No. 146.
Mr. Williams to Mr. Fish.

No. 46.]

Sir: I have the honor to send for your information a series of papers relating to the Woosung bar, near Shanghai, and the effort which has been made by all the legations to induce the Chinese authorities to dredge it so as to allow the mail steamers and other large ships to pass at high tide.

In addition to what is contained in these inclosures, other examinations have been made by competent observers; but it does not seem to be worth while to introduce their reports, seeing that you have here the estimates of the expense of clearing the passage, the reasons for doing it now, the detail of the needless outlay for transshipments caused by not doing it, and an opinion of the partial results likely to be effected by carrying it out in the way proposed.

In the printed paper (inclosure 1) the most valuable report is that of Mr. Hjousbery, on page 5, wherein the nature of the bar, and the variations it undergoes at different seasons of the year, are described.

The annoyance and irritation which this obstruction to the ready navigation of the river continually causes in the mercantile community of Shanghai may be somewhat inferred from the two lists, at the end, of vessels detained by it, thereby disarranging the plans of all who are connected with their business.

In bringing the matter before the Chinese government, it was deemed best to present a nearly identical note, detailing the salient features of the grievances now endured by the existence of the bar, and urging immediate action, (inclosure 2.) A fall representation of the nature of the work to be done was previously made to the members of the foreign office, who also inspected the chart referred to in the printed inclosure, prepared under the direction of Rear-Admiral Jenkins.

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The prince’s answer, (inclosure 3,) deferring a definite decision until another survey could be made, was the merest excuse for procrastinating a determination not to do it at present, at-least, whatever he might ultimately decide.

The survey spoken of as having been made in 1870 was nearly useless for any practical purpose; but as the recent examination was not particularly mentioned in the first letter, a second note was returned by each legation, (inclosure 4,) informing him of it, and that its careful accuracy quite superseded the necessity of another. His answer (inclosure 5) well exhibits the difficulty of leading these officials-to adopt a measure which, at a small cost, would be acceptable to foreigners, and measurably beneficial to themselves at the same time. The report from the southern superintendent of trade is a curious piece of reasoning, looked upon as an endeavor to avoid the direct issue, and throw the undesir ableness of clearing the bar upon national safety and endangering the facilities nature had there provided for defending the passage of the river against a hostile force. It is also quite characteristic of the Chinese in its assumption of facts, such as that the bar prevents the ocean silt from going farther up the river, and its existence one hundred and twenty years ago; but it is not usual for them to bring so many facts and arguments to fortify a conclusion which the writers think cannot be controverted, viz, a regard for national defense. The paper no doubt carries much weight in the minds of native readers.

Since it was received, a previous report made by the intendant of Shanghai has been published, in which he tries to prove to the superintendent of trade that the bar cannot be deepened, in the following terms:

“Having hired a boat, we examined the place on all sides, and find that a sand-bank runs across the river in an oblique direction about four or five li, but the river here being very wide, we had no means of measuring the distances; and the sand-bank being under water, we could only guess at its extent. The country-people and boatmen being examined, all stated that the character of this sand-bank has long been exceedingly changeable, at one time collecting, at another disappearing, now on the east, now on the west, sometimes high, sometimes low, sometimes large, sometimes small, so that it has got the name of spirit-sand. But, fortunately, wherever the bank grows up there is sure to be by the side of it an opening sufficient to allow large vessels to go through; if one does not know this opening, and by mistake gets upon the sand with a falling tide, he may easily find himself in difficulty. This is the true state of affairs as regards the bar. Further, the waves are so large and the body of water so great that not only would any efforts by Chinese be unavailing, but even if foreign machines were used for dredging, the sand would fill up again as fast as it was removed. It would be, as Mr. Hart says, merely throwing money in the dirt.”

Prince Kung’s reply is evidently framed with reference to the last sentence in the superintendent’s report, which is, “It is not-easy to provide the means;” and this was no doubt influenced by the conviction in his mind that, if forced to dredge the bar, the money to do it must come out of the provincial revenue and not from the customs duties.

The inaccuracy of some of the statements, and fallacy of others, in this reply, induced the preparation of an answer, (inclosure 6,) which was sent more to place on record a denial of the assertions and deductions of the superintendent than with any hope of changing the decision of the government. This answer was not made by all the legations, nor in the same terms, for some deemed it to be quite useless to argue any further, as there was no probability of inducing it to consider the proposal on its own merits or the facility it promised to the trade of the port.

In all this discussion, of which only the outlines are here given, the united voice of the mercantile community at Shanghai and of the foreign [Page 299] representatives at the capital, backed by the remonstrances of the British and French governments, at the apathy of the imperial authorities to the inconveniences suffered in consequence of this bar, has all been treated with complete indifference. The report of two or three low officials, sent by the intendant at Shanghai to investigate a matter of which they had no practical knowledge, has more weight than the opinion of experts as to its expediency and cheapness; and the supreme authorities shelter themselves for their disregard of this opinion by a fallacious excuse that they are bound first to consult their own security.

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The question was one day discussed in the legations as to the alternative of stopping the tonnage dues on ships detained by the bar from reaching their dock in time; but nothing was said to the yamên in this direction. It was generally felt that as the tonnage-dues were all now usefully employed in maintaining the present light-house system along the coast, or in constructing new lights, it was very undesirable to do anything to jeopard that revenue and outlay without express instructions.

If the money for dredging could have been taken from the tonnage-dues, the superintendent of trade would probably have favored the scheme, whose cost must otherwise come out of the likin taxes levied in his jurisdiction for local purposes; for it is a well-known principle that each provincial government is expected to defray all its own expenses. He was known to be opposed to the enterprise, and his arguments as to its risk to the safety of the port, its inutility and damage to the native shipping and adjacent fields, the impossibility of doing it effectually, were all, one can hardly doubt, brought forward to fortify his previous decision against it.

This is a good instance of the power of the high provincial authorities, when they are disposed, to prevent the central government from carrying out a useful design; but the latter is careful not to commit itself to a course until the views and ability of its subordinates have been ascertained. Nor is this unsuitable, seeing that the governor is not only expected to decide on the wisdom of a measure, but is obliged to find the funds, and is held responsible for the success of the undertaking. Our ideas of the functions and power of a central government cannot properly be applied to the relations existing between the Emperor of China and his proconsular governors.

This is illustrated by the fact that, while Governor-General Ho, at Nanking, finds so many good reasons for not deepening the Woosung bar, his colleague, Governor-General’ Li, at Tientsin, has nearly contracted for one of Osgood’s dredging-machines to dig out the Grand Canal at its junction with the Pei-ho.

The minute from Mr. Hart, in relation to the topography and physics of the embouchure of the Yang-tse, and its connection with the Hwangpu River, (inclosure 7,) contains many facts and deductions bearing upon the utility or otherwise of the present scheme. The impotence of human efforts to guide or restrain the action of such mighty rivers in depositing their silt makes it desirable to collect and scrutinize all such data bearing on a plan like this; and the even flow of the Yang-tse, and the uniformity of its deposits, makes it safer to estimate results in this case than in some other rivers.

The only thing now asked of this government is to take measures to increase the depth of water on the bar so as to allow vessels drawing four fathoms to cross at high tide; and this has been shown to be practicable, and its immediate execution a great necessity.

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The cost bears a very slight proportion to a trade valued last year at more than seventy millions of dollars, whose customs-revenue is collected entirely by foreigners, and to facilitate which neither the local nor central governments can be induced to try the cheap experiment of dredging this bar a few feet.

I have, &c.,