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  Robert Morrison (1782–1834), by John R. Wildman, in or before 1824 Robert Morrison (1782–1834), by John R. Wildman, in or before 1824
Morrison, Robert (1782–1834), missionary and Chinese scholar, youngest son among the eight children of James Morrison, manufacturer of lasts and boot-trees, and Hannah, née Nicholson (d. 1802), was born on 5 January 1782 at Buller's Green, Morpeth, in Northumberland. In 1785 his parents moved to Groat Market, Newcastle. He was apprenticed to his father's trade but his pious upbringing led him to join the Presbyterian church in 1798. Three years later, having decided to enter the ministry, he began the study of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In 1802 his mother died, and a sentimental barrier to leaving home was removed.

Morrison next entered the nonconformist Hoxton Academy, in London, on 7 January 1803, and developed a practical interest in missionary work. He applied to join the London Missionary Society (LMS) on 27 May 1804, and was quickly accepted. In September 1804, it was decided that he should go to China, to learn Chinese, and to translate the scriptures. He was sent to David Bogue's missionary academy in Gosport, and in August 1805 he returned to London to study medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital and astronomy at Greenwich. Jesuit missionaries had successfully entered the service of the Qing court because the Manchu emperors found such skills useful. Morrison studied Chinese with a Cantonese teacher, Yong Samtak, and, becoming familiar with the written language, he transcribed a Chinese manuscript at the British Museum and copied a manuscript Latin–Chinese dictionary lent him by the Royal Society. On 8 January 1807 he was ordained, and on 31 January he sailed from Gravesend for Canton (Guangzhou) via the USA, as the East India Company was opposed to the introduction of protestant missionaries into China.

Morrison arrived in Canton on 7 September 1807. There he faced opposition from both the East India Company and the Portuguese authorities in Macau, and he therefore chose to live clandestinely with American merchants. Despite these problems he built up a strong friendship with the writer Sir George Thomas Staunton, then in Canton. Initially Morrison adopted Chinese dress and lifestyle, but this, coupled with a ferocious regime of study and writing, put great strains on his health and spirits, as did the secrecy he laboured under. All this while he compiled his Chinese dictionary and grammar, and worked on translations of the scriptures. Fearfully lonely, he married Mary Morton (1791–1821) on 20 February 1809; on the same day he was appointed translator to the East India Company. Mary's health suffered in China and on 21 January 1815 she left for Britain with their two children, Rebecca (b. 1812) and .

Morrison's job was onerous, but it secured his residence in Canton, and his Chinese swiftly improved. His critics claimed that he adopted the self-indulgent life of a company official but there is no evidence for this. The East India Company also developed an interest in his dictionary and in 1814 shipped out a press and a mechanic, P. P. Thoms; the volumes were published in Macau between 1815 and 1823. In 1815 the company published his Grammar of the Chinese Language. The fact that he had printed and published Chinese translations of the New Testament and other tracts came to the notice of the company's directors in 1815 and they ordered his dismissal, a proposal successfully resisted by Staunton. From 13 July 1816 to 1 January 1817, Morrison at last travelled in the Chinese interior as interpreter on Lord Amherst's abortive mission to Peking (Beijing), an account of which he published in 1819. The thrust of Morrison's work was as much institutional as scholarly, but the hostility of the East India Company still meant that any expansion of his efforts had to be undertaken elsewhere.

In July 1813 a colleague had at last been provided for him when arrived in Macau. In 1814 the two men formulated plans for the pioneering Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca, and it opened in 1818, for the ‘reciprocal cultivation of Chinese and European literature’ and the training of Chinese, Malay, and European missionaries. On 25 November 1819 Morrison wrote to the LMS that he and Milne had completed their translation of the Bible (it was published in 1823), the task he had been assigned in 1807. Mary returned in August 1820 but she died, pregnant, on 10 June 1821. In 1824, sick, tired, and worn out, Morrison returned to Britain, bringing his substantial Chinese library, which later became the core of the collection at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In November 1824 he married Eliza Armstrong (1795–1874). In Britain he tried to raise funds for the Anglo-Chinese College, but he was also involved in the establishment of a language institution in Bartlett's Buildings, London, where, in 1825, he taught the first classes in Chinese to be held in Britain.

On 1 May 1826 Morrison returned to Canton with his family. Although he had a new contract with the East India Company, his position was more difficult. The atmosphere in Canton and Macau had changed. The company's staff were more hostile and few of Morrison's old friends remained. Relations between the British and the Chinese were deteriorating over the vexatious issue of opium smuggling, and the smugglers themselves greatly opposed the missionary presence. In 1833 the Portuguese authorities in Macau ordered the closing down of his press. The contrast with 1807 was marked also by the more happy facts that, as he wrote in his journal in December 1832, among the foreign community ‘Chinese scholars, missionary students, English presses, and Chinese scriptures, with public worship of God, have all grown up since that period’ (Morrison, 2.465). Eliza, owing to ill health, left Canton for home in December 1832 and took their five children with her. In the following year the company's charter was terminated, and its monopoly ended in 1834. Lord Napier arrived in Macau on 15 July 1834 and appointed Morrison his Chinese secretary the following day. But Morrison had been ill, and he died in Canton shortly afterwards, on 1 August 1834. He was buried in Macau.

Morrison was a voluminous writer both in Chinese and in English. His magnum opus was his dictionary but he is also remembered for his grammars and guides, and for his numerous contributions to the Canton Register, which he effectively edited from 1828 to 1830. Stout in figure and rather short, he was also patient and determined. His work in Canton had secured no more than a dozen converts, but his genius lay elsewhere. His reputation stands today first as a protestant pioneer, both physically and methodologically—he proved that it was possible for Europeans to publish works in Chinese in China itself; and second as a scholarly facilitator of cultural exchange between Europe and China. As the report of the East India Company's select committee in Canton stated in 1827, Robert Morrison was considered the chief person who opened to his countrymen the road to the knowledge of the language of China.

R. K. Douglas, rev. Robert Bickers


E. Morrison, Memoirs of the life and labours of Robert Morrison, 2 vols. (1839) · L. Ride, Robert Morrison: the scholar and the man (1957) · B. Harrison, Waiting for China: the Anglo-Chinese college at Malacca, 1818–1843, and early nineteenth-century missions (1979) · S. R. Stifler, ‘The language students of the East India Company's Canton factory’, Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 69 (1938), 46–82 · H. B. Morse, The chronicles of the East India Company trading to China, 1635–1834, 3–4 (1926) · L. Ride, ‘Robert Morrison and Alexander Wylie’, Memorials of protestant missionaries to the Chinese (1867) · candidates' papers and letters, SOAS, Archives of the Council for World Mission (incorporating the London Missionary Society), South China and Ultra Ganges files


DWL, letters and papers · SOAS, Archives of the Council for World Mission, journals, letters, and papers · Wellcome L., memoir of his wife |  BL OIOC, East India Co. MSS · Wellcome L., family corresp. incl. letters to his son John Robert Morrison


J. R. Wildman, oils, in or before 1824, NPG [see illus.] · G. Chinnery, double portrait, c.1826–1833 (with Eliza Morrison), priv. coll. · T. Blood, stipple, pubd 1827 (after J. Wildman), BM, NPG · G. Chinnery, oils, 1828 · C. Turner, mezzotint, pubd 1830 (after G. Chinnery), BM, NPG · attrib. G. Chinnery, oils, NPG · W. Nicholson, pencil and watercolour drawing, Scot. NPG · J. Wildman, drawing, Hong Kong Museum of Art; repro. in P. Conner, George Chinnery, 1774–1852: artist of India and the China coast (1993), 236–7