Britain's Boy Interpreter


In 1792, Lord George McCartney (1737-1806) was chosen to lead Britain’s first Embassy to China. Despite Macartney’s previous diplomatic successes, this mission was a failure, and it would take several decades and the application of force before China conceded freedom to trade in country. Of the several books produced by Lord Macartney's Embassy the most important is perhaps An authentic account of an embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (London, 1797) written by Sir George Staunton, Secretary to Macartney.

Staunton’s thirteen year old son, also named George Staunton, went with his father on the expedition. The young boy had studied mandarin with two native Chinese from the Propaganda College at Naples, and was therefore able to chat with the Emperor, who was so charmed that he gave the lad his own purse, a mark of great favour.

The young George became an expert on China, playing a prominent role in Lord Amherst’s Embassy to Peking in 1816. The Roderic Bowen Library and Archives has the most important account of that mission, Journal of the proceedings of the late embassy to China (London, 1817) by Sir Henry Ellis. On the return voyage, Ellis and his companions were wrecked in the Strait of Gaspar and only reached safety after a perilous journey of several hundred miles in an open boat. The image reproduced here depicts their shipwreck.