History in Focus
1875: Death of a British Diplomat

After Britain's 1852 annexation of lower Burma lucrative trade with China through its back-door seemed more than a distant possibility. But after a successful first mission up the Irrawaddy and into Yunnan in 1868, the second British mission six years later ended in tragedy.

The second half of the 19th century saw the colonial powers advancing on China. The Opium Wars had secured them, foremost Britain and France, strategic footholds in China's east. But the annexation of coastal Burma whetted the British appetite for upper Burma and beyond: Yunnan, the unexplored Chinese province of magical riches.

After a first successful steamboad navigation up the Irrawaddy to Bhamo, an important trading post in northern Burma, the British almost immediately started their push on China. But 1868 was a bad time to enter Yunnan: a rebellion by Yunnan's Muslim's had laid most of the province to waste. Dali, western Yunnan's most important city, remained under the insurgent's control. Trade along the old trade-route into Burma had almost come to a halt. Nevertheless, the British expedition managed to reach Tengyue (modern Tengchong), before the unrest forced them to return.

But six years' later Yunnan was back under Chinese control. This time the British, now firmly entrenched at Bhamo, wanted to penetrate further into China. But now they needed Chinese passports to do so - and they needed somebody speaking Chinese to help them. In far-away Shanghai the British legation's choice fell on Augustus R Margary, a promising young consular officer with a sense of adventure.

In September 1874 Margary set out from China's east travelling up the Yangzi, through Guizhou and into Yunnan. Passing with the caravans through Kunming, Dali, Baoshan, Margary reached Tengchong without a hitch.

But in this last secure outpost of the Empire the Chinese, clearly concerned about the British advance on Middle Kingdom's ill-defined western border, were reluctant to let Margary travel any further. Yet Chinese concessions after the Opium wars had given foreigners the right to roam anywhere they liked. Since they could not officially block his journey, the Chinese had to resort to subterfuge.

True, the situation on China's western border was difficult. Officially the territory of what is now Dehong was under Chinese control. But de-facto political power lay with the Shan tribal leaders, the "tusi" who ruled in the Chinese name, but often acted on their own account. And even the Shan ruler's power did not stretch into the mountains, where the the Kachins (or Jingpo), known to the Chinese then as "Lords of the Hills" held sway.

Yet Margary was not deterred. From Tengchong, clearly warned by the Chinese of the dangers he was facing, he travelled west, descending from the highlands into the malarial lowlands. Passing through the Kachin hills, he crossed the border into Burma, where he met up with the rest of the mission. No one before him had travelled all the way from eastern China to Burma.

In Bhamo reasons caused delays in the missions departure. Only a month later, in February 1875, they were ready for departure. The delays had given the Chinese ample time to prepare for their arrival.

The British, armed with official passports, did not expect much trouble on this journey. But immediately after crossing into China, their small group was involved in skirmishes and their were rumors of a planned ambush further along the road.

Today Margary hoped to reach Mangyun, where he had befriended a local leader. John Anderson, who had passed through Mangyun six years' earlier, noted the following on Manwyne, as he called Mangyun:

The town gate led into a filthy narrow street, or rather lane, about nine feet wide. It was paved with boulders, and bordered on either side by a deep open gutter close under the windows, and alive with swine. The one-storied houses were built of bricks, with one room opening on the street, the sill of the open window serving as a counter, mainly for the sale of pork. This was the Chinese quarter; beyond lay the clean Shan division, every house detached and surrounded by a neat little courtyard, with ponies, buffaloes, and implements, housed under substantial sheds.

With only a few guards Margary set out to meet the tribal leader, hoping to ask for assistance and to clarify the situation. It was a bad move. Under circumstances ultimately unknown, Margary's small group was set upon by Kachin tribesmen and he and almost all of his companions killed. Shortly after, the mission's main body, trailing a day's march behind, was embroiled in fighting and had to retreat to Burma.

To this day the murder remains for China an occasion to celebrate: they and their tribal allies had fought back an colonial incursion. Margary's death did not spell the end of British ambitions in Yunnan. But it was now clear that China would not let Yunnan go without a fight. To this day a tablet marks the spot of Margary's assasination.