Maurice Collis, who wrote Foreign Mud: Being an Account of the Opium Imbroglio at Canton in the 1830s and the Anglo-Chinese War that Followed (1946), an enduring historical account of the early establishment of colonial Hong Kong, never actually lived here.
Of Anglo-Irish descent, Collis had a clear eye for the unpleasant nuances of race relations that were sadly commonplace among his generation. In the manner of open-minded individuals, whose appreciation of the world was driven by wonder at what they saw, heard, smelled and experienced, Collis regarded the racism he encountered in the course of his life in Asia with an incomprehension and dislike that is reflected in his writings.
His Burma memoirs, inspired by service there as a government administrator from 1912 onwards, remain minor classics of their time. After leaving the colonial service in 1934, he concentrated on writing for the rest of his life. Collis brought to the craft the same combination of diligence, imagination and enthusiasm that characterised his earlier administrative career. This happy blend led to a remarkably varied literary output over the span of a few decades; novels, histories, plays and memoirs were produced at regular intervals – usually one every other year. Earlier works such as She Was a Queen (1937) and Siamese White (1940) drew heavily on his Burma experiences.
An enduring interest in Asia produced several China-related works. Unsuccessful British attempts from the early 17th century to foster diplomatic relationships with China, which eventually led to the establishment of Hong Kong, inform The Great Within (1941). The Grand Peregrination (1949) expands upon the exciting trans-Asian travel narrative of 16th-century Portuguese adventurer Fernão Mendes Pinto, while Marco Polo (1950) transforms The Book of the Marvels of the World (c. 1300), which recounts the Venetian explorer’s adventures, into a highly readable travel account, with extensive regional context and a compelling biographical sketch of Polo himself.
The Motherly and Auspicious (1955) provides a dramatised version of the life of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi. Collis’ telling offers sympathetic treatment of a complex figure frequently, and often unfairly, reviled in modern Chinese history.
For Foreign Mud, Collis was afforded access to old Jardine, Matheson and Co files, as well as personal diaries and bundles of letters and documents, by the book’s original sponsors, John and Tony Keswick. From these he reconstructed the political and economic background, and deeply un-pretty corporate machinations, that led to the outbreak of the first Anglo-China war, in 1839, and the eventual cession of Hong Kong to Britain, in 1842.
The Keswick brothers apparently became alarmed at possible unfavourable revelations (hardly unusual with corporate histories and company biographies set in places as freewheeling as Hong Kong) and attempted to suppress the book. Undaunted, Collis ignored their objections, as did his London publisher, which shrewdly recognised a bestseller when it saw one, and this excellent, wide-ranging history of the so-called opium wars has never been out of print.
Collis also produced Wayfoong (1965), commissioned as a centenary history for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, which engagingly details the bank’s establishment and first 100 years of operations. At the time, popular authors such as Collis were generally engaged for corporate vanity projects. An ability to tell a compelling story for a general audience was more important than any historical research ability or subject knowledge they may or may not have possessed.
Erudite, humane and readable, with a light, chatty style, Collis’ works deserve to be read by a new generation of general readers interested in Asia.
Collis died in England in 1973, aged 84.