British Consuls in South Formosa

John Gibson

The Takao Club

John Gibson


 China Consular Service

      John Gibson served as the British Acting Consul on Formosa from 1 July 1868 until his death on 28 July 1869. He succeeded Acting Consul George Jamieson and was replaced by Acting Consul William Marsh Cooper.

      John Gibson was born at Cullinaw, Buittle, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, on 8 February 1834, the youngest son of Robert Gibson, a Farmer of 100 acres, and Rachel Dickson. Gibson was educated in Edinburgh obtaining a degree in literature and qualifying as a barrister. John Gibson joined the China Consular Service in 1857 from the China Class at Kingís College, London. His first posting was to Shanghai [
上海] on 30 May 1859 and he was soon made a Junior Assistant in the Chinese Secretaryís office, impressing many with his abilities. After taking part in the 1860 campaign that led to the Peking Convention, Gibson was posted to Tientsin [天津] from 1861 to 1864, frequently acting as Consul during all four years. In 1863, when temporarily in charge at Tientsin, he was ordered to attach himself to a high Manchu official, who, with the help of British officers, was campaigning against the nearby Nienfei of the serious Nien Rebellion [捻軍起義]. Acting outside his apparent orders to act only as an Interpreter, he suffered a severe head wound whilst leading a successful cavalry charge against the Nienfei rebels near Tientsin in 1863: this head wound permanently affected his mind. After a posting to Amoy [廈門], John Gibson took home leave in 1865 in the hope of making a full recovery, and at least found himself a bride.

      In 1867 he returned to China not fully recovered and, unfortunately, his wife died almost immediately. The British Minister, Sir Rutherford Alcock, for safety placed Gibson at Hankow [
漢口] under Consul Walter Henry Medhurst, a well regarded officer upon his return. Yet Gibson, being left temporarily in charge at Hankow, managed to get into much trouble over a consular court involving an insolvent British firm which owed huge amounts to local Chinese merchants. Gibsonís judgement was such that, in Alcockís opinion, it had made the British authorities appear as accomplices in a massive swindle. Alcock forthwith transferred John Gibson to Taiwan [臺灣], which he considered as a quiet backwater where Gibson would be unable to get into any more trouble. How mistaken was Alcockís belief.

       On 1 July 1868 John Gibson arrived at Takow [
打狗] to replace Acting Consul George Jamieson, who ominously remained on the island for a couple of weeks to acquaint Gibson with the various issues under discussion with the Chinese authorities, there being a new Circuit Intendant, or, colloquially, Tao-tíai [道台], Liang Yuan-kuei [梁元桂]. Even on Gibsonís second day at Takow reports came in on a stabbing attack on James Davidson Hardie, Tait & Coís Agent. Jamieson departed, and the Intendant refused to accept Gibsonís authority as the new Acting Consul. Gibson immediately requested a gunboat be sent to provide protection for the British subjects in south Formosa, and to enforce recognition of his position as Her Majesty's Acting Consul for Taiwan. The gunboat, H.M.S. Bustard, under Lieutenant Cecil Frederick William Johnson, arrived in early August; however H.M.S. Bustard, while providing a measure of protection for the British subjects at Takow, failed to impress the Circuit Intendant sufficiently to recognize Gibson as Acting Consul. On 22 August 1868 Gibson handed over the protection of British lives and properties to the Royal Naval forces.

      On 25 August 1868 H.M.S. Icarus, under Commander Lord Charles Thomas Montagu-Douglas-Scott, arrived at Takow and two days later Gibson and Montagu-Douglas-Scott set off to Tainan, with a guard of 20 men and several officers, to meet with the Circuit Intendant. The meeting did not go well. The Tao-tíai flew into a violent rage and struck Gibson twice on the hand with the back of his fan, before retreating into his private apartments not to be seen again. Gibson, despairing of any meaningful communication with the Chinese authorities, ordered all British subjects away form the port of Anping [
安平] which he then closed to British trade. The Tao-tíai promptly promised to meet nearly all of Gibsonís demands, whereupon Gibson reopened the port of Anping, but then dragged his feet in taking any action on the demands.

      Meanwhile Lieutenant Thornhaugh Philip Gurdon, commanding H.M.S. Algerine, had arrived, and Acting Consul Gibson ordered Lieutenant Gurdon to occupy the Anping forts, which Gurdon duly did on 26 November 1868, regrettably killing 11 Chinese soldiers who refused to surrender. The Tao-tíai came down to Anping to clarify Gibsonís terms on 29 November and the matter was settled on 2 December 1868. For Gurdon the affair led to his promotion from Lieutenant to Commander on 1 June 1869 Ďfor his gallantry and conductí. But for Gibson quite a different fate awaited.

      At first there was nothing but praise from the British for Gibsonís actions. Consul Robert Swinhoe, making a brief return to Taiwan in December told Alcock, who had approved of Gibsonís early actions, that Gibson was about the best man who had been in Formosa, and that his firmness and high notions of dignity were just what was needed. Alcock earlier in his career had taken similar gunboat actions, and Consul Medhurst, acting with Alcock, had taken an almost identical action as Gibson at the same time at Chinkiang [鎮江]. Communications took a long time, for in March Gibson was writing that the atmosphere in Formosa was now calm and peaceable.

      However, in London the Admiralty asked the Foreign Secretary, the 4th Earl of Clarendon, whether he approved of Gibsonís actions. Clarendonís view was wholly unfavourable, and he instructed Alcock to remove Gibson forthwith as an example to all such consular actions. Privately Alcock wrote that he would try to get Gibson home and pensioned off; and deplored Gurdonís promotion. In May John Gibson learnt that he was being transferred to Canton [
廣州] in disgrace, but still considered that the results of the action condemned as a blunder had been good. In June he was relieved by William Marsh Cooper, who found him looking extremely gaunt and the office in disarray. Cooper nevertheless praised Gibsonís courage, firmness and sense of duty. Gibson did not get to Canton. He arrived in Amoy extremely depressed and mere skin and bones and was too ill to go further, and died there on 28 July 1869 of consumption.

      Many regarded John Gibson as a martyr and the victim of harsh Foreign Office treatment. He died insolvent and a Testimonial fund was set up by Elles & Co to receive money from his friends and colleagues in Amoy and Formosa. In Galloway Gibsonís widowed 80-year-old mother and invalid sister, Margaret, who had been entirely dependent on him, were saved from absolute want only by a small annuity purchased for them by his friends in China.


Sources: Lo Hui-min and Bryant, Helen; British Diplomatic and Consular Establishments in China: 1793-1949, Volume II Consular Establishments 1843-1949; SMC Publishing Inc., Taipei, Taiwan, 1988.

The National Archives, British Foreign Office Files, series FO 228 (China) and series FO 262 (Japan).

Oakley, David Charles; The Story of the British Consulate at Takow; Privately published, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 2007.

Coates, P. D.; The China Consuls: British Consular Officers, 1843-1943; Oxford University Press, 1988.