Hugh Hamilton Lindsay

A dominating presence in the opening chapters of The Scramble for China is Hugh Hamilton Lindsay (1802–1881), probably the first Briton to visit Shanghai, in 1832 on board the Lord Amherst. It was frustrating to write about a man of whom no images whatsoever appeared to have survived. At a late stage, I was alerted to a watercolour in the Chater Collection of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, which seems to show him ‘leaving Canton in a fast-boat’, according to a description written on the painting. It is an atmospheric image, and I used it in the book, but the man shown is fairly indistinct.

Hugh Hamiton LIndsay, painted by George Chinnery, copyright Sir W. Young.

Hugh Hamiton LIndsay, painted by George Chinnery, copyright Sir W. Young.

In September 2011 I fleshed out Lindsay’s life and career more fully in a lecture to the Royal Historical Society, now published in the Society’s Transactions. Afterwards, as a result of the publicity, I received an email asking if I would be interested in seeing a portrait of the man, painted by the great India and China coast artist, George Chinnery. Within a few days I was holding this delightful small painting in my office in Bristol.

Lindsay had no children, but the owner was a descendant on his sister’s side. It shows a man perhaps not yet 30, in a romantic style. It fits very well with descriptions of LIndsay in the journal letters of the American Macao resident Harriet, Low, ‘droll’, handsome, ‘always ready, for adventures of any kind’. Lindsay commissioned the famous drawing of Karl Gützlaff in Chinese clothing by Chinnery, which is best known in the form of a print, and it made perfect sense to find that the artist had painted the Scotsman as well.

So there he is, at last: Hugh Hamilton Lindsay, would-be Sinologist, restless traveller, warmonger, Member of Parliament, angry young man, embittered old China hand. He railed successively against the East India Company which employed him until 1832, the Qing empire which thwarted his ambition in China, the British state which did not follow a ‘forward’ enough policy there and, later, he fought with ‘Rajah’ James Brooke over concessions in Borneo. Most of that story was yet to come when George Chinnery captured the spirit of this nonetheless charming adventurer, sometime around 1830, in sleepy Macao.