E is for … ebay (and eouch)

For a change this post is about photographs that have been lost. A recent sale on Ebay of some materials found during a house clearance in southwestern England, left traces online of what seems to be a historically interesting voyage in 1895.

The photographs have captions identifying the locations as Chemulpo (Incheon, Korea), Hong Kong, Japan, Fuzhou in China, and Takao (Dagou, present Gaoxiong) in Taiwan. One photograph reinforces the logical conclusion from this itinerary, that this is material from a photographer in the navy, probably an officer, possibly serving on the British cruiser HMS Mercury, which is shown in one image in dry dock in Hong Kong. This is hazarding a guess. Mercury was on the China station from 1890-95, and the photos are likely to date from late in that posting, for one shot shows a Chinese fort at Takao in Taiwan, and the ship visited the port in February 1895 during the Sino-Japanese war. The fort was then, and is still in the photograph, manned by Qing troops.

Taiwan, Dagou fort, c.1895

Taiwan, Dagou fort, c.1895

There are no named individuals, no helpful self-identification. Some portraits of senior naval figures on sale at the same time do not really help, and the camera is resolutely pointed outwards from the photographer, recording place and landscape.

At any one time there are many historical photographs of China on sale on Ebay. Sometimes the seller keeps whole albums intact, but it is not always the case, and there are examples galore to find of album pages detached and sold one by one, or collections of loose photographs separated and sold. The historian’s heart sinks, as coherent collections are broken up and scattered internationally: what has been lost here? What might have been pieced together from the scraps of evidence, or froma discussion with the original owners? The historian is also a hypocrite, of course, for I have also bought online as well. Perhaps the good has outdone the damage, for much that might have ended up in landfill has instead found a new lease of life and new homes, in collections and museums and libraries, as Ebay has concentrated the minds of owners on the potential value of their materials. Perhaps the consciousness of value has also helped divert some material directly to repositories.

Saracen Head, Dagou, Taiwan

Saracen’s Head, Dagou, Taiwan

But the frustrations are also crystallised for me by the ghost voyage of HMS Mercury (perhaps) in 1895 (perhaps), and an officer (probably) strolling up to take a photograph of the Takao fort, perhaps one of the last taken when still in Chinese hands, before Japanese warships pounded them in the autumn of 1895, and then took them over.

Caption 5 Caption 1 Caption 2 Caption 3 Caption 4




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