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‘The bread is poisoned … there’s not a moment to lose’

From Stuart Braga’s new book ‘Nos sa Téra, Nos sa Génti’

Visitors to Hong Kong now find a community that works well, despite continuing concern about relations with the Beijing authorities. However, in Hong Kong itself, people enjoy living there and being Hong Kong citizens. Hong Kong is their home, and the days when their allegiance was to an ancestral village, a “heung ha”, have largely gone. It is a very great change from Hong Kong’s early days, when tensions were so extreme that there was an attempt to poison the entire British population.

The Rev. George Smith, who visited Hong Kong in 1844, three years after the British arrived, wrote discerningly and devastatingly of the mutual antagonism that prevailed between the British and Chinese. Whereas he had found in northern China ‘an intelligent and friendly population’, Hong Kong was different. Smith was horrified by the contempt in which the Chinese were held by the British and dismayed at the heavy-handed attempts at control of the lawless situation there by means of a curfew. He wrote:

‘The Chinese are treated as a degraded race of people. They are not permitted to go out into the public streets after a certain hour in the evening, without a lantern and a written note from their European employer, to secure them from the danger of apprehension and imprisonment till the morning.’

During the next decade, things went from bad to worse until in 1857, war broke out again between Britain and China. An early episode in Hong Kong of the conflict that came to be known as the Second Opium War was a botched attempt on 15 January 1857 to poison the entire British population, including the garrison, all of whom were known to eat bread for breakfast. The baker was known to the foreigners as ‘E-Sing’, or ‘A-lum’. He might have succeeded if he had known as much about poisons as he did about baking bread. However, he put too much arsenic into the dough, and succeeded only in making his 400 victims violently sick.

Nearly forty years later, when a prominent American businessman, Augustine Heard, one of the intended victims, wrote about it, the details were still clear in his mind. He wrote:

‘It was about half–past ten when my boy [i.e. servant] handed me, as I sat writing at my table, a half sheet of paper, at the head of which was written in large characters, “The bread is poisoned. Take mustard, teaspoonful, in warm water; 1/2 pint & afterwards warm water; after vomiting freely, eat raw eggs.” It was signed by Dr Chaldecott a leading physician of the colony. I recognized the hand.’ Heard rushed down to his office and half–way down met the bookkeeper coming up with a Capt. Bussche, greatly excited. “Have you taken your mustard? No? Well, come on. There’s not a moment to lose. There’s no doubt about it. They’re all down everywhere. I have just come from Endicott, who is at the last gasp; and at the Bank there are lots of them, catting [vomiting]. What are you waiting for? It’s stupid to hesitate. It’s nothing to take, and it may save your lives.”

Heard returned to his grand mansion, which still exists, and until September 2015 housed the Court of Final Appeal of the High Court of Hong Kong. Here he decided that he had better take his mustard. And he did, under Bussche’s administration, but very reluctantly. The expected results speedily followed, and he was just recovering, but very cross, when a member of his staff rushed in.

Heard clearly remembered his words: “It’s all right, Mr. Heard, it’s all right,” he shouted jubilantly. “Who’s all right? what’s all right?” cried I, in my wrath, “What the devil do you mean?” “Oh, Mr. Heard, you haven’t had E– Sing’s bread after all. I cut off E–Sing three days ago, and since then you have had the Portuguese baker, who supplies the office.” And so we had our mustard for nothing. We had had a happy escape. No one who was in the Colony that day will ever forget it.’

Heard thought that the plan had originated in Canton. He continued: ‘E–Sing supplied bread not only to nearly all the foreign houses, but to the Garrison, at that time consisting of about 1,200 men; and he or his workmen had been induced to put in it that morning a large quantity of arsenic. The plan, which originated with the authorities of Canton, was supposed to be to disable the troops and a large portion of the Foreign Residents with the poison, and under cover of the effect of this to attack the town with an overwhelming force. But by some accident the bread did not reach the barracks in time for the early breakfast, and the large quantity of the poison was its own antidote. As you cut a loaf with a knife you could see plainly the sheen of the metal. All who partook of the bread, and there were many, were affected in the same way – by violent vomiting. Those who eat a little and those who eat a great deal, all had the same symptoms, and they were sufficiently alarming. Though nobody actually died that day, a great many expected to die, and could hardly believe that they were really alive when night came. Several succumbed later from the after effects, among others, Lady Bowring, the wife of the Governor.’

At 1 p.m. that day the regular mail steamer left for India, with most of the British population in Hong Kong still very ill. It took the news to India that Hong Kong had been poisoned by a Chinese, and half the colony was dead and the other half dying. It was not till later in the day, that the failure of the attempt became apparent. Augustine Heard’s brother John, who was on his way from England to join him, received this news at Singapore, and was told that the last known of Augustine was that he was dying on a couch in the drawing-room, alone in the house, deserted by all the servants, and his friends were in the same condition. Until they landed, the passengers on the next ship from the south did not known if there were any foreigners left alive.

Meanwhile, A-lum had fled to Macau. Here he was arrested and returned to Hong Kong. Heard, an American, was disgusted with the outcome. ‘Alum was tried in an English Court with the advantages of English technicality, and, as was feared would be the case, he could not be proved to have mixed the arsenic with the bread, and was acquitted.’ The fear of another attempt on their lives remained a constant threat to the British in Hong Kong for some time. A few months later, Augustine Heard left Hong Kong, never to return. ‘It was only when I left the Colony in June, that I became aware of what a weight I had been carrying. The sensation of relief, as we steamed round Green Island [at the western entrance to Hong Kong Harbour], was immediate and decided.’ Nevertheless, the attempt to wipe out the unwelcome foreigners had failed and was not repeated. Doubtless the unknown Portuguese baker did very well indeed.

It appears that British justice did catch up with A-lum, but perhaps for another offence. Another of his victims, the Rev. Dr James Legge, who used to visit prisons, wrote: ‘the respect and deference shown him by all the prisoners were wonderful’. ‘The excitement was of course most intense’, wrote another of the intended victims, the educational administrator Ernest Eitel. The incident created sufficient commotion to be reported in the British press, and a sketch of A-lum by the noted Portuguese artist, Marciano Baptista, drawn at the Police Station in Hong Kong where he was interrogated appeared in the Illustrated London News on 14 March 1857. The readers were told, quite wrongly, that ‘the man was condemned to death and shot, together with three of his accomplices’. That would have satisfied British public opinion.

Marciano Baptista’s sketch of the interrogation of A-lum, redrawn by the artist of the Illustrated London News.

The poisoning episode left a long-lasting memory. A piece of the poisoned bread, well- preserved by the lashings of arsenic in it, was kept in a cupboard in the Chief Justice’s chambers until the 1930s as a macabre souvenir. It seems to have disappeared during the Japanese Occupation in World War II, perhaps finally claiming a victim 85 years later.


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