Justice during imperial China: Reexamining the ‘Lady Hughes’ affair of 1784

Society & Culture

A British gunner’s execution for the “accidental” murder of two Chinese sailors led to Western powers seeking extraterritoriality from the Qing. That’s the popular reading of the Lady Hughes affair, anyway — a narrative that is misleading and wrong.

Painting by Edward Duncan depicting a Chinese ship being destroyed during the Opium War

This Week in China’s History: November 24, 1784

On November 24, 1784, as a Danish ship was making its way out of the anchorage at Whampoa, near Guangzhou, a nearby British vessel, the Lady Hughes, fired a salute. This was customary, and commonplace, at the time. It was also illegal (possession, let alone firing, of cannon was forbidden to foreign traders). It was also, in this case, deadly. A nearby Chinese vessel — “being unfortunately in the way of one of the guns while fired in saluting,” to quote the official British report of the incident — was struck, and three men aboard were seriously injured. One of them, Wú Yàkē 吴亚科, died the next day. The consequences of what became known as “the Lady Hughes Affair” would shape European relations with China for 150 years.

The fatal encounter that November was facilitated by the Canton System, implemented by the Qianlong Emperor almost 30 years earlier to manage the European merchant ships that were calling with increasing frequency at Chinese ports. The policy restricted European ships to a single port and a specific trading season, along with other limitations, and while the Europeans protested the restrictions, their trade at Guangzhou was nonetheless thriving.

By the 1780s, some 30 vessels were trading with the Qing empire each year, flying the flags of a dozen European states, joined for the first time by the newly formed United States of America. The aptly named Empress of China was on its second journey from New York to Guangzhou that November, looking to sell New England ginseng. These new American traders had caused the biggest stir of the season — but they were about to be upstaged by the gunfire at Whampoa.

Qing officials came quickly to apprehend the gunner responsible for Wu Yake’s death. Though he insisted he had done nothing wrong, he feared the “undiscriminating severity of the Chinese Government” and fled. Two days later, on November 27, a second victim of the shooting, Wáng Yùnfā 王运发, died of his wounds. Still unable to apprehend the gunner who had fired the shot, Qing officials took instead the Lady Hughes’s supercargo — the officer overseeing the disposition of the ship’s cargo — into custody and suspended trade until the gunner responsible was produced.

Five days later, the gunner was handed over. To the surprise of the British, who had been led to expect leniency, the gunner was found guilty of murder and executed by strangulation.

It was events like the Lady Hughes (and a similar incident involving an American ship, the Emily, a few years later) that led American and European leaders to conclude that the only way to deal with the Qing was with extraterritoriality: a policy that would, in effect, make foreign nationals in China subject to their own laws, not China’s. These laws, enacted after the First Opium War, were a foundation of European colonialism and a prime motivation for Chinese nationalism. This moment has been put forth as one of the watershed moments in Chinese-Western relations, and one that is used to illustrate fundamental, irreconcilable differences between East and West.

But like the Macartney Mission, the Lady Hughes is one of those founding myths that is not what it first seems to be.

Here, much of the credit should go to historian Li Chen whose prizewinning Chinese Law in Imperial Eyes reexamines the Lady Hughes incident from numerous angles. In so doing, he finds much in the standard narrative that is misleading or simply wrong.

To begin with, Chen takes on the most standard of narratives, the Cambridge History of China, where the late Berkeley historian Frederick Wakeman summarizes the case: “A salute fired by the Country ship, Lady Hughes, accidentally killed a Chinese bystander. It was impossible to tell which gunner had delivered the fatal charge, but the Chinese had to have a culprit so that the crime would not go unpunished…Consequently, when the supercargo of the Lady Hughes could not produce the guilty gunner, he was seized as ‘forfeit’ instead. Eventually a hapless gunner was turned over to the Chinese and executed.”

Here we see the essentials of the myth: the Qing valued “collective responsibility,” insisting that, even though who had actually fired the shot was unclear, someone had to be held responsible. Second, Qing “justice” was harsh — ”sanguinary and barbarous” in the phrasing of the day — for putting a man to death for an innocent, though tragic, mistake. Finally, Chinese courts lacked due process, executing a man on the whim of the emperor, an arbitrary judgment that demonstrated a disdain for human life. The Western powers, it is implied, were practically driven to extraterritoriality by such intractable grievances.

Chen points out the flaws in each of these fundamental elements.

First, the idea that the deaths of Wang Yunfa and Li Yake were accidental is, at best, misleading. Under English law, for a homicide to be considered accidental it needed to occur as part of a lawful act, and without any reasonable concern that the act would lead to death. As already noted, the salutes, though often tolerated, were illegal. Furthermore, Chen finds compelling evidence that the gunner was aware that the Chinese boat “lying alongside” the Lady Hughes was in harm’s way, and told his commanding officer that he could not fire his salute safely. More than one eyewitness corroborates that the gunner was ordered to fire anyway, with fatal results. Therefore, the fatal shot had been both illegal and known to be dangerous. Even under English law, these circumstances would not yield an “accidental death.”

Second, the notion of “collective responsibility” ignores the facts of the case, for although “the gunner” is not identified in any of the extensive East India Company records (an interesting omission for someone so wronged), there is never any suggestion that he was unknown. He was hidden from Qing authorities before eventually being turned over. The Qing taking of the supercargo was not simply a matter of wanting any life in their quest for vengeance, but a tactic to apprehend the real culprit.

Third, on the question of due process, it is certainly true that the Lady Hughes’s gunner did not receive a trial as the English would have liked. Trial by jury was a signal difference between the Qing and English judicial systems. But far from the actions of a petty and callous ruler, Qianlong’s sentence reflected an awareness of what was at stake. The Canton System was just a few decades old, and how to handle relations with Europeans was controversial at court. To allow the British to kill two Qing subjects with impunity could have had dire political consequences in his own government. The British were outraged that their imperial majesty was disrespected by a foreign power seeking its own standards of justice; the same could be said of the Qing.

Lastly, the claim that the Lady Hughes and Emily led the West to despair of China’s capacity for justice and begin working toward extraterritoriality, Chen shows to be simply untrue. As early as the 16th century, European maritime contacts in East Asia insisted that their representatives be immune from local laws even before they had encountered local laws. The British had demanded extraterritorial treatment from China in 1670, 1715, and 1729, without success. It was not outrage over the mistreatment of the gunner — whom his countrymen failed even to name — that prompted the desire for extraterritoriality, it was a long-standing European goal.

Extraterritoriality was abolished only in 1943, at a time when China, Britain, and the United States were wartime allies. Many in Europe and North America retain grave concerns over the fate of Westerners in China’s judicial system. Though 230 years and three different governments separate the Lady Hughes from today, perceptions created around that incident continue to color Western views of Chinese justice.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.