Sir Robert Hart was a remarkable Englishman who served both Great Britain and China. He began working in China in the British consulates at Ningbo (Ningpo) and Canton and rose to become the Inspector-General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs between 1863 and 1906.
As a result of China’s defeat by Great Britain and the Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking), China opened five ports for Western trade in 1842 and established customs offices in the treaty ports to collect duty on imported goods.
Shanghai emerged as the premier port, but it was captured in 1853 by rebels of the Small Sword Society, who put the Chinese officials to flight. In the ensuing anarchy, British and American consuls and customs officials devised an ad hoc system of collecting customs dues for the Chinese government.
Together with the French and with the approval of the Chinese governor-general of the provinces where Shanghai and Ningbo were located, they established a board of inspectors to perform the task.
Since Great Britain was the principal trader with China, the inspector-general was always a Briton, beginning with Thomas Wade, a Sinologist who soon resigned to pursue his academic work. The second was Horatio Lay, who proved unsuitable and was replaced by Hart in 1863.
Under his leadership an international customs service was developed that by 1873 had 252 Britons and 156 other Western nationals. The service expanded as more Chinese ports were opened to Western trade.
In 1896 China established a modern postal system and put it under the charge of Hart. The Maritime Customs only become an independent arm of the Chinese government in 1911 under the Ministry of Posts and Communications.
Hart developed a code of conduct for the Westerners who served under him—to learn Chinese, be collegial with their Chinese coworkers, and respectful of Chinese customs, reminding them that they served China.
The customs receipts remitted to the Chinese government were important in funding modernizing projects such as the first modern school established under the Zongli (Tsungli) Yamen, China’s equivalent of a Foreign Office that trained interpreters and students in modern subjects. Its officers also accumulated accurate statistics on trade and local conditions in China.
Hart also gave advice to Prince Gong (Kung), China’s leader in handling foreign affairs, and worked with powerful provincial governors such as Li Hongzhang (Li Hung-chang) who were interested in modernizing China.
He submitted position papers to the Zongli Yamen on modern education, budgetary planning, and even accompanied a group of Chinese officials to Europe in 1866 to observe Western government systems. He also strongly advised the Chinese government to break precedent and establish diplomatic missions in Western capitals.
Hart also exerted his good offices in helping China reach peace terms with France during the Sino-French War of 1884–85, which resulted in France gaining Annam, but evacuating its troops from Taiwan and the Pescadore Islands.
A grateful Chinese government awarded him with numerous honors. He also received recognition from Great Britain and most Western nations that traded with China for his role in developing a capable, modern customs service that served all parties with integrity.