Messrs. Butterfield & Swire to Mr. Forbes.
Sir: We have the honor to request the attention of the chamber to the following facts as evincing a danger to the foreign shipping trade in China, which, in our opinion, it is the duty of the chamber to use its influence to avert:
In April, 1873, as agents of the China Navigation Company, limited, we took over at Chinkiang the hulk belonging to the Union Steam Navigation Company. The [Page 191] hulk was then moored near the north hank of the river. She had been there, in common with all the other hulks, for some years, not because it was a convenient place, but because it was well known that there was a current against the south bank and a strong scour caused by the current. To the repeated invitations of the customs and the public to moor her on the south bank, the previous owners had for years been unwilling to comply, owing to the existence of this current, and we ourselves when first applied to to take a more convenient berth on the south bank were afraid to do so, as we were advised that the scour along that bank would render the access of steamers and cargo-boats to the hulk difficult. However, ultimately we had to move by order of Mr. Huber, then commissioner of customs, and, under threat of the withdrawal of facilities for the shipment and landing of cargo, we shifted the hulk to the south bank in 1874, and moored her in a berth indicated to us by Mr. Goldspink, the tide-surveyor of the port. Connections were made between the hulk and the shore by us at considerable expense, and we regarded her as moored there permanently.
In the course of 1875 considerable damage was done to the Chinkiang concession bund from the scour alluded to as caused by the river current, and the customs tide-surveyor, Mr. Goldspink, expressed an opinion, in which he was supported by several more professional people, viz, that our hulk had “more or less” to do with the scour, and advised the removal of the hulk, “as an experiment, to see whether it was so.”
He, early in 1876, ordered her out of the berth to which, in 1874, he had ordered her in. His letter was accompanied by a very guarded opinion from the customs engineers that the hulk might have something to do with the scour, and that at any rate her removal would show whether she had or not.
Being naturally unwilling to have experiments tried at our expense by the imperial customs, we tried to induce them to desist, by obtaining the opinion of a professional engineer, Mr. Kingsmill, which showed conclusively that the scour was the result of a current from the opposite shore, and not of a hulk floating in ten fathoms of water. A further survey by Captain Pitman corroborated Mr. Kingsmill’s report, and though the evidence adduced by these gentlemen was allowed by the tide-surveyor and the engineers-in-chief to be correct, the customs still persisted in their orders to move the hulk to see whether she caused any “eddies” or not.
Further surveys were made by Captain Colomb, of the Audacious, and Captain Bridgford, R. M. A., all of which went to prove that the theory of the customs engineer and tide-surveyor was wrong, but they could not be induced to abandon their experiments.
The same threats of withdrawal of facilities, by which in 1874 we were made to move from the north to the south bank, were in 1876 put in force to make us move from the south bank, and, naturally thinking that there must be some limit to the powers of subordinate officers of the customs, or at least to their wanton exercise at the expense of foreign merchants, and to the detriment of foreign trade, we declined to move. Their threats of refusing to allow steamers to anchor alongside were carried out on the 22d June, and for several months our steamers had to give up the Chinkiang trade, and we had to submit to a loss of upwards of 40,000 pounds.
Subsequently the permit to land and ship cargo was restored to the hulk, but we regret to say that recently a further desire to make experiments of the effect of a small floating body on the mighty current of the Yangtsze has seized the Chinkiang customs, and we have once more been requested to move the hulk. This time the order is given without a cause being assigned, and we have good reason to believe in opposition to the wishes of the Chinese authorities.
We would point out to the chamber that this is a matter which concerns the whole foreign carrying trade. Without disputing the right which China, in common with other sovereign States, has of domain over her rivers, a right which she recognizes the possession of by systematically neglecting those navigated by foreign vessels, we would point out that the vesting of the exercise of it in inexperienced customs officials is a most dangerous step.
The foreign customs was constituted by the treaty powers solely as a collectorate of maritime revenue, and as such they have hitherto done their duty with fidelity; but for that body to assume, as it has done in the present case, the powers and functions of hydraulic engineers and international judges, is to go so far beyond the special province for which they were created as to call for, in our opinion, a vigorous protest from the chamber of commerce.
When the imperial customs has in its ranks as its advisers a competent staff of hydraulic engineers skilled in fluviatile formations, and when their powers as a service have been extended by the express command of the Chinese Government, with the express sanction of the ministers, it will be for us, as foreign merchants, to accept their dicta in such cases as the present; but until that time we should be doing less than our duty if we did not bring to the notice of the chamber any unwarrantable and untimely assertion of power by the customs, calculated to injure foreign trade.
The action of the customs at Chinkiang prejudices, it is true, a British firm only; hut, the power once asserted, to-morrow it may be an American or a German one. We [Page 192] remember with pleasure that the chamber has ever been alive to the solidarity of the rights of merchants of all the treaty powers, and we would beg the chamber to make a representation on this subject to the consular body here, or the corps diplomatique at Peking.
Without presuming to dictate the language of such a representation, we would beg to suggest that it should, in the interests of all, protest against the assumption of powers of such magnitude by the foreign maritime customs to drive our hulk from one berth to another, for reasons which the best professional advice obtainable states have no existence, should be discontinued, and to ask our representatives that if they contemplate sanctioning the extension of the sphere of the maritime customs, so as to include the preservation of the sovereign rights of China over her navigable rivers, they take steps at the same time, in the interests of foreign trade, and of their nationals, to prevent the arbitrary and wanton exercise of these novel powers by inexperienced and irresponsible officials.
We have the honor, &c.,