Sir James Bruce, Lord Elgin, 8th Earl of Elgin, 12th Earl of Kincardine, statesman and diplomat, died on the 20th of November, 1863.
James Bruce was born in London, but he was a Scottish Earl twice over by inheritance of his father's titles. His dad was the guy who stole the eponymous 'Elgin Marbles' from Greece, which isn't anywhere near Elgin in what used to be called Banffshire. Whether you subscribe to the 'stolen' or 'saviour' theory pertaining to those sculptures, it's fairly clear that Greece wants them back and in the present economic climate, it it had them, it could sell them to the United Kingdom to keep in its 'Museum of Things Purloined from the Ancient World without its Express Permission'.
Depending on where you come from in the world, Sir James Bruce is either a bit – a big bit – of a diplomatic hero or a bit – a bad bit – of a rampaging British colonialist. The parts of the world where he'd be fêted are Scotland and England; Jamaica probably; British North America as was, a.k.a. Canada; Japan perhaps; and India. The part of the world where his name is more likely to be used as an expletive, is China. Although, I'm not sure if the Chinese are the kind to bear a grudge and, in any case, today's 'post-communist' Chinese are more likely to mourn the loss of a potential tourist attraction than look upon the incident in any other light. But don't mention the Opium War.
In fact, the Opium Monopoly was (is) a blot on the character of the United Kingdom, which has been, to a large extent, conveniently forgotten, but you can't blame Bruce for that. Sir James Bruce was a plenipotentiary to China between 1857 and 1859, and then again, for good measure, between 1860 and 1861. In 1860, as a measure taken to intimidate the Chinese Emperor, Bruce burned down the Emperor's Old Summer Palace in an act of wanton vandalism. In the process, countless thousands of priceless works of art were destroyed. It leaves you wondering what Bruce's dad, the collector (or 'acquirer') of priceless artefacts from Greece, would've said about that. You might also wonder what the 'process' of burning down is. The answer depends on whose side you're on. If you're a colonialist, the process is straightforward and legal, but if you're on the receiving end, it's one of pain and grief, especially if you've not got adequate insurance cover.
Three years after Elgin returned to London, which he did in December 1854, he embarked for China as a 'Special Envoy'. The primary reasons for that trip were the concerns of Palmerston's Government over British trading rights. However, there was also the dispute manufactured by a consular officer called Harry Parkes, which gave the Government an excuse to look for 'satisfaction' over an alleged insult to the Union Jack. That affair was known as the 'lorcha Arrow incident'. The 'Arrow' was a lorcha, which was a particular type of sailing vessel that had a Portuguese or European-style hull and a Chinese junk-style rig. Such boats, which were much faster than the standard Chinese junk, were typically used for smuggling salt, which was the offence of which the Chinese had accused the Arrow's crew. For his own reasons, Parkes had decided he was offended by an imaginary insult to an imaginary flag.
So Elgin forced his way into China, quite unlike any reasonable envoy, 'reluctantly' led the bombing of Canton and negotiated the Treaty of Tientsin (Tianjin?), which effectively saw the end of the Second Opium War. Elgin's trip concluded with that treaty of the 26th of June, 1858, when he became High Commissioner, with Britain gaining beneficial trading rights and protection for its Missionaries. Then in 1860, after a sojourn in Japan, where he concluded the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, Elgin was back in China, because the Chinese had reneged on their obligations.
On his second trip, Elgin was accompanied by an Anglo-French military force, which army marched to Peking in support of Elgin's brother, who was besieging the place. Elgin wanted the Chinese to surrender and concede to a treaty. By all accounts, Elgin was keen to spare the city that the Chinese still call Beijing from further depredation. Reputedly, Elgin was also keen to exact revenge for the imprisonment, torture and execution of some prisoners; a group that had included two other British envoys and a journalist from 'The Times' amongst its twenty European and Indian victims. Some biographies of Elgin suggest that he considered destroying the Forbidden City as a reprisal. You can just imagine the Chinese tourist trade today without that! What an outrage that would've been.
Luckily, Elgin wasn't a fool, and he also had his eye on concluding that treaty, which became the Convention of Beijing, and didn't want to queer that pitch. So, on the 18th of October, 1860, Elgin ordered the destruction by burning of the Yuan Ming Yuan. The Old Summer Palace, eight kilometres north west of Beijing, had been built during the 18th and early 19th Centuries, and was where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty resided. The complex of palaces and gardens was also their governmental centre, but none of that stopped it burning for three days. Neither did the burning stop Elgin's troops from looting treasures from the Imperial Palace and carrying them to Britain. The 7th Earl would've been proud of that. It seems, however, that Elgin wasn't too proud of himself. According to his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Elgin wrote a letter to his wife, about the bombing of Canton, in which he wrote, “I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life.”
By the way, the treaty Elgin was after was signed on the 24th of October, 1860. It stipulated that China was to cede part of Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong, in perpetuity, to Britain.
Elgin's time as Governor General in Canada gets a better press, which isn't too surprising, since he was charged by the Whig Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, over a wee cuppa tea no doubt, to concede what was called 'responsible' or cabinet government to the colonial administration of British North America. Having cheered up the embryonic Canadians, Elgin then proceeded to annoy the English Tories in Canada East and the French-Canadians in Montreal by supporting the Rebellion Losses Act of 1849. That bill provided compensation for victims of the 1837 rebellion in Lower Canada, whom many saw as traitors. Nevertheless, Elgin's action has been described (in his entry in the 'Gale Encyclopedia of Biography') as “far seeing” and an “act of political wisdom” leading to similar and welcome gestures of appeasement in other colonies. His last major action before leaving Canada in 1854, was the successful negotiation of the Reciprocity Treaty with the United States, which was designed to boost the economic life of the Canadas.
James Bruce was born in London on the 20th of July, 1811 and he died, suddenly (unexpectedly, that is), in Dhurmsala, in the Himalayas, on the 20th of November, 1863, not long after taking up the post of Viceroy of India.