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Embassy to China, by Samuel Holmes, 1792-1793

History is usually written by its main protagonists – generals, politicians and the aristocracy. It is refreshing, therefore, to read something from a contrasting point-of-view. Here, Sergeant-Major Samuel Holmes, a dragoon in Lord Macartney’s official guard, gives his version of Britain’s first embassy to arrive in China. As he related to his patron, the politician and governor Sir William Young FRS (1749-1815) “on our leaving England I took a small book for the purpose of making memorandums...which I had completely filled by the time we landed in China. I then bought the Chinese paper, and copied from the above book; after which I inserted all observations daily...”

It was Young who had the account printed, “for patronage of humble merit...for the libraries of the curious” aided by the subscriptions of aristocrats, army officers and scientists such as Sir Joseph Banks FRS (1743-1820) and Henry Cavendish FRS (1731-1810). The Chinese paper manuscript, reproduced here, was given to the Royal Society. Holmes is a very direct author.

The embassy of George Macartney FRS (1737-1806) 1st Earl Macartney, Britain’s first envoy to the Chinese Imperial Court in Beijing was a failure in terms of its stated mission of improving British trade relations with China. The party took with them the latest in British manufactured goods as gifts and although Macartney met the Emperor briefly, no trade agreement was reached. Macartney’s secretary, George Leonard Staunton FRS (1737-1801) produced his own account of the mission and managed to collect botanical specimens during the party’s travels.

Holmes’s manuscript is a very direct work, casually imperial in its attitudes but notable for its account of the human cost of the voyage – Holmes records the many ordinary lives lost through illness, accident and violence.