Hart, Sir Robert (1835–1911), head of the Chinese customs service, was born 20 February 1835 in Portadown, Co. Armagh, eldest of twelve children of Henry Hart, shopkeeper and farmer, and Ann Hart (née Edgar). After secondary schooling at the Wesleyan Connexional School (later Wesley College), Dublin, he entered QCB at the age of 15, graduating with a first-class honours BA (1853). In April 1854 he was recruited to the British consular service as a supernumerary interpreter for China. He rapidly mastered both spoken and written Chinese and was appointed official interpreter to the British consul in Canton (1858). Hart made a very favourable impression, with his fluent Chinese and modest manner, on all the Chinese officials he met. He resigned from the consular service in 1859 and was appointed deputy commissioner of the maritime customs in Canton. Gifted with considerable intellectual abilities and an enormous capacity for hard work, Hart advanced rapidly in the customs service. In 1861 he founded the Tong Wen Guan (Institute of Education) for training customs officials. In 1864, at the age of 29, he was appointed by the Zongli Yamen (Foreign Office) to the post of inspector general of the imperial Chinese maritime customs service at a salary of £4,000 a year. Not only did the ‘great IG’ dominate every aspect of Chinese maritime activity for the next forty years, but he became the most trusted adviser of the Chinese government, and was an active participant in treaty negotiations between China and the foreign powers.
Despite his strong religious beliefs, at the age of 22 Hart acquired a Chinese concubine, Ayaou, and three children were born to them: Anna (c.1859), Herbert (1862), and Arthur (1865). Having parted from Ayaou, Hart brought his ‘wards’ to London in 1866 to be informally adopted, though he continued to help them financially in their later lives. That same year he married Hester Jane Bredon (b. 1847) of Portadown. They had three children: Evelyn Amy (1869), Edgar Bruce (1873), and Mabel Milburne (1879). His wife returned from China to London with the children in 1882 and, although they kept in touch and he continued to support her financially, they met only briefly from then, until his retirement to England in 1908.
Under Hart's autocratic rule, the service was noted for its lack of corruption, though Hart was not averse to appointing his own relatives to jobs there. For example, his brother-in-law, Robert Bredon, was appointed acting inspector general during Hart's final leave of absence. The Zongli Yamen insisted that all the top positions be held by foreigners, and up to twenty-one differing nationalities were represented among the staff. By 1865 customs duties had become the second largest source of income for the Qing government. Hart organised Chinese participation in international trade fairs, starting with Vienna in 1873. He instigated the first Chinese diplomatic representation (London, 1877), the expenses of which were paid by the customs service. Having established a customs postal service in 1866, Hart was appointed inspector general of the Chinese postal service in 1893. He established the first western brass band in China. With his purchase of five gunboats in 1879, he laid the foundations of the modern Chinese navy. Through his agent in London, James Joseph Campbell, Hart directed the peace negotiations with France (treaty of Tianjin, 1885) and, also through Campbell, negotiated the Sino–Portuguese treaty on Macao (1887); in 1891 he tried, unsuccessfully, to buy back Macao for China for 1 million dollars. In 1888 he directed the negotiations, carried out by his brother James, of the Sikkim–Tibet convention. In 1900 he was among those besieged by the Boxers in the embassy quarter in Peking. His subsequent book, These from the land of Sinim (1901) is a balanced, perceptive, and remarkably detached collection of essays on the ‘Chinese question’.
Hart was decorated by fifteen governments. His honours included a knighthood from Britain in 1882 (baronetcy, 1893), the Ancestral Rank of the First Class of the First Order for Three Generations from China (1888), and – the one that amused him not a little as an Ulster protestant – Commander of the Order of Pius IX from the Holy See (1885). In 1908 he sailed to London to rejoin his family, on a leave of absence that lasted until his death at Marlow, Buckinghamshire, on 20 September 1911. He was posthumously awarded the title Grand Guardian of the Heir Apparent by the Qing government, three weeks before the dynasty was swept away – the only foreigner in history to receive that honour. His son Edgar Bruce (1873–1963) succeeded him as 2nd baronet; Edgar Bruce's grandson Robert (1918–70), 3rd baronet, died without an heir. There is a portrait of Hart by Frank McKelvey (qv), RHA, in QUB.