MORRISON, GEORGE ERNEST (‘CHINESE’) (1862–1920)
A reporter’s first lesson is the value of being on the spot when newsworthy events occur. Such an approach was the mark of George Ernest Morrison’s extraordinary career. For more than 40 of his 58 years, Morrison found and reported on the major events and leading figures of his day. Indeed, he not only reported history, he made it, in the process becoming one of the most influential people of his time.
Morrison, whose father founded Geelong College, walked to the tip of the Mornington Peninsula as a teenager, progressing to Adelaide in 1880 and later from Normanton to Melbourne. He kept a diary throughout his life, which became the raw material for his reportage in the Age, where he exposed the ‘Kanaka’ slave trade in 1882. He was only 21 when the paper financed him to lead an expedition to cross New Guinea from south to north. It ended abruptly when Morrison was speared beneath the eye and in the abdomen.
Sent to Scotland for an operation to remove the tips, he remained in Edinburgh to complete a medical degree. After a period as medical superintendent at Ballarat Hospital, he resumed his marathon journeys, culminating in a remarkable trek from Shanghai to Rangoon. The resulting book, An Australian in China (1895), brought him to the notice of the London Times, and from 1897 to 1912 he was the newspaper’s correspondent in Peking.
This was a period of intense political activity in the area, and Morrison was always to the fore—a hero of the Boxer Uprising and an influential figure in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.
However, he will be best remembered for the role he played—with another Australian journalist, William Donald—in paving the way for the downfall of the Ching Dynasty and the rise of the Chinese republic. Although Morrison came to believe he had ‘backed the wrong horse’ in supporting Yuan Shi-kai, he left the Times and continued to work for the republic until his death in 1920.
He married his secretary, Jennie Robin, when he was 50 and she 23. Morrison has been the subject of several biographies, including by Frank Cluneand Cyril Pearl, and inspired Linda Jaivin’s novel, A Most Immoral Woman (2009).
The eldest of Morrison’s three sons, Ian, was the Times’ correspondent in Singapore at the time of the Japanese conquest in 1942. Ian was memorialised as the lover of novelist Han Suyin in A Many-Splendored Thing (1952) and was killed while reporting on the Korean War.
REF: P. Thompson and R. Macklin, The Life and Adventures of Morrison of China (2007).