The slow boat to China

It’s 1873 and the Reverend Henry Parkes is in Canton, China, writing a letter to his boss, the General Secretary of a Methodist missionary society, in London.

“By next spring I shall have been resident ten years […] My objective in writing by this mail is to request permission to return home […] For myself, and more especially for my wife and family, I feel it’s necessary, soon, to have a change. In this view my medical advisor concurs.”

Henry is a Wesleyan Methodist minister and one of a small group of priests who have been asked to take Christianity to China following China’s defeat by the British in the second Opium War of 1856-60.

Henry and his new wife, Annie, and their children live on the eastern side of Canton Province (now known as Guangzhou), an area where smallpox, cholera typhoid and bubonic plague are endemic. Hundreds of thousands will die in the region over the next few years. With four children under the age of six, Henry is understandably concerned for the health and safety of his family.

Henry has now been in Canton Province for ten years, having arrived in China in August 1862, after a five month voyage from Southampton. As a missionary, his job is not only to preach, but also to help establish schools, hospitals and orphanages. Apart from the Parkes and a few other missionary families, there are no other Europeans in the region.

In the aftermath of the Opium Wars, there is little love lost between the Chinese and the British. Henry and his family live under threat of attack. Mandarin Chinese is not an easy language to learn and the lack of communication with the people around them, in addition to getting used to the local food, manners and customs, means that life is extremely difficult.

Henry studied to become a Methodist missionary at Richmond College, London, but although well-versed in theology, he received no practical training in the life skills needed for coping with this new environment. As a result, the Parkes family are incredibly isolated.

Henry would have expected a response to his letter to take around six months to arrive by ship. From the wording of a second letter, written seven months later, it’s evident that no response has been received. In the meantime, two of Henry’s children have tragically died. Over the next ten years, Henry writes a number of letters to the General Secretary; in each, he requests permission to come home. In 1882, nearly twenty years after arriving in Canton Province, the Parkes are finally allowed to return to England.

I watched celebrity chef Rick Stein tell this story on BBC1 on Monday as episode three of the latest series of “Who Do you Think You Are?”. Henry Parkes was Rick’s maternal great grandfather, and Rick traveled to Hong Kong to find out more about his life. The scene in which Rick reads the letters written by Henry is incredibly moving.

It’s an sad story – and all the more shocking in the context of today’s hyper-connected world. For us, the idea of being stranded on one side of the planet while your boss, manager or CEO chooses to ignore you on the other is unthinkable. Today, it would only take a handful of well-written blog posts, a campaign organized by your friends on Twitter or Facebook and/or a few hundred signatures via an e-petition before your employer was forced to address your needs – and relocate you.

It’s true, employers don’t always behave as they should (the same goes for employees, of course). But at least now we have the means to ensure all voices, however troublesome or inconvenient, are heard.

The funny thing is, in some instances, particularly in established organizations where there is a legacy of doing things a certain way, it seems some managers still behave as if that slow boat to China was the main method of communication. A friend of a friend who works for the UK civil service sums it up:

“Two hundred years ago, people wrote letters and it would take four weeks to get a reply, so you could basically go ahead and do what you wanted without waiting for permission to be given – or denied. People still run their own fiefdoms like this! Even if you’re a child of this generation and you get posted to Tonga for 25 years, you might have to ask, what are you going to learn [about the UK technology sector] in Tonga?”

To borrow a phrase from George Orwell, it seems all people are networked, but some are more networked than others. There’s no prize for guessing which type of person has the edge.

One last point: it’s interesting to read on Wonkette that one of US presidential candidate John McCain’s campaign advisors, Mike Murphy, is now, literally, on a slow boat to China. As one of McCain’s more savvy advisors, he’ll no doubt appreciate the irony more than anyone.