessful attempts on the part of the United States, of the governor-general of British India, and of the English government, to establish diplomatic and commercial relations with Siam. Sir John Bowring succeeded in concluding a treaty, which was carried out with promptitude and sagacity. In 1857 Bowring published an account of his travels and experiences in Siam under the title of ‘The Kingdom and People of Siam.’

In October 1856 the outrage on the lorcha Arrow by the Canton authorities involved Sir John Bowring in hostilities with the Chinese government. It was admitted that the vessel had no right to carry the British flag, the term of registry having expired; but the English representative maintained that the expiry of the license did not warrant the violence perpetrated by the Canton authorities. He affirmed that the authorities did not know of its expiry; that it was their specific object to violate the privileges of the British flag; that the case of the Arrow was only one of a succession of outrages for which no redress had been given; and that the expiry of the license and the failure to renew it placed the ship under colonial jurisdiction. Votes on censure of the conduct of Sir John Bowring, and the British government in supporting him, were moved in both houses of parliament, and some of the former friends and colleagues of the British plenipotentiary took a strong part against him. The Earl of Derby moved the hostile resolution in the House of Lords, but after a long debate it was negatived by a majority of thirty-six. In the House of Commons Cobden proposed the vote of censure, and contended that Sir John Bowring had not only violated the principles of international law, but had acted contrary to his instructions, and even to express directions from his government. Lord Palmerston warmly defended Sir John Bowring and his action. Cobden's motion was carried against the government by a majority of sixteen. Lord Palmerston appealed to the country, and in the elections that ensued the chief movers against Sir John Bowring lost their seats, while the ministry came back greatly strengthened. Lord Elgin, who succeeded Bowring as English plenipotentiary in China, endorsed and carried out his predecessor's policy.

During the hostilities with China the mandarins put a price on Sir John Bowring's head. He had a narrow escape of his life in January 1857, when the colony of Hong Kong was startled by a diabolical attempt to poison the residents by putting arsenic into their bread. The governor's family suffered severely, and the constitution of Lady Bowring was so undermined that in the ensuing year she was obliged to leave for England, where she died soon after her arrival.

Towards the close of 1858 Sir John Bowring proceeded to Manila, on a visit to the Philippine islands, chiefly with a view to the extension of the trade of the islands with Great Britain. Manila had been the only port accessible to foreigners, but the more liberal policy of the Spaniards had opened the harbours of Sual, Iloilo, and Zamboanga, which Bowring visited in H.M.S. Magicienne. As the representative of free trade he was everywhere welcomed, and on the completion of the tour he published his ‘Visit to the Philippine Islands.’ Sir John returned to China in January 1859, and in the following May resigned his office, after more than nine years of unusually harassing and active service. On leaving China he received from the Chinese people several characteristic marks of their appreciation of his government.

On the voyage home the Alma, in which he sailed, struck upon a sunken rock in the Red Sea. The passengers were compelled to remain for three days upon a coral reef, where they suffered greatly before relief arrived. The remainder of Bowring's life was passed in comparative quiet. In 1860 he was deputed by the English government to inquire into the state of our commercial relations with the newly formed kingdom of Italy. He had interviews with Count Cavour; but at Rome he was seized with illness, the attack being aggravated by the effects of the arsenical poisoning at Hong Kong three years before. He was not fully restored to health until 1862. In addition to Bowring's labours in connection with commercial treaties with various European and Asiatic powers, at home ‘he was an active member of the British Association, the Social Science Association, the Devonshire Association, and other institutions, often contributing papers to their proceedings and taking a prominent part in their discussions.’ He was a constant contributor to the leading reviews and magazines, and delivered many public lectures on oriental topics and the social questions of the day.

Bowring was the writer of many poems and hymns, one at least of which, ‘In the cross of Christ I glory,’ has acquired universal fame. Early in his career he conceived an extensive scheme in connection with the poetic literature of the continent. Enjoying the advantage of personal acquaintance with most of the eminent authors and poets of his time, he secured their assistance in his purpose (never fully carried out) of writing the history and giving translated specimens of the popular poetry, not only of the western, but of the oriental world. He was promised the co-operation of Rask and Finn Magnusen (Icelandic), Oehlenschlager and Munter (Danish), Franzén (Swedish), in the Scandinavian field; of Karamsin and Kriulov (Russian), Niemcewicz and Mickiewicz (Polish), Wuk (Servian), Hanka and Celakowsky (Bohemian), Talvj (von Jakob), and many coadjutors in the Moravian, Illyrian, and other branches of the Slavonic stem; while in the Magyar, Toldy and Kertbeny lent him their aid; Fauriel in Romaic, and Tengstrom in Finnish. In the various kingdoms of southern Europe he gathered together extensive materials for a work which might well have occupied a lifetime. His scattered translations from the Chinese, Sanskrit, Cingalese, and other oriental languages, and his Spanish, Servian, Magyar, Cheskian, Russian, and other poetical selections, amply attest that he never relinquished his scheme, though the comprehensive and exhaustive plan he originally formed was found to be impossible of execution.

In the closing years of his life Bowring's mental and physical faculties were strong and apparently unimpaired. When verging upon eighty years of age he addressed an assemblage of three thousand persons at Plymouth with all the energy of youth. After a very brief illness he died at Exeter on 23 November 1872, almost within a stone's-throw of the house where he was born.

Bowring was a fellow of the Royal Society, a knight commander of the Belgian order of Leopold, and a knight commander of the order of Christ of Portugal with the star; he had the grand cordon of the Spanish order of Isabella the Catholic, and of the order of Kamehameha I; he was a noble of the first class of Siam, with the insignia of the White Elephant, a knight commander with the star of the Austrian order of Francis Joseph, and of the Swedish order of the Northern Star, and also of the Italian order of St. Michael and St. Lazarus; and he was an honorary member of many of the learned societies of Europe. He received no fewer than thirty diplomas and certificates from various academies and other learned bodies and societies.

Bowring was twice married: first, in 1816, to a daughter of Mr. Samuel Lewin, of Hackney, who died in 1858; secondly, to a daughter of Mr. Thomas Castle, of Bristol. His eldest son by the former marriage, Mr. J. C. Bowring, presented to the British Museum a fine collection of coleoptera, consisting of more than 84,000 specimens, known by the name of the Bowringian collection. His second son, Mr. Lewin Bowring, was Lord Canning's private secretary through the Indian mutiny of 1857, and held for some time the post of chief commissioner of Mysore and Coorg. A third son, Mr. E. A. Bowring, C.B., represented his native city of Exeter in parliament from 1868 to 1874, and was made companion of the Bath for his services in connection with the Great Exhibition of 1851. He is also known in literature for his translations of Goethe, Schiller, and Heine.

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