7. Sir John Bowring liked to show off and exaggerate, but the British diplomat almost certainly had an understanding of at least a dozen languages
The fourth British Governor of Hong Kong was many things, a language lover and a boaster among them. As such, his claims to have been able to speak 100 languages and read 100 more, were undoubtedly significantly exaggerated. Nevertheless, Bowring was a genuine polyglot. His language skills helped him become one of the leading literary translators, writers and travelers of his time, plus they helped him land one of the best jobs in the British Empire.
Born in 1792, Bowring soon grew out of childhood ambitions to join the Church. Instead, as a young man, he went into business and headed off to Spain to cash in as a trader during the Peninsular War in Spain. Here, he picked up not only Spanish, but also French and a number of other languages. Above all, he was fascinated by the languages of Eastern Europe. So, while his peers tried to become novelists or poets, he spent his time learning these.
With a failed business behind him, Bowring spent the 1820s traveling through the Netherlands and then Denmark, adding to his language skills along the way. He also spent the decade making a name for himself as a political economist before he moved into politics. He quickly learned, however, that life as a Member of Parliament didn’t pay so well, so became a diplomat instead. In 1849, he was sent to Hong Kong, where his language skills allowed him to keep relations between Britain and China as smooth as possible. Finally, he spent his final years in Italy, working as an ambassador to the newly-unified country.
So, how many languages could Bowring speak? It was definitely not the 100 he boasted of. His biographers generally agree that by the time of his death, Bowring could speak eight languages fluently. He could also read and write a further seven, plus he had a solid understanding of 25 more. By anyone’s measure, though he was a show-off with a bad habit of exaggerating the truth, Sir John Bowring and undeniably a skilled polyglot.