Trial of English seamen in China

Essential information

Opening times: 
National Maritime Museum, First floor, Traders gallery

Guilty? Who murdered the local man in Canton (Guangzhou) and what was their fate?

A scene showing the Chinese Court of Justice held at the British factory of Canton (now Guangzhou), 8 March 1807. The court was convened after a Chinese man was killed by rioting sailors from the East Indiaman Neptune.

While on shore leave at Canton, sailors from the ship became involved in a disturbance resulting in the death of one and the wounding of several Chinese. Trade by English ships was stopped and an investigation was held. In the presence of the British authorities there was an inquiry into a charge of homicide laid against a seaman from the Neptune. The Chinese magistrate found one seaman guilty of accidental homicide and ordered that he be detained in the English factory. The rest of the 52 men were acquitted. Trade was resumed after two months' stoppage.

In the following year, the seaman was released on payment of about £4, the penalty prescribed by Chinese law for accidental killing.

Seated on the right of the court are the Hong merchants who controlled trade between China and Europe, Puankhequa, Mowqua, Puiqua and Consequa. Facing them are the leading British merchants and officials in Canton, Robert Rolles, John Roberts, Thomas Pattle, William Bamston, and George Thomas Staunton. In front of the three judges a British seaman is being questioned by a Chinese official and four more seamen stand in a group in the centre left foreground. Two British soldiers are positioned on either side in the front of the scene. A Chinese man is shown striking a gong behind the soldier on the right while another holds a gong behind the one on the left. The painting shows men crowding in from the right in an effort to hear the proceedings.