Friday, 13 November 2015

Adventurous Jerseyman: William Mesney

From "The Pilot", 1991, comes this little gem.

Adventurous Jerseyman: William Mesney

Some Jerseymen have managed to do most extraordinary things. William Mesny was born in the La Croiserie Vingtaine at Trinity on 9th October, 1842, the son of a local cobbler. At twelve he went to sea. Of his early years the only record is some doggerel verses of his own:-

A sailor for years I ploughed the rough sea,
And Africa's hot clime t tested,
India's tall palaces also I've seen;
Australia's rich shores I have visited,
At last to the Chinese Empire I came,
And though that no more I would travel;
So on shore I did go to seek glory and fame.

This was in 1860. As a lad of eighteen he left his ship, and made his way to Hong Kong. Here he quickly picked up the language, and made many Chinese friends among the merchants, and had more than one narrow escape from matrimony.

The prestige of Britain then stood high, and there was keen competition among fathers to secure a British son-in-law. They would invite the young sailor-lad to dinner, seat him next to a beautiful daughter, ply him with wine, and at the close of the party introduce him to the family lawyer, who had the marriage contract ready for him to sign.

One father and daughter were so persistent, that he fled to Shanghai. China was then rent by civil war. The Tai-ping rebels looked as though they were going to overthrow the Manchu dynasty. Both sides were recruiting foreign mercenaries. Mesny tried to raise a company for the Emperor's service. He enlisted a band of scallywags of all nationalities; but, on the night they were to sail, being overheard speaking French, he was arrested by a party of French marines, who were rounding up naval deserters, and his company sailed without him.

But he soon found a way in which a daring man could make money. Navigation on the great Yang-tae river was then very dangerous. Fighting was going on on both banks; and each side seized any cargoes it could lay hands on.

Ordinary commerce was at a standstill. So big profits could be made by any boat that would run through the danger zone. Bags of salt bought for a dollar at Shanghai sold for thirteen dollars at Hangkow,

Mesny plunged into this business, first in a small sailing-boat, then In a Chinese junk. He also made what he calls "a few very successful speculations in the arms trade." Once his boat was captured by Imperialists, and he was wounded in two places. Once he was taken prisoner by Tai-pings, who fixed his ransom at 100,000 dollars;, "a princely price," he says, "for a poor Jerseyman." At first he was cruelly treated, but, when his captors found that he could play Chinese tunes on his four, octave flutina, their behaviour entirely altered. After six months not unpleasant captivity he was rescued by a British gun-boat.

Then General Gordon was lent by the British Government to the Chinese to suppress the Tai-ping Rebellion. Mesny served under him as Lieutenant and, when Gordon returned to England in 1865, remained in the Chinese army. Distant provinces of the cumbrous Empire were constantly in revolt, and he saw much active service, and rose steadily in rank. In 1869 he was promoted Colonel, and given the Hua-ling Plume. In the following year he was awarded the Star of China. In 1873 he became Major. General, and was created Penetrating Knight of the Pa.t'ulu, the Chinese equivalent of the French Legion d'Honneur. In 1880 he was granted for three generations the very exalted decoration of San Tai Kao Feng.

About this time he married a Chinese lady named Han, by whom he had a Chinese family. He was made a Mandarin of the First Class, always wore Chinese dress, grew a magnificent pig-tail and was said to be the only European, who could speak Chinese without a trace of a foreign accent.

His military duties did not absorb all his interests. He became an enthusiastic geographer and explorer, penetrating Into districts that no European had ever entered before and sending records of his discoveries to the Royal Geographical Society. For example, in 1877 he made a twenty months' journey across Tibet to the capital of Yunnan. Then, after a visit to Jersey, he made another three thousand miles' journey from Canton to East Turkestan.

He was also a keen-eyed botanist, and on his travels found many new plants that he sent home to England. In the more expensive collections of rock-plants to-day you may find more than one rare specimen called "something Mesniana,'

In 1895 he began to publish in Shanghai a chatty little magazine, Mesny's Miscellany, almost entirely written by himself, full of information he had gathered about Chinese customs, plants, etiquette, superstitions, and secret societies.

Its pages show how closely he kept in touch with his native Island, for he constantly reprints verses and paragraphs from the Jersey Observer. He never abandoned his British citizenship, and died at Hankow on 11th December, 1919 at the age of seventy-seven.

Who can foresee any boy's future? If we could have seen him as a boy of eleven running round to the Trinity farina with the boots his father had resoled who would have prophesied that he would end his life as a pigtailed Chinese Mandarin? 

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