Horatio Nelson Lay

Horatio Nelson Lay

Horatio Nelson Lay (1832 - 4 May 1898, Forest Hill, Kent, England), [ [http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9047438/Horatio-Nelson-Lay Horatio Nelson Lay - Britannica Online Encyclopedia ] ] was a British diplomat. Horatio Nelson Lay was born in London to George Tradescant Lay, who served as British consul in the treaty port of Amoy. Lay's father inspired him to go to China, but he died in 1845 before Lay had a chance to join him.

In 1847, Lay was sent to China to study Chinese under the German linguist and missionary Karl Gützlaff. Lay's proficiency in the Chinese language soon earned him promotion in the British consular service and in 1854 he was appointed acting vice consul in Shanghai. The same year, Lay took part in the founding of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service and he became the first Inspector General of the service the following year.

During the Second Opium War, Lay served as Lord Elgin's interpreter and he participated in the negotiation of the Sino-British Treaty of Tianjin. Even though Lay was not in charge of designing the actual treaty, he was instrumental in intimidating the Qing delegation. Among other things, Lay humiliated the Qing representative Qiying by exposing recently captured documents, which revealed Qiying's hostility to the British. The disgraced Qiying later committed suicide.

Lay-Osborne Flotilla

During the Taiping Rebellion the Chinese Imperial Court wished to regain Nanjing, which was captured by the rebel forces in 1853 and declared their capital. To do so, they decided to set up a naval fleet with the help of the British. The British agreed to do so in order to bring stability to maritime commerce which was vital to the British economy.

The Chinese Emperor, exiled to Jehol, agreed to a proposal presented to him by the British ambassador Sir Frederic Bruce in July 1861 to purchase British gunboats. Robert Hart, interpreter of Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs is given credit for creating the proposal. Prince Gong, the head of the Zongli Yamen, appointed Lay as Inspector General of the new navy. Horatio Nelson Lay left China for England on 14 March 1862 with written instructions from Prince Gong to form the navy.

Queen Victoria agreed to this proposal on 2 September 1862 and gave permission to equip the vessels and hire crews. Lay appointed as Commander of the flotilla, Captain Sherald Osborne.

It was felt that if the flotilla was to fly a recognized ensign this might reduce the risk of capture and imprisonment. The British Admiralty would not sanction the ensign that Lay proposed unless China would explicitly consent to such. Although Tongzhi Emperor had decreed that the Chinese flag would be a yellow rectangle triangle with a blue dragon trying to catch a red ball, Prince Kong did not mention this in his instructions to Lay. Lay himself designed the ensigns to be used by the flotilla.

On 13 February 1863 the “Lay-Osborne” flotilla, with seven steam cruisers and resupply ship left England flying Lay’s ensign and arrived in China in September 1863. Upon reaching China, Osborne refused to take any orders from Chinese officers, stating that his agreement with Lay stipulated that any Chinese orders must come from the Tongzhi Emperor, transmitted by Lay. The Imperial court refused to ratify this.

Commander Osborne resigned on 9 November 1863, disbanded the flotilla and sent the ships back to England without them having fired a shot. Lay was fired that same year by the Chinese government as Inspector General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service and replaced with Sir Robert Hart. [ [http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/cn~lo.html Lay-Osborne Flotilla (China) ] ]

End of Diplomatic Career

In 1864, he resigned from the diplomatic service and returned to England where he engaged in financial affairs. [ [http://mikan3.archives.ca/pam/public_mikan/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=101164&rec_nbr_list=101164 Library and Archives Canada, Horatio Nelson Lay and family] ] Two of Lay's brothers (Walter Thurlow Lay (1840-1917), Amoy Lay (1846-1911), two of his nephews (William George Lay (1862-1921), son of W.H. Lay, and Harry Lay (1894-?), son of Amoy Lay), and one grand-nephew (Arthur Croall Hyde Lay (1900-) also served in the Chinese Maritime Customs.


*Jack J. Gerson. "Horatio Nelson Lay and Sino-British relations, 1854-1864." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.
* A.C. Hyde Lay. "Four Generations in China, Japan and Korea." Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1952.
*Jonathan Spence. "Western Advisers in China: To change China." London: Penguin, 1980.

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