Meet Caroline Stevenson: ‘Resurrecting’ Lord Amherst’s Embassy to China (1816)

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Caroline Stevenson is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) and former CIW PhD Scholar. She speaks to us about her new book Britain’s Second Embassy to China — Lord Amherst's 'Special Mission' to the Jiaqing Emperor in 1816 and its relevance today. As the saying goes, ‘the older you get, the wiser you are’. Caroline also shares with us her motivation to pursue a PhD in her retirement. If you are looking for a book recommendation, read on to hear Caroline’s latest suggestions.

1) Tell us a little bit about yourself.

My Norwegian father and English mother met in wartime Washington DC, in 1944. I was born in Oslo, Norway, in late 1945 and my parents moved to Australia in 1946. A childhood spent on an orchard on the outskirts of Melbourne was interrupted by four trips to Norway, representing a unique experience for an Australian child at a time when overseas travel for Australians was rare.

After graduating with a BA from Monash majoring in History and Anthropology, I taught in the Humanities Department at RMIT. Marriage, accompanying my husband on diplomatic postings throughout Southeast Asia and Washington, as well as three children, involved a busy life with extensive travel and diverse cultural experiences. Contact with a wide range of people from different countries, many of them academics, sustained a lifelong interest in academic research.

2) Pursuing a PhD is not a typical retirement activity. Could you share with us what inspired you to embark on a PhD at ANU?

I completed a MAQ (ANU) in anthropology in the late 1970s and commenced a Masters on traditional Malay royal ritual which was never completed due to a posting to Washington DC. Raising a family left no time to pursue further study until 2009 when I became aware of the Masters of Studies offered at ANU for graduate students. Consisting of a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, this degree included an undergraduate course on eighteenth-century Britain conducted by Dr. Alex Cook, and a course on Myanmar conducted by Dr. Jane Ferguson, where I wrote a paper on the British Embassy to the Ava Court in 1795. The most stimulating postgraduate course, conducted by Dr. Benjamin Penny, examined historical Western perceptions of China. I was delighted when Ben invited me to study for a PhD and suggested that the Amherst Embassy to China in 1816 required further research.

3) What motivated you to undertake research on Lord Amherst's 'Special Mission' to the Jiaqing Emperor in 1816?

My lack of Modern Chinese dictated that any examination of historical sources on a ‘Chinese’ topic was confined to English language sources and translations only. The Amherst Embassy to China in 1816 had been largely ignored by historians. Expulsion from the Qing court on the day of arriving at Yuanmingyuan due to Amherst’s refusal to kowtow before the emperor, had resulted in the Embassy being dismissed by scholars as a ‘non-event’ in Anglo-Chinese relations. Initial research revealed that, on the contrary, Amherst’s treatment was important for changing British views on China in the period before the First Opium War (1839–42). Amherst’s humiliating treatment and dismissal by the Qing court suggested to the British that force, rather than diplomacy, might be necessary to achieve British goals in China in future.

The Embassy’s subsequent four-month journey from Peking to Canton provided the British with valuable intelligence on the state of Chinese society, including its economy and its state of military preparedness.

4) What led to the 'failure' of Amherst Embassy? Were there some successes?

The British belief that the Macartney Embassy (1793) had so impressed the Qing Court and that any future British Embassy would be received outside the confines of the ‘tribute system’ proved to be false. Amherst was confronted with the demand to kowtow before the emperor if he wished to secure an audience. British diplomatic practice was governed by Westphalian principles of negotiation and equality. Qing diplomatic practice was based on the tribute system which required foreign ambassadors to kowtow before the emperor signifying their submission, and that of their sovereign, to Chinese sovereignty. The British, on the cusp of imperial greatness and victors over Napoleon, refused to comply with Qing demands. Both sides remained resolute in their refusal to accommodate each other’s’ point-of-view.

Success, for the British, was upholding their honour and that of their sovereign, at a time of great diplomatic and political challenge. Amherst’s good leadership kept up the spirits of his entourage which never split into jealousies or rival factions. The greatest success of the Amherst Embassy was its safe return to England after being ship-wrecked off the coast of Sumatra.

5) For those of us involved in contemporary engagement with China, what lessons can we learn from your research?

The main lesson from the Amherst Embassy is that once diplomacy breaks down or fails, and neither side is prepared to make concessions to achieve a mutually agreeable outcome, then this may lead to one side (usually the most powerful) resorting to the use of force to achieve their aims.

What else might you have been

I would have liked to have been an anthropologist working in Papua New Guinea, an Olympic swimmer, a vet or a cartoonist.

Proudest moment

Being a mother and a grandmother, obtaining my PhD, and having a book published.

What book(s) are you reading at the moment

I am currently reading Fossil Men by Kermit Pattison on the search for humanity’s earliest skeleton and the resulting academic rivalries surrounding its discovery. I am also reading One Two Three Four: The Beatles in time by Craig Brown.

Download a FREE copy of Britain’s Second Embassy to China — Lord Amherst's 'Special Mission' to the Jiaqing Emperor in 1816 published by ANU Press in February 2021.

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