British Consuls in South Formosa

William Donald Spence

The Takao Club

William Donald Spence


 China Consular Service

      William Donald Spence was Acting Consul for the Taiwan-fu Consular District from 22 December 1884 until 28 February 1886. Spence took over charge of the Consular District from the officiating Consul William Gregory, and handed over charge in 1886 to Second Assistant Michie Forbes Anderson Fraser.

      William Donald Spence was born on 2 December 1848 at Huntly, Aberdeenshire, the eldest son of Alexander Spence, a Stocking Cotton Manufacturer & Hosier, and Agnes Morrison. William Spence was educated at the University of Aberdeen, where he obtained a Master of Arts with Honours in Science and won the Natural Science Honours Prize in 1868. The University nominated Spence for the competitive examinations of 1868, and he was appointed a Student Interpreter in China on 24 February 1869.

      After completing his Mandarin Chinese classes at the British Legation in Peking under Thomas Francis Wade, the then British Chargé d’Affaires at Peking, William Spence was posted to Shanghai, where he was promoted to Third Assistant on 10 June 1873. Thomas Wade, who had been appointed the British Minister at Peking on 22 July 1871, had clearly marked Spence out as a highly capable officer for he seconded Spence to serve as his Private Secretary and to accompany him to London in 1875, where Wade received his knighthood in November 1875, and William Donald Spence entered as a Law student in the Middle Temple, London, and took an extended Home Leave. On his return to Shanghai Spence served as Acting Vice-Consul at Shanghai from January to June 1877, and was promoted to Second Assistant on 1 April 1878.

      Two years later, on 1 May 1880, William Donald Spence was promoted to First Assistant and posted at Ichang [宜昌], serving as Acting Consul from 10 October 1880 until 3 June 1882, apart from an emergency transfer up the Yangtze river [揚子江] to be temporarily the British Agent at the strategically and politically important outpost of Chungking [重慶] in the latter half of 1881. The journey up the Yangtze took Spence 58 days from Ichang, and though only going there for a few months took with him a great number of tinned and bottled stores, which included, as recorded by Coates, ‘jam, marmalade, butter, coffee beans, baking and curry powder, two casks of Apollinaris Water, and nine dozen bottles of wine and spirits’. Coates also relates how much Spence enjoyed Ichang, with its delightful countryside and the quiet, studious Church of Scotland missionaries. Although Ichang’s accommodation was deplorable, being a dark shed surrounded by a filthy city, the idleness enforced by the non-existent trade at Ichang led the energetic and able Spence upon his return from Chungking in February 1882 to ask for Home Leave though he accepted a June 1882 transfer back to Shanghai, where at least he could serve in an active capacity.

      Spence’s Home Leave was eventually granted almost immediately he arrived in Shanghai in June 1882. Shortly thereafter, on 14 August 1882, Sir Thomas Wade retired from his post as British Minister at Peking, leaving behind a chaotic office of often highly important despatches that had lain unanswered for years. In his latter years Wade had lost his will to work at Legation matters and had found it hard even to concentrate on reading a book. Since Spence was familiar with Wade and already in England, the Foreign Office asked Spence to find out what reports and documents Wade had brought back to England, and extended his Leave to pursue this matter. However, even the energetic Spence could extract nothing from Wade. At least Spence’s extended Leave enabled him to complete his legal studies for he was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1883. Upon his return to China in 1884, Spence was appointed to Formosa.

      William Donald Spence was Acting Consul for the Taiwan-fu [臺灣府] Consular District from 22 December 1884, taking charge from the officiating Consul William Gregory. Upon arrival in Formosa from Amoy aboard H.M.S. Champion on 19 December, Spence reported back to Sir Harry Smith Parkes, the new British Minister at Peking, that the French Blockade of South Formosa had been de facto raised. In fact, the southern section of the French Blockade, which ran from Yenshui Port [鹽水港] to the South Cape, or Oluanpi [鵝鑾鼻], was not officially lifted until April 1885. The Circuit Intendant [分巡道], or, colloquially, Tao-t’ai [道臺] during this period was Liu Ao [劉璈] who was initially disinclined to issue a proclamation to disassociate the French from other foreigners, who were subject to much suspicion and sundry assaults by the local populace; however, Liu Ao did eventually issue such a proclamation and received a letter of gratitude for his protection during the Blockade, signed, according to Spence, by ‘every member of community’ at the end of April 1885. Acting Consul Spence’s actions during the French naval blockade and hostilities, which had caused many British residents to leave the island, were warmly praised by Nicholas Roderick O'Conor, the Chargé d'Affaires at the British Legation at Peking following the death of Sir Harry Parkes in March 1885, and much appreciated by Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, the British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister.

      Another outstanding item of consular business that Acting Consul William Donald Spence had to deal with was obtaining compensation for the looting of the wrecked British schooner Beta which had foundered on the West Coast of Formosa near Lukang [鹿港] in September 1884. Though this had occurred during the time of officiating Consul William Gregory, Gregory had done nothing and it was left to Spence to negotiate a settlement with Tao-t’ai Liu Ao. After the ending of the French Blockade in April Consul Spence and Tao-t’ai Liu Ao settled in about June on the payment of 10,000 Spanish silver dollars in compensation to be paid to the owners and consignees of the schooner Beta. However, as soon as the armistice that formally ended the Sino-French War had been signed on 9 June 1885, Commissioner Liu Ming-ch’uan [劉銘傳], who was later to become the first Governor of Taiwan Province, set about making fiscal and administrative reforms: top of his list was Liu Ao against whom he levelled such a host of charges of treason, nepotism and corruption on 25 June 1885 that Liu Ao was immediately removed from power and held under house arrest. With Liu Ao removed the agreement over the Beta compensation was null, and Spence had to start again with Liu Ao’s replacement as Tao-t’ai, Ch'en Ming-chih [陳鳴志]. After negotiations with Tao-t’ai Ch’en had degenerated into ‘haggling of a commonplace and undignified nature’ Acting Consul Spence was forced to settle for 9,000 dollars.

      There were also personnel matters for Acting Consul Spence to deal with. First there was the case of Antonio Alborado, who had been hired as the Consular Constable by Consul Robert Swinhoe in April 1865. Alborado had received the same salary of 20 dollars a month for the past 14 years, and, finding this sum insufficient for himself and his family to live on, he applied to receive either an increase in salary or retirement on a pension. Spence favoured Alborado’s retirement as he was then 62 years old, could neither read or write, and spoke only ‘pidgin English’, yet it later emerged that he was not eligible for a pension and he was still being employed as Consular Constable at 20 dollars a month on 1 January 1896 as reported by Consul Richard Willett Hurst.

      The second case concerned Pierre Frederick Hausser who had been a Student Interpreter since 1878, and had been in Formosa since 19 October 1880, serving almost constantly as Acting Assistant. Both William Gregory and Pelham Laird Warren had spoken very highly of him; he was an excellent Chinese scholar with a good knowledge of the local dialect, the Amoy [廈門] vernacular; he was stationed alone at Takow [打狗] throughout the French Blockade making decisions on his own account; yet there is an ‘absence of any chance of promotion’ Spence wrote in April 1885. Hausser was finally promoted to Second Assistant in 1886, but that was after eight years as a Student Interpreter.

      The blockage in promotions was a serious problem for both the Legation and the Foreign Office. Promotion was invariably based on seniority not merit and even the most inept were allowed to continue in high office. In 1885 Spence had received an offer from Jardine Matheson to be a representative on a 6-year contract to negotiate with the Chinese for them. On 1 March 1885 Spence, considering that he had no promotion prospects for years to come, tendered his resignation from the China Consular Service, but was persuaded by Nicholas Roderick O'Conor, the British Chargé d'Affaires at Peking, who regarded Spence as one of the best men in the service, to stay on for a period while O’Conor arranged for Spence to be placed en disponsiblité, so that he should retain his position in the service and his eventual pension rights but receive no pay. As a result Spence stayed on another year in South Formosa and on 28 February 1886, officially posted to Shanghai, handed over charge to Second Assistant Michie Forbes Anderson Fraser, for the two months prior to the arrival of the new Consul, Pelham Laird Warren, on 21 April 1886.

      In working for Jardine Matheson, William Donald Spence was based in Tientsin [天津], but his work took him to Formosa, for dealings with Governor Liu Ming-ch’uan and Dodd & Co., to Foochow [福州], to Hongkong, and ultimately to Peking. In Peking Spence was involved in important negotiations, possibly with the Nei Wu Fu [內務府] a department of the Imperial Household, which had extensive dealings with Jardine Matheson and issued bonds through them. So important were Spence’s dealings in Peking that, suffering from malarial fever, he ignored medical advise to return home immediately and determinedly concluded his negotiations.

      William Donald Spence returned home in 1890, but died almost immediately, aged only 41, on 25 June 1890 at a private nursing home at 152 Harley Street, London.

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.

Huang Hsiao-ping; The Conflict between Liu Ao & Liu Ming-ch’uan and the Sino-French War in Taiwan; Bulletin of Historical Research, No. 1, January 1973.

Roll of the Graduates of the University of Aberdeen, 1860-1900; University of Aberdeen, 1906.