Mr. Williams to Mr. Seward

No. 32.]

Sir: I have the honor to transmit to you copies of a correspondence (enclosures A, B, C, D) with the United States consul general at Shanghai, and the general chamber of commerce, relating to the rights of foreigners by treaty to carry their steamers through the internal waters of China, which I respectfully commend to your perusal. The subject has been fully discussed among the ministers, all of whom take the same view as to the intention of the treaties. The provincial authorities in China, by their loose administration of the laws, often open the door to many irregularities, which are afterwards, as in this instance, quoted as precedents. I have no fear, however, but that the Chinese government and people will adopt our improvements as rapidly as is safe for them. The difficulty is to carry them on intelligently, and not force what is good on those not yet fitted for it.

In this connection the circular note lately received from Prince Kung (enclosure E) [Page 511] respecting chartering foreign steamers to act against pirates, will interest you. Now that the indemnities due to the British and French by the conventions of 1860 are paid up, the Chinese authorities will be better able to do something to suppress the depredations of these miscreants, whose atrocities are so fully shown in the minute of Mr. Vice-consul Jones, of Amoy, sent to you the 16th of March last.

I have also furnished Rear-Admiral Bell with a copy of Prince Kung’s note.

I have the honor to be, sir, y our obedient servant,

S. WELLS WILLIAMS, Chargé d’Affaires.

Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.


Mr. G. F. Seward to Mr. Williams

Sir: I transmit herewith a copy of a letter, with enclosure, lately received by me from the chairman, of the Chamber of Commerce at this port, touching the navigation of the interior waters of the empire by small steamers.

I understand that an authoritative opinion was expressed by Sir Frederick Bruce to the effect that foreign armed vessels could not be taken into the interior as of right under the treaty, and upon this point I have nothing to offer.

Upon another point, however, I may be allowed to express an opinion, and in this direction I feel the ability to speak with a degree of authority, to wit: I believe that regulations may be made under which small steamers may be used in the interior without danger to the imperial government, and yet to the great advantage of foreign, and indeed of native, interests.

If it shall appear to you desirable, I will undertake, in conjunction with the local authorities, to draw up such a code of regulations.

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,

GEORGE F. SEWARD, Consul General.

Dr. S. Wells Williams, United States Chargé d’Affaires, Peking.


Mr. Tyson to Mr. G. F. Seward

Sir: I have the honor to enclose to you a copy of a letter addressed to the Chamber of Commerce by a number of the mercantile firms of Shanghai, on the subject of the prohibition that has, during the past year, been placed by the provincial authorities upon the use of small steamers for the purpose of carrying on the trade with the interior of this province.

The letter fully sets forth the losses sustained and the wrong which, in the opinion of the signers, has been suffered by them in consequence of this prohibition.

The committee are decidedly of opinion that the plain letter of the ninth, fourteenth, and twenty-eighth articles of the British treaty affords the strongest argument against the legality of the prohibition, and that any discussion on the part of the Chinese authorities as to the true meaning and interpretation of these articles, so far as they relate to the matter under notice, should now be impossible, for the reason that the Chinese authorities have already accepted the plain and manifest meaning which is herein claimed, in having authorized the use of small steamers for purposes of inland traffic for a period of several years.

The object of the present letter is to solicit your favorable representation of this matter to the United States minister at Peking, and to request that you will point out to him the urgent necessity for prompt action, in order that the matter may be decided, if possible, and the decision known here before the middle of May, when preparations for the new silk will commence.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,

GEORGE TYSON, Vice-Chairman.

Geo. F. Seward, Esq., United States Consul General, Shanghai.

[Page 512]



Sir: The question of the legality of using small steamers for proceeding into the interior of this district has, we believe, been several times informally brought to the notice of the consuls at this port; but thus far the matter has received no satisfactory solution, and, although those interested have patiently waited for over a year, they have not learned that the foreign ministers at Peking have come to any decision on the subject. We therefore beg that some action may be taken by the Chamber of Commerce in the matter.

We, the owners and agents of these small steamers, are suffering much loss in consequence of the Chinese authorities having taken the initiative in February, 1865, and positively forbidden to allow our boats to proceed, as before, into the interior. This, we strongly maintain, is in direct violation of article nine of the last British treaty with China. The small steamers were ordered in England on the faith of this clause, and so long as it suited their convenience the Chinese authorities permitted them to ply to all ports of the surrounding country. Thus, during the rebellion the trade in silk and cotton with the disturbed districts was, in large measure, carried on by means of these steamers, which conveyed treasure for the purchase of produce that could not otherwise be safely sent. Soon after the country was pacified, however, the Chinese authorities suddenly and without, we believe, first consulting any of the representatives of foreign nations, declared that no more steamers should proceed into the interior—the only reason assigned being that arms might be conveyed, and, further, that these steamers would injure the native carrying-trade. Heavy bonds were offered to guard against the first contingency, but declined. The present position of affairs, therefore, is as follows: The steamers are lying at anchor, perfectly useless, (being specially built for the inland trade, they are unfit to put to sea,) and not only can they earn nothing for the owners, but the expense incurred by keeping them in order, as also the loss by depreciation and interest, amount to from $1,000 to $3,000 per boat per annum.

The real reason of the prohibition on the part of the Chinese authorities seems to be that they are anxious to purchase the steamers for their own purposes; but, having this matter entirely in their own hands, the offers now rarely exceed from one-fourth to one-third of the prime cost of the boats. Several sales have been made at this ratio to the authorities by parties who despair of the matter being settled on a fair and equitable basis.

The signers of this letter are those who still have their small steamers on hand, and they desire earnestly to appeal, through the Chamber of Commerce, to all the foreign ministers at Peking to insist on the treaties being adhered to and justice being done.

With the exception of the difference in the motive power, these steamers stand in precisely the same position as the “house-boats,” which for the past fifteen years have conveyed Europeans travelling for business or pleasure into the surrounding country, and are still used in the same way.

The steamers are not registered, and are worked by a Chinese crew, with, at most, one or two Europeans on board; and the right to travel in boats being granted, it seems preposterous to insist that the treaty must be interpreted to mean that only craft propelled by sails or oars shall be used, to the exclusion of those worked by steam.

We are, sir, your obedient servants,


Geo. Tyson, Esq., Vice-Chairman Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce.


Mr. Williams to Mr. G. F. Seward

Sir: I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your despatch No. 48, of the 26th ultimo, enclosing two communications from and to George Tyson, vice-chairman of the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce, respecting the legality of foreign steamers proceeding into the interior waters of China, and urging the permission accorded to them in the vicinity of Shanghai as a proof in favor of the practice.

This question, it appears, has attained its present importance through the implied consent of the provincial authorities of Kiangsu for such vessels to go into the silk districts during [Page 513] the rebellion, in order to give greater protection to lawful trade. Relying on a continuance of this permission, these steamers were built for this business, but are now rendered comparatively useless by its withdrawal, which act is regarded as being in direct violation of article nine of the British treaty, and also indirectly contravening articles fourteen and twenty-eight.

I need hardly remark how much the interpretation of these articles is affected by the circumstances of the writers, and by the previous non-prohibition of the native authorities when they were struggling for existence against their rebellious subjects, which brought about the present state of things. But the acts of officials in any country, under such circumstances, not being usually interpreted as they are in times of peace, it seems to me only just to the Chinese government that the interpretation of this article should not be founded on the proceedings of Governor Li when he availed himself of every means to put down the rebels.

The whole tenor of article nine limits travelling in the interior of China by such native agencies and appliances as are obtainable on the spot; and the two expressions, “hiring persons” and “hiring vessels” must be understood by this intention, and be held to mean native coolies and cartmen and boats. I can confirm the opinion of Sir Frederick Bruce, referred to by you, as being that which was the understanding when the treaty was made. To allege that these expressions can include a foreign steamer and her foreign captain and engineer, even if the crew are natives, involves an interpretation contrary to article forty-eight, which limits the ports of trade or British vessels to those previously mentioned.

The writers of these letters would not, probably, maintain that because these steamers are not registered, therefore they require no prosection; and their argument that they are only “house-boats,” with a different motive power, and should be recognized under that class, begs the whole question. They are built abroad, are officered by foreigners, and carry foreign flags, which places them on the same footing as the vessels intended by article forty-seven to trade only at open ports. I cannot, therefore, admit the inference that permission given to travel in the interior by article nine involves the use of all or any vessels that the traveller pleases; much less can I assent to the remark that the connivance or consent of the Chinese local authorities during the past few years precludes them from all discussion as to the true meaning of this article.

Moreover, the permission for foreigners to carry their steamers into the interior waters of China would involve most serious consequences to the native authorities, and be almost impossible to restrain when once initiated. The experience of the last few years has proved how much encouragement unscrupulous foreigners can and will give to seditious natives; and such illegal proceedings would be extended from the coast throughout the provinces.

On the other hand, the favor shown by the Chinese authorities themselves to the plan of buying these steamers is a fact full of encouragement as to the navigation of the inland waters and the adoption of the same conveniences of transit and security of freight which the writers of these letters wish to bring about. If no western power allows foreign-owned and foreign-manned vessels to navigate their inland streams at pleasure, even when the rights of ex-territoriality do not exist to prevent the local authorities summarily punishing misdeeds, how much more should the weakness of Chinese magistrates not be put to this strain, and they be forced to adopt a practice fraught to themselves, and foreigners too, with the greatest hazards, merely to save a few merchants on the seaboard from suffering loss on their steamers.

Though Mr. Tyson’s letter seems to intend to limit the use of steamers to Kiangsu province, the principle would, of course, extend this mode of navigation by foreigners to all ports; but I think he will admit that, if the Chinese can develop it themselves, though, perhaps, more slowly, the advantages will be greater.

I am, respectfully, your obedient servant,


George f. Seward, Esq., United States Consul General, &c., &c., &c.



Prince Kung to Mr. Williams

Prince Kung, chief secretary of state for foreign affairs, herewith makes a communication:

Owing to the recent unprecedented increase of pirates along the coasts, engaged in plundering and kidnapping, it has come to pass hat unscrupulous smugglers at the various ports have gone so far as to seize our vessels and injure their crews, in their resistance to lawful authority; so that it has become imperatively necessary to devise some mode of destroying and capturing them. In order to protect lawful traders, and prevent this constant injury to the revenue, it will be necessary to employ steam vessels to extirpate the pirates and seize the smugglers. But as it is not easy at once to buy steamers to carry this into effect, orders have been sent to the governor-generals and governors of the maritime provinces and the two superintendents of commerce, to make inquiries as to the terms on which steamers can [Page 514] be bought, but rather to charter immediately such steamers as are likely to prove suitable for this purpose.

If, therefore, these high provincial officers should wish to charter vessels from American merchants for these objects, it seems to me that your excellency can have no objection to their doing so; and I now request that you will instruct the various United States consuls to inform American merchants that they are at liberty to enter into contracts with the officials for this purpose. When the steamers are chartered the terms will be clearly defined, and, on being reported to the foreign office by them, shall then be made known to you.

As soon as funds can be provided for the purchase of steamships, the terms can also be arranged; but, as this scheme of chartering them promises many advantages to both natives and foreigners, I am confident that you will give it your full approbation.

His Excellency S. Wells Williams, United States Chargé d’Affaires.