Kidnap in London

Dr James Cantlie was a remarkable man.  He had great energy and a strong motivation to help others.  In 1886 he was asked to join a practice in Hong Kong.  This appealed to his love of adventure, and off he went (with his equally adventurous wife Mabel and young son Keith).  Once arrived, he plunged into various public duties alongside his medical work.  One of these was setting up a College of Medicine for Chinese students.  Of its first two students, one of them was the young Sun Yat Sen.

Cantlie and Sun soon became firm friends.  Cantlie was a keen researcher into tropical illnesses, and Sun often came with him on expeditions to investigate outbreaks and their causes.

In 1892, Sun qualified as a doctor with high distinction.  He went to practice in Macao then Guangzhou.  In these places he came into contact with a reformist political group, Young China.  Young China was an essentially moderate organization.  Sun wrote; “The idea was to bring about a peaceful reformation, and we hoped, by forwarding modest schemes of reform to the Throne, to… establish a form of constitutional government to supplement the old-fashioned, corrupt and worn-out system under which China was groaning.”

However the Throne was not interested in schemes of reform.  An Imperial edict was made, denouncing the petitioners.  Sun’s attitude hardened quickly in response: a year after, he was involved in planning a coup d’etat in Guangzhou.  While armed men were to be involved, Sun (naively) hoped the coup would be bloodless.  In fact, it never took place: the Imperial authorities had informants in the ranks.  A shipment of arms from Hong Kong, hidden in bags of cement, never arrived, and most of the coup leaders were arrested and executed.  Sun made a dramatic escape, disguised as a woman, to Macao and thence to Hong Kong, where he at once went to the home of Dr Cantlie.  Cantlie in turn sent him to a lawyer, who told him to flee the colony at once, which he did, boarding a Japanese steamer bound for Kobe.

That winter, 1895, the Cantlies’ relentless activity finally caught up with their health, and they were forced to return to England.  They received an amazing send-off – the launch they left in was specially decorated, and a military band played.  Cantlie resumed medical work in London, and for relaxation, the family made cycling trips from the capital.  One of these took them through Cottered, and they noticed that a fine brick house near the end of the village, The Old Kennels, was for sale.  Mabel Cantlie bought it as a present for her husband, and it became their country home.  The Kennels soon became a place where guests were received as well as somewhere for the family to relax.

Meanwhile, Sun Yat Sen had travelled from Kobe to Honolulu, where he founded a new organization, the Revive China Society.  He then went to America to drum up support – and finance – for the organization, then to England, arriving on 3rd October 1896.  His first move was to contact Dr Cantlie, who invited him to stay at his London home then found lodgings for him at 8 Gray’s Inn Place (the latter building is no longer standing, but on its site is a fine commemorative plaque by Russian artist Dora Gordine).  Sun settled into a new routine, walking to the British Museum to study and visiting his friend every day.

This routine was not to last.  Sun knew he was a wanted man back in China.  He did not know that he had been followed from America by Imperial Chinese agents.  He also seemed unaware of, or at least untroubled by, the fact that his route from Dr Cantlie’s home to his lodgings took him almost straight past the Chinese Legation on Portland Place.

On Sunday October 11th 1896, he was walking to the Cantlies’, when a Chinese person came up and engaged him in conversation.  A second soon joined them and invited Sun to come and “enjoy a  smoke and a chat”.  A third man joined the group, and (in Sun’s words) “the door of an adjacent house opened, and I was half-jokingly, half-persistently compelled to enter by my companions…  I was not a little surprised when the front door was somewhat hurriedly closed and barred behind me.”

Sun was a prisoner in the Legation.

He was then interrogated by “an old gentleman with white hair and a beard”.  This, Sun later discovered, was Sir Halliday Macartney.  Sir Halliday was from the same family as Lord Macartney, the first Briton to visit the Chinese Imperial Court, back in 1793.  Sir Halliday had been part of the Imperial ‘Ever Victorious Army’ that fought against the Taiping rebels in the mid 1860’s and was now a trusted lieutenant of the Manchu dynasty.

Macartney told Sun “You are now in China”.  Sun, rather belatedly, realized his situation: he would be smuggled from the Legation onto a neutral vessel that could not be searched by the British, sent back to China, tortured to get names of fellow conspirators then executed.

Macartney told Sun he could write a note to his landlady asking to send his luggage – but actually destroyed the note.  If Macartney had his way, nobody was going to find out about Sun’s fate until it was too late.

Macartney was helped in his plan by a simple misunderstanding.  Sun’s landlady thought her tenant had gone to stay with the Cantlies for a few days – probably down in Cottered – while the Cantlies assumed Sun was busy at his London lodgings.  In our modern age of mobile phones, such a misunderstanding seems easily avoidable.  But in 1896…

In the meantime, Sun tried to smuggle messages out of the Legation with increasing desperation.  At first, he tried simply asking servants to take messages – these servants were English, and Sun thought they would do the ‘polite’ thing and do as he asked.  Instead they handed the messages to Sir Halliday then lied to Sun, saying that Cantlie had received them.  Sun then tried bribery, but the same servants just pocketed the money.   A Legation man called Tang pretended to befriend Sun and suggested he write to Macartney denying any links to the rebellion and saying that he had come into the Legation of his own free will.  This was, of course, a trick.

One can argue that Sun was pretty stupid to fall for it – by admitting he had freely entered the Legation he was cutting off a major legal line of defence if his plight did finally become known.  But he was in a desperate situation, and also had not been eating – his judgement was not clear.  “A dying man will clutch at anything,” he later explained.  He wrote the letter; Tang gave it to Sir Halliday and Sun did not see his new ‘friend’ again.

Realizing he had been duped, Sun tried throwing notes out of his window, hoping they would carry across the courtyard (his room was at the back of the Legation, not facing Portland Place).  They did not, even when weighted down with coins.  All that happened was that the notes were found and Sun’s window was bolted shut.

Five days after his imprisonment, a new servant brought him his food, a man named Cole.  Sun pleaded his case with Cole: “My life is in your hands…  Is it good to save a life, or to take one?  Whether is it more important to regard your duty to God or to your master?”  Cole did not answer at once, but next day came back and indicated that, if secrecy could be maintained, he would deliver a message for Sun.

James Cantlie got the note at 11.30 in the evening on Saturday 17th.  Cantlie immediately set off for Scotland Yard – where nobody believed his story, and actually thought he was drunk.  Then he thought of going to see a highly respected English gentleman he knew to be well connected with the Chinese Legation, whom he was sure would help: Sir Halliday Macartney.

Luck was on Sun Yat Sen’s side at this point – when Cantlie and his friend Dr Manson went round to Sir Halliday’s house, he was not there.  Had he been, this ‘gentleman’ would undoubtedly have fobbed them off with promises of action then delayed things long enough for Sun to be smuggled out of the country.  For a steamer had been chartered, and was due to leave on Tuesday…

The next day was a Sunday, and trying to get any official action was impossible, despite the two doctors’ efforts.  Another trip to Scotland Yard did at least get them taken seriously, but they were told that this was not a police but a diplomatic matter.  So they tried to see someone at the Foreign Office, only to be told to come back on Monday.  Finally they took the not hugely bright step of going to the Legation themselves and trying to raise the stakes by saying that they knew Sun was there and that the police were on the case.  The aim no doubt was to frighten the Legation staff, but of course all they did was destroy the one weapon they had, that of surprise.  They also nearly lost the trail; Tang opened the door to them, and spoke so convincingly to the effect that Sun was not in the building, that Dr Manson almost believed him.

Dr Cantlie was made of sterner stuff, however, and on his own set off to find a private detective to watch the embassy night and day and prevent Sun being smuggled out.  To achieve this on a Sunday proved almost as difficult as getting a response out of the Foreign Office.  (“Can no trouble arise on a Sunday in England?”, Sun later asked.)   After trying to raise someone from Slaters detective agency, Cantlie asked at a local police station, who gave him a couple of addresses.  A visit – by now it was 10 pm – to one of these produced a refusal but a recommendation of someone who ‘might be able to do the job’.  However the contact didn’t actually know where the man lived, just a pub he frequented…  Cantlie set off to this pub: not finding the man there, he left a message and returned home, exhausted.

His next move was to contact The Times.  Unlike government offices, the great national newspaper was open all hours, and a reporter took down his story, though couldn’t promise to publish it.  Finally Cantlie set off to watch the Legation himself, ‘ready to intervene if necessary’.  It was now past midnight.  Luckily, he called in at home first, to find that the detective had got the message at the pub and was ready to do the job.  Cantlie gave him his orders and crawled into bed at 2 a.m.

Next day, The Times did not publish the story.  Cantlie went back to the Foreign Office, who made him wait till midday for an appointment.  After this, they agreed to put the Legation under official surveillance.  This prevented Sun’s being put on the steamer.  But of course he was still inside the Legation: Cantlie was in no doubt that his friend would be done away with if he remained there.

Cantlie then tried to use the law to intervene, applying for a writ of Habeus Corpus (an ancient legal action by which an individual can be freed from unlawful imprisonment) on Sir Halliday.  A judge refused to issue the writ.  Further attempts to get The Times to publish failed.  It looked like a war of attrition was about to begin, one that Sun would undoubtedly lose.

Fortunately the competitive nature of the late Victorian press came to his rescue.  Another paper, The Globe, found out about the story and printed it, with the headlines: “Startling Story!  Conspirator Kidnapped in London!  Imprisonment at the Chinese Embassy!”

The government was shamed into action.  The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, sent a personal note to Sir Halliday insisting that Sun be handed over to the British authorities.

At 4.30 on the afternoon of Friday 23rd, Cantlie called at the Legation with Inspector Jarvis of Scotland Yard and a messenger from the Foreign Office, where Sir Halliday handed Sun over to them.   Just as would happen with such an event in 2012, the press surrounded the building and Sun had to give a kind of impromptu press conference.  Then he was taken to Scotland Yard for a few formalities – after which he was free to go to the Cantlies’ flat, where a meal and a friendly welcome was waiting.  Sun says that after the dinner, he sat on the sofa and listened to the Cantlie boys playing – “You be Sun, you’ll be Sir Halliday, and I’ll do the rescue…”

Sun spent a while with the Cantlies recovering from his ordeal.  A month or so after it, he wrote, “I have found many friends since my release.  I have paid several pleasant visits to the country.”

Sun Yat Sen spent the next 15 years travelling the world, speaking to expat Chinese communities about his ideas.  Whenever he came to Britain, he stayed with the Cantlie family in London and Hertfordshire.  One of the younger sons, Kenneth, has this memory of a visit Sun paid to The Kennels:

“I must have been about five years old.  It was sunset on a summer evening, and Dr Sun was walking up and down in the orchard.  He was wearing a grey frock-coat and his Homburg hat was tilted forward to keep the level sun out of his eyes.  He had his hands behind his back and was pondering deeply.  I was about to rush up to him in my usual impetuous way, when I stopped.  ‘He is probably thinking Great Thoughts’ I said to myself, and I went quietly away.  I was not in the least afraid of Dr Sun, who was kindness itself, but my parents and my nurse may have put the idea into my head that here was a great man who must not be interrupted when he was thinking…”

After the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, Sun became President of the new Republic of China, and had no further times for visits to London, or The Kennels and its orchard.

Mabel Cantlie died in 1921, after which James’ energies began to flag, and he died in 1926.  The couple are buried in the peaceful churchyard in Cottered, along with three of their sons.  On the tomb are four Chinese characters, which are a rough translation of the beatitude ‘Blessed are the Merciful, for they shall obtain Mercy’.  Inside the church is a memorial to James placed there by Sao-Ke Alfred Sze, Chinese ambassador to Britain in the late 1920s and early 1930s.