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Sir Chaloner Alabaster – ‘The Buster’

Posted: August 8th, 2009 | 3 Comments »

Sir Chaloner Alabaster (1838-83) was originally an interpreter with the British Consulate who established Shanghai’s First Joint Magistrate Mixed Court with Chinese and foreign judges jointly presiding. Alabaster was also closely involved with General Charles “Chinese” Gordon’s multiracial rag-tag, but ultimately successful, fighting force, the Ever Victorious Army, which finally defeated the Taiping Rebels in 1864 after he took over from the dead Frederick Townsend Ward. Alabaster later became Acting British Consul-General in Shanghai between 1884 and 1887, then British Consul-General for Canton in 1894. Known as “the Buster,” Sir Chaloner had joined the Consular Service at just 16 and died in Bournemouth after a distinguished career. In Shanghai he was also known as the founder of the Beefsteak Club. His brother Henry Alabaster also worked for the British Consular Service though in Bangkok where after 15 years he resigned to become an adviser to the King of Siam. The Buster also got a road named after him in the International Settlement – Alabaster Road, now Qufu Road.

Anyway, came across his obituary from the North China Herald the other day – it’s a great obit so worth reproducing in full. Despite Alabaster’s obvious language and diplomatic skills I rather like the idea of having it recorded in my obit that I ‘smoked two cheroots at once’ (oh, if only they’d had camera-phones in in the 1800s) and disliked organised sports (which woiuld have marked you out as very strange indeed in early treaty port Shanghai.

Newspaper obits these days are invariably bland, boring and not what they used to be – most decent obit specialists have been axed by the papers and PC language and the fear of dreary libel lawyers reigns so the most you can expect usually are recitations of achievements and then the inevitable ‘did a lot for charity and liked cats’ type of nonsense. In America apparently criticising anyone or making fun of them after they’ve popped their clogs is strictly verboten in a land that fears death and venerates youth. Alabaster’s obit is a worthy tribute to a great character and the art of decent obit writing.

From the North China Herald – July 11, 1898

“The older members of the British communities all over China will feel a sense of personal loss and really deep regret at the news of the death of Sir Chaloner Alabaster. For some years he has passed out of our immediate sight; but so marked a personality as his once known could never be forgotten; and he was so good and true a friend to those he liked, while he was as good an enemy of those he did not like, that the impression he made on all those with whom he came in contact was ineffaceable. It is only the colourless people that we forget when they have passed out of our circle.

Chaloner Alabaster was educated at King’s College, London, and matriculated at London University in 1852, so that he has passed away at the comparatively early age of but little over sixty. He was appointed a student interpreter in China in 1855, being attached to the Superintendency of Trade at Hongkong. He was present at the first bombardment of Canton, and was attached to Admiral Sir M Seymour until the capture of Canton, for which service he received the China medal with Canton clasp. When it was determined to send the bloodthirsty Commissioner Yeh in exile to Calcutta, Alabaster was chosen to accompany him, and remained with the prisoner until the latter’s death. Much of Alabaster’s peculiar and recondite knowledge of Chinese philosophy was gained from his conversations with Yeh during his captivity. On his return to China he was first attached to Sir Frederick Bruce’s mission, and was successively interpreter at Canton, Amoy, and Swatow, having plenty of experience of fighting against piratical villages while he was attached to the Swatow Consulate. He was appointed interpreter at Shanghai in 1861, and accompanied the EverVictorious Army under Gordon and his predecessors in several of its engagements with the rebels. In August 1862 he was lent to the Chinese Government to assist in the reorganisation of the Sungkiangforce. He was one of the organisers of the Mixed Court here, and is called in the Foreign Office List “Joint Magistrate”, this being obviously the position that the so-called ”Assessor” should always take. He was successively in charge of the Consulates at Chefoo, Swatow, Shanghai, Ningpo, Amoy, Ichang, and Hankow. In 1885 he was acting Consul-General at Shanghai, and was then transferred to Canton, where he was made Consul­General. In the distribution of Birthday Honours in 1892 he was made a K.C.M.G., and in November 1892 he retired on a pension after more than thirty-seven years’ invaluable service. His wife was a very well-known and very amiable and popular Shanghai lady, Miss Laura Macgowan, and she survives him. The last years of his life, which has ended too prematurely, were passed at Bournemouth.

St. Paul, referring to himself, in his second letter to the Corinthians, says: “His letters are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” Alabaster’s friends often had this text in mind when they were with him, for his bodily presence was weak, and his letters were very mighty. He was one of the cleverest and ablest men in the Consular service; with strong opinions of his own, and absolutely ignorant of fear. He was much too original, too decided, too anti-Chinese, to please Sir Thomas Wade, and he would have got on better if he had been more ready to fall in with his chief`s views; but his experience generally, and especially his long and intimate companionship with Yeh, had shown him what the Chinese mandarin is in his heart; and he could not be imposed upon by them as his simpler and more soft-hearted chief was. As we have said before, Alabaster was a man of intensely strong likes and dislikes; those whom he liked he loved, and these whom he disliked he hated; and as he had a bitter tongue and an ever-ready wit behind it, those whom he disliked called him Thersites; but his friends knew that with all his occasional bitterness he had a heart of pure gold, and would take any amount of trouble to help people who were really in trouble. He had no patience with shams and pretensions; he saw through them directly, and the man had to get up early who proposed to get round “the Buster, ” as he was affectionately termed It was worth a great deal to spend an evening with “the Buster, ” who would be smoking two cheroots at once, and the Dean, and hear them discuss men and things, with an incessant flow of wit and humour. It was Alabaster who turned Trinity Church here into a Cathedral and his friend the Chaplain, Mr. Butcher, into a Dean. He had no authority to do it beyond the public approval, but he did it.

Socially, Alabaster was very popular, and this popularity was enhanced by the respect that even those who were not his personal friends had for his spirited performance of his Consular duties. He was one of the founders and leading spirits of the Beefsteak Club and the original Debating Society, and one of the founders and warmest supporters of the Amateur Dramatic Club. Old stagers will long remember the assistance given the Club by Mr., or when the occasion demanded Miss, Chrysolite Gypsum. His mind was an ususually active one and he was a constant contributor to the local Press, and even Sir Thomas Wade, who did not love him, has confessed to the writer that, as regards Chinese philosophy, which no-one ever really succeeded in fathoming, Alabaster “had the root of the matter” in him. “The Buster” was not intended by nature to shine infield sports or athletic exercises of any kind, but his sympathies knew no limits, and he could enjoy hearing of a good run with Antrobus’s beagles or after the volatile paper, as much as of a contest of wits on the Bund, in the days when the Bund was the rendezvous after the day’s work was over. The “mysterious Colonel,” John George Dunn, was one of his intimates, and when Alabaster, Dunn, and the Dean foregathered, the ears of those they disliked – if the Dean ever really disliked any body – tingled, however far away they were in the flesh.

If Alabaster has been blessed with a physical constitution to match his mental endowments he would have risen very high in the world; as it is, there are very few who know what he might have become, and they will deeply lament his death; while all who knew him and his wife must most deeply sympathise with Lady Alabaster and the two sons and the daughters he has left behind him. Many a time when we have had a less energetic Consul here have old residents sighed, “Oh for an hour of Alabaster!”

3 Comments on “Sir Chaloner Alabaster – ‘The Buster’”

  1. 1 Dr. John S. Alabaster said at 6:00 pm on July 10th, 2011:

    Just to say thanks for taking the trouble to reprint the obit – most interesting.
    And to let you know, in case you are not aware, that some original correspondence of his, mainly to his aunt and his cousin, Percy Criddle, together with transcripts has been deposited at SOAS (MS 380451).
    My interest at the moment is with his brother Henry, utilising family correspondence.

  2. 2 Paul French said at 6:22 pm on July 10th, 2011:

    It is hard not to think that the Buster was a welcome addition to any good dinner party in Shanghai! Good luck with your researches.

  3. 3 Laks Indrakaran said at 10:37 pm on July 20th, 2014:

    I have spent quite a bit of time in trying to unearth Chaloner’s study of Chinese philosophy. I have only managed to uncover 6 brief papers so far. According to the obit, he contributed to the local press. I have search several databases but have not been able to locate much. If someone does know which papers he contributed to frequently I would be most grateful.

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