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France’s first official representative in Hong Kong was in fact… American.

Christian Ramage - Hong Kong - 16 octobre 2014

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The first French ambassador to China, Baron Alexandre Forth-Rouen, who had been a resident in Macau since January 1848, noted Hong Kong’s growing role in the Far East. He soon felt it was necessary for a French consular agent to reside permanently in the British Colony as an observer of the situation. George Louis Haskell, an American businessman, was chosen for the job.

Hong Kong was an ideal observation post

In the early 1840s, the East India Company settled on the island of Hong Kong to trade with China and compete with the Chinese port of Canton [Guangzhou] and with the port of Macau, which had been a Portuguese possession since the 16th century. Hong Kong Island was then ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Nanking [Nanjing] in 1842 as an outcome of the First Opium War.

The deep sea Victoria Harbour, north of Hong Kong Island, developed rapidly by capturing shipping to and from the Middle Kingdom of China, which exported tea, silk, porcelain and Chinoiserie, i.e. Chinese ornaments and curios which people in the Western world were increasingly fond of.

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L’île de Hong Kong en 1840

French diplomats in Canton [Guangzhou] and Macau closely monitored the growth of this seaborne trade and Britain’s growing influence in Asia. They therefore frequently went to Hong Kong to make an inventory of the ships that called there from all countries and to note the nature of their cargo which, in the case of British ships, often contained bales of opium from India.

It is with a view to carrying out this observation work that Ambassador Alexandre Forth-Rouen, in a letter sent to the French Foreign Minister on 15 July 1848, supported the appointment of a consular agent, namely an honorary consul, in Hong Kong : “… and, moreover, as Hong Kong is the point of arrival and departure of European mail boats, we would greatly benefit from having a consular agent in this hub of the arrival and departure of correspondence between the naval station and the Ministry of the Navy, and between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Legation in Canton [Guangzhou] and the Agency in Shanghai.”

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La lettre de l’ambassadeur Alexandre Forth-Rouen envoyée au ministre des Affaires étrangères (cliquez sur l’image pour l’afficher au format pdf)

"He has long lived in France and speaks French very fluently"

The choice of George Louis Haskell as first consular agent was justified by Alexandre Forth-Rouen in a dispatch dated 21 June 1849, as follows :

« He is an American citizen, associated with one of the leading American firms in Hong Kong, and he has long lived in France and speaks French very fluently. There are two small French traders in Hong Kong, but neither of them was in a position to be conferred with an official status. »

This is an interesting piece of information which shows that, some ten years after the founding of Hong Kong, two French merchants had already settled there. But Forth-Rouen felt that they lacked the qualities required of a consular agent. In other words, and less diplomatic language, this meant that those two merchants were most likely small-time crooks.

George Louis Haskell, for his part, was employed in two American trading companies established in Hong Kong. The first of those was the Williams, Anthon, and Co. ship-brokerage company “regarded as one of the most respectable in Hong Kong and whose members are each held in high regard.” The second trading company for which George Louis Haskell worked was called Bush & Co.

On 26 August 1849, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, following the arguments put forward by Baron Forth-Rouen, appointed George Louis Haskell, an American citizen, as first official representative of France in Hong Kong. George Louis Haskell exercised this function for seven years and then left Hong Kong in October 1856 to settle in Singapore. Several consular agents succeeded him in Hong Kong until 1862, which year saw the opening of the French Consulates in Hong Kong and Macau and the arrival of the first career Consul Ernest-Napoléon Godeaux.

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Une carte de Hong-Kong en 1841, par Edward Belcher

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