The Morrison Collection
Robert Morrison (1782-1834)


Chronology of Morrison's Life


Robert Morrison was born in Buller's Green, Morpeth in Northumberland on the 5th January 1782, the youngest son in a family of eight children. His father, James Morrison was a Scotsman who had been born in Dunfermline, and had settled in Northumberland. His mother was of local Northumberland ancestry.

James Morrison was an active member of the Scottish Presbyterian church, and the Morrison children were brought up in the Scottish church.

At the time of Robert's birth, James Morrison was working as a farm labourer. However within 3 years he had established himself as a last and boot-tree manufacturer in the Groat Market at Morpeth.


Aged 14, Robert leaves school, and is indentured as an apprentice to his father.

He had been educated at a local school where his maternal uncle, James Nicholson, was a school master. Robert had initially shown no academic promise, and indeed was considered somewhat of a dunce, but under his uncle's tutelage Robert began to work diligently, and show some signs of his potential.


After leaving school Morrison had apparently fallen in with bad company and started to lead a less than exemplary life, but after a spiritual conversion he becomes a devout Christian, and joins the Presbyterian church.


In order to further his studies of the Scriptures, Morrison takes private tuition in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

At about this time he starts to consider a career as a missionary. His aspirations are not approved of by his parents. In particular his mother makes him promise not to become a missionary whilst she lives


Morrison applies for, and is accepted as a student to the Hoxton Academy, a training college for congregational ministers, in London.


Morrison's mother dies, and in May of this year he applies to join the London Missionary Society (LMS), which had been founded less than ten years earlier, in 1795, in order to promulgate missionary activity worldwide. He is accepted by the LMS, and is sent to Mr. Bogue's Academy in Gosport for further training.


Whilst Morrison was at Gosport, the LMS happened to be looking for a team of three or four individuals to lay the foundations for missionary work in China by going to China to learn Chinese and translate the Bible into Chinese. Fortuitously as it turned out, Morrison was the only suitable volunteer, and in August he is sent back to London to prepare for the enterprise.

Morrison studies Medicine with Dr. Blair at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and studies Astronomy with Dr. Hutton at the Greenwich Observatory.

A chance encounter with a Chinese gentleman on the streets of London leads Morrison to an introduction with a Chinese student from Canton named Yong Sam-tak. In exchange for Morrison giving him tuition in English, Yong agrees to teach Morrison to read and write Chinese. In October Morrison invites Yong to move in with him, so as to intensify his learning of Chinese. Morrison and Yong have very different temperements, and do not get on well together. In particular Yong spurns Morrison's attempts to introduce him to the Christian teachings. Nevertheless, Morrison is determined learn as much as he can, and follows his teacher's instruction diligently.


An anonymous translation (presumably by a Jesuit missionary) of the Gospels into Chinese entitled Evangelia Quatuor Sinice is discovered amongst the books of the British Library. This single, folio-sized volume has the following colophon, indicating its provenance :

This transcript was made in Canton in 1737 and 1738 by order of Mr. Hodgson, who says it has been collated at great care, and found very correct. Given to him by Sir Hans Sloane, Bart., in 1739.

Morrison determines to put this fortuitous discovery to his advantage, and so goes with Yong to the Reading Room each day to study and transcribe this rare treasure.

Morrison is also given loan of a manuscript Latin and Chinese dictionary by the Royal Society. This too he works on transcribing.


On the 8th January Morrison is ordained a minister in the Scots church at Swallow Street, London, in readiness for his departure for China.

The only ships sailing for China belong to the East India Company, and it is the Company's policy not to carry missionaries. Finding no ship bound for China that will carry him, Morrison gains passage on board the Remitance, bound for New York. He sets sail on the final day of January, and arrives in New York on the 20th April.

Morrison travels to Philadelphia, where he manages to get a letter of introduction to Mr. Carrington, American Consul at Canton.

Morrison leaves New York three weeks later, on the 12th May, aboard the Trident, bound for Macao. After 113 at sea, the Trident arrives in Macao on the 4th September.

Morrison goes ashore, and meets with Sir George Thomas Staunton (1781-1859), who discouragingly points out all the difficulties and hardships that he will face if he tries to set up as a missionary in China.

As catholic Macao is antipathetic to protestant missionaries, Morrison sets out for Canton immediately, arriving there on the 7th September.

The foreign merchants were restricted to a muddy stretch of land about a thousnd feet broad some 300 feet from the banks of the Pearl River, outside the city walls of Canton. The merchants traded in "hongs", or factories, of which there were thirteen. Foreigners were not permitted to reside within the city of Canton.

Finding no assistance from his countrymen, Morrison temporarily lodges at the appartments of two American gentlemen, Messrs. Bull and Milnor, in the Old French factory. He lets it be thought that he too is an American.

Morrison writes to Sir George Staunton, requesting his help in finding him a Chinese tutor. Sir George gives him an introduction to Mr. Roberts, Chief of the English Factory at Canton. Mr. Roberts procures for Morrison the services of a young Roman Catholic Chinese from Shanxi province named Abel Yun. Abel had had studied with the Jesuits in Beijing, and spoke Latin and mandarin Chinese fluently. Unfortunately he had not received a proper Chinese education, and was functionally illiterate in respect of literary Chinese.

In order to fill the need to learn literary Chinese, Morrison later also employs the services of an educated local Chinese, Le Sȇensang 李先生 (i.e. "Teacher Li"), who unfortunately only spoke the Cantonese dialect. Nevertheless, between the two of them Morrison manages to become proficient in the spoken Mandarin and Cantonese dialects as well as the written literary language.

Towards the end of the year Morrison disburdens himself from his American friends, and moves into a couple of rooms in the basement of the Old French factory.


In his new quarters, Morrison immerses himself in Chinese culture and language : he dresses in Chinese costume, wears a false pigtail, lets his fingernails grow long. Not only does he adopt Chinese dress, custom and food, but he associates only with his Chinese tutor, avoiding contact with his more affluent countrymen.

Morrison's constitution fails to adjust to the sudden change in dietary regime and lifestyle, and his health soon starts to deteriorate. He is forced to abandon his experiment, and return to the European lifestyle.

On 1st June Morrison is forced to return to Macao because of ill health.

In June Morrison completes his transcription of the one thousand one hundred pages of the Latin and Chinese manuscript dictionary that he had brought with him from London. This concrete accomplishment peruades Mr. Roberts to approve a plan for a Chinese-English dictionary by Morrison, hopefully to be sponsored by the East India Company.

Morrison returns to Canton at the end of August, but his life is soon turned upsidedown by the occupation of Macao on the 21st September by a fleet dispatched by Lord Minto, Governor General of India, in order to "defend" the territory from the French. Anti-British sentiment forces Morrison, and all other Britons in Canton to leave Canton and seek refuge aboard the British fleet.


Disillusioned, Morrison determines to relocate to Penang, where there would be fewer barriers to carrying out missionary activity. Luckily he meets Miss Mary Morton, eldest daughter to Dr. Morton, newly arrived at Macao. He decides to stay.

On the 20th February Morrison and Mary are married in Macao. Foreign woman were not then permitted in Canton, and so Morrison returns alone.

Morrison is offered the post of Chinese Secretary and Translator to the British Factory by the East India Company, at a salary of £500 per annum. Although highly irregular for a missionary to be in paid employment of this sort, Morrison was concerned about the heavy burden that he was on the expenses of the LMS, and he accepts the position. This finally gives a legitimacy his residence in Canton.


Morrison completes translation of the Acts of the Apostles, which he has published in a locally-produced woodblock edition. 1000 copies are printed at a cost of £100. This establishes the feasability of printing the Scriptures in Chinese locally.


Morrison's first child, James, is born on the 5th March, but dies the same day.

Morrison publishes his first book written in Chinese, a summary of the doctrine of divine redemption entitled 神道論贖救世總說真本.

Morrison completes his translation of the Gospel of St. Luke, published as 聖路加氏傳福音書.


Morrison's first daughter, Rebecca, is born in July.

The LMS appoint William Milne (1785-1822) to work with Morrison in China.

The idea of a missionary training college in Malacca is first mooted by Morrison.

Morrison's salary from the East India Company is increased to £1,000 per annum.

Morrison completes his translation of the New Testament. The gospels are largely based on the anonymous translation that Morrison had studied in the British Museum five years previous.

Morrison publishes Horae Sinicae (translations from the popular literature of the Chinese).

Morrison publishes an annotated catechism on the teachings of Jesus in Chinese entitled 問答淺註耶穌教法.


Milne and his wife arrive in Macao on 4th July.


The East India Company brings over a printing press from England, together with a mechanic, P.P. Thoms, and sets up a printing shop in Macao. Most of Morrison's secular books, including his Dictionary, will be printed on this press by P.P. Thoms.

Due to considerable opposition to Milne's presence in Macao, and the impossibility of getting him established in Canton as Morrison's assistant, Morrison decides to send Milne to Malacca to set up a missionary college. Milne and his family leave Macao on the 17th April.

Morrison's son, John Robert, is born at Macao on the 17th April.

Morrison completes translation of Genesis.

Morrison publishes a short abstract relative to the scriptures, written in Chinese (title lost).


Morrison's wife, suffering from an incurable disease, returns to England, together with Rebecca and John Robert, on the 21st January.

Morrison's continued publication of religious tracts in Chinese, in direct contravention of Chinese bans on the dissemination of Christian teachings within China, incurs the displeasure of the directors of the East India Company. Towards the end of the year the Honourable Court of Directors send a letter of dismissal to Morrison via the Select Committee in Canton (offering Morrison $4,000 in compensation). However, the services of Morrison were by now indispensible to the English factory, and the Select Committee merely passed on the letter to Morrison, but did not put Morrison's dismissal into effect, explaining to Morrison that the Honourable Court must be acting on mistaken information.

Morrison publishes an outline of Old Testament history in Chinese entitled 古時如氏亞國歷代畧傳.

Morrison publishes A grammar of the Chinese language.

Morrison publishes the first of three parts of his Dictionary of the Chinese language (publication completed in 1823).

Morrison publishes Translations from the original Chinese.


Lord Amherst (William Pitt Amherst, 1st Earl Amherst of Arracan, 1773-1857) is dispatched on an embassy to China in the hopes of opening up trade between Britain and China. The Embassy arrives at Macao aboard the H.M.S. Alceste and the H.C.S. Hewitt on the 10th July. Lord Amherst asks Morrison to act as Chinese Secretary and Translator to the Embassy, and after some hesitation, he agrees. Morrison and Staunton tegether board the Alceste. The Embassy leaves Macao on the 13th July aboard the Alceste, and puts down anchor outside Tianjin on the 28th July.

The Embassy enter Tianjin on the 13th August, and reach Tongzhou, about a day's journey from the capital Beijing, on the 20th August.

After eight days of negotiations regarding the obeisance to the Emperor required of Lord Amherst, the Embassy sets out for the capital, arriving at the Imperial Palace on the morning of the 29th August. The Ambassador is due to be received by the Emperor that very morning, but tired and dirty from the trip Lord Amherst asks for the audience to be postponed. The Emperor is informed that Lord Amherst is ill, and he sends his personal physician to examine him. When the Emperor hears that Lord Amherst is not actually ill, he mistakenly believes that he has been deliberately snubbed by the foreigners. The Emperor orders the Embassy to be sent packing at once. The Embassy is forced to leave the city that very afternoon.

The Embassy travel back to Macao overland : from Beijing to Zhenjiang by canal; and then down the Yangtze River to Lake Boyang; and then through Jiangxi and Guangdong, arriving back at Macao on New Year's day 1817.

Morrison publishes Dialogues and detached sentences in the Chinese language.


Morrison receives public acclamation for his dictionary and his work translating the Bible when he is made a Doctor of Divinity by Glasgow University.

Morrison publishes A view of China, for philological purposes (containing a sketch of Chinese chronology, geography, government, religion & customs, designed for the use of persons who study the Chinese language).


As the "Provisional Committee of the Ultra-Ganges Mission", Morrison and Milne establish the Anglo-Chinese College (英華書院) in Malacca on the 2nd November. The foundation stone is laid on the 11th November, and Milne is appointed the first President of the college.

Morrison publishes a collection of edifying hymns in Chinese entitled 養心神詩.

Morrison publishes a translation of the Book of Common Prayer under the title 年中每日早晚祈禱敘式.

Morrison publishes a collection of miscellaneous theological essays in Chinese entitled 神天道碎集傳.


Morrison completes his translation of the Bible on the 25th November. Milne translated the book of Job and the historical books of the Old Testament, whilst Morrison was responsible for the translation of 26 books of the Old Testament and 13 books of the New Testament (the remaining New Testament books were based on the British Museum manuscript) :

Old Testament New Testament
GenesisGospel of Matthew
ExodusGospel of Mark
LeviticusGospel of Luke
NumbersGospel of John
RuthEpistles to the Hebrews
ProverbsI Peter
EcclesiastesII Peter
CanticlesI John
IsaiahII John
JeremiahIII John

Morrison publishes his account of the Amherst Embassy under the title A memoir of the principal occurrences during an Embassy from the British Government to the court of China in the year 1816 (in The Pamphleteer vol. 15).

Morrison publishes a fictional travelogue written in Chinese in the persona of Chinese scholar with the pseudonym "Dusty Traveller" 塵遊居士, entitled 西遊地球聞見畧傳 (A brief account of things that I have seen and heard during a voyage westwards around the world). The book is a record of a journey supposedly undertaken by the Chinese author from China to Europe via India, the author's three-year sojourn in Paris, and his return to China via America.


Morrison's wife returns to Macao on the 23rd August.

A retrospect of the first ten years of the Protestant mission to China is published. Although Milne is credited with its authorship, Morrison was responsible for much of the book, especially the miscellaneous remarks on the literature, history, and mythology of China.


His wife, Mary, dies on the 10th June. With no suitable burial ground available for non-Catholics in Macao, the Select Committee buys a plot of land from the Portuguese for use as a Protestant cemetary (the "Old Protestant Cemetery").


Morrison's Dictionary is finally completed in February.

Milne dies on the 2nd June.

A great fire breaks out in a bakery in Canton on the 2nd November, and thousands of houses are destroyed. The British factory is also burned down, and Morrison has to retreat to Macao temporarily.


Morrison leaves Canton on 17th January to pay a visit to the Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca. He arrives at Singapore on the 29th January, and meets with Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-Governor. Raffles is keen to establish a college in Singapore on the same lines of the college at Malacca, and even to merge the Malacca and Singapore colleges into a single "Singapore Institution".

Morrison arrives at Malacca on the 5th February, and in April he is appointed Vice President of the Anglo-Chinese College.

Morrison leaves Malacca on the 18th July, arriving back at Macao on the 8th August.

Morrison has been wanting to pay a visit to England for some time now, and on the 6th December he sets sail for England aboard the H.C.S. Waterloo. He takes with him his extensive collection of Chinese books, amounting to some ten thousand fascicles.

Morrison's translation of the Holy Bible is finally published, under the title 神天聖書, by the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca.

Morrison publishes Notices concerning China and the port of Canton ... (including an account of the previous year's Great Fire of Canton).

Morrison publishes A grammar of the English language (for the use of the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca).


Morrison arrives in England, disembarking from the Waterloo off Start Point in Devon, and landing at Salcombe aboard a smuggler. A dispute about customs duty on his collection of Chinese books, valued at £2,000, arises. Morrison does not want to pay the duty as he intends to donate them to one of the universities, but such as donation would only be exempt from tax if made by an institution rather than an individual. The matter is finally resolved, in Morrison's favour, only after intervention by Sir George Staunton at the highest level of government. Unfortunately, neither of the two English universities were willing to accept Morrison's donation, and his books remained in storage at the LMS for the next ten years, before finally being accepted by University College London.

Morrison publishes anonymously China : a dialogue, for the use of schools (being ten conversations between a father and his two children concerning the history and present state of that country).

Death of Milne. Morrison publishes Memoirs of the Rev. William Milne.


Morrison is elected a fellow of the Royal Society on the 10th February.

The LMS takes the unusual step of appointing Morrison to the Board of Directors for the duration of his stay in England.

On the 14th June a committee is established with the purpose of founding a Languages Institute in London.

Morrison marries Miss Eliza Armstrong (1795-1874).

Morrison and his new bride embark aboard the H.C.S. Orwell at Gravesend on the 1st May.

A mutiny breaks out aboard the Orwell on the 24th July, and the situation is only resolved through Morrison's mediation.

Stopping off at Singapore on the 20th August, Morrison is unimpressed by the Singapore Institution that had been founded by Raffles.

Morrison arrives back at Macao on the 19th September.

Morrison publishes Chinese miscellany (consisting of original extracts from Chinese authors, in the native character; with translations and philological remarks).


The Singapore Institution fails due to mismanagement, whilst the Languages Institute in London is abandonned due to lack of interest.

Morrison publishes Vocabulary of the Canton dialect.


Morrison's wife returns to England on the 14th December.

Morrison publishes in Chinese a book of domestic instruction entitled 古聖奉神天啟示道家訓.


Morrison publishes an occasional magazine in Chinese entitled 雜文編.

Morrison publishes four issues of an occasional magzine entitled The evangelist : and miscellanea Sinica.


Lord Napier (William John, ninth Lord Napier and twelfth Laird of Merchiston, 1786-1843) is dispatched to China as Superintendent for Trade with China, with the intention of seeking a trading agreement with the Cantonese authorities, and to break the monopoly of the East India Company. Napier arrives in Macao on the 15th July, and appoints Morrison as "Chinese Secretary and Interpreter" with a salary of £1,300 per annum, and the rank of Vice-Consul. Napier goes immediately to Canton, taking Morrison with him.

Morrison falls ill on arrival at Canton, and he dies there on the 1st August, in his son's arms.

Morrison is buried at the Old Protestant Cemetery in Macao (now part of the Luís de Camões Garden).

Tombstone of Robert Morrison at Macao

Centenary Memorial to Robert Morrison at Macao