'Oldest letter' from Hong Kong to the West goes up for auction

Missionary's mail, written two years before British rule, expected to fetch up to HK$300,000

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 January, 2014, 9:46am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 January, 2014, 4:52am

The oldest known letter sent from Hong Kong to the West – written two years before British colonial rule began – will go up for auction on Sunday with an expected price of up to HK$300,000.

The letter was sent by Christian missionary Reverend JR Morrison from aboard the Fort William, a British naval ship that docked in Hong Kong waters as tensions grew between Britain and China ahead of the First Opium War.

He was one of 2,000 Britons expelled from Canton – today’s Guangzhou – before the onset of the war, after which Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1841.

Writing to sister and mother, Morrison wrote that “the feeling of the Chinese is that we are protecting the opium trade”, according to Rob Schneider, business development director at auctioneer InterAsia.

The group first travelled to Macau, but found that the Portuguese colonial rulers did not want them to stay there. Morrison and the 60 or so others onboard the Fort William waited in what are now Hong Kong waters for the arrival of a British expeditionary force from India in 1840.

This letter is more interesting because it’s from a civilian… he’s caught in the middle [of the Sino-British conflict]
Dr Jeffrey Schneider, InterAsia director

“At that time, there were only several thousand people on Hong Kong Island. All foreigners were banned from going to land to search for food, so they didn’t manage to get many supplies,” Schneider said.

In the days before an official postal service, the letter took a circuitous route, going from Hong Kong to Singapore by private boat, heading overland through India and then via Egypt and Malta before a final journey by train from Marseille to London, arriving five months later.

“This letter is more interesting because it’s from a civilian… he’s caught in the middle [of the Sino-British conflict],” said Dr Jeffrey Schneider, director of the auction house.

Its estimated price is between HK$250,000 and HK$300,000.

While stamps still constitute more than 70 per cent of the 3,600 lots in the auction, which runs from Saturday to Tuesday at the Excelsior Hotel in Causeway Bay, envelopes and letters have been attracting more attention in recent years as people have become more interested in the postal process, Dr Schneider said.

The room for growth, however, is limited by the shortage in supply. Most collectors took the stamps and threw the envelopes away, he added.