A Review of Gunboat Justice: British and American Law Courts in China and Japan (1842–1943)

Volume 1 : White Man, White Law, White Gun (1842–1900), Volume 2 : Destruction, Disorder and Defiance (1900–1927), Volume 3 : Revolution, Resistance and Resurrection (1927–1943) by Douglas Clark (non-fiction, many pages)

When you set out to colonise, how do you administer what you have colonised? What are the laws? When disputes arise, how are they adjudicated? What are the consequences of the system you establish?

In Hong Kong, we exist within a judicial system established by the UK in the 19th century and live with its consequences every day, whether we think of it or not. Often we take it for granted until perhaps it is put to a test and then we are grateful for it. But very few of us understand how this was created and how it developed. The story of this is fascinating and well told in Gunboat Justice by author Douglas Clark.

In Volume 1, Clark begins by describing the concept of extraterritoriality and then the attempts, some desperate, to put this into practice. In extraterritoriality, what are the rights of locals, especially in disputes with a non-native? The Americans took a rather ad hoc approach; their consuls administered justice. The problem with this was that none were qualified to do so and very quickly a profit motive took over. The Brits took quite a different approach and under the amazing, indefatigable and colourful Sir Edmund Hornby, established a British Supreme Court for China and Japan. This court, operating across Japan and China, quickly set high standards for administering Justice; surely economic success owes much to this. Volume 1 covers the establishment of these systems and by its end the Japanese have established their own court system and the British Supreme Court ended its mission there, to great acclaim. By 1906, the Americans decided to copy the British system and established its own court system administered by a professional judiciary and typically working very closely with the Brits. Volumes 2 and 3 continue the developments of the courts as China suffers tremendous turmoil, concluding finally with the Anglo-American decision to abolish extraterritoriality in 1943 (China of course was an ally then in the war against Japan).

Three long volumes covering 101 years might define the word “slog”... One could advise Mr. Clark to reissue this history in a single, more closely edited volume. But this would be an enormous loss. The stories and anecdotes he relates, the compendium of contemporary pictures and cartoons he includes to illustrate are all tremendously entertaining and fascinating. Justice systems, after all, reflect the human condition in both civil and criminal cases. Some of the trials Clark relates are astounding, as are the judges and characters appearing in court. Others confirm that history repeats itself, as a case in Yokohama in 1896 demonstrates. In it, a wife is accused of poisoning her husband. No milkshake was involved, but a Mrs. Carew was convicted (and condemned to death, later commuted).

‘Thus,’ concluded the Japan Mail’s correspondent, ‘Edith Mary Hallowell Carew, the bright attractive, refined lady, whom so many in this small community have known intimately, and so many have been happy to call their friend passed from the pale of society that she once graced – stepped down, a condemned felon’.

I suggest reading the first four chapters of Volume 1 to get a good understanding of the set up of the court system; then open each volume at leisure and enjoy a chapter or two of Clark’s exceptional history.