“Spies” On A Mission

During my research into the history of my missionary relatives, I have found a few telegrams. Whenever there was a need for speedy information and one didn’t trust the postal service to deliver in time, the solution was to send a telegram. Letters could take a month to arrive from Europe to China – sometimes more. My great grandfather Robert was one of the missionaries trusted with operating the telegraph and receiving telegrams for fellow missionaries in the region.

Until recently I had not thought about how this service was carried through. I recently got in touch with a cousin of my late father, Kurt. He was born in China because his father (my grandfather’s brother) also became a missionary as an adult. Kurt is a delight to talk with. During one conversation he told me he had this book.

“It’s a code book,” he said, and I was immediately intrigued. He left the phone for a bit to go get it and came back a bit out of breath.

“They used it to send telegrams. As if they were spies,” he almost whispered. I felt immediately drawn into the past and the life of these pioneers, giving their all for their calling.

Kurt had kept the book from his father. It’s called “China Inland Mission private telegraph code” and was used not only by C.I.M. missionaries, but also by those sent out by other missionary societies like the one Kurts’ father and my other relatives were with.

Ever since 1899 C.I.M. had been using some sort of code to send messages – but it had been a pretty limited one. The need for a more comprehensive code became apparent as the number of missionaries grew and communication became even more important. The work of compiling such a code, based on telegrams sent back and forth since 1899, was undertaken in 1904 by Mr. F. H. Neale.

Kurt read some of the contents to me over the phone. His voice corresponded so well with the material I felt a chill running down my spine. It is a very interesting compilation of phrases that say a lot about what the main concerns for the missionaries were back then.

What about code 31: “Must finish before winter sets in, or it will have to stand over until spring.”
Or code 90 “Have advised the withdrawal of missionaries from interior stations.”

I started searching for the book online and found that it had been scanned and was possible to read.

The book was first printed with cloth cover, but later it came in a more sturdy half -leather binding.

The code book starts out with a few pages of instructions on how to use it and how the number combinations work. The book in itself must have been very important to have in order to dechiper the messages – noone could ever guess the sentences behind those numbers, I’m sure.

I don’t know how many missionaries were in possession of the code book or how many telegraph stations there were in China at the time – if anyone knows more about this, please share.

As many missionaries were involved with medical issues and were sometimes the last resort for both other missionaries and the local population in matters of medicine, I wanted to see what medical terms they found useful.

And well, requesting to send anything form arsenic and aspirin to brandy or opium tincture was apparently common.

Sometimes, one had to send telegrams if the medicine did not arrive or if one intended to send medicines by special messenger.

And of course, misunderstandings happened. For instance, I find this phrase very telling: “Mistake has been made but through no fault of ours; make the best arrangements you can.”

I can imagine this section with different phrases about mistakes and misunderstandings was frequently used… or what do you think?

10 comments

    • 😊 That might have been the case, Liz. Perhaps it was quicker to write in code as well. And maybe there were also security issues, as the missionaries were not well seen at all times in China. The code book does not reveal the reasons as to why they needed it, only that there was a demand. I’ll try to find out more 😊

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      • So happy you find it interesting, Liz! It seems the code was mainly put together in order to “effect greater efficiency and economy” in telegraphing. Looking through it I also find codes for personal names frequently used – most of them connected to different missionary societies present in China at the time. The well renowned Hudson Taylor and his successor D.E. Hoste – both directors of the C.I.M are represented of course – as is my great grandfather Robert and of course Olga. It seems married missionary women were usually sorted under the names of their husbands, but with an additition of a “Mrs.” in code. Olga was not married when the first edition of the book was printed, and the code was not corrected in the updated version of 1913, when her husband Nils had been in China for 4 years – which is probably why she is in it but not Nils. The more one reads the more interesting it gets!!

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      • Thank you for seeking out and sharing the additional information, Therese. I thought that “efficiency and economy” must have played a large part in it. Interesting how Olga came to be listed but not Nils.

        Liked by 2 people

    • 😄 Yes – fascinating that they were so detailed concerning mistakes and misunderstandings – and who to blame for it 😉 Perhaps they felt there was little room for making mistakes and feared being transferred or asked to go back home if their work was not up to standard…

      Liked by 1 person

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