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Keenan, James, American Consul, Hong Kong, (1824-1862)
Manuscript letter book comprising Keenan’s letters to the Secretary of State in Washington, Victoria, Hong Kong, 1854-58

Large folio, 104 pp, plus blanks, elegantly penned in ink on ruled leaves, heavy paper. Large folio. Original reversed leather, hand-lettered “U. S. Consulate / Official / 1854.” A few faults, but generally in very good condition. The letters are written in ink in several legible hands, likely clerks, or secretaries in the consulate. The letters are numbered “number 6” through “number 43” and then are numbered “No, 9 of 1857” before ending with “No. 1 of 1858” January 15th, 1858.

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           This rare survival provides a close look at the high-level activities of diplomat James Keenan, American Consul in Hong Kong in the 1850s, at a key moment in Chinese history.

            Keenan served at a time of increasing American commercial and military presence in the Far East, the First Opium War, the Treaty of Whangia and culminating in the Perry expedition to Japan. A number of the letters in the volume involve the Second Opium War. The impetuous American envoy was present at the fall of Canton, waving the American flag, atop Yeh Mingchen’s palace. “Of the foreign invaders, Keenan, a veteran of the Mexican-American War, went the farthest into the city and stayed the longest” (Windchy, Twelve American Wars). According to an official report, Keenan discharged a revolver at a Chinese person, and while he was also allegedly intoxicated. By these actions Keenan earned the ire of his superiors for violating the stated American policy of neutrality. Many of the letters deal with Keenan’s defense of his conduct at Canton and with detailed denials that he carried the American flag or discharged his weapon during the conflict.

      Other letters concern the capture and treatment of American seamen by foreign powers, financial and provisioning matters, movements of ships, treatment of the Chinese by the military, interactions with other diplomats, the island of Formosa, and squabbles and infighting within the foreign service.

      This enormous volume contains Keenan’s letters to the secretary of state in Washington, William L. Marcy, and his successor Lewis Cass. Marcy was secretary of state under President Franklin Pierce, and Cass succeeded Marcy in 1857 when James Buchanan became president. Keenan was American consul in Hong Kong for eight years beginning in 1854.

       This letter book is a valuable record of American diplomatic and business activities in China at a decisive juncture in Chinese history.

         “James Keenan served as United States consul to Hong Kong for eight years beginning in 1853. Keenan’s career demonstrated the difficulties faced by United States consuls in the Far East. Many of the problems faced during his career resulted from the juxtaposition of a man predisposed to controversy with one of the most ambiguous posts in United States consular service.

           Keenan’s career involved him in difficulties with a United States naval commander, British authorities in Hong Kong, a United States commissioner to China, his temporary successor in Hong Kong, and even his State Department. During his career, Keenan anticipated legislative changes regarding United States consuls.

           Nevertheless, Keenan’s colorful career won him many British and American friends. However, his predilection for controversy damaged his effectiveness as United States consul.

          James Keenan, the American consul in Hong Kong from 1853 to 1861, filled an ambiguous position with a vigorous decisiveness. His career and post deserve examination because, in performing what he viewed to be his duty, he left his mark on the course of the United States China policy.

           In the past, studies of nineteenth century American diplomats in the Far East have emphasized American commissioners to China. The commissioners were the highest American diplomatic representatives in the area, but for a variety of reasons, at times, they had less of an impact on American policy than the American consuls.

           James Keenan’s appointment as United States consul to Hong Kong in May 1853, marked the beginning of a new era in the American consular service in Asia. Prior to Keenan’s appointment, the United States government, using expediency and the spoils system, had two types of consuls, the merchant-consul and the missionary-consul. Keenan was the first of a third type of consul – the political consul. Unlike the earlier consuls, his primary occupation was that of United States consul. As a result, Keenan viewed his main responsibilities to be the protection of American rights and citizens, rather than commercial concessions or conversions.

          Keenan could not be termed a China hand. He had never been to the Far East before his appointment as United States consul to Hong Kong. However, he did have an advantage over the first two types of consuls. He had a political background. Keenan was born in 1819 in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, to Scottish parents. He spent his youth in Greensburg, the county seat of Westmoreland County, located about twenty-five miles southeast of Pittsburg.

           In 1846, when the news of the Mexican-American War reached Pennsylvania, Keenan enlisted, as a private, in the 1st Regiment, 11th Infantry Pennsylvania Volunteers. One admirer later wrote that he did this to “defend his nation’s honor.” During the hostilities, his regiment participated in the landing at Vera Cruz and in the capture of Mexico City. By the time of his discharge, in 1848, Keenan was a 2nd lieutenant.

             Upon his return to Greensburg, Keenan entered politics. In 1848, he ran for the office of Westmoreland County Register and Recorder on the Democratic party ticket. He was successful in this bid for office and won reelection two years later. From his position as Register and Recorder Keenan made friends with a number of influential Pennsylvania Democrats.

            In 1851, the newly elected Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania, William Bigler, appointed Keenan Adjutant General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With the post came the honorary title of General, a title by which Keenan was referred to for the rest of his life. The adjutant general post gave Keenan more honor than financial security. As a result, in 1852, Keenan applied to the Department of State for a position as United Sates consul to Glasgow, Scotland. Many of his Democratic friends in Pennsylvania supported his application with letters of recommendation. They came from members of the Pennsylvania canal board, judges in the state’s 10th judicial district, Democratic members of the Pennsylvania house and senate, Governor William Bigler, and even the future president, James Buchanan.  However, Keenan did not receive the Glasgow appointment. On April 5, 1853, at President Franklin Pierce’s suggestion, Keenan amended his application for the Glasgow position to include any consulate of equal importance. In addition to the application change, Keenan’s political astuteness enabled him to apply pressure in another area in his attempt to secure an appointment as consul.

           This other area was through Buchanan. When the news of Buchanan’s appointment as minister to Great Britain reached Keenan, he wrote Buchanan on April 14, 1853, expressing his and other Pennsylvanian’s fears that Buchanan’s appointment would prevent other Pennsylvanians from receiving consular appointments.

            Buchanan had already discussed this matter with President Franklin Pierce. In their conversation, Buchanan referred to the possible lack of further appointments to Pennsylvanians as an “insurmountable obstacle” to his accepting the ministership to England. Pierce gave him his assurances that Buchanan’s appointment would be viewed as an “appointment for the whole country.” Thus, possible appointments to other Pennsylvanians would not be affected by Buchanan’s acceptance. Buchanan, on the basis of this conversation, assured Keenan that his fears and those of his friends were groundless.

            Keenan, however, continued his correspondence with other Pennsylvania politicians. On April 21st, he wrote another letter to Buchanan reporting a conversation between Pennsylvania Representative Augustus Drum and the President. In this conversation President Pierce reportedly told Drum that “it will be impossible to bestow important consulships on Pennsylvania,” which “has a cabinet officer and the first and highest mission.” Buchanan therefore was forced to continue to apply pressure to insure that his appointment would not prevent the appointments of other Pennsylvanians. Buchanan’s and Keenan’s endeavors were rewarded. On May 22, 1853, the President appointed Keenan United States consul to Hong Kong.

          Keenan accepted the appointment and at once began preparations for his departure. But in June 1853, he wrote the State Department and requested permission to delay his departure so that he might sail To China with Robert Walker, who had recently been offered the post of United States Commissioner to China. The permission was denied. Walker, it turned out, had refused to accept the office of Commissioner because of the inadequate salary that went with the post. No new appointment was immediately made.

          After further delays, Keenan finally left for China on October 12, 1853. He sailed from New York aboard the steamer George Law. After stopping in San Francisco, the ship crossed the Pacific and reached Hong Kong on January 25, 1854.

          Keenan arrived in a thriving British colony which had grown considerably in the years between 1842 and 1853. Many of the problems that would confront Keenan resulted from the nearness of British Hong Kong to the Manchu- governed Chinese mainland. As a result, routine consular problems dealing with piracy, shipwrecks, and the relations between American shipmasters and their crews, became atypical in Hong Kong. The multinational jurisdiction, involving primarily Great Britain, China, and the United States, created out of the ordinary problems. Furthermore, the lack of adequate definition of consular functions enabled Keenan’s decisive personality to solve these problems unconventionally.

         The problem of piracy was one problem that Keenan attempted to solve with his customary decisiveness. Keenan attempted to get United States naval authorities in the area to act against the pirates that infested the Hong Kong area. Keenan began a heated correspondence with Captain Cadwallader Ringgold, commander of the United States Surveying and Exploration Expedition in the far East. Neither Keenan’s nor Ringgold’s superiors were in the Hong Kong area at the time of the exchange. Keenan’s legal superior, the Minister of Great Britain, James Buchanan, was in London. The highest diplomat in the Far East, who at least technically outranked Keenan, was the American commissioner to China, Robert McLane. At the time, McLane was in the north, checking on the progress of the Taiping Rebellion. Ringgold’s superior, Commodore Matthew Perry was in Japanese waters attempting to open that island kingdom to United States trade.

          Keenan gained a first-hand knowledge of some of the difficulties that confronted an American consul who was accredited to a British colony which was located in Chinese waters by the end of his first year. His actions during the year had demonstrated that in his zeal to protect American citizens and financial interests in the Hong Kong area, he had a tendency to exceed his instructions. A pattern that would continue with increased controversy. During his second year in Hong Kong, he challenged the British authorities in the colony. Here too he exceeded the limits of his authority in order to perform what he viewed as his duty. Keenan challenged the British claim that they had the right to board American ships in Hong Kong harbor and in some instances remove sailors from them. Keenan’s challenges stirred up contention and trouble not only with the British who were incensed, but also with his superiors; Secretary of State Marcy and President Franklin Pierce who felt that Keenan had claimed “powers and jurisdictions” for himself which applied only to American consuls residing in China proper. Keenan ended the practice which had long been irritating to American merchants and seamen but in the end earned himself a reprimand from the State Department for exceeding his authority.

          There were other events in China building to a climax and Keenan’s involvement in them would almost cost him his post. The origins of the trouble lay in the 1844 Sino-American Treaty of Wanghia. Article 34 of the treaty provided for a treaty revision at the end of twelve years, or in 1856. However, under clause 8 in the Anglo-Chinese treaty of the Bogue – a most favored nation clause – Britain claimed the right to revision as well. Since the British treaty went into effect two years earlier than the Treaty of Wanghia, beginning in 1854 the British started pressuring the Chinese for a treaty revision. The major English grievance involved the entry of British subjects into Canton. Article 2 of the British Treaty of Nanking stated that British subjects had the right of entry to the treaty ports without molestation. However, the British had consistently been denied entry into Canton. Entry had been denied but the British chose to ignore the issue until the time for the treaty revision neared, the British, especially the local British authorities, began to consider the issue of entry into Canton a means of forcing the Chinese into negotiating a new treaty.  The British used force to gain entry to Canton which led directly to the outbreak of the Second Opium War 1856-1860. The Opium War and the actions of Britain and the United States had a profound effect upon relations between China and the West down to the present day.

              In late October the British bombarded the city and seven days later ground forces attacked Canton. Several Americans entered Canton with the British forces. One was the American consul at Canton, Oliver H. Perry. The second was Keenan. The Americans “were not joining in … the quarrel, but simply protecting the interests of their countrymen.”

            Some Americans did not view their representatives’ actions in this light. The discontents accused Keenan of compromising the United States policy of neutrality by entering Canton and by displaying a large United States flag while he was in the city. Keenan’s relations with the British improved after his actions in Canton.

           In January 1858, Keenan returned to the United States on a leave of absence for a year for health reasons. Following his return to the United States he faced the severest challenge to his consular career. Keenan was charged with malfeasance and corruption, as well as intemperate habits by O. E. Roberts, an American, who had an eye on Keenan’s post in his absence. But Keenan’s friends lobbied the White House for him, doing so as late as the Lincoln Administration. Keenan, who owned a newspaper in Pennsylvania, remained in Hong Kong until 1862 and died of an illness upon his return to the United States. He was 38.


       Sample Quotes:

        “United States Consulate Hong Kong 15th May 1857


           I have the honor to reply to your dispatch of the 31st of January last in which you acknowledge the receipt of my letter No 36 of 1856 and state that “the secretary directs you to say that he regrets, that you (I) should have failed to transmit an account of those occurrences between the British and Chinese at Canton referred to in my last dispatch, and more especially, because it is stated in Newspapers that you (I) took a prominent part in the occurrences, and also that “If as he hopes you (I) have been misrepresented in these statements, he expects that you (I) will put it in the power of the Department to correct them”

             I did not deem it incumbent on me or proper that I should enter into the details of occurrences at Canton on the occasion referred to (Oct 29th 1856) Firstly, because they were all well known here, and I was well convinced that they would all reach the Department through public channels before the arrival of my dispatch; and secondly because Commissioner Parker having arrived from the North, prior to the date of my dispatch and Consul Perry of Canton, having been all the time at the scene; and both having every opportunity to acquaint themselves withal the facts, it would certainly have been presumptuous in me to travel out of the province of my duties and assume those so peculiarly belonging to them; and I did not imagine for a moment that any one would be found so silly and so malicious as to misrepresent my conduct upon the occasion, in order to gratify private spleen, land a friend by contract, or adorn a tale for a newspaper.

            The cause of my presence at Canton at that time was as follows Mr. Tait a Merchant at Amoy, called upon me in the month of September, 1856 and informed me that he had libelled the American Ship “Hound” in the District Court for the southern District of New York, and that he had been informed that a commission had been sent to China to take depositions at this port and also at Macao; and desired that I would proceed to Macao in order to take them there, as the Consul of that port, Mr. Rawle, was well known to be too ill to attend to any business whatever and not likely to recover for many months, if ever.

            Feeling under many obligations to counsul Rawl and considering it my duty to lend what assistance I could. I promised Mr. Tait and other friends of counsul Rawl, to attend to it, …

           James Tait Esqr


               Is a copy promising to go up on the 27th of October last, I accordingly left for Macao via Canton which as the boats then ran was the rout to Macao. Upon my arrival at Canton I found the English troops preparing to enter the city. For the part I took in the Military operations and the display of the American Flag upon that occasion I refer you to the enclosed “B” copy of a letter to Commissioner Parker in reply to a communication from him that subject …”

       “To enable the Department the more fully to understand my movements I may  add that upon being informed that the British boats were pushing off from the warf to enter the breach made in the walls. I walked to the warf with a friend and found that all the British boats had gone and that two boats of the U. S. S. Levant with an officer in charge were about to leave. I asked him if he was going down to the breach, he replied he was, and upon my application gave my friend & myself a seat in one of the boats he remaining in the other boat just as I was stepping out of the boat a sailor asked my permission to land, turning around I asked the officer in charge of the other boat if he would allow it. He gave him that permission and I stepped from the boat and entered the walls conversing with citizens around me and entered the walls conversing with citizens around me and paid no attention to the man till I saw him within the city with a boats flag not displayed but wrapped around a small staff. I saw there forty or fifty other American citizens and I was dressed in plain citizens dress without even arms to distinguish me from others carrying but the pocket pistol always carried and always necessary in China. I can only attribute to private malice and a school boys desire for self aggrandizement the spirit that propagated the misrepresentations of my course ….” [sic]

“United States Consulate Hong Kong July 22d 1857


           In accordance with my promise in my dispatch of the 23rd ult. I proceed to furnish the Department with further particulars in regard to past and present affairs in relation to the existing difficulties in China.

            Sometime in the early part of the month of Oct last, the American Steamer “Cum Fa”, while upon a pleasure trip up the river, from Macao, with a number of American gentlemen and ladies on board, was fired upon by a Chinese fort near the city of HangShan, situated on the inner passage to Canton, about thirty miles distant from Macao, sixty from Whampoa, and about seventy from Canton. The American flag was then displayed. After standing three shots from the fort, the steamer put about and returned to Macao. The steamer is the property of an American citizen, and therefore the Navy has not thought fit to chastise the Mandarin of Hang Shan, and that fort remains unmolested.

             Sometime afterward, upon the 22d of October, the United States Ship Portsmouth landed eighty men in Canton with a small howitzer and took possession of New China Street, displaying the American flag, by planting it along side of the cannon. About the 25th of October, the U. S. Ship Levant having arrived at Whampoa despatched and landed at Canton, forty five men with another howitzer. The British troops held Old China Street at this time, and the two forces acted in concert. The braves approached Old China Street and two of them were killed by the British Marines.

          When the British forces stormed the city of Canton on the 29th of October, the American Marines and Sailors held possession of New China Street, the entrance from Old China Street, and all entrances to the foreign hongs; and for the part taken by our Naval forces subsequently, I refer you to the enclosed statements of S. E. Burrows Esq and Mr. J. T. Wilson …”

See: King, Amelia May, James Keenan: United States Consul to Hong Kong Thesis Presented to the Graduate Council of the North Texas State University, Denton, Texas, August 1978

      Windchy, Eugene G., Twelve American Wars Nine of Them Avoidable

      (Bloomington: Xlibris, fourth edition, 2019) pp., 114-130