Recording a momentous event in the history of the China trade, this painting affords not only a unique, documentary glimpse of the hong system at work but also a very rare view of the interior of one of the famed factories of Canton. On the 9th of February 1807 a number of seamen from the East Indiaman Neptune had gone ashore and, as seamen are wont to do, had brawled with the locals, resulting, very unfortunately, in the death of a Chinese man. British ships were immediately forbidden to leave China until the matter could be avenged or adjudicated. A month or so later the seamen were brought to trial before the Prefect of Canton and an assembly including four leading hong merchants (at right), led by the head of the co-hong, and five British officials (at left): the captain of the Lion, three supercargoes, and Sir George Staunton (farthest left).
The trial was held inside the British hong, where the hall was draped in striped cotton for the occasion. In the painting we see a pair of British guards attending the crowd in the foreground, with four sailors huddled between them, while one sailor has been brought forward to face the Prefect.
In the end one soldier, Edward Sheen (recorded as "the most riotous" according to P. Conner, The China Trade, p. 32) was fined a relatively small amount and the hong merchant Mowqua, whose bad luck it was to be responsible for the Neptune, was confined for a time and assessed a much larger fine. This seemed to satisfy justice and shipping and trade resumed.
A.M. Gauci (fl. 1810-46) created a lithograph after this painting which is inscribed: Representation of the Chinese Court of Justice held at the British Factory of Canton on the 8th March 1807, in the presence, & at the special requisition of the British Authorities for an enquiry into a charge of Homicide, laid against the Seamen of the East India Company's ship Neptune, which terminated in the establishment of their innocence of the crime of murder...from an original Picture Painted on the Spot by a native artist and now in the possession of Sir George Staunton. (See Christie's London, 28 April 1999, lot 6.)
Staunton's painting is now in the collection of the Royal Asiatic Society, London. Sir George, the 2nd Bt. and later MP, had accompanied his father on Macartney's famous 1793 embassy to Beijing. His account of that trip and the accompanying engravings remain an important visual record of Qing China. Staunton developed excellent Chinese, serving as translator for the British in Canton and translating a key medical text into Chinese in 1805, and eventually became head of the British mission at Canton.
Several other versions of the scene were apparently painted at the time. In the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England is another together with a companion picture showing a rare view of the forecourt of the hongs with a dignitary (the Prefect?) arriving in sedan chair, his retinue leading with banners, while Europeans watch from the balustraded windows above. One more version of the trial painting is in the collection of The Peabody Museum, Salem, and the companion view is in the collection of Winterthur Museum, Delaware.
C. Crossman (The China Trade, p. 108-9) publishes the latter two pictures and discusses the execution of the pictures, writing that they were painted by "...an artist of tremendous skill and were undoubtedly executed by one of the artists we know as an early portraitist." He further notes that, as Spoilum was no longer active at this date, his close follower Lamqua is a strong possibility.
Although documentary Chinese school oil paintings remain extremely rare, the tradition had been established as early as the 1790s, when an oil of this scale recording Lord Macartney's reception by the Viceroy of Canton was painted (see P. Conner, op. cit., no. 17). A later painting of similar importance, also recording a milestone event in the history of the China trade, is the 1827 Trial of Pirates in the Consoo House, Canton, illustrated by Crossman (op. cit., p. 443) and used as the endpapers for his book.