Free Trade's First Missionary: Sir John Bowring in Europe and Asia

Hong Kong University Press
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Reformer, intellectual, colonial governor, Sir John Bowring (1792–1872) was the archetype of the ambitious men who made Britain the leading global power in the 19th century. Born to a modest trading family, he showed an aptitude for languages which led him to literature, then to radical politics in the struggles for liberty in France, Spain and Greece. Taken up by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, he became a figure in the literary world. But his emphasis was on action rather than theories. He became a high-profile advocate of free trade and a liberal foe of Karl Marx. As member of parliament he supported full suffrage and other radical causes. He modernized Britain’s public accounts, invented the florin as a first step to decimalization, and became an industrial entrepreneur. Losing his money in the 1848 slump, he took a job as consul in Canton, which led to the governorship of Hong Kong. As Britain’s plenipotentiary in East Asia he negotiated a key treaty with King Mongkut of Siam but also started a war with China. His term as Governor of Hong Kong (1854–59) was plagued with problems. But there as elsewhere he left a legacy of liberal ideas.

Bowring’s impact was spread over so many fields that his name has been eclipsed by those with a narrower focus. This book brings his life and disparate achievements together, with a particular emphasis on his role in promoting free trade and his much criticized career in Asia.


 “John Bowring (1792–1872) was one of the most interesting and influential of Hong Kong’s Governors. The career of this polymath exemplified an understanding of the relationship between economic and political freedom. This scholarly and very readable biography, written by one of Asia’s most distinguished journalists, shows how free trade became part of Hong Kong’s DNA.”
Chris Patten, Governor of Hong Kong, 1992–97

“Biographers shun polymaths. As a linguistic genius, free-wheeling entrepreneur, hymnist, colonial governor, Oriental plenipotentiary and the champion of self-determination, freedom of conscience and, above all, free trade, Bowring has had to wait nearly 150 years for a comprehensive but candid account that does justice to his extraordinary range of achievements. That it comes from a kinsman with an equal breadth of vision is an added bonus.”
John Keay, author of China: A History and The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company

“One hundred and forty years after his death, John Bowring finally has the biography his eventful and enterprising life deserves. From the pages of this fast-paced and well-written biography, Bowring emerges not as the heinous villain who tricked Britain into launching a nasty imperialist war against China in 1858, but as a multifaceted character dedicated to political reform, religious freedom, and above all free trade. Philip Bowring acknowledges that John Bowring was vain, prone to overhasty action, and lacking in judgment, but also that he lived his life by the ideas for which he stood, had an astonishing command of foreign languages, was a dedicated family man, and made an impact throughout East and Southeast Asia which is still felt in many ways today. This is a remarkable book on a remarkable life.” 
Hans van de Ven, Professor of Modern Chinese History, Cambridge University

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About the author

Philip Bowring is a journalist based in Asia since 1973 variously as correspondent for the Financial Times, editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, and columnist for the International Herald Tribune,Wall Street Journal and South China Morning Post. He is distantly related to Sir John Bowring.

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Additional Information

Hong Kong University Press
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Published on
Aug 1, 2014
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Biography & Autobiography / Historical
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