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Morrison, George Ernest (Chinese) (1862–1920)

by J. S. Gregory

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

George Ernest Morrison, by Frederic Whiting

George Ernest Morrison, by Frederic Whiting

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6054853

George Ernest (Chinese) Morrison (1862-1920), journalist, traveller and political adviser to the Chinese government, was born on 4 February 1862 at Newtown, Geelong, Victoria, eldest son of George Morrison and his wife Rebecca, née Greenwood. C. N. Morrison was his brother. He was educated at his father's school, Geelong College, where he recalled that 'we lived healthy, happy lives, giving more time to outdoor play than to study' and where he acquired his lifelong habits of keeping a diary, collecting—at first stamps and shells, later books on China—and walking long distances. At the end of his school life he also became interested in journalism. He grew into a moderately tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed youth who retained his solid good looks into middle age. His biographer Cyril Pearl suggests that, although his father took great pride in his achievements, Morrison always had much closer ties with his mother.

Early in 1880, before beginning medical studies at the University of Melbourne, Morrison walked about 750 miles (1207 km) around the coast to Adelaide through much still unsettled country. He sold his diary of this 'walking tour' to the Leader. The following summer, he canoed down the Murray from Wodonga to the sea, walking back to Geelong. More Leader articles resulted. His medical studies were less successful and in March 1882 he failed a crucial examination.

This setback left him free to travel to North Queensland in April to investigate the Kanaka 'blackbirding' trade for the Age. He joined the Lavinia as an ordinary seaman for a three-month recruiting cruise and six mildly critical articles appeared in the Leader between October and December. Morrison meanwhile had gone on to visit Port Moresby and Thursday Island and then Normanton, on the Gulf of Carpentaria, from where he set out on 19 December to walk to Melbourne, roughly back-tracking the route followed by Burke and Wills. After two months he was at Cooper's Creek and by 21 April 1883 in Melbourne, having covered over 2000 miles (3219 km) in 123 days. He wrote to his mother that it was 'no feat of endurance—only a pleasant excursion'. The Argus, hostile to him as an Age cub, decried this as the curious and purposeless feat of a swagman; his future employer The Times, however, praised it as 'one of the most remarkable of pedestrian achievements', which it surely was.

Soon after his return Morrison denounced 'the Queensland slave trade' in a letter to the Age, prompting questions to the Queensland government from the Colonial Office. After a perfunctory enquiry in June (Sir) Samuel Griffith reported a lack of supporting evidence. Governor Sir Anthony Musgrave, however, writing to the earl of Derby, was 'unable quite to agree' with his premier, and Morrison's articles and letter remain significant accounts of the trade.

In June Morrison, financed by the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, had left Melbourne to explore New Guinea. He proceeded inland from Port Moresby at the end of July, accompanied by two white men and several indigenes. How far the party penetrated is unclear; early in October Morrison received severe spear wounds, one below his right eye, the other in the abdomen, and the explorers struggled back to Port Moresby. After convalescence there and at Cooktown, Queensland, Morrison returned 'defeated and wounded' to Melbourne. Only his strong constitution and indomitable will enabled him to survive. In March 1884 he sailed for Edinburgh where, after a tapering spearhead 'the size of your second finger' was removed from his side, he resumed his medical studies.

After graduating M.B., Ch.M. in August 1887 Morrison travelled, on very limited finance, to North America and the West Indies. From May 1888 he worked in Spain for eighteen months as medical officer at a British-owned mine and then resumed his rather aimless wanderings, drifting back to Australia at the end of 1890. Next April he was appointed resident surgeon at the Ballarat base hospital but two years work there ended in a dispute with the hospital committee and Morrison's ready return to his 'nomad' life. He travelled through the Philippines then up the coast of China, for economy's sake as a missionary in Chinese dress. In Japan he decided to walk across China into Burma, again reversing the path of his rare predecessors. His journey of 3000 miles (4828 km), begun from Shanghai in February 1894, took over three months and cost, he calculated, less than £30. In Calcutta he recovered from a near-fatal attack of fever and was back in Australia by the end of the year.

But he chose not to stay. In February 1895 he returned to London with a written account of his journey. While seeking a publisher he completed a thesis on the hereditary transmission of malformations and abnormalities and graduated M.D. in Edinburgh in August. By then his book, An Australian in China, Being the Narrative of a Quiet Journey Across China to Burma, was published. It was very favourably received. In it Morrison confessed that his 'lively sympathy and gratitude' had begun as the 'strong racial antipathy to the Chinese common to my countrymen'. He wrote ironically of the missionaries and with concern about the opium problem. The book retains some value as a clear-eyed though culture-bound account of provincial China in the 1890s.

His enterprise won Morrison appointment, on a secret and trial basis, as a special Times correspondent in Asia. Late in 1895 he travelled via Saigon into Indo-China as far as Bangkok, reporting trenchantly on the French presence in the region. His reports were highly praised, both by (Sir) Valentine Chirol, foreign editor of The Times, and by the Foreign Office, and his position was soon confirmed as the first permanent correspondent of The Times in Peking. He took up his post there in March 1897; it was to be his base for over twenty years. Without ceasing to be something of a wanderer he became, for Westerners at least, 'Chinese Morrison', the foreign expert on the politics of China, though he never acquired a thorough command of Chinese.

Morrison was fortunate to arrive in Peking at a time when mounting tensions ensured the noteworthiness of his dispatches. As a representative of The Times he also enjoyed unusual authority and entrée. Nevertheless, his resourcefulness and the high level of detail and accuracy of his reports denote not just a lucky but a great newspaper correspondent.

His first major scoop came in 1898 when he reported a Russian ultimatum to China demanding a lease on Port Arthur; at first little regarded by the British government, the report was soon shown to be wholly accurate. In 1900 Morrison wrote the last terse and reliable reports before the Boxer siege of the foreign legations and the first full account after it. He also proved his physical courage, being severely wounded while rescuing another defender. His own newspaper, accepting a Daily Mail report of the massacre of all Europeans in Peking, published on 17 July three lengthy obituaries, bracketing Morrison with the British minister, Sir Claude MacDonald, and the head of the Imperial Customs Service, Sir Robert Hart. All three in fact survived. Morrison was praised as 'in every way a striking personality, essentially modest and unassuming, yet at the same time resolute and virile' who had sent reports which 'savoured of genius'.

Although he was to revise his ideas radically, in the years immediately following the Boxer crisis Morrison became a vigorous protagonist for Japan as a counter to the growing Russian pressures on China. He welcomed war between Russia and Japan in 1904 and accompanied the Japanese forces on their triumphal entry into Port Arthur in January 1905. A few months later he was sent to report on the peace conference presided over by President Roosevelt at Portsmouth, United States of America. In spite of Morrison's pro-Japanese stand, the chief Russian negotiator, Count de Witte, sought him out for a lengthy discussion. Returning to China via England and Europe, Morrison exercised some influence on the choice of a new British minister to Peking and in the development of British policy ending the opium trade from India. He had reached the apogee of his political and diplomatic influence.

He was, however, entering another period of uncertainty. He clearly felt the lack of any sustained, close personal relationship; his health, no doubt affected by the rigours he had experienced, was worsening, while he was increasingly dissatisfied with the editing of his reports. In 1907 he rejected an invitation to become foreign editor of The Times in London, and he speculated about returning to Australia, which he had revisited in 1900 and 1902-03, in order to enter political life. He corresponded occasionally with prominent Australians including Alfred Deakin and H. B. Higgins, his brother-in-law. Another idea he entertained was to become British minister in Peking. But in fact he remained as The Times representative there, albeit often absent. He was present in 1911, however, to report, once again more sharply and accurately than other correspondents, on the revolutionary events culminating in the end of Manchu rule.

In August 1912 Morrison quickly accepted President Yuan Shi-kai's offer of a well-paid place as government adviser. On 26 August at Croydon, Surrey, England, he married his New Zealand-born secretary, Jennie Wark Robin, twenty-seven years his junior. He found in his marriage a new happiness and emotional security. But his change of professional status was far less rewarding and he was soon complaining of being more in the dark than when he was a correspondent. Nevertheless, he had some limited successes. He must take some of the credit, for example, for the tempering of Japan's notorious Twenty-One Demands on China in 1915; although he did not participate in negotiations, he obtained publication of the demands in foreign papers which had initially doubted their authenticity.

Convinced that the new republic must enter actively into world diplomacy, Morrison worked to bring China into the war against Germany. He also wanted to maintain China's integrity in the face of what he now saw as the major threat of an aggressive, exclusivist Japanese imperialism; he considered the best way to do this was to preserve the old links with Britain. China's entry into World War I gave it a place at the 1919 Versailles conference and Morrison helped to prepare its submissions. These were quite unsuccessful in preventing China's 'allies' from subordinating her interests to Japan's and the great surge of Chinese nationalism known as the May Fourth movement erupted. Morrison, however, was to see nothing of this. By then very ill, he left Paris in May for England. After a year of suffering and desperate searches for a cure, he died of inanition associated with chronic pancreatitis at Sidmouth, Devon, on 30 May 1920; survived by his wife (d.1923) and three sons, he was buried in Sidmouth cemetery.

Morrison had visited Australia once more in late 1917. Although deeply attached to the country of his birth he was very critical, especially of the defeat of the second conscription referendum which he interpreted as a triumph for Catholic and women voters. He spoke publicly for conscription, but even more of trade prospects with China and to warn that an easy-going Australia could not for long ignore hard-working Japan. Earlier, he had sold his remarkable library of Western language works on China—over 20,000 volumes, maps and pamphlets. The collection is now held by the Tokyo Toyo Bunka Kenkyusho. Morrison's eldest son Ian (1913-1950) was killed reporting the Korean War for The Times. In 1932 an annual series of lectures on China was founded in honour of Morrison by Chinese residents in Australia; the series continues under the auspices of the Australian National University.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Clune, Sky High to Shanghai (Syd, 1939)
  • F. Clune, Chinese Morrison (Melb, 1941)
  • W. A. Morrison, Ernest Morrison (Melb, 1962)
  • C. Pearl, Morrison of Peking (Syd, 1967)
  • R. Hatton and M. S. Anderson, Studies in Diplomatic History (Lond, 1970)
  • H. Trevor-Roper, Hermit of Peking (NY, 1977)
  • H. M. Lo (ed), The Correspondence of G. E. Morrison, vols 1-2 (Cambridge, 1976, 1978)
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 20 (1934), p 401, 48 (1963), p 426
  • Journal of Oriental Society of Australia, June 1963, p 42
  • A. G. Moller, G. E. Morrison: Political Adviser to Yuan Shih-k'ai 1912-16 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1975)
  • Morrison papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. S. Gregory, 'Morrison, George Ernest (Chinese) (1862–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morrison-george-ernest-chinese-7663/text13405, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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