Having grown up in Hong Kong, thinking about colonialism and imperialism quickly gives me a headache. At the root of this is an unbridgeable sense of cognitive dissonance: on the one hand these two forces created an amazing city which I love as my home, and on the other I know that using force against others for your own gain is morally reprehensible.
Certain British historians have tried in the past to get around this by claiming that the British Empire was less brutish and more beneficial than other contemporary empires, but this seems to be skirting the issues to reduce collective guilt.
With this personal context in mind, I am immediately interested in any historical images of Hong Kong, especially older ones which might offer insight into what life was like under imperial rule. And so it was that the following image really caught my eye:
Image via Historical Times, under Public Domain
Viewing only the top half of the image it seems like some kindly old gentlemen on a rural day out, posing for a photo. Look then at the bottom half and witness beheaded humans lying in the dirt. Should we feel for the “pirates” who have been executed? Did they deserve their fate through wrong deeds, or did they simply upset the wrong imperialists? What are passers-by thinking: are they relieved that justice has been dealt, abhorred by the brutishness of these gwai lo (foreign devils), or fatalistically indifferent?
Of course, we will never really know the answers to these questions, but they are worth discussing all the same. I duly filed the image away for later use, shared it on Twitter and moved on. Much to my surprise, a couple of teachers (@vanweringh and @PaulGrace9) who are now in my PLN saw the image and started sharing and researching ideas on it.
— VanWeringh (@vanweringh) January 13, 2014
Reading these articles is revealing. It seems like the pirates were genuinely dastardly, but they make up only 6 of the 15 beheadings. Also of interest is that some of the beheadings were carried out by a 15-year old boy. How times have changed.
Our collaboration finished up with suggestions to use HistoryPin and the image below to further explore this area. As was mentioned in our discussions, the topics of piracy and imperialism are so interesting to study as they are still relevant today.
— Paul Grace (@PaulGrace9) January 13, 2014