British Statesman, Economist, Writer, Linguist, and 4th Governor of Hong Kong. Born in Exter, Devon, England, his father was a wool merchant who came from an old Unitarian family. He received his formal education at a Unitarian school in nearby Moretonhampstead up to the age of 13, when he began working in his father's business. Over the next four years, he became proficient in foreign languages, learning French from a refugee priest, Italian from itinerant vendors of barometers and mathematical instruments, and acquiring a knowledge of Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Dutch, through the aid of some of his mercantile acquaintances. In 1811 he became a clerk in the London house of Milford & Company. He subsequently entered into business on his own account, and from 1819 to 1820, he travelled abroad for commercial purposes, visiting Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Russia, and Sweden. On his return from Russia in 1820, he published the first of his studies in foreign literature, "Specimens of the Russian Poets." This was followed by "Peter Schlemihl, a German Story (1824), "Batavian Anthology" (1824), "Ancient Poetry and Romances of Spain" (1824), "Specimens of the Polish Poets" (1827), "Serbian Popular Poetry" (1827), "Poetry of the Magyars" (1830), Cheskian Anthology" (1832), and Minor Morals" (1834). He was also a noted hymn writer, with the lyrics of 25 hymns to his credit, most notably "In the Cross of Christ I Glory," "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night," and "How Sweetly Flowed the Gospel's Sound." He published collections of sacred music, including "Matins and Vespers" (1823) and "Hymns, as Sequel to the Matins" (1825). During the early 1820s, he also contributed to the newly founded radical publication Westminster Review, of which he was appointed editor in 1825. By his contributions to the Review he obtained considerable reputation as political economist and parliamentary reformer. He advocated in its pages the cause of free trade long before it was popularized by Richard Cobden and John Bright. He campaigned earnestly on behalf of parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation, and popular education. In 1828 he visited the Netherlands, and in February 1829 the University of Groningen there awarded on him the Doctor of Laws Degree. The following year he was in Denmark, preparing for the publication of a collection of Scandinavian poetry. He became the Foreign Secretary of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association until 1832. In 1835 he entered parliament as member for Kilmarnock Burghs and in the following year he was appointed head of a government commission sent to France to inquire into the actual state of commerce between the two countries. He was engaged in similar investigations in Switzerland, Italy, Syria and some of the states in Imperial Germany. He left parliament in 1837, only to return in 1841 as a member from Bolton, and served until 1849. During this time he published in 1843 a translation of the "Manuscript of the Queen's Court" (1843), a collection of Czech medieval poetry, today considered a forgery by modern Czech scholars. In 1846 he became President of the Mazzinian People's International League. An advocate of decimal currency, on April 27, 1847 he addressed the House of Commons on the merits of decimalization and agreed to a compromise that directly led to the issue of the florin (one-tenth of a pound sterling), introduced as a first step in 1848 and more generally in 1849. He published a work entitled "The Decimal System in Numbers, Coins and Accounts" in 1854. In 1849 he was appointed British consul at Canton (now Guangzhou), China, and superintendent of trade in China, a post he held until 1853. In 1854 he was knighted by British Queen Victoria with the Most Honourable Order of the Bath and in April of that year, he was sent to the British colony of Hong Kong to serve as its governor. During his term as governor, a dispute broke out with the Chinese and the irritation caused by his spirited or high-handed policy led to the Second Opium War (1856-1860). During the hostilities with China, the mandarins put a price on his head. In January 1857 he narrowly escaped death when the colony of Hong Kong was startled by a diabolical attempt to poison the residents by putting arsenic into their bread. As a result, his wife became ill and she was forced to return to England where she died of arsenic poisoning soon after her arrival. At the same time, he allowed the Chinese citizens in Hong Kong to serve as jurors in trials and become lawyers. He is credited with establishing Hong Kong's first commercial public water supply system and establishing the Hong Kong buildings ordinance, ensuring the safer design of all future construction projects in the colony. In 1855 he visited Siam, and negotiated with King Mongkut a treaty of commerce, now commonly referred as the Bowring Treaty. While there, he published his work "The Kingdom and People of Siam." He retired from this position in 1859 and returned to England. In 1861 he became the British commissioner to the new kingdom of Italy. He subsequently accepted the appointment of minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary from the Hawaiian government to the courts of Europe, and in this capacity negotiated treaties with Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (commonly known as the Royal Society) and the Royal Geographic Society. His foreign accolades include a Knight Commander of the Belgian order of Leopold, a Knight Commander of the order of Christ of Portugal with the star, the grand cordon of the Spanish order of Isabella the Catholic, and the order of Kamehameha I, a noble of the first class of Siam with the insignia of the White Elephant, a Knight Commander with the star of the Austrian order of Francis Joseph, the Swedish order of the Northern Star, and also of the Italian order of St. Michael and St. Lazarus. Additionally, he was an honorary member of many of the learned societies of Europe and received no fewer than thirty diplomas and certificates from various academies and other learned bodies and societies. He died in Exter, Devon, England at the age of 80, after a brief illness. At the time of his death, he was one of the world's leading linguists, with a speaking knowledge of eight languages, a reading and writing knowledge of seven, and working understanding of an additional 25 dialects.
Bio by: William Bjornstad