The Impact of Anglo-Chinese Relations on the Development of British Liberalism, 1842-1857

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Luke Heselwood


Between 1842 and 1857, British interactions with the Qing Empire shaped and informed the development of British liberal attitudes. However, amid the widespread historiography devoted to uncovering international influences on British liberalism during this period, the impact of the Anglo-Chinese relationship remains a footnote. Instead, focus is given to how Europe, America and the British Empire assisted in the advancement of British politics and liberal thought. This thesis redresses this oversight - showing how Anglo-Chinese frictions in the mid-nineteenth century brought into question British notions of free trade, international law, diplomatic standards and non-intervention. Britain's determination to improve its trading network in China matched by the Qing's refusal to allow further Western expansion, informed British liberal debate and shaped political attitudes.Most notably, it resulted in Sir John Bowring, the former Foreign Secretary of the London Peace Society, ordering the military bombardment of the port of Canton in late 1856. The bombardment - which resulted in the second Anglo-Chinese conflict (1856-1860) - is well-documented by historians. However, the development of Bowring's political convictions, which provided an ideological justification for war, has been overlooked. This thesis uncovers how interactions with China forced Bowring and the British expatriate community more generally to reconsider the meaning of free trade, the boundaries of international law and their commitment to non-intervention. In addition, it shows how Bowring's actions resulted in a heated debate that captured the attention of Britain's political elite and, through the General Election of 1857, the British public more generally. As a result, it facilitated an open and vibrant debate that queried whether, to secure British trade, military intervention could be deemed an acceptable diplomatic method - a discussion that forced the development of the nation's liberal attitudes. This thesis tackles two relatively distinct areas of historical research that rarely interact. First, it sheds new light on the scholarship that has examined foreign influences on the development of British liberal ideas in the mid-nineteenth century. It shows that through an investigation of relations with peripheral nations such as China, historians can gain a fresh and more detailed perspective on how and why nineteenth century liberal attitudes developed. In addition, it challenges the existing framework adopted by Sinologists in their assessment of Anglo-Chinese relations. Recent studies remain focused on uncovering how nineteenth century Western expansion into the Qing Empire affected its political, legal and cultural development. This thesis reverses this approach - arguing that this relationship not only affected events within China but in addition, shaped British liberal debate and consolidated British political ideas. This thesis calls, therefore, for historians to reconsider the importance of relatively peripheral nations on the development of British ideals and liberal thinking in the mid-nineteenth century. By examining these new frontiers, it sheds new light on the making of British liberalism.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Aug 2017