The weather vane riots of Canton – 1844
There was a time when any building of stature would have a weather vane atop. As well as being decorative it was useful in the days before weather forecasting was available to the masses to be able to look up and have your suspicions as to the direction of the wind and what it may bring confirmed. The purpose of a weather vane, to indicate the direction of the wind, influences its design and the principal feature will be some long pointer capable of revolving 360 degrees. The American consulate in Canton ran into what the diplomats would undoubtedly call a little local difficulty over their choice of weather vane.
This particular weather vane – a splendid affair consisting of a gilt arrow, cardinal points, gold ball and spear – erected on the consulate in May 1844, had been shipped out all the way from the United States. Unfortunately, for the Chinese an arrow is the sign of war, sickness and famine and the locals protested over the choice of the design. The locals argued that the arrow would disrupt the city’s feng shui and distribute negative energy around the place. With the haughtiness that only the Occidentals can muster, the protests were ignored and the vane stayed in place, shining and revolving to reflect the direction of the wind.
That summer, however, was very dry and much of the staple crop of the region, rice, was ruined. This in turn caused hunger and distress amongst the poor and to make matters worse, disease swept through the area. Naturally, the Chinese pointed the finger at the weather vane and soon notices were posted around the city declaring that if it was not removed, the flagstaff upon which it was placed would be destroyed.
The American consul, a Mr Forbes, decided that it would be prudent to remove the top part of the flagstaff containing the offending vane and a group of seamen from Whompoa came to effect the removal. But a large crowd of Chinese had assembled to watch the proceedings and made a rush to capture the arrow. The Americans held firm and mustered with their rifles, coming under attack from a hail of stones, but succeeded in driving some thousands of Chinese from the square.
A contemporary account, published in the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics for November 9th 1844 takes up the story, “several shots were fired at the Chinese and I have no doubt some Chinese were killed, though the Chinese only report three wounded by bullet”. The correspondent clearly didn’t think that would be the end of the affair and expressed the feelings of the Americans thus, “but we expect another row soon as they now want the cardinal points, gold ball and the spear taken off..this will not be afforded to them, and in the event of their attempting to arrange it themselves, their Gods must protect them, as there will be no more firing over their heads…another row will be a serious affair.”
It was only through the intervention of the Mandarins, the representatives of the Chinese emperor, that the potentially explosive situation was resolved, sending 200 of their own soldiers to persuade the Americans to melt down the offending vane. The Americans finally saw which way the wind was blowing!