No. 102.
Mr. Holcombe to Mr. Evarts.

No. 82.]

Sir: In reference to the provisions of “An act [Public No. 72] making appropriations for the consular and diplomatic service of the government [Page 204] for the year ending June thirtieth, eighteen hundred and seventy-nine,” &c., by which the salaries of the interpreters to our consulates at Tientsin and Foochow are reduced from $2,000 to $1,500 per annum, I have the honor to inform you that the gentlemen now holding these positions have unofficially indicated to me their intention to resign them at an early day.

While it would ill become me to raise any question or make comment upon the wisdom of the action of the legislative branch of the government, as referred to above, I cannot refrain from the expression of my regret that it should have appeared necessary to reduce still further the exceedingly meager allowances to the consular service in China, and especially to apply such reduction to the salaries of the interpreters at Tientsin and Foochow.

The files of correspondence between this legation and the Department will show, extending back to the first establishment of commercial relations between the United States and China, frequently repeated statements upon the part of our representatives, here, as to the paramount importance of having a competent staff of interpreters at the various consulates.

As there has not been in the past, and is not likely to be in the near future, a single Chinese-speaking United States consul in this empire, it follows that the interpreter must form the sole medium of communication between each consul and this government, and that upon his tact, discretion, honesty, and knowledge of the ways of the Chinese must depend, in a very large measure, the maintenance of good relations and the protection of our interests here. Though occupying less prominent positions than their chiefs, it is, perhaps, not an exaggeration to say, that in the faithful and efficient performance of their duties interpreters render a service to the United States not second in value or importance to that of any consular officer in China.

With them must rest, to a large extent, the recuperation and increased development of our languishing trade. For, by their ability to come into immediate contact with the merchants and trading classes among this people, they can readily disseminate in each country knowledge of the peculiar productions and requirements of the other, and so open up hitherto unsuspected avenues of commercial enterprise to our people. In my opinion, one of the most important preliminary conditions to the development, to any considerable degree, of the trade between the United States and China, is the equipment of each consulate with a well-educated, competent Chinese interpreter, who should be a citizen of the United States, and who should be instructed, under the supervision of his consul, to give special attention and study to both the foreign and native trade at his port, with a view to furnishing information upon it to the Department and to our people.

Such of the other treaty powers as are permanently represented in China have long since come to an appreciation of the importance of having competent interpreters in their consular establishments, and without an exception send young men to this city to be educated in Chinese preparatory to doing interpretative duty at the ports. Our government has not elected to follow this system, whether wisely or unwisely I do not, at the moment, venture to say.

But if we choose to hire interpreters in the markets of China, as we do practically, we must, of course, be prepared to pay the market price for their services. Such a knowledge of Chinese as would fit a person to interpret at any of our consulates, superadded to a common-school English education, is worth here, as a mere business investment to any [Page 205] able-bodied, American, at least $3,000 per annum. If this is a fair statement of fact, and I believe it to be considerably within the limit, it is idle for us to attempt to secure proper, interpreters at salaries varying from $500 to $1,500; for our young men do not come to China from patriotic motives, and, having come here and invested years of time and labor in the study of this most difficult language, they cannot be expected to serve our government at a compensation less than half that which their abilities would readily secure them in trade or business, especially when called upon to serve the government in this capacity with no reasonable prospect of promotion.

I am not ignoring the fact that at the ports where the smaller amount mentioned is allowed, the government has acted upon the supposition that the entire time of an interpreter was not needed, and has expected that the persons so employed would also be engaged in other business. But the difficulty of securing suitable interpreters to act under these conditions is so great as to amount to a practical impossibility. If they are engaged in trade it demands all their time, and they are naturally unwilling to place themselves in a position where they are liable to be called upon to lay aside their business engagements, at perhaps a most critical juncture, to serve the government for a merely nominal compensation. Missionaries are, with all their loyalty, equally unwilling to enter into engagements which render them liable to be interrupted in their most important and valuable labors at frequent and uncertain intervals.

As a matter of fact, it has been found necessary, at nearly all the ports having only the smaller allowance named, to employ English-speaking Chinese as interpreters, and the evils which result from their employment in this capacity can hardly be depicted in too strong language. I need only refer you, by way of illustration, to the facts developed in my report upon charges made against Mr. De Lano by the Chinese authorities at Foo Chow, and forwarded to you with Mr. Seward’s dispatch No. 345, of October 20, 1877.

Complaints of a grave character against the interpreter at Canton have been repeatedly made within the last three years, and it is safe to say that at nearly every port where persons of this class have been employed serious abuses have in consequence sprung up.

At every port in China there are numbers of natives who, being either engaged in litigation with their countrymen, accused of crime, or from various other motives, are anxious to secure by bribery the illegal exercise of consular authority and prestige in their behalf; and the report above mentioned shows that an unscrupulous interpreter can do what might almost be termed a wholesale business of this sort, and continue for years, without the knowledge of his immediate superior.

In my opinion, the wiser course, at ports of the class now under discussion, would be to appoint an American citizen, having a good knowledge of Chinese, as consul, and require him to do his own interpreting. This would, it is true, tend to make his office a permanency, which, perhaps, might also be a change for the better.

The present staff of interpreters at our several consulates in China is made up as follows: At New Chwang, Chin-Kiang; Ningpo, Amoy, and Canton, of English-speaking Chinese; at Hankow, the work is done by an American merchanti; at Shanghai, by an American physician; and at Tientsin and Foo Chow by Messrs. Pethick and Cheshire, who give their entire time to the service. I am not able to speak exactly with reference to the persons employed at the various consular agencies, but believe it safe to assume that they are all Chinese.

[Page 206]

For reasons already intimated, it seems of the utmost importance to the protection of our good name in China, and the preservation of our interests here, that the several interpreters who are of Chinese birth be, without exception, dismissed from the service, and the employment of’ such persons be discontinued. In my experience of ten years of intercourse and intimacy with all classes of Chinese, I have hardly met one who was competent to act as interpreter, and who, in my opinion, could be trusted to withstand the temptations and opportunities for ill doing which, of necessity, constantly present themselves to a person in such a position.

It is likewise desirable that the post at Hankow should not be tilled by a person who is engaged in trade. The name of the present incumbent, Mr. A. Jenkins, is familiar to the Department and to this legation, by reason of the frequently recurring questions laid before us, in connection with his business, and it surely is not consistent with the dignity of our government that its consul at Hankow, in the discussion of questions with the Chinese authorities, should be obliged to employ at the same moment, and as his mouth-piece, one of the parties to the business at issue. In saying this, I disclaim all intention to reflect in any way upon the personal character of Mr. Jenkins or the nature of his business. They are both, so far as my information goes, above reproach.

And again, whatever may be the other qualifications of the present interpreter at Shanghai, I believe it to be entirely just to him to say that in knowledge of the Chinese language he is not qualified for his very responsible duties, and that some other person should be appointed to his present post at an early moment.

From what has immediately preceded, you will correctly gather my opinion that at present our only consulates in China which are properly furnished with interpreters are those at Tien-Tsin and Foo-Chow, and that if, in consequence of the reduction of their salaries, we lose the services of the persons now employed at those ports, we shall be, at all our consulates, in a most undesirable situation.

To sum up my views upon this subject, the consular establishments at Shanghai, Tientsin, Hankow, Foo Chow, Amoy and Canton should each be provided with an interpreter who is a citizen of the United States, thoroughly acquainted with the Chinese language, and who should be required to devote himself exclusively to the duties of his position. These officers might also be made vice-consuls at their several ports. To accomplish this an appropriation of not less than $2,000 and not more than $3,000, at each of the ports named, would be necessary.

The proper persons for these positions can be found with but little delay, if the government is able and willing to pay a reasonable compensation for their services.

Consuls should be appointed to Chinkiang, Ningpo, and New Chwang in such persons as have a knowledge of Chinese, and no allowance made to them for interpreting.

In case no change can be effected, which requires enlarged expenditures of money, I respectfully submit for your consideration whether it would not be better for our consuls to arrange, if possible, to employ the interpreters attached to the consulates of other powers at their respective posts, rather than, as at present, to employ merchants, or, worst of all, English-speaking Chinese.

In concluding this somewhat lengthy despatch, I venture to express the hope that in writing it I shall neither be accused of presumption nor of disregarding the necessity of an economical administration of [Page 207] all the branches of our government. As to the latter, I thoroughly realize the duty and necessity of exercising the most exact care and scrutiny in the expenditures of public funds. But, in my opinion, in the interests under discussion, there is no safe middle ground to be taken, and our consular establishments should be maintained in a dignified way or not at all. It would be far better to discontinue some of them, or indeed all, than to sustain them upon a basis so inadequate as to subject us to constant embarrassment and ridicule. As to the former, I fully and cheerfully recognize the better knowledge of the Department as to the course which may be advisable and necessary to be taken in the management of our interests in China and elsewhere. I have been led to place before you the views given herein, particularly by the fear that the action taken by Congress, and referred to above, would deprive us of the services of our two best interpreters, and generally by an anxiety that the consular establishments of the United States in China should be sustained in an efficient, dignified, and economical manner.

And I have hoped that my utterances might recall to your mind, and possibly emphasize, the opinions of my predecessors upon the same subject.

I have, &c.,