MORRISON, George Ernest (1862-1920)

MORRISON, George Ernest (1862-1920)
known as Chinese Morrison
traveller, The Times correspondent, Peking
was born at Geelong, Victoria, on 4 February 1862. His father, Dr G. Morrison, a brother of Alexander Morrison (q.v.), was principal of Geelong College, and the boy was educated at his father's school. Before proceeding to the medical course at Melbourne university at the beginning of 1880, Morrison had tested his powers as a walker during a vacation, by walking from Geelong to Adelaide, a distance of about 600 miles. After passing his first year medicine he took a vacation trip down the Murray in a canoe from Albury to the mouth, a distance of 1650 miles, covered in 65 days. Failing in his next examinations he shipped on a vessel trading to the South Sea islands, discovered some of the evils of the kanaka traffic, and wrote articles on it which appeared in the Age and had some influence on the eventual suppression of it. He next visited New Guinea and did part of the return journey on a Chinese junk. Landing at Normanton at the end of 1882 Morrison decided to walk to Melbourne. He was not quite 21, he had no horses or camels and was unarmed, but carrying his swag and swimming or wading the rivers in his path, he walked the 2043 miles in 123 days. No doubt the country had been much opened up since the days of Burke and Wills, but the journey was nevertheless a remarkable feat, which stamped Morrison as a great natural bushman and explorer. He arrived at Melbourne on 21 April 1883 to find that during his journey McIlwraith (q.v.), the premier of Queensland, had annexed part of New Guinea, and was vainly endeavouring to get the support of the British government for his action. The Age decided to send Morrison to New Guinea as its special correspondent, but this was not announced at the time, and Morrison, on being interviewed in Sydney, gave the impression that he was going to see what were the prospects of forming a Presbyterian mission station. He sailed from Cooktown in a small lugger and arrived at Port Moresby after a stormy passage. On 24 July Morrison with a small party started with the intention of crossing to Dyke Acland Bay 100 miles away. Much high mountain country barred the way, and it took 38 days to cover 50 miles. The natives became hostile, and about a month later Morrison was struck by two spears and nearly killed. The only thing possible was to retrace their steps, Morrison was strapped to a horse and, not having to cut the track as they went, Port Moresby was reached in days. Here Morrison received medical attention but it was more than a month before he reached the hospital at Cooktown. In spite of his misfortune Morrison had penetrated farther into New Guinea than any previous white man. Much the better for a week in hospital Morrison went on to Melbourne, but he still carried the head of a spear in his body and no local surgeon was anxious to probe for it in the condition of surgery in that day. Morrison's father decided to send the young man to John Chiene, professor of surgery at Edinburgh university, the operation was successful, and Morrison took up his medical studies again, at Edinburgh. He graduated M.B. Ch.M. on 1 August 1887.
After his graduation Morrison travelled extensively in the United States, the West Indies, and Spain, where he became medical officer at the Rio Tinto mine. He then proceeded to Morocco, became physician to the Shereef of Wazan, and did some travelling in the interior. Study at Paris under Dr Charcot followed before he returned to Australia in 1890, and for two years was resident surgeon at the Ballarat hospital. Leaving the hospital in May 1893 he went to the Far East, and in February 1894 began a journey from Shanghai to Rangoon. He went partly by boat up the river Yangtse and rode and walked the remainder of the 3000 miles. He completed the journey in 100 days at a total cost of £18, which included the wages of two or three Chinese servants whom he picked up and changed on the way as he entered new districts. He was quite unarmed and then knew hardly more than a dozen words of Chinese. But he was willing to conform to and respect the customs of the people he met, and everywhere was received with courtesy. In his interesting account of his journey, An Australian in China, published in 1895, while speaking well of the personalities of the many missionaries he met, he consistently belittled their success in obtaining converts. In after years he regretted this, as he felt he had given a wrong impression by not sufficiently stressing the value of their social and medical work.
After his arrival at Rangoon Morrison went to Calcutta where he became seriously ill with remittent fever and nearly died. On recovering he went to Scotland, presented a thesis to the university of Edinburgh on "Heredity as a Factor in the Causation of Disease", and received his M.D. degree in August 1895. He was introduced to Moberly Bell, editor of The Times, who appointed him a special correspondent in the east. In November he went to Siam where there were Anglo-French difficulties, and travelled much in the interior. Morrison was very doubtful about his first communication to The Times and showed it to a friend who, in a letter to The Times about the time of Morrison's death, spoke of it as a perfect diagnosis of the then troubled condition of China, masterly in its phrasing, luminous in its broad conception of the general situation". His reports attracted much attention both in London and Paris. From Siam he crossed into southern China and at Yunnan was again seriously ill. Curing himself he made his way through Siam to Bangkok, a journey of nearly a thousand miles. In February 1897 The Times made Morrison resident correspondent at Peking, and he took up his residence there in the following month. There was much Russian activity in Manchuria at this time and in June Morrison went to Vladivostok. He travelled over a thousand miles to Stretensk and then across Manchuria to Vladivostok again. He reported to The Times that Russian engineers were making preliminary surveys from Kirin towards Port Arthur. On the very day his communication arrived in London, 6 March 1898, The Times received a telegram from Morrison to say that Russia had presented a five-day ultimatum to China demanding the right to construct a railway to Port Arthur. This was a triumph for The Times and its correspondent, but he had also shown prophetic insight in another phrase of his dispatch, when he stated that "the importance of Japan in relation to the future of Manchuria cannot be disregarded". Germany had occupied Kiao-chao towards the end of 1897, and a great struggle for political preponderacy was going on. Morrison in his telegrams showed "the prescience of a statesman and the accuracy of an historian" (The Times, 21 May 1920). In January 1899 he went to Siam and was able to point out that there was no need for French interference in that country, which was quite capable of governing itself. Later in the year he went to England, and early in 1900 paid a short visit to his relations in Australia. Returning to the east by way of Japan he then visited Korea before returning to Peking. The Boxer rebellion broke out soon after, and during the siege of the legations from June to August Morrison as an acting-lieutenant showed great courage, always ready to volunteer for every service of danger. He was severely wounded in July and was reported killed. He was afterwards able to read his highly laudatory obituary notice, which occupied two columns of The Times on 17 July 1900. After a terrible siege the legations were relieved on 14 August by an army of various nationalities under General Gaselee. There was great uncertainty regarding the future of China in the following months, and through The Times Morrison was able to bring the changing positions before the British public. Russia and Japan united in opposing any dismemberment of China, which was punished by the imposition of a heavy indemnity. When the Russo-Japanese war broke out in February 1904 Morrison became a correspondent with the Japanese army. He was present at the entry of the Japanese into Port Arthur early in 1905, and represented The Times at the Portsmouth, U.S.A., peace conference. In 1907 he crossed China from Peking to the French border of Tonquin, and in 1910 rode from Honan across Asia to Andijan in Russian Turkestan, a journey of 3750 miles which was completed in 175 days. From Andijan he took train to Leningrad, and then travelled to London arriving on 29 July 1910. He returned to China and, when plague broke out in Manchuria, went to Harbin, where a great Chinese physician, Dr Wu Lien-teh, succeeded in staying the spread of a mortal sickness which seemed to threaten the whole world. Morrison did his part by publishing a series of articles advocating the launching of a modern scientific public health service in China. When the Chinese revolution began in 1911 Morrison took the side of the revolutionaries and the Chinese republic was established early in 1912. In August Morrison resigned his position on The Times to become political adviser to the Chinese government at a salary equivalent to £4000 a year, and immediately went to London to assist in floating a Chinese loan of £10,000,000. In China during the following years he had an anxious time advising, and endeavouring to deal with the political intrigues that were continually going on. He visited Australia again in December 1917 and returned to Peking in February 1918. He represented China during the peace discussions at Versailles in 1919, but his health began to give way and he retired to England well aware that he had only a short time to live. He died on 30 May 1920 and was buried at Sidmouth. He married in 1912 Jennie Wark Robin who survived him for only three years. His three sons, Ian, Alastair, and Colin, all grew to manhood and graduated at Cambridge. Morrison's remarkable library, which contained the largest number of books on China ever collected, was sold to Baron Iwasoki of Tokyo for £35,000 in 1917, with the proviso that serious students should have access to it. In 1932 the inaugural "George Ernest Morrison Lecture in Ethnology" was delivered at Canberra, a fund having been established by Chinese residents of Australia to provide for an annual lecture in Morrison's memory.
Morrison was a tall, rather ungainly man, who apparently did not know what fear was. His life was a crowded scene of adventure, but through all his adventures he carried an inquiring mind that gathered experience and knowledge from everything that happened. In this he was helped by his sympathy with human nature in all its manifestations, his humour, his lucidity of thought, his love of truth. All these things helped him to understand the oriental mind, and he became far more than a mere reporter of events. With no secret service money to help him he could look beneath the surface of the troubled conditions of the time, and his intelligent anticipation of events to come gave him a remarkable reputation. He began with a great belief in the mission of the British to develop China, but as time went on his love for China developed. During his last years his exceptional abilities were devoted to its interests, and to the end of his days he was constructively planning for its future development. No country has ever had a more devoted servant.
The Times, 17 July 1900, 31 May, 1 and 2 June 1920; F. Clune, Sky High to Shanghai, and Chinese Morrison; The Argus and The Age, Melbourne, 1 June 1920; A. B. Paterson, Happy Dispatches; G. E. Morrison, An Australian in China.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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