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The marine chart of the Amherst’s embassy to China

In Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China (1818)

In 1816, Britain sent its embassy to China for the second time to seek commercial port openings, but the mission failed after the embassy refused to kowtow before the Jiaqing Emperor. The trip eventually set the stage for the Opium War, leading to the cession of Hong Kong Island to Britain. 

(click image to enlarge)

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Anchor 2

Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China (1818) 

By Clarke Abel

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Waterfall at Hong Cong (Kong) (1817)

In Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China (1818)

The original painting is part of the collection of the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

The watercolour illustration at the beginning of the book presumably depicts the Waterfall Bay at Aberdeen. The inclusion of this illustration in the travelogue may not have been for mere aesthetic purposes. In an era when explorations depended on navigation, it was important to find clean water on the voyage. Although Hong Kong seemed barren to Abel, he mentioned, “Hong-kong sound is represented by my naval friends as affording admirable shelter for ships of any burden.”

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All stories in Chapter 1


Other Stories

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Period of stay: 9 - 13 July 1816

Interest in natural history: Botany, geology

Clarke Abel


Clarke Abel was the Chief Medical Officer of the Amherst’s embassy to China, and the first naturalist from the West to write about Hong Kong Island’s nature.

In 1816, Abel was drawn to the waterfalls of Hong Kong Island the moment the Amherst fleet entered Hong Kong waters. He observed Lamma Island from the ship, then spent a day and a half on Hong Kong Island and another small island (presumably Magazine Island) collecting rock and plant specimens, where he saw Rose Myrtle and Twelve-stamened Melastoma in bloom. However, he made the following conclusion on the landscape of Hong Kong Island: “Every part of Hong Kong that I was able to visit is remarkably barren, although in the distance it appears fertile.”

Abel was introduced to the embassy by Joseph Banks, a leading British botanist at the time, and was sent a professional gardener from Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) to help him collect and make specimens. However, he lost all his collections due to shipwreck and piracy on his return.

Despite the challenges, he eventually finished writing his book, Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China, and of a Voyage to and from that Country, in the Years 1816-1817. The book contains not only descriptions of Hong Kong’s nature but also a colourful illustration of a waterfall in Aberdeen, which is one of the earliest Western paintings depicting Hong Kong.

In the preface, Abel writes, "It is not for me to judge how far I may have correctly estimated the value of my matter…I have endeavoured to describe things as I saw them.”

Describing First Impressions

Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China (1818) 

By Clarke Abel

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Specimen of
Dichotomy Forked Fern

Collected on Lung Fu Shan in 2019

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Flora Japonica (1784)
by Carl P. Thunberg

Dichotomy Forked Fern is the only species mentioned twice by Abel in the chapter on Hong Kong. Abel originally identified the species as Polypodium trichotomum, but later changed it to Polypodium dichotomum after referencing Flora Japonica, a book published in 1784 by a Swedish naturalist. Still commonly found around Hong Kong’s countryside today, its scientific name has changed to Dicranopteris pedata.

Dichotomy Forked Fern

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