The Opium Wars

THE BRITISH EMPIRE WAS the largest drug pusher the world has ever seen. By the 1830s the smuggling of opium into China was a source of huge profits and these profits played a crucial role in the financing of British rule in India and were the underpinning of British trade and commerce throughout the East. This is one of those little details that are often overlooked in general histories of the empire, where the opium trade is generally played down and sometimes ignored altogether. Denis Judd’s acclaimed volume, Empire, a 500-page history of the British Empire, has no discussion of either the trade or the wars it occasioned.1 More recently, the prestigious Oxford History of the British Empire: the 19th Century, edited by Andrew Porter, barely acknowledges the trade in over 700 erudite pages.2 This is despite its tremendous economic importance: opium is estimated to have been “the world’s most valuable single commodity trade of the 19th century”,3 and despite the fact that the Second Opium War actually brought about the overthrow of the government of the day in a vote of confidence and forced the holding of a general election, something not even the massive opposition to the recent Iraq war managed. Moreover, the opium trade was, in the words of the historian John K Fairbanks, without any doubt, “the most long-continued and systematic crime of modern times”.4

“The safest and most gentlemanlike speculation I am aware of”

The production of opium in India had come under British control towards the end of the 18th century. In 1775 the British gave the East India Company a monopoly over its production and sale, and towards the end of the century the company established an opium agency to manage the business. Sale and consumption of the product in India itself were successfully discouraged, something which seems to show a clear awareness of its disastrous consequences.5 The export of opium to China, however, was to develop into a massive concern. In the 1760s some 1,000 chests of opium (each weighing 140 lbs) were smuggled into China, and this figure gradually increased to around 4,000 chests in 1800. In the years from 1800 to 1820 the trade stagnated with an average of 4,500 chests being shipped each year. Expansion only really began after 1820 so that by 1824 over 12,000 chests were being smuggled into China, rising to 19,000 in 1830, to 30,000 in 1835 and to 40,000 chests (an incredible 2,500 tons of opium) in 1838.6 By this time the opium trade had become a vital national interest, “the hub of British commerce in the East”.7

The opium trade was one corner of an Eastern “triangular trade” that mirrored the 18th century Atlantic slave trade. The smuggling of opium turned a large British trading deficit with China into a substantial surplus, paying for British imports of tea and silk, for the export of manufactured goods to India and for a substantial proportion of the costs of British rule in India. According to one authority, the opium trade was absolutely crucial “to the expansion of the British Empire in the late 18th and 19th centuries”. This was both because of the revenues it produced and because of the powerful network of “narco-capitalists”, merchants and financiers it created, “who profited from the trade, and whose influence buttressed the imperial lobby throughout the 19th century”. For the British administration in India, opium was its second most important source of revenue and, for most of the 19th century, its most important export.8 The trade kept the East India Company “afloat financially”.9 Moreover, as John Wong has shown, it not only turned a British trade deficit with China into a substantial surplus and generated massive profits, but also provided substantial revenues for the British government in London. The duty that was levied on the tea imports, which was paid for by smuggled opium, was sufficient to finance a considerable proportion of the costs of the Royal Navy during the 19th century.

The opium trade was clearly not a small-scale affair carried out by small-time crooks and gangsters. Instead it was a massive international commerce carried out by major British trading companies under the armed protection of the British state. According to William Jardine of Jardine Matheson, the most important of the companies involved in the trade, it was “the safest and most gentlemanlike speculation I am aware of ”. In a good year profits could be as high as $1,000 a chest. His wealth was sufficient to buy him a seat in the House of Commons and, as we shall see, to get him the ear of the government.10

Jardine Matheson and Co was founded in 1832 and was the most successful of the opium smuggling companies. It is still a major financial and trading company today. Jardine’s partner in the enterprise, James Matheson, shows the uses to which the profits from the trade could be put. In the 1840s he too became an MP, sitting in the Commons for some 25 years. He bought the Hebridean Island of Lewis for £500,000, had Stornoway Castle built and cleared more than 500 families off the land, shipping them to Canada. He went on to become chairman of the great P & O shipping line, the major opium carrier for most of the 19th century, a governor of the Bank of England and the second largest landowner in Britain. His successor in the company, Alexander Matheson, a nephew, was likewise to settle on extensive estates in Scotland, bought for £773,000, and was to be an MP for nearly 40 years. Another nephew, Hugh Matheson, was to found Rio Tinto Zinc in the early 1870s. Clearly drug pushing was no obstacle to advancement and respectability in Victorian Britain.

The First Opium War

The importation of opium into China was, of course, illegal, prohibited by the Manchu Emperors, but the British companies engaged in the trade systematically corrupted or intimidated the Chinese authorities so that it was able to continue with little interruption. Depot ships were anchored off the coast, selling the drug to Chinese smugglers, who carried it ashore for distribution. By the 1830s the scale of the problems caused by the trade forced the Chinese government to respond. The country was being drained of silver to pay for the opium, its administration was being corrupted and the extent of addiction (estimates of the number of addicts go as high as 12 million) was seen as a threat to both state and society. In March 1839 the emperor sent a special commissioner, Lin Zexu, to Canton to enforce the ban on the opium trade and stamp it out once and for all.

Lin cracked down ferociously both on Chinese pushers and addicts, effectively suppressing the use of the drug, before proceeding to action against the British merchants who were bringing it in. He confined them to the area of the European territories in Canton, holding them hostage until they surrendered the opium they held. After six weeks the British superintendent of trade, Captain Charles Elliot, who himself regarded the trade as one “which every friend of humanity must deplore”, capitulated and ordered the surrender of over 20,000 chests, which the Chinese destroyed. For the merchants, who for months had been unable to sell their product because of Lin’s crackdown, this was a tremendous opportunity to practise massive fraud, an opportunity that they found irresistible. The British government would compensate them for their losses so they exaggerated their losses in every way possible, making huge profits from the confiscations. One trading house was rumoured to have made £400,000 from the episode.11 And, of course, Lin’s attempt at enforcing China’s laws was to precipitate war with Britain.

Lin expelled the British from Canton, only for them to establish themselves on the island of Hong Kong, which they were determined to hold even in the face of Chinese hostility. At the same time the British government responded to Chinese actions by demanding compensation for the confiscated opium, the opening of more Chinese ports to trade, the legalisation of the opium trade, and the handing over of Hong Kong. They also demanded that China paid the full cost of the British military effort necessary to enforce these demands. A powerful expeditionary force was despatched to bring the Chinese to their senses, first blockading the coast and then proceeding up the Yangtze River to Nanjing. Advising the government in London was one of the opium barons himself, William Jardine. The foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, was later to thank him for “the assistance and information…so handsomely afforded us” and to which “it was mainly owing that we were able to give to our affairs, naval, military and diplomatic, in China, those detailed instructions which have led to these satisfactory outcomes”. Palmerston celebrated the war and its outcome as an episode that “will form an epoch in the progress of the civilization of the human races” and which incidentally would “be attributed with the most important advantages to the commercial interests of England”.12

The British had an overwhelming technological superiority in this First Opium War that turned every engagement into a one-sided massacre. As one British officer observed, “The poor Chinese” had two choices, either they “must submit to be poisoned, or must be massacred by the thousands, for supporting their own laws in their own land”.13 The British capture of the port of Jinhai in early October 1841 provides a useful example of the character of the conflict. The port was bombarded by the Wellesley (74 guns), the Conway and the Alligator (28 guns each), the Cruiser and the Algerine (18 guns each) and another dozen smaller vessels each carrying ten guns. In nine minutes they fired 15 broadsides into the effectively defenceless town before landing troops to storm the ruins. According to one British participant, “the crashing of timber, falling houses and groans of men resounded from the shore” and when the smoke cleared “a mass of ruins presented itself to the eye”. When the troops landed on the beach, they found it deserted, save for “a few dead bodies, bows and arrows, broken spears and guns…”14 With the bombardment of the town still under way, the troops moved in to rape and pillage. According to the India Gazette, “A more complete pillage could not be conceived…the plunder only ceased when there was nothing to take or destroy”.15 It was during this war that the Hindi word “lut” entered the English language as the word “loot”. The taking of Jinhai cost the British three men killed, while the number of Chinese dead was over 2,000. Close behind the warships came the opium ships, restarting their trade.

There was a similar outcome when the Chinese made a surprise attack on the British-occupied port of Ningbo on 10 March 1842. John Ouchterlony, a young British officer, described the attackers as “men whose gallantry and determination could not have been excelled”. Nevertheless, the result was a massacre with the British driving the Chinese off and then pressing them into the suburbs. Here they met a large force of Chinese soldiers and brought up an artillery piece which immediately opened fire:

Upon the living wall before them with case shot at a distance not exceeding 20 to 30 yards. The effect was terrible, for the street was perfectly straight, and the enemy’s rear, not aware of the miserable fate which was being dealt out to their comrades in front, continued to press the mass forward, so as to force fresh victims upon the mound of dead and dying which already barricaded the street…the howitzer only discontinued its fire from the impossibility of directing its shot upon a living foe, clear of the writhing and shrieking hecatomb which it had already piled up.

The British did not suffer a single fatality, while some 400 Chinese had been killed. According to Ouchterlony, this “merciless carnage in the street of the western suburb proved too fearful a tension to be soon forgotten by the Chinese troops”.16

More successful were the Chinese guerrilla tactics whereby individual soldiers and sailors were attacked. According to an officer stationed in Ningbo, the Chinese became “most expert” in the art of kidnapping and beheading British troops. On 18 April 1842 he wrote of how the body of a soldier kidnapped five weeks earlier “had been found in a canal without its head”. This low-level guerrilla campaign cost the British more casualties than all the full-scale battles and engagements, and they responded with ferocious reprisals, burning villages and summary executions. Following the assassination of a soldier on 28 April (“He had been murdered in broad daylight, strangled, bound and bagged”), “the whole of the north suburb was burnt down”, although the officer thought they might be “playing the game of the Mandarins, whose aim is to make us odious to the people”.17 And indeed this was beginning to happen towards the end of the war when large numbers of peasants began to mobilise against British depredations.

One interesting question is the extent to which the British were aware of the consequences of the trade they were intent on imposing on China. Lord Jocelyn, the military secretary to the expedition, in his account of the war, described visiting an opium den in Singapore whilst en route to China:

One of the objects, at this place that I had the curiosity to visit, was the opium-smoker in his heaven; and certainly it is a most fearful sight… On a beginner, one or two pipes will have an effect, but an old stager will continue smoking for hours… A few days of his fearful luxury, when taken to excess, will have a pallid and haggard look to the face; and a few months, or even weeks, will change the strong and healthy man into little better than an idiot skeleton. The pain they suffer when deprived of the drug, after long habit, no language can explain… The last scene in this tragic play is generally a room in the rear of the building, a species of dead-house, where lie stretched those who have passed into the state of bliss the opium-smoker madly seeks—an emblem of the long sleep to which he is blindly hurrying.

Nevertheless, he went on to insist that, “however hateful it may appear”, the trade is “a source of great benefit to the Indian government, returning I have heard a revenue of upwards of two million and a half yearly”.18

At home the war was strongly opposed in the Chartist press with the Northern Star newspaper condemning this “opium war”.19 In the House of Commons the Tory opposition put down a motion of censure on the Whig government’s conduct. The secretary of state for war, Thomas Babington Macauley, proceeded to wrap himself in the Union Jack. He reminded MPs that the opium traders “belonged to a country unaccustomed to defeat, to submission, or to shame”, that they had flying over them a “notorious flag” and he urged “that this most rightful quarrel may be prosecuted to a triumphal close”.20 One of the government’s critics, William Gladstone (a young Tory MP at that time), condemned the war in the most uncompromising language: “A war more unjust in its origins, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of.” The flag, he went on, is being “hoisted to protect an infamous contraband traffic” while justice was with the Chinese and “whilst they, the pagans and semi-civilised barbarians have it, we, the enlightened and civilised Christians, are pursuing objects at variance with both justice and religion”. Macauley’s shabby prostitution of his oratorical talents in the cause of massacre and drug pushing carried the day and the government won the vote by 271 to 262. Gladstone recorded in his diary that he was “in dread of the judgement of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China”.21

When the Whig government finally fell in June 1841, the Tories led by Robert Peel took office and in the best traditions of British politics continued the very same policy that they had condemned earlier. The war continued until the Chinese were forced to accept British terms, conceding everything except the legalisation of the opium trade. Public opinion in Britain resented the pressing of this demand, but it was made clear to the Chinese that interference with the trade would not be tolerated. James Matheson summed up the situation: “The opium trade is now so very important in England that we cannot be too cautious in keeping as quiet and out of the public eye as possible”.22 The most important gain made by the British was the gaining of Hong Kong.

The Taiping rebellion

Defeat at the hands of the British seriously weakened the Chinese Qing dynasty and was certainly one of the factors prompting the Taiping rebellion, the greatest revolutionary movement of the 19th century. While it is virtually unknown in the West today, in June 1853 Karl Marx had welcomed this “Chinese Revolution”, which he had hoped would “throw the spark into the overloaded mire of the present industrial system and cause the explosion of the long-prepared general crisis”. “It would”, he went on, “be a curious spectacle, that of China sending disorder into the Western world”.23 Of course, his hope that the Taiping rebellion would precipitate a fresh revolutionary wave in Europe, reviving the movement of 1848, was to remain unfulfilled. Nevertheless, he recognised the importance of the revolt.

The Taiping rebellion swept up millions of people into a 14-year struggle to overthrow the Manchu emperors and establish a messianic Christian theocracy. Inspired by their reading of the Bible, the rebels called for the abolition of landlordism and the establishment of a form of primitive communism with all the wealth held in common in the “sacred treasury”. They prohibited prostitution, infanticide, slavery, the binding of women’s feet and the smoking of opium. While certainly not feminist in any modern sense, the position of women in the Taiping movement went a considerable way towards establishing women’s equality. The rebels were to come close to victory but in the end were defeated and totally destroyed by the Manchu armies, which were armed and assisted in this by the British. The war to destroy the Taipings was the most terrible in human history before the First World War, costing 20 million people their lives.

The movement had its origins in the preaching of Hong Xiuquan, the son of a peasant farmer, who came to believe that he was the son of God and the brother of Jesus. Hong’s messianic Chinese reworking of Christianity found an eager audience in the China of the 1840s. Increasing hardship, poverty and oppression were the lot of the poor, unrest was widespread and revolt endemic, and the Qing dynasty was discredited by its defeat at the hands of the British. Hong’s condemnation of the ruling class “demons” and his promise of social justice, all dressed up in the trappings of divine revelation and promising salvation and the kingdom of heaven now, fired the imagination of thousands of desperate people in his home province of Guangxi.24 A British consular official, Thomas Meadows, writing in 1856, noted the Taiping intention “to adopt institutions of equality and communism” and recognised that for the poor “the institution of equality of property, or at least of a sufficiency for every man…is of course peculiarly attractive”. He compared the movement to the English revolutionaries of the 1640s and observed that inevitably “the property-holding classes” took the side of the Manchus.25 Another contemporary account argued that the Taipings had “the spirit of the Fifth Monarchy”, the English revolutionaries of the 1650s.26 The first armed clashes between the Taipings and Qing troops took place in December 1850 with the rebels emerging triumphant. Recognising that this was a serious threat, the authorities sent a larger force to crush the movement. In early January 1851 a 10,000-strong rebel army, with men and women fighting side by side, routed the imperial troops at the town of Jintian. Soon afterwards Hong proclaimed the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace (Taiping Tianguo) with himself the Heavenly King (Tian Wang).

With imperial troops beginning to concentrate against them, the rebels abandoned their homes and began an incredible march that was only to end with their storming of the great imperial city of Nanjing in March 1853. They broke through the imperial lines in August 1851 and made their way overland and by river, beating off attacks and capturing towns and cities. All the while they grew stronger as thousands and thousands of the poor and downtrodden rallied to their cause. At Chansha in September 1852 the authorities estimated their numbers at 120,000; by the time they captured Wuchang in January 1853 they were 500,000 strong; and when Nanjing fell, the authorities estimated they numbered 2 million. Hong proclaimed Nanjing his capital.

At this point the Qing regime was close to collapse, but Hong decided to call a halt rather than press on to attack Beijing. This was a fateful decision. Augustus Lindley, a British volunteer who fought in the Taiping ranks, later concluded that the occupation of Nanjing had “proved fateful to the success of the Taipings” because they surrendered the initiative to their enemies. “Insurrection”, he argued, “of whatever kind, to be successful, must never relinquish the aggressive movement; directly it acts upon the defensive, unless possessing some wonderful organisation, its power is broken.” He thought that Hong’s decision to establish his capital at Nanjing “lost him the empire”.27

What was the British attitude to the Taiping rebellion? For a while the movement was regarded sympathetically because it helped weaken the Manchus and, moreover, the Taipings were Christians—although not of a sort that was to prove acceptable to Europeans. The idea that Jesus had a Chinese brother smacked too much of racial equality. The overriding British concern, however, was the safeguarding of the opium trade which the Taiping prohibited wherever they took control. This was to lead to British military action against them, even while the British continued to proclaim their neutrality. As we shall see, this was to result in a remarkable situation in the summer of 1860 whereby the British were fighting the Manchus on one front and fighting on their behalf against the Taiping on another.

The Second Opium War

Even after their defeat in the First Opium War, the Manchus continued to resist British efforts to incorporate them into their informal empire. The Chinese refusal to allow access to Canton, in violation of their treaty with Britain, came to be seen as the key to relations between the two countries. If the Chinese could be forced to back down over this it would consolidate British influence and be a step towards opening up the rest of the country. What was required was a pretext to force the issue, and the Arrow incident was to provide it.

On 8 October 1856 Chinese police seized a suspected pirate vessel, the Arrow, and arrested its crew. The British consul protested, claiming that the Arrow was a British ship registered in Hong Kong and that the police had forcibly lowered the Union Jack. An apology was demanded which the Chinese refused. The governor of Hong Kong, John Bowring, responded with military action, sending warships to destroy Chinese forts and to bombard Canton. This action was taken despite the fact that the crew had been released, that the vessel’s Hong Kong registration had lapsed and that it had indeed been engaged in piracy. Moreover, as John Wong has shown, in a masterly piece of historical detective work, Chinese denials that the Union Jack had even been flying on the Arrow were almost certainly true.28 Nevertheless a war was required and this was the pretext. One point worth making here is that Bowring was not some sort of archreactionary, but one of the most notable liberal intellectuals of the day. He had been a close friend of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who had died in his arms, and had been a Radical MP. Bowring had supported the People’s Charter, had opposed the First Opium War and was a stalwart of the Peace Society. He was a noted linguist and a committed non-conformist, author of the hymn “In The Cross of Christ I Glory”. He was also a passionate believer in the case for free trade. Indeed, he combined this passion with his religious enthusiasm, on one occasion actually insisting that “Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ”. By the time he came to precipitate the Second Opium War, he was personally indebted to Jardine Matheson and his son, John, was a partner in the firm. Many of his former associates and friends regarded him as having sold himself to the opium merchants.29

The British attitude to China was perhaps best expressed by Palmerston a few years earlier, commenting on how one should deal with “half-civilized governments such as those of China, Portugal, Spanish America”. They all required “a drubbing every eight or ten years to keep them in order…they must not only see the stick but actually feel it on their shoulders”.30 What he found on this occasion, however, was that the pretext Bowring had provided was widely derided and that his government faced growing opposition in both the Lords and the Commons. Palmerston survived a vote of censure over the issue in the Lords, but in the Commons Richard Cobden’s motion was carried by 263 votes to 247. This was a remarkable result. Palmerston responded by dissolving parliament and fighting a fiercely jingoistic general election campaign. His widely circulated election address began: “An insolent barbarian wielding authority in Canton has violated the British flag”.31 The result in April 1857 was a landslide victory that swept away many of his opponents, including Richard Cobden. Cobden complained bitterly to his fellow radical John Bright that “I consider that we as a nation are little better than brigands, murderers and poisoners in our dealings at this moment with half the population of the globe”.32 The war had barely started.

The man sent to bring the Chinese to heel was James Bruce, the eighth Earl of Elgin. He considered the Arrow incident to be a “scandal” and a “contemptible” occasion for war, but nevertheless was determined to do his duty and force the Manchus to accept British terms.33 Preparations were held up by his troops being diverted to India to help suppress the Great Rebellion (see Chapter Four), but by the end of December 1857 an Anglo-French army had finally assembled. The bombardment of Canton began on the 28th. Shells and rockets from 32 warships battered the walls for 27 hours. The next day the city was stormed in the face of nominal resistance. Once Canton was taken, the expedition proceeded to take the Dagu forts guarding the mouth of the river Baihe and advanced up river to Tianjin which was occupied at the end of May 1858.

British methods of maintaining order in the territory they had occupied were best demonstrated in Canton where they encountered a guerrilla insurgency. Most of the population had fled, but according to Colonel Frederick Stephenson, there were bands of insurgent “braves” concealed about the city, “intimidating the people that remain, and trying, as they publicly proclaim, to cut us off by assassination”. Individual soldiers were being caught on their own and beheaded. The response to these attacks was to “burn a large number of houses around the spot where they took place”. Following a particularly daring attack on a patrol, they “burnt the whole neighbourhood to a distance of three quarters of a mile”. The persistence of the attacks inevitably led to reprisals being stepped up. On 20 July, which was after peace had been officially concluded, Stephenson wrote home that the troops were carrying out two reprisals at that moment, destroying a district of Canton “covering a space equal to a moderately-sized town, and the other not very much smaller”. He went on to say that the Chinese were an “odious and contemptible” race.34

The Chinese finally came to terms after Elgin threatened to advance on Beijing. On 26 June 1858 the Treaty of Tietsin was concluded, awarding Britain a £1 million indemnity, opening up the Yangxi River and five new treaty ports. The emperor also agreed to the appointment of a British ambassador to Beijing—the post was given to Elgin’s brother, Frederick Bruce—and at last opium was legalised. Elgin fully acknowledged in the privacy of his journal that British conduct towards the Chinese was scandalous, but excused himself because he had, at least, tried to minimise the loss of life whereas there were many, including some missionaries, who wanted China subdued by fire, sword and massacre. He capitalised on his success at Tianjin by crossing to Japan where its rulers, the Shogunate, were suitably impressed by the fate of the Manchus and signed the Treaty of Yedo on 26 August 1858. This opened up a number of Japanese ports to trade. He returned to Britain a hero with a position in the cabinet, the rectorship of Glasgow University and the Freedom of the City of London.

The Third Opium War

Back in China, however, Elgin’s achievement was already beginning to unravel. His brother, Frederick Bruce, insisted that his progress to Beijing, where he was to be installed as ambassador, should be a military demonstration. The Chinese refused to accept this new humiliation and so Bruce decided to teach them a further lesson in compliance. He ordered the Baihe route cleared. On 25 June 1859 the overconfident British once again attacked the Dagu forts, but on this occasion suffered a serious defeat, with five ships sunk or disabled and over 500 British soldiers and seamen killed. It was one of the worst British military disasters of the 19th century. Encouraged by this victory, the emperor promptly repudiated the treaty and Elgin was once again sent out to bring the Chinese to terms.

Once again an Anglo-French army was assembled (13,000 British and 7,000 French) and preparations were made to renew the attack on the Dagu forts. On 21 August 1860 the British attacked the northernmost fort. After a ferocious bombardment the fort was stormed with a least 2,000 Chinese killed. The Reverend R J L M’Ghee, chaplain to the expedition, wrote of the horrors to be seen inside the fort where the new Armstrong artillery had performed to deadly effect: “It was indeed an awful sight, limbs blown away, bodies literally burst asunder, one black and livid mess of blood and wounds.” He could only be thankful that, “since there were such weapons in existence, they were in our hands—ours, who would use them more to preserve the peace of the world than ever to make an aggressive or unjust war”.35 British honour had been besmirched by the so-called “Dagu Repulse” and now it was publicly restored. No less than six Victoria Crosses were awarded for this and the storming of the fort.

The Anglo-French army advanced on Beijing, an advance punctuated by massacre and looting. At last on 5 October 1860 it arrived before the walls of the city. What followed was, in the words of one British officer, “a memorable day in the history of plunder and destruction”.36 With the French leading the way the army fell on the emperor’s Summer Palace—a huge ornamental park with numerous palaces and pavilions, outside the city. According to Colonel Garnet Wolseley, both officers and men “seem to have been seized with a temporary insanity; in body and soul they were absorbed in one pursuit which was plunder, plunder”.37 The British established a prize fund for the benefit of the whole army and auctioned off their loot. This raised £26,000, a fraction of the value, and private soldiers received £5 each. Individuals still managed to enrich themselves, however. Lieutenant James Harris, for example, had to surrender his seven large baskets of plunder to the prize fund, but was allowed to keep a quantity of gold for himself that was subsequently valued at £22,000. According to Harris, the China campaign was “truly…the most enjoyable picnic in which I have taken part”.38

In reprisal for the torture and death of a number of prisoners who had fallen into Manchu hands, Elgin ordered that the Summer Palace should be destroyed altogether. This unearthed yet more plunder. Among those sent to carry out the work was Major Charles Gordon: “We accordingly went out, and after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a Vandal-like manner most valuable property which could not be replaced for four millions… You can scarce imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these palaces were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work… Everybody was wild for plunder.” Gordon himself took possession of a throne which he donated to his regiment.39

On 24 October Elgin entered Beijing in triumph, carried in a sedan chair and accompanied by a cavalry and infantry escort. The Manchus were now forced to ratify the Treaty of Tientsin, opening up Tianjin as a further treaty port and ceding the Kowloon peninsula to Britain, together with an additional Convention of Peking that increased the size of the indemnity. And while Elgin could not claim a trophy as valuable as the Parthenon Marbles, stolen by his father, “the Summer Palace’s robes and thrones were brought back to England where they grace that monument to British imperialism, the Victoria and Albert Museum”.40 But it was not just a matter of material reward. As one officer put it, the news “of the fall of Pekin will resound through Asia and produce in India an excellent effect”.41

Crushing the Taiping rebels

Even while British troops were fighting against the Manchus, they were also fighting on their behalf against the Taipings. What the British wanted was a compliant Qing government in Beijing, which would, however reluctantly, accept British hegemony. What they did not want was a revolutionary Taiping government that would among other things prohibit the opium trade. When, in the course of 1860, the Taipings moved against Shanghai, the British resolved to stop them. The Taiping intention was to capture what was the country’s most important port, giving them control of substantial customs revenues, access to supplies of modern weapons and, hopefully, Western allies. Somewhat naively they expected the British in Shanghai to welcome them both because they were fellow Christians and because they were also enemies of the Manchus.

A Taiping army led by their ablest general, Li Xiucheng, arrived before Shanghai in mid-August 1860. They had dispersed all the Manchu forces in the area and expected an unopposed takeover of the Chinese districts of the city. Li had no idea that the British had decided to defend Shanghai against him. The first he knew of their decision was when they opened fire on his troops. Augustus Lindley, the British volunteer fighting with the Taipings, described how “they were met with a storm of shot, shell and musketry” without any warning. Some 300 rebels were killed outright in this unprovoked onslaught, “mowed down by the savages on the walls” and never retaliating “with a single shot”. Li was convinced the attack was a terrible mistake, but as his casualties mounted he was forced to retreat. According to Lindley, over three days the British killed some 3,000 rebels without suffering a single casualty. The Taipings never returned fire and even after they were driven off still hoped for friendly relations. Lindley recounts how a missionary, Mr Milne, fell into Taiping hands as this one-sided slaughter was taking place. Li gave him an escort to see him safely to the city gate, whereupon British troops massacred the escort.42

The British proceeded to proclaim a 30-mile exclusion zone around Shanghai. This led to continual fighting with the Taiping rebels. Li Xiucheng made two more attempts to occupy Shanghai, and although he inflicted some defeats on British and French forces, in the end he was always driven off by their overwhelming firepower. As for the British, they intervened more and more openly on the side of the Manchus. In May 1862 the Taiping-held port of Ningbo, a hundred miles from Shanghai, was attacked by an Anglo-French force who handed it over to Manchu troops. The British stood by while the population, including women and children, were massacred. An important part in the British war on the Taiping rebels was played by a mercenary force, the Ever Victorious Army. This consisted of Chinese troops but equipped with modern weapons, including artillery, and under British and American officers. Charles Gordon eventually succeeded to command of the force and became a popular hero in Britain where he was celebrated as “Chinese” Gordon. This celebration was seriously misplaced, according to Lindley, who actually captured one of his gunboats, the Firefly. In his account of the Taipings, Lindley described how Gordon captured the town of Taitsan in May 1863 and promptly handed it over to the Manchus, who proceeded to massacre the population. The imperial troops were guilty of “the most revolting barbarities” and Lindley held that Gordon himself was “criminally responsible”.43 A number of rebel leaders were tortured to death in full view of Gordon and his officers. One should not make too much of this, however, because as one of Gordon’s contemporary admirers assured his readers, it was astonishing how little the Chinese “suffer in comparison with more sensitive races”.44

Gordon’s reputation did suffer some damage when he negotiated the surrender of Suzhou in December 1863. Despite his having guaranteed the safety of the garrison, the Manchu troops carried out their usual massacre. Perhaps as many as 30,000 people were slaughtered, including the men Gordon had negotiated with. As Lindley observed, all of Gordon’s victories were accompanied “by the wholesale massacre of the vanquished”.45 This was an acceptable price to pay for the suppression of the Taipings.

At the time, and for many years afterwards, Gordon was given credit in the West for having destroyed the Taipings almost single-handedly. The reality was that the rebels were finally overwhelmed by the massive Qing armies under Zeng Guofan, who finally captured Nanjing in July 1864. Nevertheless, the British did play an important role. The denial of Shanghai was a fatal setback for the revolutionary cause. The British administered the customs service, which guaranteed the government’s revenues. They supplied modern weapons. And, of course, British military intervention cost the lives of thousands of rebels. While the British did not defeat the Taipings, it is most unlikely that the Manchus would have been able to defeat them without British help.

What of the opium trade? By the 1860s the British were exporting 60,000 chests of opium to China annually, rising to 100,000 chests (over 6,000 tons of opium) annually in the 1880s. After this the trade began to decline in the face of competition from Chinese produced opium. It still remained a profitable business for the rest of the century and beyond. The British opium trade with China did not finally come to an end until 1917. As for Britain’s pre-eminent position in China, this began to come under pressure from rival imperialist powers towards the end of the 19th century and from Chinese revolutionary nationalism in the early decades of the 20th century. But Britain’s influence was only finally eclipsed in the 1930s.

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