‘Caution! The Bread is Poisoned’: The Hong Kong Mass Poisoning of January 1857

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Lowe, K. ; McLaughlin, E. (2015)

This article examines the Hong Kong mass poisoning of 15 January 1857, in which bread from a Chinese bakery that supplied the colonial community was adulterated with arsenic. Even though there is a wealth of printed and manuscript documentation available many vital aspects of the poisoning remain unclear. What kind of incident was it: an act of terrorism and attempted mass murder, a war crime, a criminal conspiracy, an act of commercial sabotage, an accident or even an imagined or imaginary event? Throughout, our focus remains firmly fixed on the central act of the poisoning itself and on what it reveals about the precarious nature of early colonial Hong Kong. Interpretations have swarmed over the available ‘facts'. Equally ironic is what happened to the afterlife of how the event was understood. This article seeks to rescue the Hong Kong poisoning from being a freakish and isolated footnote of only local interest. Accepting this historical verdict would be a mistake as it is of significance not only at a local level, but geopolitically in Britain and across the empire.
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