1862-1920 | VIC | Foreign correspondent
Morrison trained as a surgeon, but made his reputation as a journalist and adventurer. At 17 he walked from his home town of Geelong to Adelaide, writing articles for The Leader. He later walked across Australia from north to south, reported on the Pacific slave trade for The Age, led an exploring mission into New Guinea (until he was speared by natives). He achieved international fame as Asia correspondent for The Times, not least for his coverage of the siege of Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. He became an adviser to the Chinese government.
George Ernest (Chinese) Morrison was the forerunner of a remarkable tradition of Australian adventurer journalists whose exploits extended the boundaries of early knowledge about our region.
A century after Morrison’s death at 58 from ill-health caused by a life lived on the edge, it remains hard to comprehend the full sweep of his activities, the exceptional enterprise he displayed in his various adventures, and his importance as a pioneering journalist in Asia.
Morrison might not have been recognised formally as the inspiration for generations of journalists who followed him, but it would be hard to argue against the proposition that he showed the way for others.
A.B. (Banjo) Paterson, who had covered the Boer War with distinction for The Sydney Morning Herald, classified Morrison as one of three great men of affairs he had encountered.
“Cecil Rhodes, with enormous capital at his back, had battled Boers and Basutos; Churchill, with his father’s prestige and his mother’s money to help him, had sailed on life’s voyage with the wind strongly behind him; but Morrison had gone into China on a small salary for The Times and had outclassed the smartest political agents in the world – men with untold money at the back of them,’’ Paterson wrote in his memoir Happy Dispatches.
Fresh from his exploits in South Africa, Paterson had been sent to China in 1900 to cover the Boxer Rebellion. In Peking, Morrison found himself under siege in the Legation ??uarter. The siege lasted for 55 days, Morrison himself was wounded in the process, and yet still managed to minister to others in his capacity as a medical practitioner. In his account of his experiences, published in e Times between 13-15 October, 1900 Morrison referred to the “indescribable emotion’’ when the siege was lifted by Indian troops under British command – the 1st Regiment of Sikhs and the 7th Rajputs. These were heady days for a man who might be described as Australia’s first fully-fledged foreign correspondent.
Morrison’s early wanderlust was apparent in a series of extraordinary adventures that stamped him as a fearless traveler, a man of singular endurance and personal courage. At the age of 18 he walked alone from Melbourne to Adelaide around the coast, a distance of 1207 km through country that remained unsettled, and the following year he canoed from Wodonga to the Murray’s mouth, walking back to Geelong.
George Ernest Morrison was born in 1862 and educated at the Geelong College where his father, also George, was headmaster. He kept a diary at school and was drawn towards journalism at an early age.
His account in David Syme’s The Age of “blackbirding’’, or slavery, among Pacific islanders, arose from a visit to North ??ueensland and the islands themselves in 1882. In December that year he found himself in the Gulf of Carpentaria and decided to retrace the steps of Burke and Wills across the continent – from north to south. He completed a journey of 3219 km in 123 days. In a letter to his mother he described this extraordinary feat as a “pleasant excursion.’’
On assignment for The Age in New Guinea in 1883, Morrison was wounded with gashes to his face, and a broken spear lodged in his abdomen. He was lucky to survive.
This led to him resuming his medical studies (broken off to enable an early life of adventuring) in Edinburgh where he had gone for treatment. After graduation he worked for a period as resident surgeon at Ballarat Base Hospital, but restlessness got the better of him.
In 1894, he walked across China and Burma, a distance of 4828 km. His account of his journey – An Australian in China – attracted the attention of the editors of The Times. He was commissioned as a special correspondent in China.
Morrison was to remain in China in various capacities, including adviser to the post-Manchu Nationalist government of Yuan Shi-kai until ill- health obliged him to seek medical attention in Britain. He died at Sidmouth, Devon, on 30 May, 1920 from complications associated with chronic pancreatitis. He was survived by his wife and three sons, one of whom, Ian Morrison, was killed as a correspondent for The Times in the Korean War.
George Morrison never returned to live in the country of his birth after departing in 1894, investing the last decades of an eventful life in his China odyssey. The late Cyril Pearl notes in his excellent biography Morrison of Peking that China “never had a more ardent or more disinterested champion than this incorruptible Australian’’.
G.E. Morrison with the members of the Tsungli Yuamen, Peking, Aug 8, 1899.
Tony Walker is international editor of the Australian Financial Review and a former foreign correspondent for Fairfax and the Financial Times in the Middle East, China and the United States.
Dr George E. Morrison (centre) with Masunosuke Odagiri (seated left), the representative of Baron Iwasaki, and Mikinosuke Ishida (seated right) who supreviesed the transfer of te Morrison library to Tokyo, in the Morrison library after the sale oft he collection in 1917.
Morrison (first from left, secopnd row) at the Portsmouth Conference in August 1905.
G. E. Morrison with the embers of the Sungli Yuamen, Peking, August 8, 1899
'Morrison, George Ernest ('Chinese') (1862–1920)', J. S. Gregory, Australian Dictionary of Biography
Morrison of Peking, Cyril Pearl, 1967, Angus & Robertson
Sky High to Shanghai, Frank Clune, 1948, Angus & Robertson
The Correspondence of G. E. Morrison, 1978, Lo Hui-min, Cambridge University Press