Apr/May 2004 Book Reviews

The Man Who Died Twice

Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin
Allen and Unwin 380 pages
ISBN: 1 74114 012.9

reviewed by David Skea

Only as a newspaper correspondent can I expect to distinguish myself above the common herd... In spite of all that is said to the contrary, it is the noblest in my opinion of all the professions... as energy, courage, temperance and truthfulness are necessary to its success. —G.E. Morrison, 1882, aged 20.

It was 16 July 1900 and the Boxer siege in Peking was a month old. Three of the besieged, the London Times correspondent Dr. George Morrison, the senior British officer Captain Strouts, and a Japanese officer, Colonel Shiba, making their way to an adjacent building came under fire from the Boxers. Captain Strouts and Dr Morrison were wounded, Strouts later died from his wounds.

That same day The Times in London ran a report headlined THE MASSACRE IN PEKING which stated that Dr Morrison and every other foreign defender in the diplomatic quarter had been wiped out. Back in Australia there was shock at the news. In Geelong the flags flew at half-mast to mourn the death of its most famous son, the legendary Morrison of Peking.

In actual fact there was no massacre in Peking, the siege lasting another month before being relieved by the Allied Relief Expedition. Morrison was alive and, not for the first time, recovering from his wounds.

So who was this Dr Morrison? And how many today, in Australia, know about him? Those who do probably have read more about his long walks across Australia, his voyage with a Queensland "black-birder" and his abortive expedition to walk across Papua New Guinea where he was speared and almost died, than his journalistic work for The Times of London.

George Ernest Morrison was born in Geelong in 1862. His father was the principal of the Geelong College and his uncle was headmaster of the prestigious Scotch College in Melbourne. When he was 18 he walked alone from Geelong to Adelaide, a journey of 752 miles which he completed in some 6 weeks living off the land. He kept a diary and, at his mother's suggestion, sent a version to The Age in Melbourne. The Age's companion weekly magazine-style paper, The Leader, published "The Diary of a Tramp," paying Morrison seven guineas. The experience of seeing himself in print was, he wrote, "not bad; not bad at all."

Morrison's father was not enthusiastic about his son taking up journalism as a career and suggested that he study medicine. He therefore enrolled in the medical school at Melbourne University. During his first summer holiday he explored the Murray by canoe, again alone and living off the land. It was a successful trip, as The Leader published his travel diary and the fees he earned more than paid for his expenses. However, at the end of his second university year he failed a major medical exam and withdrew. He made up his mind to become a journalist and wrote to his mother: "I go to Queensland to commence the apprenticeship of a profession in which I earnestly hope some day to make my mark."

An eight-part series "A Cruise in a Queensland Slaver," Morrison's account of a one hundred day voyage recruiting Kanaka labourers for the Queensland sugar farmers was the result. Next he walked from Normanton to Melbourne, alone and with only what he could carry in his swag, emulating the famous Burke and Wills. It took him four months and The Age paid him £4 10s for his article.

The Age then commissioned him to lead an expedition to cross Papua New Guinea, an enterprise that ended in disaster as Morrison was attacked and badly wounded, parts of two native spears remaining in his body. He returned to Melbourne in great pain and despite the best efforts of Melbourne's leading surgeon made so little progress that he was advised to go to Edinburgh for treatment. Here, some 260 days after his attack, he was operated on and a wooden spear head 3 inches long and a quarter inch in diameter was taken from his abdomen. He then rapidly recovered his strength.

Morrison now bowed to his father's advice and resumed his medical studies, graduating in 1887. The next few months were spent in North America and Jamaica. Finding work difficult to get he returned to Scotland where he then applied for a job at the Rio Tinto mine, in Spain. He next went across the Straits of Gibraltar to North Africa. Finally, returning home at the age of 29, he found a position at the Ballarat District Hospital where he remained for two years, the committee dispensing with his services after disagreements over staffing and costs. Morrison's experiences in Ballarat hardened his attitude to staying in Australia and he never again took up an appointment in his own country even when highly paid jobs were offered him. He left Australia for the Philippines, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Peking.

The wanderlust had got hold of Morrison again and his next exploit was to walk across China from Shanghai to Rangoon in Burma. "In the first week of February 1894 I returned to Shanghai from Japan. It was my intention to go up the Yangste River as far as Chungking, and then, dressed as a Chinese, to cross quietly over Western China... to Burma." So begins "An Australian in China" one of the monumental travel books of the English language. After Rangoon he travelled to Calcutta and after a bout of malaria, returned to Geelong.

February 1895 saw Morrison back in London where he found a publisher for his travel book and time to research and write up his doctoral thesis. In August that year he graduated MD in Edinburgh. A chance recommendation led to an interview with Moberly Bell, the manager of The Times, who was looking for a new Peking correspondent. Bell liked Morrison and offered him the job on 6 months probation. His first commission was to travel to Yunnan City via Vietnam, Siam and Burma. Morrison reached Saigon late December 1895 and returned after reaching Yunnan City a year later. He received a message from Bell that he should proceed immediately to Peking, and that many of his stories that he had filed en-route had been published; he had passed his probationary period with flying colours and had been appointed to the permanent staff. In March 1897 he arrived in Peking and wrote "My new life was now to begin."

Morrison was The Times' correspondent in Peking from 1897 to 1912. During this time he was present at the Boxer siege of the foreign nationals in Peking, saw the end of the Ching Dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China. He also met his future wife Jean (Jennie).

In 1912 Morrison married Jennie Robin and resigned from The Times to become a senior adviser to the new President of the new Republic of China. Now began what appears to be a most frustrating time for Morrison. How often do people in authority appoint advisers and then ignore their advice? Such was the situation in which Morrison soon found himself.

Morrison continued to advise the Chinese Government although his role was more tenuous as the power of the central government waned and less able figures assumed positions of responsibility. Also, his health was starting to trouble him and in 1917 he set sail for Australia. Morrison visited Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and New Zealand. Towards the end of his visit he met with the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes who asked him to "do certain things." Hughes wanted Morrison to use his position and gather intelligence for Australia.

So in April 1918 Morrison left Australia for the last time. It was clear that his long absence from Australia and his independent cast of mind made it impossible for him to seek political office in Australia. Commerce was not his forté and Australia's diplomacy was mainly conducted by the British Foreign Office. He was 56 but paradoxically his celebrity status depended on him being absent from his homeland. In fact, China had now become Morrison's homeland.

Thompson and Macklin find this sad and compare Morrison's achievements to those of Bradman who is well remembered and continues to be so. But is it? Bradman played in Australia and represented Australia always in the Australian public's eye. Morrison on the other hand worked in Peking for a London journal. Any reference to him in Australia was second hand.

Morrison attended the Paris Peace Conference as adviser to the Chinese delegation. His health was not good and in May 1919 he returned to England for medical examination and treatment. Although an exploratory operation found no evidence of malignancy, Morrison became weaker and died on 30 May 1920.

I found it a very interesting book to read. It covers Morrison's life in great detail and I am amazed at the extent of his achievements. Fortunately Morrison was a great diarist and these records have been preserved. I'm also aware that Morrison was born in the Victorian era a time of great exploration and expansion of British interests and when great deeds were expected. In Morrison's case he lived life to the full, so much so that I'm tempted to bowdlerise the famous epitaph of that other great Victorian, Cecil Rhodes. :"So much to do; so much done."


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