It was 8 October 1835, and the American brig Huron, under the command of Captain Thomas Winsor, edged its way between the sand banks along the Yangtze River towards Wusong, the gateway to Shanghai, China.

The gloomy weather obscured the vessel until it reached the mouth of the Huangpu River where the Chinese who were manning the forts spotted the ship. The Huron’s crew ducked for cover when the Chinese fired from either side of the river. The captain called out, “Don’t worry lads, they’ll do us no harm.” He had recognised the report of the cannon as blank cartridges no louder than most muskets, most likely due to the use of badly mixed powder. The forts themselves were in a bad state of repair, and some of the walls had fallen in, an indication of the weakening economic state of the Qing dynasty. Rather than serving as a warning, the sound of the guns merely heralded the arrival of foreign devils in the forbidden empire.

Landing at Woosung, 1835. From the Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle. (Mission to China, Amberley Publishing)

A tall, slim man dressed in a long black coat, light trousers and black boots stood with top hat in hand on the poop deck, staring into the mist, willing it to part and give him a glimpse of the land he had waited nineteen years to see. At age thirty-nine, with slightly receding light brown hair and curly side-whiskers, Walter Medhurst looked a fit man, in spite of having spent all those years living in the tropics. The way he stood with fixed stare hinted at his determination to influence, and be influenced by, the country that lay before him.

Early the next morning, the long boat was launched and four sailors were assigned to take the missionaries into Shanghai. The day was stormy and there was concern about undertaking such a long journey in dark and rainy weather. Medhurst was adamant that they should proceed as soon as possible. He wanted them to reach the city before any opposition could be organised against them.

The vicinity of Shanghai was marked by a forest of more than a thousand junks that lay off the city. As visibility was poor, the approach of the long boat was not observed until it passed among the junks. Suddenly, an outcry erupted; a foreign boat had arrived and immediately every door and window was crowded and the sides of the junks were lined with spectators. All the onlookers were smiling and none was alarmed or displeased at their sudden appearance.

View of the Mission Chapel at Batavia. Drawn and engraved by G. Baxter. From China: Its State and Prospects, by W. H. Medhurst, London, John Snow 1838. (Mission to China, Amberley Publishing)

Medhurst observed the Tianhou temple, the temple of the Queen of Heaven and he directed the sailors to land close by. Having never seen foreigners, the people pressed forward to get a good look at these strange visitors.

As the two missionaries were collecting their bag of books to commence distributing them, they heard a clattering noise on the granite pavement, which was produced by the thumping of long bamboos. They saw the people give way, right and left, to two officers, who greeted them in a friendly manner and invited them to the nearby temple. Happy to comply, Medhurst ordered a sailor to follow them with a bag of books and they made their way through the immense crowd towards the temple. The officers opened a path before them with their bamboo sticks, crying out, “The visitors are come!”

At the temple, Walter Medhurst was engaged in a conference with the mandarins, when officers came in and announced the arrival of the Chief Magistrate of Shanghai, who requested to meet the visitor. He was seated in the central hall of the temple attended by a group of officers. As Medhurst approached, he paid the magistrate the usual compliments. Seeing a chair placed opposite, which seemed intended for him, he took a seat accordingly. The magistrate expressed indignation at seeing a barbarian seated before him and the officers around called out, “Rise! Rise!” Medhurst rose as requested, asked why he could not be seated at the conference, and when told that he could not, he bowed and left the room.

Potrait of Walter Medhurst before he left London in 1816 by W. T. Strutt. Collection of the SOAS Archives. (Mission to China, Amberley Publishing)

When the mandarins tried to persuade him to return, Medhurst’s response was that while subjects of the empire should be expected to comply with government regulations, a stranger and a guest should be treated with respect. “I come as a friendly stranger and I am invited by you to a public conference. I have committed no offence, nor broken any laws and therefore will not stand as a culprit before any mandarin in the empire,” he said. “But,” Wang stammered, “our Chief Magistrate is the greatest Chinese in Shanghai.” “Well then,” Medhurst replied, “the individual who now addresses you is the greatest Englishman in Shanghai and I do not choose to compromise the honour of my country by submitting to be treated as a barbarian or offender. I have no favour to ask of the magistrate and if he does not wish to see me in the proper manner, then he need not see me at all.”

The position taken by Walter Medhurst may at first seem single-minded and uncooperative. He was not taking that position without a great deal of consideration about the best way to achieve his goals in the long term. His experience of negotiating with the Chinese went back over nineteen years and had taught him to be wary of acceding too readily to their demands. Every subsequent negotiation with that person or others of his nation would hinge on the first reception.

As the rain had eased, they returned to the boat where the sailors were busy eating their dinner while thousands eagerly stretched forward to ‘see the lions fed’. One man who had pressed through the crowd began rubbing his eyes and then took a second look, to be certain it was not a dream.

Their return to the Huron was difficult, but through perseverance, they eventually arrived at the vessel about 9 o’clock at night, wet, cold and tired. They were thankful to have arrived safely and pleased to have distributed over a thousand volumes among nearly a million people. So ended Medhurst’s first visit to the city over which he would have so much influence in following years.


John Holliday's new book Mission to China: How an Englishman brought the West to the Orient is available for purchase now.