Of plague and pirates

IN 1894 a Wesleyan minister was moved to complain of the troops' behaviour: ''They drink like fishes, ride round town in rickshaws, making night hideous with their shouts, eat over-ripe fruit from fruit stalls, are stricken with cholera, and die in a few hours.'' Walking around Hongkong today it is easy to forget that there is a Garrison of 7,500 stationed here.

News of cutbacks to the British Garrison marks the end of a remarkable history of bravery and service. Hongkong has been well served by these men over the years. The armed forces have always been made up from men of many nationalities. Today it consists of British, Gurkhas, Chinese and even a small unit of Sikhs, the last in the British Army, which is stationed on Stonecutters Island.

The Black Watch leave next year. Like the first regiment to be stationed here, 150 years ago, the 26th (Cameronian) Regiment of Foot, it is also Scottish. Colonel Caine, who founded the Royal Hongkong Police, was originally an officer in this regiment.

The Garrison played an enormous part in the development of Hongkong. The Royal Navy not only drove piracy from the South China Sea, but their hydrographers charted the dangerous waters that surround Hongkong. Navy and Army officers mapped out the island. Their names live on in places such as Aldrich Bay, Belcher Bay, Cape Collinson and Kellett Island.

Major Aldrich's Royal Engineers built many of the original public buildings. Colonel Hope Graham's 59th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment of Foot planted thousands of trees. In Hope Graham's case, keeping his regiment fit, was his prime concern. It was a terrible posting for British troops. The deaths by malaria were horrifying. In 1843, out of a total strength of 528 officers and men of the 55th (Westmorland) Regiment of Foot, 242 died. Malaria was eventually brought under control only to be followed by the plague in 1894.

The King's (Shropshire Light Infantry) were given the thankless task of cleaning up and disinfecting the pest-ridden Tai Ping Shan district. Captain Vesey of the ''Whitewash Brigade'' and six soldiers caught the plague and died during the clean-up. Although more than 100 of the military were awarded the Plague Medal, they were not allowed to wear it because it was an ''unofficial'' award.

On December 8, 1941, the Japanese attacked Hongkong. A hopelessly outnumbered Garrison of British, Canadians and Indians fought the Japanese armies until the position became hopeless and the Governor surrendered on Christmas Day.

When times are good the Hongkong taxpayer complains loudly about the cost of the Garrison; but the moment there is a little trouble, like the influx of Vietnamese boat people in 1979, they expect Britain to supply reinforcements without hesitation. Britain obliged with a battalion of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and 42 Commando Royal Marines and two companies of Gurkhas from Brunei.