Robert Morrison – Born in Morpeth, Made in China

In a corner of the tranquil Protestant Cemetery in Macau lies the grave of Robert Morrison, recognised as the first Protestant missionary to China. He translated the Bible into Chinese and compiled and published an Chinese/English dictionary.

I visited the graveyard in 2015 and took this photo of his tombstone. The lighting was poor but you might just be able to make out that he was born in Morpeth in Northumberland on January 5th 1782.

Since I am familiar with Northumberland, Macau and Malacca (all places connected to Morrison) I thought I would see if I could find out more about this devout and steadfast man.

He is generally thought to have been born on a street called Bullers Green on the outskirts of Morpeth (though some say he was born in the tiny hamlet of Wingates, about 11 miles from Morpeth and moved to Bullers Green in infancy). The house at Bullers Green no longer stands but this is the location:

The inscription above the archway reads Victoria Jubilee Year. This house replaced the one in which Robert Morrison D.D. was born. (DD means doctor of divinity).

When he was three the family moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne where his father established himself as a last and boot maker in Groat Market which might have looked like this at the time. The street has far less character today.

Dr Morrison translating the Bible into Chinese from the painting by George Chinnery.

Robert, the youngest of eight children was a serious and hard working boy and had a strict religious upbringing by his Presbyterian parents. At age 14 he left school and trained as an apprentice in his father’s cobbler business. As a teenager he went slightly off the rails, falling into bad company and, like many a Newcastle lad, was prone to excessive drinking on occasion. However, after having the fear of eternal damnation drummed into him by his pastor he reformed his ways, and eventually passed his examinations as a clergyman and applied to the London Missionary Society to serve abroad. He learned some Chinese in London and was selected to start a mission to China. Although his wish was convert ‘poor perishing heathens’ the objectives set were more practical; to compile a Chinese dictionary and translate the New Testament into Chinese. Any conversions he achieved along the way would be a bonus.

Another version of the same painting. Which one was the truer likeness I wonder?

It was no easy task and he was not made welcome. For a start Christian missionaries were banned in China, on pain of death for the preacher and the converts. That is why he only converted ten Chinese over a period of 27 years. Secondly Chinese were forbidden to teach their language to foreigners and anyone who has tried studying Chinese knows that it is one of the hardest languages in the world to master. Thirdly, the Roman Catholic priests in Macau did not want Protestant clergymen in their territory and pressed the Portuguese authorities to expel him. The East India Company, which controlled most of the British trade in Macau and Canton, did not allow missionaries to travel on their ships so Morrison was forced to arrive on an American ship disguised as an American. And the British and other foreign traders did not welcome criticism from a Bible-bashing Brit since they were nearly all involved, directly or indirectly, in the opium trade. Morrison described many of his countrymen as riff-raff, unjust, covetous, avaricious, lying, drunken and debauched. They in return regarded him as irritating, narrow-minded, scornful and completely humourless.

The Casa Garden, the former Macau residence of the East India Company’s senior supercargo. The Protestant Cemetery is adjacent to the house.

Somewhat ostracised he was left in lonely isolation he was able to devote himself to his dictionary and, only when this had been published and he had become fluent in Chinese, did he become useful to the East India Company who employed him as a translator. He married Mary Morton in 1809, the daughter of an East India Company surgeon, and they kept each other company in their seclusion. They had two surviving children but she died of cholera in 1821 and, since Morrison would not have his wife buried in a Catholic cemetery, the Protestant cemetery was established in Macau. He later remarried and had a further five children.

Morrison Protestant Chapel in Camōes Square, Macau (next to the cemetery).

Morrison died in Canton on 1 August 1834 and his body was brought to Macau and buried next to his first wife and child. By the time of his death the entire foreign community in Canton and Macau had come to admire his character, even if they didn’t much like him. A fellow missionary, an American Sinologist called Samuel Wells Williams, summed Morrison up as ‘not by nature calculated to win and interest the skeptical or the fastidious, for he had no sprightliness or pleasantry, no versatility or wide acquaintance with letters, and was respected rather than loved by those who cared little for the things nearest his heart’.

The Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca

Morrison’s name is also associated with Malacca (in Malaysia). Another missionary, William Milne, was sent out to assist Morrison, arriving in Macau in 1813 but he was not permitted to stay. After some time in Canton, he moved on to Malacca where, under Morrison’s guidance, he established a school called the Anglo-Chinese College in 1818. After Hong Kong became a British territory the school relocated there in 1843 under the name Ying Wa College. It is still going today. Milne died in Malacca and he is commemorated in Christ Church, Malacca.

Leptis Magna in Libya and Surrey

Earlier this month I was near Windsor and took the opportunity to visit Virginia Water, a large man-made lake in Windsor Great Park which has long been a royal hunting ground and spacious back yard for the monarchs staying at Windsor Castle.

Not far from the Visitor Centre stands a classical ruin which, on Google Maps, is marked as Leptis Magna Ruins. Since I had been to the real Leptis Magna in Libya back in 1976 I was curious to find out how ruins from Libya have ended up in Surrey.

The folly in Windsor Great Park.

In 1816 an English Consul in Tripoli called Colonel Hanmer Warrington, along with an artist friend, visited the ruined Roman city of Leptis Magna and thought some precious relics from there would make a great addition to the British Museum. He saw no problem with powerful Britain throwing its imperial weight around and regarding itself as the rightful heir to items left behind by those other great empire builders, the Romans. He persuaded the local Ottoman governor to let him take some of the structures back to Britain. Today that would probably be seen as a war crime under the Hague Convention but those days it was common practice. The Elgin Marbles had been removed from the Parthenon and shipped to Britain just a couple of years earlier and the French had removed 600 columns from Leptis Magna in the 17th century and incorporated them into Versailles, Rouen Cathedral and elsewhere.

Part of the Temple of Augustus looking at home in the Surrey countryside.

Some thirty seven marble and granite columns, together with pedestals, cornices and various other ancient stone slabs arrived in London in 1818 and were deposited in the courtyard of the British Museum which really did not know what to do with them since they were undergoing rebuilding at the time. After lying around for eight years it was decided that King George IV could have them to use as garden adornments at Virginia Water. The King’s architect Jeffrey Wyatville created a folly in the form of a ruined Roman temple using the looted Leptis Magna stones, together with some masonry reclaimed from the demolished Carlton House and some classical statues taken from a captured French ship. He called his creation the Temple of Augustus, perhaps in honour of King George whose middle name was Augustus.

The background of this coronation portrait of King George IV includes some Roman style columns like those at Virginia Water Lake.

By 2008 the ruins were in poor condition due to a combination of the English climate, root damage and vandalism but they were restored by the Crown Estate and reopened to the public in 2009.

The above 3 photos are of Leptis Magna, Libya in 1976 (or I might be mixing them up with Sabratha, another Roman ruined city in Libya, which I also visited around the same time).

As for the original Leptis Magna in Libya, at its height around 1800 years ago it had been the third most important city in Africa after Carthage and Alexandria. This was during the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus who was born in the city. It fell into decline after his reign and, over the centuries, was damaged by a tidal wave, sand encroachment and various invasions. Locals also used the site as a source of building materials. Despite all this, and even with the plundering of Warrington and Louis XIV, the ruins remain among the best preserved Roman sites in the Mediterranean and they are a world class tourist attraction, or at least would be, if Libya were not wracked by war. Hopefully Leptis Magna will emerge unscathed from this latest episode in its turbulent history but if it needs any replacement columns we know where there are some spares.

Oman In The Seventies

Some time ago I posted a blog about Ibri in Oman in 1979 and a reader has asked me if I have any other photos of Oman from that period.

I have been through a few of my old photo albums and found these snaps taken by me on a vintage Kodak Instamatic camera. Sorry for the poor photo quality (blame the photographer) but they give an idea of what the place was like at that time.

The old road linking Muttrah to Muscat via Riyam was the only way to get to Muscat until the corniche was completed. Photo taken around 1979.
The mobile post office at Medinat Qaboos in 1979/80.
Not 100% sure of the location but could have been Muttrah High Street in 1979.
One of the gates to the walled town of Muscat. The streets were decorated with British and Omani flags in honour of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Oman on 28 February 1979.
Muttrah Corniche on the same day in 1979.
Muttrah Corniche looking in the opposite direction. The grey American cars are the motorcade of Sultan Qaboos and Queen Elizabeth.
Salalah in 1976/77.
The British Bank of the Middle East’s Salalah Branch where I worked for two years from 1976-78. Many roads in Salalah were not tarmac at that time.
The main shopping street in Salalah. There was not much to buy so a good place to save money.

I may have some more photos somewhere which I’ll share if I find them.