Seller removes 'oldest letter from Hong Kong to the West' out of auction

Auction house says seller withdrew item, but its authenticity is not in doubt

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 4:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 4:48am

The oldest known letter sent from Hong Kong to the West has been withdrawn from sale, a spokeswoman for auctioneer InterAsia confirmed with the South China Morning Post.

"It was a request made by the seller. We will announce the details soon. But it does not relate to its authenticity," the spokeswoman said yesterday.

The letter, which was written two years before British colonial rule began, was expected to fetch up to HK$300,000.

The spokeswoman said it was the only item withdrawn among the 3,600 lots at the auction, which began last Saturday and will run until tomorrow at the Excelsior Hotel.

The letter was written by a Christian missionary, the Reverend J. R. Morrison, one of 2,000 Britons expelled from Canton - today's Guangzhou - before the onset of the first opium war, after which Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1841.

Morrison, who was on board the British naval ship Fort William that docked in Hong Kong waters and was caught in the middle of the Sino-British conflict, wrote to his mother and sister that "the feeling of the Chinese is that we are protecting the opium trade".

In the days before an official postal service existed, the letter took a circuitous route.

It went 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 Marseilles to London.

It arrived only five months after it was sent.

At the time, Morrison and about 60 others on board were waiting for the arrival of a British expeditionary force from India in 1840 after failing to find refuge with Macau's Portuguese rulers, who did not want them to stay.

They did not manage to get many supplies from Hong Kong, as all foreigners were banned from going on land to search for food.

Hong Kong Island only had several thousand inhabitants at the time, according to the auction house.