Robert Morrison

MORRISON, Robert (1782-1834) — Canton

Missionary and printer. Produced, inter alia, “Hsi-yu ti-ch’iu wen-chien lüehchuan” (A voyage round the world) 1819, printed at Canton and including a map. Also a lithographic map of Formosa (Taiwan) in English, printed on a stone brought from Bengal in 1834.

Born at Morpeth, Northumberland, 5 Jan 1782, the son of James Morrison and his wife Hannah, née Nicholson. His family later moved to Newcastle, where his father was a maker of boot-trees and lasts. Initially apprenticed to his father, Morrison joined the Presbyterian church in 1798 and developed a desire to become a minister. In 1803 he was accepted by the Hoxton Academy in London and subsequently offered his services to the London Missionary Society. It was soon decided that he should learn Chinese and go out to China to translate the scriptures. He studied at the missionary academy in Gosport, and further studied medicine and astronomy in London. He was ordained 8 Jan 1807 and later that month sailed for Canton (Guangzhou), where he arrived 7 Sep 1807 — the first Protestant missionary in China. The hostility of the authorities to missionaries compelled him initially to live in some secrecy, adopting Chinese dress, before being appointed a translator to the East India Company in 1809. He married (1) Mary Morton (1791-1821), the daughter of an Irish surgeon, on 20 Feb 1809, the same day as his appointment. He attempted to teach himself the art of Chinese block printing by obtaining engraving tools and experimenting, but the difficulties of the task led to his commissioning a local printer (illegally) to produce 1,000 copies of a Chinese translation of the Acts of the Apostles in 1810. He was joined by William Milne in 1813. Although the East India Company gave him considerable help in publishing his “A grammar of the Chinese language” (1815) and his “Dictionary of the Chinese Language” (1815-1823), his missionary activities were frowned upon, with the result that he and Milne determined on Malacca as the future base of the London Missionary Society’s printing, publishing and teaching activities — Milne departed for Malacca in 1815. In 1816-1817 Morrison visited the Chinese interior as an interpreter to Lord Amherst’s mission to Peking, an account of which he published as “A memoir of the principal occurrences during an Embassy from the British Government” (1819). His monumental translation of the Bible into Chinese was completed, with substantial input from Milne, and published at Malacca in twenty-one volumes in 1823. Increasingly harassed by the Canton authorities, Morrison returned to England in 1824, bringing home his substantial Chinese library of some 15,000 volumes, which was presented to University College, London, in 1837 and now forms the core collection of the School of Oriental and African Studies, where his papers also survive. He re-married (2) Eliza Armstrong (1795-1874) at Liverpool 23 Nov 1824 and learned lithography, returning to Canton with a small press in 1826. He died in Canton on 1 Aug 1834 at the age of fifty-two. He was buried at the Old Protestant Cemetery at Macao. “It is with deep regret that we have to announce the death of the above distinguished missionary. The melancholy event took place on the Ist of August, at Canton. It appears that Dr. Morrison, having accepted the office of Chinese Secretary and Interpreter to the Superintendents, accompanied them from Macao to Canton, and was exposed during the passage to rainy and boisterous weather, which aggravated the symptoms of a state of health already bad, and terminated his earthly career after one hour’s illness … His translation of the Bible into Chinese will form a nobler and more enduring monument to his memory than all the memorials that human genius could invent, whether in brass, in marble, in poetry, or eloquence” (Cambridge Chronicle, 6 Feb 1835).

BM. BNA. COPAC. ODNB. Ching Su, “The printing presses of the London Missionary Society among the Chinese” 1996.

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