Civil War, England, History, NY, Ships, UK, Uncategorized, William Seward

American Civil War in the English Channel.

 

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If you don’t know him, William Henry Seward was Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and right-hand man.  Lawyer, Governor of N.Y., U.S. Senator, the man who purchased Alaska.  And expected to be the first Republican President, instead of Lincoln.

Wm Seward LOCI spent two summers as a docent in the Seward House Museum in Auburn, New York.  Seward’s prominent role in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helped attract even more visitors to this great old house,  located in an otherwise obscure town in Upstate New York.

The Seward family not only donated the house, but its contents – artifacts, pictures of diplomats and rulers from around the world, paintings, objets d’art, furnishings, etc.

An Inuit kayak, a glass humidor with more-than-century-old Cuban cigars, a blood-stained sheet from an attempted assassination – you know, the usual stuff found in any household.

 

Last of the Alabama Commodore Winslows grand victory march. L.N. Rosenthal chromolithograph

Celebratory sheet music. “Last of the Alabama ~ Commodore Winslow’s Grand Victory March” LOC

You simply cannot talk about everything in the plethora of art and artifacts.

But after spending hundreds of hours as a guide, one object stands out for me, as likely to be overlooked by visitors.

2010 grabbag 198It’s an old painting of two ships.  If you’ve got a couple of minutes, it’s a really interesting story from the Civil War.  And tells something about the wheels-within-wheels that a Secretary of State needs to operate.

First-time visitors are often a bit stunned by the sheer number of interesting bits and bobs.  They’ll pause to admire a gorgeous stone fireplace, one of many in the house, glance at the painting hung above it, and move on.

The paintings which draw more attention are the large Thomas Cole landscape, and the portrait of Seward’s daughter by Emanuel Leutze  (best known for “Washington Crossing the Delaware”).

 

Kearsarge Alabama Seward House painting

I think the J. W. Anderson painting in the Seward House may be the most historically-accurate. The small ship in the middle is the Deerhound. http://www.SewardHouse.org. 33 South St, Auburn, NY 13021

 

But this year, the museum is focusing on the painting with the melodious name Action between the U.S.S. steamer Kearsarge, Capt. J.A. Winslow, and the Alabama, off Cherbourg, June 19, 1864,  painted by a British maritime artist, Captain J. W.  Anderson.

One of the Civil War’s few sea battles, fought two miles off the French coast, and the only battle from that war, fought outside the country.   The CSS Alabama, a fantastically successful Confederate commerce raider, was finally sunk by the USS Kearsarge.

 

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Clouds of cannon smoke and steam, as the Alabama begins to sink. Manet, 1864. Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

F.D.R. (Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson), had a similar painting of the ships, and it hangs in the library at Hyde Park.

And yet another, the most famous, is by Manet, who also painted the Kearsarge when it visited France after the battle.

I love the contrast in Manet’s latter work, now in the Met — the harbor at Boulogne is filled with jolly little sailboats, buzzing around a stark and menacing black warship.

Manet Kearsarge

Manet, 1864. Metropolitan Museum of Art

This incident is also part of a larger story, about the complex and dangerous international situation facing the U.S. during the Civil War.  Like Farragut sailing through the mines in Mobile Bay, Seward often proved adept at navigating foreign relations and avoiding European recognition of the Confederacy, or even European military intervention.

Remember that at that time, Britain had the world’s most powerful navy, and an army stationed in Canada.  France’s militant 2nd Empire was busily doubling its overseas possessions, and sent tens of thousands of troops to Mexico in 1861 to install a puppet regime.  That same year, Spanish soldiers reoccupied the Dominican Republic.

The Monroe Doctrine did not appear to be holding water, and Seward must have felt like the Dutch boy at the dike.

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Seward had endorsed Winfield Scott’s plan to block off southern ports, but in 1864, the blockade was still a sieve.  Fast, custom-built blockade runners continued to bring European weapons and supplies to the Confederacy.  Huge profits compensated for the ships that were captured or run aground.

Coming just after the slaughter of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, the highly-publicized sea battle, in international waters, buoyed the reputation of the U.S. Navy, and Lincoln’s war effort.

It’s sometimes recited in typical post-Reconstruction romanticism:  a sea-worn and outgunned Rebel raider, with its gallant Confederate crew defying the odds, and bravely sailing out to its inevitable Lost Cause doom, against the more powerful Federal behemoth.Eagle shield postcard 1907

I am biased, as an unrepentant Unionist, and in seaman’s terms, I think that’s a load of codswallop.  Let’s take a look.

 

Like so many Civil War commanders, the two captains knew each other from the Mexican War.  Both men had been given ships during the war, and both men had lost those ships in accidents.

Semmes AlabamaThe Confederate captain was Raphael Semmes – now a pirate, or a privateer, depending on whether or not you viewed the Confederacy as a legitimate entity.  During 657 days at sea, the his Alabama sank a Union gunboat, and captured or burned 65 American merchant ships.  She took boats all across the world, from Newfoundland to South Africa, Bermuda to the Straits of Malacca.

This Confederate raider seemed to be everywhere.  Everywhere, that is, except the Confederacy, which the ship never visited.

 

Alabama LOC

Alabama with one of its victims burning in the background. LOC

 

Finally, after two years of cruising and destruction, in June of 1864, the Alabama called into the port at Cherbourg for repairs.

The Union captain, John Winslow, anchored his ship, the USS Kearsarge just outside French waters, called in the older USS Saint Louis to re-stock supplies and help block the Confederates from escape, and sent a challenge to his old shipmate to come out and fight.

Semmes could have tried to sneak out on some foggy night, or left his ship docked in neutral waters for the duration, but he chose to respond to the challenge.

It was an interesting match-up.  Both “sloops-of-war” were hybrids – a combination of sails and steam/screw propeller. Steampower gave the ships much more maneuverability in than in the days of sail, but also created a vulnerability – a hit to the steam boiler could be as catastrophic as one to the gunpowder magazine.

 

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Along its sides, the Alabama mounted six 32-pounders, big five- or six-thousand pound cannons, basically unchanged from the days of Admiral Nelson, which could fire a 6-inch, 32 pound cannonball for up to a mile. The Kearsarge only mounted four.

This doesn’t seem like very impressive armament.  Lord Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, had 110 guns.  During the evacuation of the Norfolk Naval Yard, at the start of the Civil War, the navy burned the old USS Pennsylvania (to keep it out of Confederate hands), a 140-gun ship, including 104 of these 32-pounders.

 

Alabama Currier & Ives LOC

Currier & Ives. LOC

 

However, the Alabama was packing something much more lethal:  two huge pivot guns (able to fire in a wide arc), a 68-pounder smoothbore, and a 7-inch rifled gun that fired a 100-pound shot with great accuracy.

 

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Pivot gun on the Kearsarge. This is a wonderful model at the Strawbery Banke Museum, near the Portsmouth Navy Yard, where the ship was built.

 

The Kearsarge also had pivot guns:  two 11-inch smoothbore “Dahlgren’s.”  Named for their inventor, an U.S. admiral, these were giant bottle-shaped cannons, each one weighing more than five automobiles, firing 110-pound projectiles. There was also a 30-pounder Parrott rifled cannon — smaller, but more accurate.

 

11-inch Dahlgren Winslow LOC

A postwar postcard, showing the 11-inch Dahlgren gun “Winslow” that sank the Alabama. Library of Congress

 

There was another factor in this fight.  Both ships were wooden-hulled, but the Kearsarge, like an undercover cop, was wearing concealed body armor.

 

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Chain mail, last seen in these parts during the Norman Conquest, made a comeback.

Hidden under a thin layer of boards, heavy chains had been stapled to the sides of the Kearsarge, helping to protect the hull from cannonballs.

 

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So, anyways… true to her namesake state, Alabama come out shootin’.  It fired 150 shots, by some accounts, or more than twice that, by others.  But after so much time at sea, the Alabama’s gunpowder and fuses were contaminated and less effective. One shot hit the Kearsarge’s rudder, but luckily, the shell didn’t explode;  hits to the hull did not penetrate.

The Union ship shot less, but with more effect.  A cannonball punched through the Alabama’s hull at the waterline, flooding the engine room, and ended the fight.  As his ship sank, Semmes, in what seems like a dishonorable fit of pique or spite, threw his sword into the ocean, rather than giving it to Winslow.  Some accounts indicate that the Alabama struck its colors, but then got off a few more shots.  Teddy Roosevelt believed that his uncle, Lt. Irvine Bulloch, fired the last two shots (two of his maternal uncles fought for the Confederacy).

Kearsarge Alabama 1887 lithograph

1887 lithograph, with the Alabama sinking in the background. LOC

 

Winslow sent out a boat to pick up the pirates/privateers, and asked some of the “spectator” boats to assist, but then watched  as Semmes and some of his crew were whisked off to England by a private yacht.  This was the Deerhound, a fast steamship, built in the same shipyard as the Alabama, and owned by a rich industrialist who had come out to watch the fight, along with his wife and relatives, including children.

Despite the frustration of watching the raiders escape, Winslow refrained, wisely, from firing on the British yacht.  In any case, the Kearsarge had little room, and kept only a few Confederate officers.  The captured crew was simply paroled (basically sent ashore, on their word of honor to stop fighting).

 

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Looking down the barrel of a rifled cannon.

In the smoke of battle, we seem to have lost our Secretary of State (notorious for operating in a smokescreen of cigar fumes).

What does all this cannonading have to do with William Seward?

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Here’s a few things about this Confederate ship, that interested Seward so much.

It was a British-made sloop-of-war, armed with state-of-the-art British weapons (the rifled pivot guns), and had a primarily British crew, some trained by the Royal Navy.  The London Times proudly proclaimed that it was Portsmouth-trained gun crews that had performed the best on board the Alabama.  

 

So it was not Confederates, as a rule, in this fight, but British mercenaries, paid double wages in gold.

 

V0024799 Astronomy: various apocalyptic scenes, including a grieving Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Astronomy: various apocalyptic scenes, including a grieving widow, war, and the Duke of Wellington rejecting Harriet Winter [?]. Coloured lithograph, n.d. [c.1839?]. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Wellcome Library

“The Ancient Grudge” was an expression heard during the WWI period, and it has an old, fusty sound to it, like something your grandmother might say, about a disagreeable neighbor.   I might use it to express the distrust and hostility that persisted between the U.S. and Britain, for decades after the Revolution and the War of 1812 —  in tensions at sea, along the Canadian border, especially in the Oregon region, and in political and economic competition around the world.

Nowadays, we view history from a time when the U.S. and Britain are die-hard allies.  We’ve fought together, in two world wars, and various military adventures since.  But in William Seward’s time, the British empire-builders were not-entirely-neutral or well-disposed toward the former colonies.

Alabama claims LOC

A post-war British cartoon. Europe watches as John Bull/Gladstone, playing William Tell, with a diminutive Uncle Sam as his son, during the Alabama claims settlement. Britain doing the sporting thing with the little chap, what? Kaiser Wilhelm I, a more reasonable fellow than his grandson, referees from the sideline.

Some of this friction was simply profit motive.  Britain desperately needed cotton for its unemployed textile mills, and was happy to allow its industrialists to reap profits from the war.  Private gun-makers sold Enfield rifle-muskets to both sides — something like 900,000 all told!  Blockade-runners, many built in British shipyards, supplied the Confederates with Whitworth rifles (favored by sharpshooters), breech-loading cannons, Colt revolvers made in London, uniforms, and other supplies.  Also compelling was Britain’s desire to split and weaken the U.S., and protect Canada.

DSC00709U.S.-British tension was more serious than most people remember.  British leaders were debating not just recognition of the Confederacy, but even military intervention to force U.S. recognition, even at the cost of outright war with the U.S.  Eleven thousand British soldiers were sent to Canada.  And there were these ships.

 

Blockade-runners were considered by Europeans to be good clean fun, a legitimate enterprise under international maritime laws.   But armed raiders like the CSS Florida and the CSS Shenandoah, that captured or destroyed over one hundred Yankee civilian vessels, were also built in Liverpool and Glasgow.  Britain’s government employed Admiral Nelson’s trick, and turned a blind eye.  Ships were bought through third-parties, and then equipped with British-made cannons when they reached the Azores, Bahamas, or Madeira.  They re-supplied in Europe, Brazil, Cuba, and Cape Town, and then attacked U.S. cargo ships and whalers around the globe.

Luckily, Seward’s agents, using a network of consulates and paid informants, blocked many more raiders from taking to sea.

But finally, the pretense became obvious, as the Laird shipyard, which built the Alabama, began work on what were undeniably warships:  armored rams, with massive gun turrets.  (The Laird shipyard survives in some form to this day, and did some of the work on the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.)

Alabama cartoon John Bull LOC

A period cartoon, showing a disgruntled John Bull, who’s just realized the Confederate raiders were making out like bandits, and leaving Britain holding the bag, in the form of insurance claims for the lost ships and their cargoes. LOC

 

Seward’s people tracked the Confederate purchases, piling up evidence that was later used to successfully sue Britain for damages to U.S. shipping.  Britain was reminded of possible repercussions if the relationship went south:  American privateers’ toll upon their shipping in the past, the interdependence of Anglo-American trade and investments, and Britain’s dependence on American wheat.

British warships had been sent to Halifax and Bermuda, to intimidate, and to attack the East Coast in the event of war.  However, these sailing ships were now faced by an ever-increasing U.S. fleet, including armored monitors (low-slung steamships with revolving metal turrets, containing enormous cannons). The Confederate attack at Hampton Roads had demonstrated how easily an ironclad could sink wooden frigates.

“The secret of politics?  Make a good treaty with Russia.”  I don’t know if Bismarck really said that.  But the U.S., faced with a generally hostile Europe, found an ally in what seems an unlikely place, to modern readers, worried by the bellicose Vladimir Putin.

Seward cultivated friendly relations with Russia.  Two years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Tsar had liberated the serfs, and steadfastly refused to join any Anglo-French plans to intervene in the Civil War.  Russia’s refusal to join former enemies in such an alliance was hardly surprising, so soon after the bitter Crimean War.  Russian fleets arrived in the harbors of NYC and San Francisco.  Perhaps mostly to avoid being bottled up in the Baltic by the Royal Navy, in the event of war, but it was also taken by the U.S. as a much-appreciated gesture of support.

Spain, looking for opportunities to regain ground in the New World, was reminded that Confederate leaders had long advocated the takeover of Cuba.  And as the Confederacy continued to lose ground, Napoleon III understood that his forces in Mexico, already sustaining thousands of casualties, might face a large and experienced Union army on the Rio Grande in the near future.  (Indeed, Phil Sheridan missed the end-of-the-war Grand Review in Washington, hustling down to the Rio Grande with 50,000 men.  And U.S. rifles and ammo somehow ended up with Juárez’s anti-French forces. )

Finally, as Grant besieged Lee’s dwindling army twenty miles outside Richmond, and Sherman marched inexorably through Atlanta and toward the sea, with the Confederacy shrinking within the federal anaconda of armies and blockaders, and under Seward’s watchful pressure, Britain seized the armored warships from the shipyard.

Years later, as the story goes, Queen Victoria saw two ugly little gunboats, by then obsolete, chug by in a naval review, and asked if that was what all the fuss was about.

Alabama claims Harper's Weekly

Another postwar cartoon – America/Lady Liberty trimming British claws with shears marked “Alabama Claims”. The lion doesn’t look thrilled, but seems like a pretty amicable relationship. Harper’s Weekly, LOC

The issues and challenges faced by Seward in dealing with neutral countries, seem very current, in our modern age of  “Proxy Wars” and “Drone Wars”.   We fight without declarations of war, supply weaponry to rebels and secessionists, and to the Saudis and other anti-democratic regimes.  Confederate pirates/privateers were sometimes detained in Fortress Monroe, without trial, reminding us of Guantanamo Bay.  We pursue terrorists and guerrilla fighters into Pakistan or other “neutral” countries;  the raider CSS Florida was finally captured in a U.S. raid on a Brazilian port.  (When an international court ordered the ship be returned to Brazil, people were shocked, shocked! to learn it suddenly sank after a collision, and was never handed over.)

Today, the U.K. and France also continue to sell weapons, often to countries of questionable friendliness, as do Russia, China, Germany, and Israel.  And, of course, neutral, peace-loving Sweden.  And, of course, nobody peddles as many weapons as the U.S.

If you’re ever in Upstate New York, go to the Seward House and listen to a few stories about an amazing person and a memorable Secretary of State.  Seward demonstrated that, even in a time of swords, there’s still power in a pen, a diplomat, and sometimes, a really clever New York lawyer.

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Preserve the Union! Fenimore Art Museum.

 

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Civil War, History, Hong Kong, Upstate New York

Mr. Seward in Hong Kong.

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William Seward. (Library of Congress). If he were alive today, he’d undoubtedly be a patron of global education

William Seward would have liked Al Gore’s quip:  “Hello, I used to be the next President of the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

IN 1860, Seward was famous, respected, and expected to be the Republican candidate for President.  But…following his campaign manager’s advice, rather than condescending to scrape up primary votes, he had spent much of the prior year overseas, traveling through Europe and the Middle East to cultivate an image as a Statesman.

Despite the bitterness of losing the Republican nomination, Seward campaigned for Lincoln — and became his friend and right-hand man throughout the Civil War.

Seward finally retired in 1869, at the age of 69.  He had barely survived an assassination attempt on the same night that Lincoln was murdered;  his wife, already in poor health, died of a heart attack two months later.  He’d been Governor of New York and a U.S. Senator.

He’d served as the Secretary of State for eight tumultuous years, the 2nd-longest hitch in US history.

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Paddle Steamer “China” from Wm. Seward’s “Travels Around the World”

69 years old — and he still was incapable of remaining at rest. Almost immediately, he undertook a nine month journey — from New York to the Pacific coast, and from Mexico to Alaska (“Seward’s Folly”), with a stop in Cuba.

 

L0055633 The harbour, Hong Kong. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The harbour, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Hong Kong harbour. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868 – 1871, Wellcome Library, London. During Seward’s visit, roughly 120,000 people in the city and surrounding area

He returned home to his beautiful mansion in Auburn, NY, for all of four months, and then was off again.  In August 1870, he headed west on a round-the-world tour;  he would not return home until October 1871.  He died one year later, in his home office, working on his “Travels Around the World” book.

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HK during my time there. Seven million people. Over 16,000 per square mile.

Travels Around the World,”  finished posthumously by his adopted daughter, reveals that Seward was not just a tourist or good-will ambassador, but often an astute observer of other cultures and world politics.  He promoted the advantages of openness and trade, and opposed the U.S. political factions fighting to ban Asian immigrants.

Ten years after his death, our beloved U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Junk 1907 LOC-003

Junk. Library of Congress

During the years I attended Washington College, I studied abroad, was a docent at the Seward House Museum (in Auburn, NY), and edited a student journal for the Global Studies office at the college.  These three experiences intersect at Hong Kong.  During my semester in that city, as a student at Lingnan University, I decided to seek out sights that Seward would have seen during his visit, more than a century ago — looking for whatever pockets of the 1871 city still survived.

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A modern tour boat, superimposed on a traditional sail.

It was a quixotic task, of course.  Hong Kong is no longer a small, sleepy outpost of the British Empire.  It is a densely-packed, high-rise, dynamic powerhouse.  Most of the city that Seward experienced in 1871 is gone — burned down, torn down, re-built by British colonialists and then re-built again by Hong Kong’s own, wildly successful capitalists.

Remember that every large city during the 19th century seems to have experienced a catastrophic fire — 1864 Atlanta, 1865 Richmond, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Great Boston Fire of 1872, the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, etc.

2013 Victoria Peak

Victoria Peak. For almost 100 years, the amazing Peak Tram (a cog railroad) has taken people up the mountain. Pretty sure Mr. Seward did not attempt it on foot.

In 1871 Hong Kong was primarily a dense collection of mostly wooden structures, and it suffered a series of large fires.  Seward had arrived on Christmas 1871, and exactly seven years later to the day, the Great Fire of 1878 destroyed the central city.    Newspapers reported the destruction of up to six hundred buildings.  But interesting, and sometimes beautiful fragments of the past remain — stone Victorian barracks (some still in use by the People’s Liberation Army), little Buddhist temples, gateways and bits of walled villages swallowed by the megalopolis.  I’ll post a small sampling.

Victoria Peak 1890 LOC

Victoria Peak in 1890. Library of Congress

I’ve gathered old-time photos from the Library of Congress, Wellcome Library in London,  and from a few modern-day sites, to supplement my photos of buildings that survived, or were reconstructed, or scenes that give an impression of what Seward experienced.

straw hat HK-002

Street sweeper. The modern garb, and, if you look closely, the zippers, are a dead giveaway – – this was 2012, not 1871.

It helps, I think, that in Asia, many people regard historic buildings in the same way as in the famous anecdote of “Abe Lincoln’s ax,”  or “George Washington’s ax” (This ax is the real McCoy — the handle has been replaced three times, and the head replaced twice).  The ancient Greeks called this “Theseus’ Paradox” — if every inch of an object has been replaced over the years, is it still the same object?  I think most Asian people feel it is a completely authentic, as long as a building is carefully re-built in an authentic manner, duplicating the original — it is genuine and basically, it is the same building.

stone tower HK

“The Pagoda of Gathering Stars”

Here is the first sight on an 1871 tour — a temple which has survived partially intact from ancient times:  the Tsui Sing Lau Pagoda.  It was originally several stories taller, but it is amazing that it could survive at all, since it was constructed over five hundred years ago of soft un-fired bricks.

English Church HK

St. John’s Cathedral — the tallest building during Seward’s visit. HK now has 100’s of skyscrapers & high-rise apartments by the thousands. The tallest is 118 stories (the Empire State Building = 102).

L0069395 Hong Kong: panoramic view. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Hong Kong: panoramic view. Photograph by Felice Beato, 1860. 1860 By: Felice BeatoPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

1860 Hong Kong panoramic view by Felice Beato credit: Wellcome Library, London. The tower of St. John’s Cathedral on the right. The officers’ quarters, part of the Murray Barracks in the background, with veranda on all sides, was moved to Stanley Harbor and is now a beautiful restaurant.

St. John’s is a few centuries younger than the pagoda, finished in 1849, but it is the oldest Anglican church in the Far East.  The Portuguese and the Catholic Church had established a presence in Macau during the 1500’s, but the British only gained control of Hong Kong, really just a collection of small villages, in 1841.  You can see the church in Felice Beato’s 1860 panorama shot of the harbor.

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Murray House, formerly the officers’ barracks, relocated to the Stanley Harbor. credit: HKTB Hong Kong Tourism Board.

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OK I actually took this one in Canada, but I think the uniforms and weapons are correct for Seward’s visit. Some of HK’s Victorian barracks, constructed after the Opium Wars, are still in use today by the People’s Liberation Army.

In 1871, Hong Kong was an outpost of the British Empire, just as New York City had been, one hundred years earlier.

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the Lt. Gov’s residence “Flagstaff House” — the Lt. Governor in the 1840’s was not just a general and administrator, but also an artist, who painted this at the time the house was built. credit: George Charles D’Aguilar

Flagstaff House Museum of tea ware

Flagstaff House is now part of the HK Museum of Art, and has displays of beautiful and unusual “tea ware.” photo from the Museum.

The Nan Lian Garden, on Diamond Hill, Kowloon — evocative of the gardens and tea houses visited by Seward during his travels through Japan and China. This beautiful garden is a modern creation, but done in an ancient style.  Kowloon, the peninsula portion of the city, was mostly farms and forts in 1871.

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Nan Lian Garden Nan Lian Gardens, Diamond Hill, HK-001

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Kowloon in the 19th century. LOC

Nan Lian Garden, Diamond Hill, Kowloon, HK-001

Nan Lian Garden

Britain set up shop in Hong Kong because they recognized the potential of its wonderful harbor, and it is still a busy port, although the current government in Beijing is trying to direct traffic to other, less independent cities.

But to my surprise, small, traditional fishing villages have survived, within eye-shot of the skyscrapers.

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Tai-O fishing village during my visit

Aberdeen Harbor 1890 LOC

Aberdeen Harbor in the 19th century. LOC

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2012 view of Tai-O fishing village

If you ignore the outboard motors, today’s fishing villages would not look too unfamiliar to Mr. Seward, although few families, if any, actually live aboard their boats, as they did in 1871.

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Stilt houses in Tai O. Home to fishermen, squatters, and in the old days, smugglers.

Tin Hau Temple - Causeway Bay - Antiquities and Monuments Office HK

Tin Hau Temple. photo by the Antiquities and Monuments Office, HK

L0055651 Buddhist temple, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Buddhist temple, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. Tin Hau temple in Causeway Bay. A worshipper [?] entering, a monk [?] sitting on the steps. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Buddhist Temple “Tin Hau” in Causeway Bay. Photograph by: John Thomson, published: 1868 – 1871. Wellcome Library, London.

 The “Past” doesn’t always go away all at once.  Attitudes, ways of thinking, the way we express ourselves, the things we eat, or don’t eat…countless aspects of our lives are saturated by the past.  We cannot capture the sights, sounds, and smells of 1871 Hong Kong, but searching out these old buildings is an addictive exercise…some rainy night, read Seward’s Travels, immerse yourself in old photos, listen to native music on your ear-buds, and walk down the same streets, and see if you can achieve a few seconds of time-travel.

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