First Foreign Correspondent in Hong Kong – Theodore Joset.

The first Catholic Church in Hong Kong, Wellington Street – corner Pottinger Street.
The first Catholic Church in Hong Kong, Wellington Street – corner Pottinger Street.

If the membership for the FCC (The Foreign Correspondent Club) were open to ghosts, the leading contender for membership number 0001 would have to be a Swiss priest whose bones lie only a couple of hundred metres from the Club.

Theodore Joset was a missionary and a prolific letter-writer whose articles reveal he was an insightful reporter. His correspondence, penned as Britain and China squared up for war over opium, graphically illustrates the havoc the drug caused in China.
Here is a part of a report he wrote in January 1840, six months before the British flotilla fired the first bombardment.

“I would like to write a few words about the situation here. We are close to a fight between the Chinese and the British, caused by the trade of opium which is transported from India to China: Chinese smoke it like tobacco; but it enslaves them, stupefies them; renders them incapable of any work. Once hooked, they can’t drop it without risking their lives. China did not spare anything to try to stop the commerce of such poison: seeing that all other means were useless, the Emperor sent to Canton a plenipotentiary to try to stamp it out. But he thought he could treat the British like the locals: assaulted the warehouse of some of them, others were arrested, condemned to suffer hunger and thirst; some were put to death. At the end the Mandarin told the British Consul that if he did not get rid of it (opium) within a certain time he will put them all to death…”

He then goes on to describe the events that ended with the occupation of the island of Hong Kong.

The Swiss diocesan priest had a good position in Macao, in spite of his young age, as the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide’s representative in the Portuguese colony. In addition to his clerical duties, he was also the representative of the King of Sardinia, at a time when Italy did not yet exist as a nation.

Joset was born in 1804 at Courfaivre, a small village in the Jura Mountains, into a large family which offered up several of its sons to the Church.

Louis Ha, keeper of the Catholic Archives, told us that there is no portrait of Joset known to exist. But he may have resembled his brothers whose pictures show they were small but sturdy, with piercing blue eyes, a square face, strong jaw and a boxer’s nose.

His brother, Joseph, became a protector of Native Americans in Oregon, Didace went to Thailand and Fidale assisted the poor in New York.

After being ordained a priest at Fribourg and spending two years at Saignelégier, Theodore departed for China on August 13, 1833.

He sailed via Leghorn and Malta to Alexandria, then travelled overland to the Red Sea, took to the sea again to Bombay, Penang, Singapore and Manila before arriving 15 months later in Macao on November 15, 1834.

Money was scarce. Europe was still reeling from the Napoleonic wars, but funds were needed to finance schools, orphanages and churches in Macao as well as in China. For this reason priests were expected to write letters and reports documenting their works, and giving precise details of their expenses. These reports were published and circulated in Europe in the hope of encouraging donations.

Joset was quick to grasp the implications of the Opium War and had forecast the British seizure of Hong Kong before it actually happened. This fact seems to back the Chinese side of the story: that Hong Kong was not “a barren island with hardly a house upon it” as Lord Palmerston put it, on which the British stumbled by chance,but that it was a highly coveted spotwhich was already being used illegallyby the British fleet as an anchorage.Bearing this outcome in mind hewrote to Rome seeking permissionto treat the new colony as a separateentity, detaching it from the MacaoDiocese.

The Vatican wasted no time andon April 22, 1841 sanctioned that Hong Kong would be recognised as a separateApostolic Prefecture. That was incredibly fast. Permission was grantedjust three months after the British hoisted their flag in what is now PossessionStreet in Sheung Wan in January1841 and well before the formalTreaty of Nanking ceding Hong Kongto Britain was signed in August, 1842. An Apostolic Prefecture is the firststep in establishing the church innon-Catholic countries. It is ordinarilyheaded by a priest, the PrefectApostolic, a representative from Romeappointed by the decree of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide (Forthe Propagation of the Faith).

Joset understood perfectly that the Portuguese authorities would be incensed by his action, neverthelesshe set off to explore Hong Kong at the I have translated it from Italian. This article, which was published in June 1843 in Lyon, France describes his experiences in thefledgling British colony.



Theodore Joset


18 April ,1842


When on January 1841 I wrote a report about the island of Hong Kong, ceded to Britain by the Imperial delegate of China, I put forward my firm intention of building here, with the consent of the Holy Congregation, a small church for the soldiers and other European Catholics; near which I intended to built also a school for young Chinese and to open a refuge for abandoned children; being this, in my opinion, the surest way to promote our Religion into the Empire.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Treaty, agreed by the Chinese representative Chi-Xen (also known as Ch’i-san or Kishen) and the British plenipotentiary (Captain) Charles) Elliot, has not been ratified by the Emperor, the British kept possession of the island. Without waiting for the end of the hostilities they started to set up, with great expense, their own base attracting a great number of merchants from different nations who quickly assembled here and set up their own shops. More than one building has already risen, not counting those destined for the British administration and the Chinese houses, which are springing up everywhere.

The British government is truly doing a great job here: a road is running from one side to the other side of the island and already stretches for four leagues up the mountains; on the other part there is a large port, where the sheltered harbour already extends about three miles and where ships will be protected by a citadel rising up from the east shore, while two powerful bastions with barracks protect it from both sides.

It is only a few months since I came into possession of a Pontifical Decree in which I was put in charge of all these Catholic souls, and I was convinced that the time to enact it was not yet ripe, nor that I should rush to ask for land for the construction of a chapel, as I could not believe that the British would have started such important works before the end of the war.

But on hearing continuous voices in Macao speaking about the rapid progress of the Europeans, and of the many Catholics going there, I finally accepted the invitation of a friend to come and see with my own eyes, together with another missionary.

I must confess that I was very surprised by what I saw: so many buildings already completed on a beach, which was only a desert of sand six months before. At that point I was convinced that I should delay no more, but present to the authorities in charge of the place the document signed by the Pope to ask for the required land.

The British officers welcomed me with great love and insisted that I select the site I liked most, only excluding the land already chosen for government’s use. With great wonder, I found out that the best had been allotted already. I spent three days in a useless search, and when I had lost all hope of finding a corner for my tent, and already resigned to move closer to the mountains or settle among the Chinese, by sheer luck I stumbled into a space which was missed by all, and which, even if it was not perfectly convenient, could be appropriate for an humble chapel, also considering that other spaces have been given to us for the abandoned children, for the Catholic schools and for the cemetery. With time and with the help of the readers’ charity and generosity we could start to set the foundations of a seminary.

Perhaps you would like to have from me a sketch of this island of Hong Kong, where we have recently raised the cross? It is known how the river coming down from Canton splits in several branches, one of which flows like a channel from the west and opens the way to Macao; the other, which is the river itself, turns on the other side; and on the east (bank) of this river appears the island, which is separated from the continent by a channel, which will be transformed by the Europeans into the best port of all China.

You can get in from two sides, one from the east of the river and the other from the west. The surface of the island extends perhaps for nine leagues of length and four in width. Except for three or four small valleys it is more unpleasant than beautiful, consisting only of a group of tall and arid mountains, so tightly squeezed together that it is hard to find a passage among them.

The hills on the southern side of the port don’t leave much space for construction except for a long, uneven slope, from which a great number of small waterfalls of very clear and healthy water rush down. The land on the opposite (northern) side, the top of which is for the most part of the year lost in the clouds, I found under construction the actual city; where the cold and hot weather is more intense, the air more strong, the dampness more clinging. I just said the “actual city” because there is now a discussion going on to move it elsewhere, into the valley on the east; an ideal place which could offer to a new city a larger base having around it a fence of hills.

This arrangement will leave a free side on the north, a space with a view to the sea. It would also have the advantage of being irrigated by a torrent of excellent water. If this plan is implemented, the river bed could be excavated in depth from the sea to the Chinese village, located at the end of the valley. To render even more pleasant this fine place it will be advisable to flatten a hill which blocks the view of the port, even if this is the only forested place in that area. The part of the mainland that faces (Hong Kong) island, called Kowloon, could offer not small advantages to the setting of a city; but it seems that, since the British are afraid of friction with the Chinese when living too close to them, they are resisting the temptation to settle over there.

Having reached the goal of my trip, not wanting to increase my expenses, I sailed back to Macao, leaving behind the missionary who was with me, after having left instructions for him to build a small chapel with a straw hut, and when your offerings reach me we shall construct something worthier.

The news of what I was doing preceded me back in Macao and a storm was stirred up, ready to explode on my arrival. I was accused by the Portuguese to have prejudiced their privileges, as they claim jurisdiction also on Hong Kong. I was summoned by the Governor and given the choice of agreeing to (allow the Portuguese) the privileges or, if not, to leave the city within twenty four hours.

My wish was to close that affair in an amiable way and buy some more time, and with this in mind I asked to be able to consult with my superiors, agreeing that, for the time being, I could partially accept the authority of the Portuguese Vicary until these jurisdictional points were settled with an answer from Rome; but in spite of my efforts I was unable to get any delay in their resolution.

I was left with no choice but to follow the Decree of the Holy Father which was to put (Hong Kong) island under the Holy Congregation. I could not ignore it: precise orders from the Propaganda Fide were forbidding me to delay the execution of any instruction coming from the Holy See. To obey is my law and I was ready to suffer the consequences.

What distressed me most was not the fact that I was forced to leave on such a short notice, but that besides me, the only culprit, that the same decree was forced on my fellows. And not only that, but with a severity unheard before, the same order was also forced on my Chinese pupils.

The captain of the boat hired to move us to Hong Kong had some problems and did not show up at the appointed time of departure. But such was the severity of their orders that had I been unable to find Mr. Faucigny, Consul of France, who was able to obtain from the Governor a short extension, I could have been locked up in a jail for overstaying my time.

Thanks to that generous gentleman I was granted three more days, which I spent trying to put in order all my business, doing some packing, and preparing the materials necessary for building a hut. It is easy to imagine how costly for all of us has been such a sudden departure. We tried to salvage as much as we could, and if not for the help of some pious families, whose names will always be with me in my memory, we would have lost even more. For now, I am living in a miserable hut, together with my brothers and the pupils.”


Joset arrived back in Hong Kong on March 3, 1942, along with the priests and seminarians expelled alongside him from Macao.

He lived long enough to see the foundation stone of the first Church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception laid in Wellington Street (illustrated above) on June 7. A little less than a month later he was dead of fever. He was laid to rest behind the altar of the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Glenealy, just a short stroll from Ice House

Street, beneath a marble slab on which the following words were carved: “Here awaiting the Resurrection are the mortal remains of Theodore Joset, Swiss priest of the Propaganda Fide, Apostolic Representative, Procurator of China, First Apostolic Prefect of Hong Kong and of all the Missions. He lived thirty eight years and died on the 5th of August 1842.”


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