Author on fire: C. A. Montalto de Jesus

C.A. Montalto de Jesus, Washington DC, 12 July 1921, photographed by Herbert French: Library of Congress.

Some writers do not take well to bad reviews. Carlos Augusto Montalto de Jesus, author of Historic Macau, published in 1902, and of Historic Shanghai, published in 1909, was one such. Both books were pioneering ventures, the first comprehensive histories of foreign settlement in each city. Montalto de Jesus was born in Hong Kong in c.1863, and was to die in Shanghai, on 19 May 1932.

The first edition of Historic Macau was well received and well reviewed, though it did not sell well. In 1929, however, all copies of the second, which had appeared in 1926, were burned by the colonial authorities. Stuart Braga has written informatively on this episode in the Newsletter of the Casa de Macau in Australia. They had been seized in response to an additional chapter which lambasted the Portuguese for their alleged maladministration of the colony, and which proposed that the League of Nations take over its running and development. This was not in fact an unusual idea — foreign activists in Shanghai were to raise it several times over the next few years as a solution to the ‘Shanghai problem’, and one preferable in their eyes to the assumption of Chinese control over the International Settlement. A ‘free port’ status had been proposed as early as 1862: it was a recurring fantasy in the settler mind. Montalto’s first edition had concluded with a similar proposal for Macau, that it be ‘enfranchised as a municipality and placed under the auspices of the Powers in China’ (p. 358). But when updated and accompanied by pungent criticism of the authorities, the suggestion did not go down well with the colonial government in Macau in 1926, as Paul Spooner’s 2009 thesis also explains. The author was charged and fined under its press laws: the book was banned, and on 15 June some 500 copies seized, including some of those already sold, which were seized from private houses; and when Montalto de Jesus attempted to recover the confiscated volumes in 1929 they were burned.

Montalto himself felt burned by the reception to the first edition of Historic Shanghai. In advance of its publication he had attempted to secure a subvention for it from the Shanghai Municipal Council, which administered the International Settlement. As the Council had already commissioned a history from George Lanning, it declined the request, and the introduction to the book takes a swipe at it for doing so. His strictures on the shortcomings of the Council and the public life of the settlement were harsh, but probably already embedded in his manuscript. ‘Fairly readable’, noted the 29 May 1909 review in the North China Daily News, though fairly expensive. But it was too much a history of the Taiping rebellion, complained the reviewer (quite reasonably in fact), the sentences were too long, and there were many small mistakes, not least in Montalto’s English, which were successively catalogued.

In his defence against the charges brought against his Historic Macau, Montalto would later state that ‘The criticism impartially made by me, though stern, is justifiable and well-meant’, but he had not taken the same stance in July 1910, when he launched an action in Shanghai against the North China Daily News, which had published two items plagiarising passages in his book. The proceedings in court opened by raising the issue of the paper’s critical review, and its apparently damaging effect on sales, and kept returning to it. The Court found for Montalto on the infringement of copyright, awarding him $500, but entirely rejected the issue of the criticism as relevant. In October he appealed, representing himself in court, and seeking larger damages, as they were ‘inadequate to the gravity of the offence, as well as to the injury sustained.’ The Council’s rejection of a subvention, the review, and the plagiarism were all in his mind intimately connected.

C.A. Montallo de Jesus & F.W. Gleason, Washington DC, 12 November 1921, photograph by Herbert French: Library of Congress.

Montalto de Jesus was ‘evidently very much oppressed with a sense of his own wrongs’, noted the judge, Sir Havilland de Sausmarez, patiently, ‘and he feels very sore about them’, but there was nothing incorrect or inadequate about the judgement in his favour, which de Sausmarez affirmed. The judge will have known Montalto well, for both were actively involved in Shanghai’s International Chess Club.

While the newspaper had accepted the infringement from the start, it had part-parried by intimating that if two writers had drawn verbatim from the same original source, then it would not be surprising if they appeared identical. And the book is rather more safely viewed as a historical object, than in any sense as a history. The controversy did little to help sales, which had only reached 339 by the end of 1909. Thereafter the controversy ceases.

The truculent author considered that he had incurred not a fine, in 1926, but a ‘decree of civic death’, and that he had fled Macau for Hong Kong, penniless — a recurring self-description — and ‘found it necessary to intern myself at the Asylum of the Little  Sisters in Kowloon and was  sheltered by charity among Chinese old men… Some who knew me were shocked find the  historian of Macao herded with poor decrepit coolies.’ His characteristic hyperbole aside, Montalto’s financial state then perhaps explains the fact that in 1927 he returned to his much earlier plan and invited the Shanghai Municipal Council to purchase the remaining stock of Historic Shanghai – half of the 2,000 copies printed — whose publication costs he had had to meet himself, but it declined.

Narrow maxims of antiquity: who owned my books part 2, Mayers, The Chinese Government

Mayers, The Chinese Government, 3rd edition, (1897)

Mayers, The Chinese Government, 3rd edition, (1897)

This is a battered survivor. I acquired this much-annotated volume from the family of a retired British consular officer, J.F. Ford. Someone, I think Ford, has copied out from p.125 the phrase I use here in the blog title: ‘Narrow maxims of antiquity!’, turning it, with that exclamation mark, back on its author, F. M. Mayers, as a reflection on a particular vein of thought about Chinese culture.

Joe Ford hardly shared that view. He joined the consular service in the 1930s, and was a Vice-Consul in Shanghai when Maurice Tinkler was killed in 1939. As I recount in Empire Made Me, Joe was despatched across the Huangpu river to Pudong, where Tinkler was held in the local headquarters of the Naval Landing party after after his altercation with  Japanese marines in the China Printing and Finishing Company mill. In fact, Mr Ford can be seen in the grainy newspaper clipping on p. 285, peering at bullets recovered from Tinkler’s gun. Tinkler was at that stage slowly dying. Ford left without being able to persuade the Japanese to release Tinkler, and it was only late that night that he was transferred, too late, to a hospital in the international settlement.

Ford was at least the third owner of this copy of William Fredeick Mayer’s The Chinese Government: A Manual of Chinese Titles, categorically arranged and explained, first published in 1877. This was a copy of G.M.H. Playfair’s revised edition, published in Shanghai by Kelly & Walsh in 1897. While Ford had not inscribed his name in it, ‘L.G.C. Graham’ had, and so too had an ‘A. Schmidt’.

Mayers signatures Lance Gerald Cloete Graham was a ‘student interpreter’, a consular language trainee, who is not listed in P.D. Coates’s comprehensive survey, The China Consuls, but who is pictured in this photograph, dated 1900, of the consular student interpreters at the British Legation in Peking (second from left in the middle row), and in this one, with pony, in 1902. L.G.C. Graham was one of the few men transferred from the China consular service into the wider general service, leaving China in 1904. By 1906, however, he was at the British Legation in Tehran; in 1908 he was Acting Consul-General in Algeria. Perhaps his language studies had not proved that fruitful, although his son entered the China consular service, and later served in the 1950s as British ambassador to Libya.

As likely as not the A. Schmidt who crossed out Graham’s name was a German member of the Imperial Maritime Customs. Schmidt had joined as a ‘Watcher’ in June 1882, and was one of a number of men transferred from the ‘Outdoor’ staff into the ‘Indoor’ staff by July 1896. He rose to be Deputy Commisisoner at Shanghai before his dismissal, with all other German and Austrian staff, in 1917. Schmidt woudl have needed Mayers’s guide to the structure of Qing government, its system of ranks and appointments etc. Schmidt was married to an Englishwoman, and surfaces in the North China Herald in connection with attempts to get sequestered funds released after 1918. They seem to have lived in Niuzhuang (Newchwang, Yingko) after 1917 at least, where Mrs Schmidt, sister of a British trader, William J. Lister, died on 17 June 1926. So the book seems to represent also the pre-war closeness of Anglo-German ties in China, an intimte relationship largely obscured by the First World War.

Perhaps Joe Ford acquired the book when he too began his language studies in Peking in the 1930s, but it would have been of historical interest only in the republic. Like many consuls and customs men, however, Ford also developed a scholarly interest in China. In later life he worked with the late Professor Ying-wan Zheng  on a project to translate into English the journal of Feng Ling, a ‘travelling naval observer’ sent to Europe in 1894-7. Feng spent over a year in Britain, and it was his British diary that the collaborators worked on. Ford came across the diary by chance on a road-side bookstall in Chongqing in 1944. It had been published in 1904 and then reprinted by Feng’s son in 1929.

Mayers died long before Feng Ling set sail, falling fatally ill at Shanghai in 1878, en route from Peking where he was Chinese Secretary, to take leave in Britain. He was an ‘excellent Chinese scholar, a fluent and polished writer, and an indefatigable worker’, in the words of the North China Herald, part of whose legacy was this training manual for newcomers to the Chinese language and the Qing political system, passed on from consul to customs man, and back to consul, and perhaps held and used by others in between, a book which has clearly done service in its time.