Friday, May 11, 2012

Battles That Changed History: Second Guangzhou (Canton) 1841

Second Canton (Guangzhou, 广州) Dates: 23-30 MAY 1841
Forces Engaged: Great Britain (Government and Honorable East India Company [HEIC]) - Naval Forces:
HMS Algerine - Flush Decked Brig (Cherokee Class) crew 50, 10 guns, (2 x 6lb cannon, 8 x 18lb carronades*)
HMS Alligator - Sloop 6th Rate (Atholl Class) crew 140, 28 guns. (20 x 32lb carronades, 6 x 18lb carronades, 2 x 9lb cannon) - on loan to HEIC
HMS Conway - 6th Rate (Tyne Class) crew 175, 28 guns, (20 x 32lb carronades, 6 x 18lb carronades, 2 x 9lb cannon)
HMS Calliope - 6th Rate. (Calliope Class) crew 231, 28 guns, (28 x "Dixon's 25 cwt" 32lb cannon)
HMS Herald - Sloop 6th Rate (Atholl Class) crew 175, 28 guns, (20 x 32lb carronades, 6 x 18lb carronades, 2 x 9lb cannon) - on loan to HEIC
HMS Modeste - Flush Decked Ship Sloop/Corvette (Modeste Class) crew 120, 18 guns, (2 x 32lb cannon, 16 x 32lb carronades.)
HMS Pylades - Sloop - Corvette (Pylades Class) crew 125, 18 guns, (2 x 9lb cannon, 12 x 32lb carronades.)
HEICS Nemesis - paddle frigate (single-ship class) crew 90, 4-6 guns (2 x 32lb cannon, 2-4 6lb cannon), rocket launcher++
HEICS Madagascar - I have been unable to locate any details for this East India Company warship; it is likely that she was similar to an armed merchantman, with 15-20 12lb to 32lb cannon or carronades)
The naval force also included three "tenders": (the Starling, Hebe, and the cutter Louisa)

An additional nine vessels were involved in operations on the Pearl River on May, 1841, but do not appear to have been in position close to Guangzhou for the assault. These vessels did contribute sailors to the "Naval Brigade", however, and were mentioned by the British accounts of the engagement.
The naval forces appear to have been roughly 20 vessels, commanded by one CAPT Sir H. Le Fleming Senhouse, RN.
*(Note 1 - Carronades: the British Navy of the mid-19th Century was in transition. In the 1830s it was virtually indistinguishable from Nelson's Navy of the Napoleonic Wars. By the 1860s the first ironclads, rifled naval guns, and reliable explosive shells had appeared and the foundations of the steel navies of the 20th Century had been laid.

One of the real hangovers of the Nelson Touch was the "smasher", the carronade. These short-barreled, short-ranged artillery pieces fit the Nelsonian tradition of "close action". A British captain was expected to lay his ship alongside an enemy and hammer her hull until she sank, or until the frightening ripsaw of wooden splinter and iron shards created by the massive weight of metal thrown out by these guns reduced so many of her crew to bloody rags that she was unfightable.
Look through the list above and note how many carronades each ship carried compared to cannon; by the middle of the century the "culture of the carronade" ruled supreme in the Royal Navy. A captain was expected to get stuck into his enemy and pound him senseless. There was to be none of this Continental capering about or aiming for masts and whatnot. Grab the belt and pound away; that was the ticket.

Although technically a warship armed principally with carronades was vulnerable to well-aimed fire from a well-handled cannon- (or "long gun") armed vessel, in practice the British relied on a combination of better seamanship and aggressive tactics to negate any such advantages and, in practice, they were correct.

We'll talk more about this is just a moment, but one thing worth noting is that it was a longstanding tradition to "loan" entire military units, both land and naval, to the East India Company. This benefited both parties. John Company got damn fine troops, while the British Government saved the expense of paying and maintaining them. This tradition of "Queen's" (or King's) units versus "Company" units remained until the Government of India Act of 1858 transferred all the Company troops to Crown control.)

++ (Note 2 - The Nemesis: This little vessel is one of the most fascinating tales of the entire story. She was a steamship, and seems to have been the first of what would become a long tradition of European messing around in boats on foreign rivers - the first true "river gunboat".

She only drew six feet and she was said to be dreadfully underpowered and so hard to keep to weather that she went sideways as easily as forwards. She carried only two heavy cannon. But she wasn't meant to fight enemy warships. She was a genuine invention; a purpose-built instrument designed to beat up on lightly armed Chinese junks and enforce John Company's will on shallow, bar-ridden Chinese rivers.
When she sailed from Liverpool her mission was supposed to be a deep dark secret - she was supposed to be a private vessel bound for Odessa on the Black Sea, but "It is said that this vessel is provided with an Admiralty letter of license or letter of marque. If so, it can only be against the Chinese; and for the purpose of smuggling opium she is admirably adapted." the Times of London reported on 30 MAR 1840.
- Ground Forces: the British land assault force was, like the navy, divided between Royal and Company units. The infantry included three Queen's units:the 18th (Royal Irish), 26th (Cameronians), and 49th (Hertfordshire) Regiments of Foot, ranging in strength from the 311 all ranks of the 49th to the massively overstrength 26th at nearly 1,000.
The Honorable East India Company provided roughly six companies of infantry; 230 all ranks of the 37th Madras Native Infantry (or “M.N.I.”) and about two companies of “Bombay Volunteers”. The Company also provided combat engineers in the form of a company of Madras Sappers and Miners.

The artillery was also largely provided by the Company; 230 gunners of the Madras Artillery. A small battery of the 3rd Royal Artillery represented the only imperial cannoneers. Altogether, the British fielded 11 light smoothbore field guns - none heavier than 12 pound howitzers - and three 5" mortars.

The Guangzhou assault force also included what was something of a British imperial tradition; a landing force of the Royal Navy. This included about 430 seamen from two vessels; HMS Wellesley and HMS Nimrod, and a separate composite Royal Marine battalion of about 380 for a total of nearly 800 or so.

The ground assault force is listed as roughly 2,300 troops all arms, and the entire British naval and land expedition is described in the dispatch as “not have been more than 6,000 persons of all ages, and all classes”, under MG Sir Hugh Gough.

That's old "Paddy" Gough over there, by the way, about nine years later. Isn't that a great Victorian face? He is said to have commanded in more actions than any British senior officer outside Arthur Wellesley, and is also said to have been a brutal hacker who won as often as not by dint of sheer hammering and at a hell of a cost in lives. This was the Big Barbarian who intended to beat the damn Chinks into obedience. His overall superior, it's worth noting, was a former Royal Navy officer then working in the Foreign Office, Charles Elliot; we'll hear more of him later.

Imperial Chinese – Qing Dynasty Imperial Troops As always with imperial wars we have a problem with numbers of “natives”. In this case it is insanely frustrating because we are not talking about innumerate tribesmen but soldiers of one of the most degenerately civilized empires in the world.

There is no doubt that the Qing magistrates, imperial commanders, accountants and official functionaries in both Guangzhou and Beijing knew exactly how many troops were stationed in the Guangzhou garrison in May of 1841.
Unfortunately, we have no idea what those people knew. The records they surely meticulously kept have been lost, or destroyed, or are buried in a lost cellar somewhere in China. Right now all we know is that the British naval commander, Senhouse, states that in his opinion the British ground assault faced “amounting, at a medium calculation, to about 30 or 40,000 men”.

Elsewhere in the account in the Qing troops are described as armed with “jingals” as well as some sort of cannon, although based on pictures these appear to have been much cruder than Western artillery – almost the lineal descendents of the medieval bombard. The Qing troops, however, would also have been armed with a wide variety of antique steel weapons including polearms, bows, and swords.

The basic military structure of the Qing armies was twofold.

The “Eight Banner Armies”, a Manchu organization, was the supposed elite, descended from the wild Manchu and Mongol steppe riders that conquered Han China at Shanghaiguan in 1644, A “banner soldier” was supposed to be a professional military man, but one of the revelations of the First Opium War was how badly atrophied the military skills of the bannermen had become.

The Mongol “Tartar” cavalry was said to have been disciplined and armed with bow, spear, and sword, but their tendency to charge sword-in-hand against unshaken foreign infantry produced nothing but dead Tartars.

The Banner infantry - either Han Chinese, Manchu, or Mongol, was less organized and tended to masses of close-combat sword-and buckler or spearmen, as useless in the 19th Century as a stone axe. What firearms the Qing infantry had tended to be ginormous "jingal" matchlocks; ridiculous two-man punt guns, slow as dirt and about as accurate, or flintlocks similar to those used in European war a century earlier.

There is no record of any Banner infantryman armed with the bayonet, which must have put the Banner troops at an immense disadvantage in melee combat.
More numerous, and more worthless, as the so-called "Green Banner Army" of Han Chinese conscripts.

These poor bastards were typically posted away from their home province, as they were expected to be useless in their law enforcement, constabulary, or garrison duties is surrounded by their friends and relatives who could be relied upon to use their nepotism ruthlessly. Their officers were rotated as well, to prevent them from forming coteries among their troops that might have encouraged rebellion against the Manchu overlords.

The Green Standard troops were considered something of a rabble both by Westerners and their own Qing rulers; it's worth noting, however, than this militia played something of a role on the events of May 1841 that had some big implications for the future.

So, probably between 30,000 and 40,000 banner and Han militia soldiers in the Guangzhou garrison, under generalissimo Aisin-Gioro Yishan (愛新覺羅•奕山) and one "Atsinga", garrison commander, as well as some undetermined number of local Green Army or militia levies in the vicinity of the city.

The Sources: Again, we're talking about colonial war, so, again, we're looking at a very one-sided selection of primary sources. Almost everything available to an English-only speaker is culled from British primary sources and must, therefore, be handled with care.

A tremendous volume of British first-person accounts are available on-line. These include:

John Ouchterlony's 1844 The Chinese War: an Account of all the Operations of the British Forces from the Commencement to the Treaty of Nanking, in Google PDF scan form here; the account of a junior officer in the Madras Army told with the bounce and tigger you'd expect of a young lieutenant. Although I haven't included links to these others, they should be easy enough to find if you copy and paste the titles; we just don't name things anymore the way the Victorians did.

Keith Stewart Mackenzie, Narrative of the Second Campaign in China (1842)

John Elliot Bingham, Narrative of the Expedition to China, from the Commencement of the War to its Termination in 1842, with Sketches of the Manners and Customs of that Singular and Hitherto Almost Unknown Country (1843)

Edward Belcher, Narrative of a Voyage Round the World, Performed in Her Majesty’s Ship Sulphur, During the Years 1836-1842, Including Details of the Naval Operations in China, from Dec. 1840, to Nov. 1841 (vol. II, 1843)

Robert Montgomery Martin, China; Political, Commercial, and Social; in an official Report to Her Majesty’s Government (1847)

Alexander Murray, Doings in China, being the Personal Narrative of an Officer Engaged in the Late Chinese Expedition, from the Recapture of Chusan in 1841, to the Peace of Nankin in 1842 (1843)

Of particular interest are the writings of one Edward Hodges Cree, The Cree Journals: The Voyages of Edward H. Cree, Surgeon R.N., as Related in His Private Journals, 1837-1856, edited and with and Introduction by Michael Levien.

Reissued in 1982 under the title Naval Surgeon, it is not accessible in full online. The hard copy includes extensive color reproductions of Cree’s watercolor sketches; and the man was a formidable artist both for his honesty and his expressiveness. Here's his rendition of the human disaster that was the result of the taking of Chinkiang in 1842:
Perhaps the most concise (and yet comprehensive) on-line source for the purely military operations of the engagement is a Google digitized copy of The Colonial Magazine and Commercial-Maritime Journal (Robert Montgomery Martin, ed), Volume 6 (September-December 1841). A collection of dispatches from CAPT Senhouse and MG Gough are found from pages 346 to 363, all containing masses of useful detail about the events of May, 1841, ranging from tides to topography, from the course of the fighting to the names of those officers killed and injured, and all the way down to tale of some abstemious troopers of the Hertfordshire Regiment, "finding a quantity of sham-shu* in the village they had so gallantly taken, without order or previous knowledge of their officers, brought the jars containing this pernicious liquor, and broke them in front of their corps..."
(*Note 3 - Sham-shu: I have looked all over to try and find out what the hell this stuff could have been. The most likely candidate seems to be this stuff: 黄酒 huáng jiǔ - "yellow liquor", a fermented rice, wheat, or barley wine. The pronunciation in south China might well have been something like "hwang zhu" that an Englishman might have heard as "zham zhu" or sham-shu". I had a bottle of this stuff in a Chinese joint in London and it truly was awful, combining the taste of raw spirits with the heady nose of paint thinner; no surprise Gough, Irishman that he was, called it "pernicious").
The Wiki entry is sparse, contains some obvious errors, omits a great deal of otherwise readily available information, and is poorly written, to boot. Worthwhile only as a starting point.

Victorianweb has a nice little article on the background and contemporary observations of the Opium Wars.

There's a very accessible and well-crafted on-line essay in the Visualizing Cultures series by Peter Perdue of MIT located here; it has a wealth of primary sources (many of the sources from the above list came from this source) as well as a thoroughgoing analysis of the causes, conduct, and impact of the First Opium War.

Many secondary sources are extant for the First Opium War, although I am not familiar with any that deal specifically with Second Canton. Sources for the British and East India Company military are fairly common, although I retain a special fondness for Byron Farewell's Queen Victoria's Little Wars, both for the author's knowledge of the period as for his style.

Qing military sources are both difficult to find and - possibly because the Qing military system of the 19th Century was itself in generally poor shape - often confusing because of their insularity. Because of the difficulty in hiding the actual conduct and losses of the Opium Wars from a Qing bureaucracy that refused to believe in foreign capabilities the resulting Chinese imperial records are problematic, to say the least...

The Campaign: Before we get started, let me preface my summary of the events leading up to Second Canton by saying plainly; of all the causes for which humans have killed other humans, the desire to push addictive narcotics has to rank right up there with slavery and Nazism as the worst in history.

And to give credit where it was due; many Britons of the time agreed. The future Prime Minister William Gladstone rose against the expedition in Parliament, saying that to use British military power to force opium on China would "cover this country with permanent disgrace". In March, 1840, the Commons voted to send the expedition, but with only 271 in favor with 262 in opposition. Almost half the representatives of the people of Britain wanted nothing to do with, in effect, acting as a drug pusher's hired muscle. But, as we will see, the toxic combination of national pride, imperial gain, outright racism, and commercial greed served to produce a war nonetheless.

So how did we get to the point where some 6,000 British troops are preparing to storm a city of over a million, defended by a military force (if a fairly incompetent one) over five times the size of the assault element?
Well, like any good story, it begins with greed and an astrolabe.

First, the Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, 朱元璋, way back in the 1300s, decided to cut China off from the nasty pestiferous foreigners messing around in boats. He enacted something called the 海禁 - the Hǎi Jìn or "sea ban". In effect, it meant that no Chinese private vessel could venture further than the mouths of China's rivers.

Crazy, hunh? For one thing, this effectively ended Chinese overseas commerce as well as pretty much decimating it's navy and isolating China from the West - since no sane person wanted to do a Marco Polo and hump all the way across central Asia just to trade - just as the West was getting all Revolutionary and Industrial. So when the two blocs reconnected - later in the "Age of Exploration" - the Chinese, who had been blowing shit up with explosives and writing poetry whilst the average Briton was painting himself blue and banging stones together, were far, far behind the power curve militarily and politically.

But the two sides DID hook up, the Chinese reluctantly, the Westerners, greedily. Because then, as now, the West saw China as one ginormous Market; all those millions of little Chinese consumers aching to buy Auntie Suzie's Secret Soy Sauce and the Grillmaster.

But this wasn't what the Qing were after; they'd revived the "sea ban" in the middle 1600s and kept it in place for thirty years. When the Qing did reopen ocean trade, it was under tremendously restricted conditions. Under the so-called "Canton System", all outside trade had to go through the "Thirteen Hongs" - trading firms with permanent facilities or "factories" in Canton (Guangzhou). The reach of the white men ended there; no foreign devils were allowed to travel outside Shamian Dao, Shamian Island in Guangzhou where the factories were located. So all the profits beyond the seawall of Shamian Dao went to the tricksy heathen Chinee, a situation designed to purely piss off any red-bloodedly greedy British merchant.
(This guy, by the way, was 秉鑒, Wǔ Bǐngjiàn, called "Howqua" by the white boys who couldn't pronounce his actual name. He was the big boss of the "Ewo Hong" (怡和行 - it's actually pronounced Yíhé Háng) and in the 1840s his worth - estimated at 26 million Mexican silver dollars - made him perhaps the richest man in the world. Frankly, he looks to me like a man who wants a drink. But, there...)

The British tried everything they could think of short of force, at first. They connived with Chinese bureaucrats and merchants and usually came off the worse; it's hard to cheat a South China job-creator, one of the most enterprising and daring scoundrels in history.

They tried diplomacy; in 1793 King George III sent one George Macartney to suggest that Britain receive "...a permanent embassy in Beijing, possession of "a small unfortified island near Chusan for the residence of British traders, storage of goods, and outfitting of ships", and reduced tariffs on traders in Guangzhou."
This didn't go well, not (as many contemporary and later accounts suggest) because Macartney refused to "kow-tow" - perform a full-length prostration - to the Qianlong Emperor, or the fact that he presented the Emperor with fairly useless and unimpressive gifts (such as an old-style astrolabe)
(Though the caption that accompanied the above cartoon of the embassage does put forward the suggestion that all of those played into the failure: "A caricature on Lord Macartney's Embassy to China and on the little which the Ambassador and his government are presumed to have known of the manners and tastes of the people they wanted to conciliate. Chinese etiquette is, that extreme prostrations should be made before the Emperor, which it was intimated Lord Macartney would not conform to. The whole contour of the Emperor is indicative of cunning and contempt and his indifference to the numerous gifts displaying the skill of British manufacturing, is evident. The German face bringing in the cage is Mr Huttner of the Foreign Office, who acted as an interpreter and published his own account of the visit. As soon as Lord Macartney had declined to make the required prostrations, only going down on one knee, he was dismissed from the presence of the Emperor. He was later ordered to quit Peking within two days and was given a letter addressed to George III wherein the Emperor states that,'As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures'. An attache, Aeneas Anderson, later recalled that "we entered Pekin like Paupers, remained in it like Prisoners and departed from it like Vagrants".)
but, as the Wiki entry states, because of
"...a result of competing world views which were uncomprehending and to some extent incompatible. After the conclusion of the embassy, Qianlong sent a letter to King George III, explaining in greater depth the reasons for his refusal to grant the several requests presented to the Chinese emperor by Macartney. In it, the continuing references to all Europeans as "Barbarians", the emperor's assumption of all nations of the earth as being tributary to China, and his final words commanding King George III to "...tremblingly obey and show no negligence!"
Telling a foreign king to "tremblingly obey"? A foreign king with a modern army and navy? Gives you a good idea of the vast gulf between the way the Europeans looked at China and the way China looked back.

The next action the Qianlong Emperor took, though, was a real pisser.

He decreed that all Chinese products were to be bought with silver - that is, not traded for other goods. This was bad for the British firms like the East India Company, that had made it's nut selling cheap British crap to Indians in return for specie and valuable commodities.

And, by the way, you might want to revisit our discussion of the Battle of Plassey to remind yourself what the deal was with "John Company" and it's doin's in the East. Go ahead. I'll wait.

OK, so are we there yet? Good. So John Company was trying to do what colonial companies often do; make money by shiking the darkies.

Then the next thing that barged in was that veddy British drink, tea.
In the 18th and 19th Century the Brits sopped up lakes of the stuff. And there's a reason for the expression "all the tea in China" - that's where the best stuff grows. And since to get the tea on the tea clippers and from thence onto English breakfast tables and tea trays a man of business had to lay out hard cold silver this produced what we here in the U.S. circa 2012 know all too well; "large continuous trade deficits."

Chinese tea (and other, particularly luxury items such as silk cloth and porcelain) went to Britain; British silver went to China. And, since the Brits had been on a gold standard since the 18th century, they had to spend MORE money to purchase silver from Germany, Russia, Austria, and Mexico.

Needless to say, this fairly chapped the British.

But in the early years of the 19th Century, they hit on what Blackadder would call a plan as cunning as a cunning fox elected Dean of Cunning at Cunning University.

They would run opium into China.
Opium was produced in several places in the HEIC domains; largely in the Bengal Presidency as well as in the allied princely state of Malwa. These places had been cotton producing regions, but imperial contacts with Egypt (and the American South, probably) brought in cheap cotton cloth to India that bankrupted the cotton farmers in Malwa and Bengal.

Who turned to growing poppy.

Opium - largely as edible paste - had been used in China as early as the Tang dynasty of the 600-900s, but it was limited both by the low-grade buzz it created when snarfed as well as some pretty savage laws. In addition, the Manchu Qings didn't really mind of their Han subjects got all toasted; it kept them quiet and was a sort of indirect tax on them. No worries, Ping.

But. In about the 1820s to 1830s some smart guy figured out that if you combined opium and tobacco you got one bad weed; smoked opium kicked you in the head like a hammer - it fucked your shit up.
(This, by the way, is a "ball" of opium and tobacco from some time in the 19th Century; just the sort of dope shipped to China in bulk)

Now, suddenly, opium smoking became a serious problem in China...

...just as,

- Tea plantations in India and Africa came on line, cutting the tea revenue, and
- Cheap, nasty Turkish opium showed up (sold by good old Yankee Doodle Yanks, mostly) and started a price war, driving the cost of getting bombed down and driving the numbers of the bombed up, and
- In 1834 Parliament broke the HEIC monopoly on dope; now all you needed was a fast ship, a star to steer her by, and a couple of hundred chests of the finest black tar chandoo

Not shockingly, this pretty much honked off the Daoguang Emperor. In 1839 he put a gentleman named 林则徐, Lin Zexu, in charge of Guangzhou with the brief to stop the opium trade. He arrived in March with some big iron on his Confucian hip.

First he banned the sale and use of opium.

He demanded that the traders, both foreign and domestic, pledge a no-opium bond which carried the death penalty for arrest.

He also ordered the Qing military to close the Pearl River between Guangzhou and Hong Kong, effectively taking the foreign merchants hostage for their pal's good no-opium-smuggling behavior.

And in May, 1839, he demanded all the opium in Guangzhou.

Every. Single. Fucking. Chest.

Many of the Europeans wanted to fight right then. For one thing, they wanted the money - opium was cash on hand, and they were damed if they'd give up hard cash to some damn Chink, even if he did claim to be "governor" of the damn town. Second, they were terrified of falling afoul of the Qing "legal system", a feeling I have to admit I would have shared. The Chinese judiciary wasn't particularly interested in actual guilt (a continuing issue in China today); the Prime Directive was order; they were and are like U.S. Republicans in that respect.

To be arrested was pretty much to be convicted. Torture was commonly used to encourage a positive civic attitude, and, needless to say, a foreign devil had less of a chance than even a poor Chinese laborer.

The then-British Superintendent of Trade in China, Charles Elliot (told you we'd get to him again, didn't I?) convinced the British opium dealers to give up their dope by promising to make it good from Government monies, though the whole business was more complex than that. Here's how Perdue (2011) describes it:
"This seemingly magnanimous gesture (the surrender of the opium) was, as one Western China merchant phrased it, a clever “snare,” for it made the Chinese “directly liable to the British Crown.” In short time, the British government would trip this snare and demand compensation for the opium that was handed over.

All told, Elliot delivered 21,306 chests of the drug to the Chinese. This was an enormous amount: at roughly 140 pounds per chest, Lin suddenly found himself with three-million pounds of opium on his hands. This was destroyed over a period of 23 days in June 1839, at Chuanbi by the bay at Canton. The process required the labor of around 500 workers and involved three huge trenches (150 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 7 feet deep) lined with stone and timber and filled with approximately two feet of water from a nearby creek. The opium balls were broken into pieces, dumped into the trenches, and stirred until dissolved, after which salt and lime were added, creating noxious clouds of smoke. The “foreign mud” was then diverted to the creek and washed out to sea.
Lin and around 60 Chinese officials, together with foreign spectators, observed the destruction from an elaborately decorated pavilion erected nearby. In a little known coda to this famous event, Lin also offered prayers to the spirit of the Southern Sea, apologizing for poisoning its domain with these impurities and advising the deity (as the historian Jonathan Spence has recorded) “to tell the creatures of the water to move away for a time, to avoid being contaminated.”
The fallout from Lin's goin' all Elliot Ness on Charles Elliot and the British was predictable; an uproar to give the damn Chinamen a good thrashing. The Foreign Secretary in 1839 - another future PM, Palmerston (aided by the tai-pan of the still-extant firm of Jardine, Matheson & Co, William Jardine, whose possibly critical role in pushing Britain towards war with Qing China is well discussed here) -

...intoned that China itself had created the demand for opium, and its people were merely “disposed to buy what other people were disposed to sell them.”

After more incidents, including a drunken brawl in July in which British sailors killed a Chinese man (for which Commissioner Lin demanded the men for trial and the British authorities in Hong Kong refused under the not unreasonable suspicion that the swabs would be tortured into confessing and executed to satisfy their victim's family) and a retaliatory blockade of Hong Kong.

In September gunfire was exchanged - which is really not correct; what happened is that two British vessels pounded the living hell out of a trio of Qing armed junks - and the war had officially begun.

In November HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth fought 16 more armed junks (along with some "fireboats", incendiary craft designed to burn wooden warships), destroyed several and killed about 15 Qing sailors for the loss of one man. Commissioner Lin’s report this as a victory; as yet the Imperial Throne had no idea how bad things were going for its forces in South China.

Charles Elliot, the civilian authority, request reinforcements, which arrived in the summer of 1840, and through the autumn the British forces pretty much pimpslapped the Qing military at will. The force of roughly 4,000 troops and some 48 vessels under an ADM Elliot forced the Yangtze River and were approaching the Imperial capital by August. A series of one-sided British military successes larded with Chinese diplomatic maneuvers ensued; the results were:

- In August Commissioner Lin was sacked - the Emperor had discovered that the foreign devils had NOT been defeated, were, instead, threatening his very palace, and was furious; “You are just making excuses with empty words. Nothing has been accomplished but many troubles have been created. Thinking of these things, I cannot contain my rage.” Lin was sacked, and replaced with Aisin-Gioro Yishan. Lin, by the way, is still remembered as a hero in China, and his statues tend to pop up in all sorts of places - this one's in New York City.
- Yishan tried to sweet talk the Elliots, promising that if they returned to Guangzhou that he would negotiate, so the British pulled back down the Yangtze to Macao by November and were in Guangzhou by December, talking away with Charles Elliot as chief negotiator. He was instructed to demand: the opening of Guangzhou, Amoy, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai; cession of an island; and cash payments for both the destroyed opium and military force needed to beat all this stuff out of the Chinese.

- Yishan offered a small payment without telling the Imperial court.

So in January 1841 the British attacked the forts where the first fighting had occurred back in 1839, at Chuanbi. Two fortified batteries were taken with a loss of probably 500 of the two Qing garrisons killed and wounded; the Nemesis, rather spectacularly, blew up an armed junk with a Congreve rocket. The British had about 40 men injured.
I like the above picture because it does a nice job of quickly summing up the immense divide between the two forces. It is a contemporary painting of HEICS Nemesis and another British warship, along with a description of the action by the Chinese artist. While the image is fairly correct, the poem is a ridiculous fantasy of Chinese triumph, that explains
"...how the gods intervened to drive the English warships aground in a storm, after which “the foreign devils in hundreds then were put to death,” while others “fell sick by fierce disease” and perished. The closing lines are devoted to the “fire ship” encased in iron with a wheel on each side “which is moved by the use of burning coal and turns around like a galloping horse.” The poet acknowledges that “Its shape and fashion astonish mankind”; but, like all the other enemy ships, the gods drove it onto the rocks." (Perdue, 2011)
The reality - in which the gods were silent and the British killed Chinese and destroyed at will - produced concessions; Commissioner Yishan offered formal cessation of Hong Kong, six million dollars cash, official diplomatic relations between China and Britain as equals, and reopening of the Guangzhou trade.
(Here's the British version of the Nemesis, by the way, just for comparison)

This Convention of Chuanbi drove the Daoguang Emperor nuts; he arrested Yishan, confiscated his entire family property, eventually commuted his death-sentence but sent him over the Amur River in the far north. The man was seriously pissed.

Showing that fate has a nasty sense of humor Charles Elliot was reprimanded and replaced by the Foreign Office for having settled for the “lowest” possible terms. He was canned for not insisting on full value for the Lin-destroyed dope, for agreeing to evacuate Chusan Island, and for accepting a lease rather than outright possession of Hong Kong. Mind you, the reprimand and the replacement both arrived in July, long after our engagement, so in May Elliot was still technically in charge.

Chinese delays convinced Elliot that the Convention of Chuanbi would be a dead-letter; he then began maneuvering up the Pearl River towards Guangzhou. Three engagements in late February and early March; the so-called Battle of the Bogue (or Battle of Bocca Tigris), Battle of the First Bar, and Battle of Whampoa established British naval control over the lower Pearl River and brought the ground troops within strking distance of the city.
In the Pearl River engagements the pattern is the same; a single British sailor or two are killed (usually by a weapon malfunction or simple bad luck) while several hundred Qing soldiers or sailors are blown to hell with their vessels or forts.

It sucked to be a Green Banner soldier in the winter of 1841, no error.

By early May the British forces were in position around Guangzhou. Elliot and Gough planned to take the city by storm, and they made their dispositions accordingly. On the morning of 24 MAY the British moved in to assault.

The Engagement: Preliminaries - 18 to 24 MAY 1841

The dispatches from Gough and Senhouse are pretty clear on the timing of the coup de main against Guangzhou; the navy delivered the first troops to shore after midday on the 24th, that noteworthy fighting occurred on the 25 and 30 MAY, and the entire force re-embarked in 1 JUN.

There is, however, a curious entry in the Wiki entry that states "On May 21 Chinese forces tried a night ambush on the British positions, but they were repelled." But in the Gough dispatch quoted in the Colonial Magazine mentioned in Sources (above), the Army commander states "...the fleet...was prepared to sail on the 18th, but in consequence of light and variable winds the whole did not get under weigh until the 19th...but the whole of the force was not assembled until the morning of the 23rd..." There is no mention of a night attack, and based on the Gough dispatch it appears that almost all of the ground troops were embarked during the nights of the 20/21 and 21/22 MAY.

However, Senhouse, in his diepatch, reports that on the night of the 21st "an attempt was made by fire-rafts to burn the advanced vessels" as well as attacks (whether ground troops or vessels are not specified) on the Shamian battery, on HMS Alligator "off Howqua's fort"
(which is the tall thing in the middle of Whampoa Island), and more fireship attacks on the transports and merchant ships also lying at Whampoa.

Where, or whether, this ambush occurred, must be left to the reader to consider, but it appears that some degree of planning went into a naval assault on the British flotilla. As always, though, the Chinese defenders were repelled, and their vessels and fireships destroyed, without reported loss.

Movement to Contact - 24 MAY 1841

The documentary evidence continues by reporting that the British assault began on the morning of 24 MAY 1841. Gough's plan was to secure the "factories" on Shamian Island using small force that would, presumably, draw the attention of the defenders while masking the main force movement past the city.
The so-called "Right Column", consisting of the 26th Regiment of infantry supported by a single gun and a mortar of the Madras Artillery and a sapper platoon, would land on the riverwall at Shamian Dao; they did this and secured the island and its factories by 1700 on 24 MAY.

The Left Column - which, in fact, contained the remainder of the ground troops - bypassed the city and landed at or near the village of Tsinghae (or "Tsingpoo") "at dusk", presumably several hours later. The troops were unable to disembark in the gathering dark, although Gough did land the 49th Regiment to perform a reconnaissance and place listening posts (or "pickets" in the term of the day).

Gough reports that his troops were undisturbed by Chinese action, although Senhouse mentions that "...some detached parties of Chinese soldiers came around us...but they never came to the attack," Although he notes that these night ramblers succeeded in "cutting off a poor camp-follower, who struggled a little, taking off his head, and leaving both head and body on the ground." the night was otherwise quiet. The artillery was transferred ashore during the night, and the remainder of the infantry landed the following morning.

Taking the Outworks - 25 MAY 1841

With the factories secured and a lodgement firmly established northwest of Guangzhou, the next step was to reduce the forward Chinese positions. You can see from the map below that although the main defense of Guangzhou was the old stone city wall, some Qing officer - perhaps "Atsinga", the supposed commander of the garrison - had learned enough about modern warfare to understand that allowing 19th Century European artillery to roll up within direct fire range of a masonry wall was the military equivalent of lying on a cement pad and asking your enemy to drop a heavy object on your head; regardless of how hard your head, the result was likely to be unpleasant.

Several smallish "forts" (although the British commanders do not describe these outworks in detail, so we have no idea how formidable they were or how constructed) had been placed on a range of hills north and northwest of the city walls. The first task of the British landing force was to take these positions, in order to threaten the city walls directly.
This was done before noon; two assault columns simply rolled up to the base of the hills, scrambled up the slopes supported by their field artillery, scaled or broke into the fortified positions, and killed or drove off the defenders within half a hour, whose numbers we are not detailed other than as "numerous". The Chinese casualties are also not reported, although Gough notes that "The well-directed fire of the artillery...did great execution."

The Qing garrison does not appear to have been helpless; Gough reports that "(d)uring the whole of the advance my right had been threatened by a large body of the enemy...and just as I was about to commence the attack a report was made that heavy columns were advancing on the right." The Royal Marine battalion was pivoted to the southwest to act as a covering/blocking force and the Qing sortie appears to have dissolved some time later in the day.

After the outworks on the heights had been secured, Gough turned his attention to what he described as "A strongly intrenched camp...occupied apparently by about 4,000 men" located outside the northeast city walls. This strongpoint was some nuisance; "frequent attacks" on the British left flank units sortied from it all morning. When Gough observed "some mandarins of consequence" (and, presumably, their fighting tails) moving into this work - as well as a strong enough sortie to take and hold a "village in rear of my left" - he concluded that enough was enough.

The Hertfordshire Regiment was dispatched to clean the Chinese troops out of the village, and then the 49th, the 18th Royal Irish, and one company of marines, were sent barreling down a narrow causeway to take this "strongly intrenched" camp.

It was taken, burnt, and then, it's military value negated, the attackers retreated to the heights.

The British commander had now seen the Guangzhou city wall and intended to take it by assault. But the northern hills being rugged, the "roads" narrow, and much of the terrain between the landing beach and the city wet lowland or paddy fields, the artillery he needed to shoot his men onto the top of the wall was not in battery by nightfall. Paddy Gough and his troopers would have to spend a sweaty night in the open outside Guangzhou before they could knock on the neighbor's door.

Preparations for Assault - 26/27 MAY 1841

Before we go on, it's worth sitting back for a moment and contemplating the enormous inertia of military siege tactics spanning the history between the rise of Sumer and the First Opium War of 1841.

Because one of the first things civilization - that is, the organization of human beings into congeries that produced enough goodies to be worth stealing or killing for - did was produce walled cities.

And a wall, whether a wattle of brush, a wooden palisade, a dirt berm, or a masonry curtain, is perhaps the simplest, and most basic, implement of military defense.

If it is too tall to leap, too smooth to climb, too dense to topple, and too fireproof to burn, for the first Sumerian to confront one the possibilities must have been pretty immediately obvious; you had to go under, through, or over the damn thing.
And that stayed pretty much the standard of military practice for, what, about 5,000 years?

You could dig under the wall; that was called "mining", and could involve everything from a simple tunnel into a rathole opening within the palisade to a complex gallery dug under a heavy masonry wall that would be collapsed. Before gunpowder this was typically done by erecting a complex forest of wooden posts within a large open excavation. Then the posts would be set afire, and when the posts collapsed the cavern would cave in, undermining the wall above.

You could also beat the wall down and go through the hole. This was a bit beyond the Sumerians, but once a smart guy or three got to thinking about it the catapult, the onager, the ballista, and (especially) the trebuchet were invented, the idea being to huck a great big fucking rock at the wall; hit it enough times, the thinking went, and it'd fall down.
The above, by the way, is unlikely to make anything fall. Down, that is.

Apparently it's something called a Siege Weapon of Love, and I found it google-searching for some images to use here and, well, frankly, why not? If you don't know what a trebuchet looks like, google it for christssake; I'm not your search engine. Besides, the pink penis bombard is a hell of a lot funnier. Why are you looking at me that way?

Ahem.

Sorry.

To continue.

Gunpowder, surprisingly, didn't really do much to change this. Sure, cannon could throw a bigger "rock" (usually a metal ball) harder and farther. But the process was pretty much the same; huck a rock, huck a rock, wash, rinse repeat until the wall fell down or someone came along and broke your trebuchet, or your cannon.

The other way to go "through" a wall was to pick at the weak point - the gates. These could be hammered open with a big ol' log, or burned since they were usually wooden. Because of this the gates usually came in sets, with inner gates inside the outer gates, and the wall defenses were usually particularly murderous around the gates. But it could be done, if you were lucky and smart.

But all this hucking and digging took time. Conventional sieges, almost inevitable when the two sides' technological, tactical, and economic capabilities were similar, could take weeks, months, even years, and were nasty, costly (and, particularly, before field sanitation was enforced) dangerous; the hell with scaling the wall - sitting in your filth outside an enemy town was a damn fine way to die from typhus, dysentery, cholera, the Black Plague and God alone knew what else.

But the big problem was time. Going under or through took lots of troops, and lots of equipment, and lots of time.

And Hugh Gough and his boys didn't have time. They needed a quick win for the visitors, so the only real way for them to go was over.

Now the term they would have used for going over a defended fortress wall would have been escalade. Let's face it; that sounds more tactical (and shorter) than "Propping a home-made ladder up against the wall and climbing up, hoping that some dirty bastard doesn't shoot or stab me, or drop a ginormous rock on my head, or parboil me with boiling water". But non-tactical or not, the long version was pretty much what "escalade" entailed.
And always had. The only real difference between the ancient siege escalades like Alesia in 52BC and Jerusalem in 1099, and those of the early Industrial Era, is that cannon had made the huge creaking "siege towers" obsolete; the bastards couldn't dodge, were too huge to miss, and too fragile to withstand the impact of an explosive-propelled projectile (it should be noted that trebuchets were hard on them, too, but the trebuchets were much harder to aim and slower to fire). But the good old-fashioned ladder, lashed and nailed together from some local wood, was still popular.

So the plan was to "prep" the fighting platforms on the curtain walls (the long straight bits between the towers) and towers with musket fire and artillery to keep the defenders' heads down, rush the ladders to the base of the walls, up you go, Jock, and hopefully one or two scaling parties would gain a foothold at the top for the files milling about smartly at the base of the wall to expand.

And the thing to remember is that against decent troops, escalade was always chancy and usually a complete and utter disaster. Trying to take a walled fortification by escalade was a long-shot, a no-hoper, something you tried when you had no other option but to give up and go away.

Even when they worked, many escalades that succeeded did so by pure luck, like Wellington's success at Badajoz in 1812, where the supposed assault force was shot-, burned-, and squashed-by-big-rocks-to-death but a diversion that was ignored managed to get atop the wall and took the victorious defenders like the pervert took his neighbor's wife - by surprise and from behind.

Oh, and I should add that there was another way inside a walled fortification;

Treachery. Probably as many fortresses in history were taken by some treacherous SOB opening a postern gate as the other methods combined, but there was no glory in that so nobody liked to talk about it.

No treachery here, then. For the British dope peddlers' hard boys thrashing at the south China mosquitoes through the sultry night, the next day promised to bring all the nasty bits escalading brought with it.

I'll bet it was a restless night out there.

Suspense, Suspicion, and Submission - 26-28 MAY 1841

Gough's assault plan was, like a fair number of his plans, pretty straightforward.

The artillery would begin pounding the walls at first light. As soon as practical - that is, when the effect of the heavy weapons was becoming visible but before ammunition supply became perilous - the infantry assault teams would double-time to the wall and attempt to scale it.

Assuming that their covering fire was effective and their willingness to climb a rickety ladder some three stories did not desert them the attackers could hope to arrive at the fighting platform atop the wall alive. There they would defeat the remaining defenders and form a perimeter that would expand in either direction, clearing more of the wall for more attackers to scale.

Eventually there would be enough attackers inside the wall to negate its military value, and then the defenders would either surrender, or die; a trooper who had been forced to scale a defended wall and survived was unlikely to spare the man who had put him through such an unpleasant morning.

Gough's plan was based on a four-element assault on the northwestern and northern wall of Guangzhou.
On the British right the Royal Marines were tasked with attacking the main northern city gate (it's a weak point, remember?); if they could they would blow it with satchel charges, if not, they would attempt to scale a "circular work" Gough describes as a "secondary defense" for the gate - I'm not sure what that means.

The center-right column was the Naval Brigade; they were supposed to attack the other side of this "circular defense, where the wall appeared comparatively low...".
The center-left column was composed of the 18th (Royal Irish) regiment, with the Bengal Volunteers and a company of the 37th M.N.I providing covering fire; they were to escalade a wall behind a five-story pagoda "which was not flanked, except by one gun" (which was important; a section of wall that was "flanked" had a cannon pointed parallel to the face of the wall - the flanking gun could vomit out man-killing canister or grapeshot projectiles that would have a perfect target in the unarmored men at the base of the open wall. Brrrr; scares me just thinking about it...)

(By the way, this "five-story pagoda" is still in existence.
Here it is. It's real name is 镇海楼, Zhènhǎi Lóu or "Zhenhai Tower", it was already almost five hundred years old in 1841, and it now houses the city museum in central Guangzhou.)

The left column was for the 49th (Hertfordshire) regiment supported by two companies of the 37th M.N.I., their target a "bastion" that was overlooked by the central southern fort captured on the 25th; Gough believed that small-arms fire from this fort, which overlooked the fighting platform along the wall at this point, would kill or drive away the Chinese fortress gunners from their cannon.

But with all this in preparation, the morning of the 26th dawned very still; the city walls bore few defenders, and at 1000 hrs a white flag appeared.

A Chinese emissary, described by Gough as "a mandarin", appeared and stated that the Qing authorities wanted to make peace. Gough's reply is a delightful example of Victorian imperialism; "I had it explained (to the "mandarin" by the interpreter) that...we came to Canton much against the wishes of the British nation, but that repeated insults and breaches of faith had compelled us to make the present movement, and that I would cease from hostilities for two hours..."

Gough and Senhouse apparently waited for the Chinese "general" they were promised from 1200 hrs until 1600; no body showed up. At four Gough took down his white flag, observing that while the Chinese did not it enabled him to finish his preparations without coming under fire.

The assault was set for the nest day, 27 MAY, with the artillery prep beginning at 0700 and the infantry assault at 0800.

Dawnlight on 27 MAY revealed the Qing truce flags still in place, but Gough had had enough. Let's let him describe what happened next:
"...at a quarter past six I was at the point of sending the interpreter to explain that I could not respect such a display...and should at once resume hostilities. At this moment an officer of the royal navy, who had been traveling all night, having missed his way, handed me the accompanying letter from Her Majesty's plenipotentiary. (N.B. - this was the Foreign Office representative, Charles Elliot) Whatever might be my sentiments, it was my duty to acquiesce; the attack, which was to have commenced in 45 minutes, was countermanded, and the feelings of the Chinese were spared."
The British troops stood down, Gough and Senhouse had a preliminary meeting with "Yang, a Tartar general" at 1000, and then, as Gough drily notes, "At twelve, Captain Elliot arrived in camp, and all further active operations ceased."
Over the next thirty-six hours Elliot and Yishan hammered out the details of the capitulation.

The Qing garrison was allowed to evacuate with their weapons and baggage, though they could not wave their flags or toot their tootlers (or whatever Qing marching bands carried to toot on...). Five million of the required six million dollar indemnity was collected, and the sixth million taken in securities. In return the British forces would withdraw to Hong Kong and reopen the Pearl River to trade.

I want to take a moment to think about Charles Elliot, a man whose humanity and common sense won him nothing but the enmity of his contemporaries; "...as whimsical as a shuttlecock," was one of Gough's opinions, and one of the mildest.
Looks a bit gloomy, but perhaps its just the whiskers. Poor dear man; if he wasn't he had a right to be.

For one thing, the man was a genuine diplomat, and I mean that as a compliment. He continued, throughout his tenure in China, to find some way for the Britain and John Company to get as much as they could of what they wanted without making those wants onerous for the Chinese people.

But he was stuck between a bunch of greedy merchants on the one side, wog-bashing imperial land-grabbers on another, and a wretchedly incompetent, purblind, deteriorating Qing bureaucracy on the third. People like Gough and Jardine wanted everything, people like Lin, Yishang, and the Daoguang Emperor wanted everything - they all wanted everything, they all despised their enemies, it was impossible to find a middle ground, and so Elliot discovered.
At least he had a pretty wife; that's Clara Elliot, above. Lovely little mover, isn't she, in the high Victorian style? One hopes that she was there to console her helpmeet, because given his reputation for a talky Chink-lover he wasn't going to get much from anywhere else in his command.

But for all that, he managed some sort of an accommodation at Guangzhou on 27 MAY 1841.

The following day the garrison began to evacuate, and it looked like the crisis would be resolved peaceably from that point on. But not before one of the oddest, and most intriguing, incidents in the entire engagement occurred.

Sanyuanli, or, The Peasants Are Revolting - 29-30 MAY 1841

So the British troops are lolling about on a warm May day when at noon reports begin to come in that there's something nasty in the woodshed.

Hugh Gough described this as: "...numbers of men, apparently irregulars, and armed for the most part with long spears, shields, and swords, collecting upon the heights, three or four miles to my rear." This group was largely local civilians (but probably included some Green Banner Army detachments as well) led by the small-time officials from the villages to the north of Guangzhou.

Gough describes what amounted to him as nothing more than a nasty little skirmish. He collected a scratch force of the 26th Cameronian Regiment (which he had recovered from Shamian Dao once the capitulation was signed), three companies of the 49th Hertfordshire, and the 37th Madras N.I., with Bombay Volunteers and some marines in reserve.

The British pretty much flayed these medieval levies at will, but they were persistent, and Gough observes that
"Within two hours, however, from 7,000 to 8,00 men had collected, and displayed numerous banners...(t)he Chinese advanced in great force...as the approach of a thunder-storm was evident, I became anxious, before it broke, to disperse this assemblage, whose approach bespoke more determination than I had previously witnessed."
Gough chose the 37th M.N.I. and the Bengal Volunteers for this task and yoicked them forward, stating that "...the enemy were driven in at all points."

In the process, the commander of the 37th, which was advancing to contact along the British center and right, threw out a company to make contact with the Cameronians to the left. This company, probably about 30-40 Indian troops under an English lieutenant named Hadfield, was then left behind when, as the rainstorm made operation of the British muskets impossible, the main British force retired.

Gough observes that the downpour "...emboldened the Chinese, who, in many instances, attacked our men hand-to-hand..." but that this melee combat was not particularly dangerous. However between the rain and the lopsided numbers the entire operation was becoming chancy, and not particularly promising, so Gough directed his Company troops to continue to retire.

Here occurred one of those things that often happen to soldiers under stress; several people assumed things that weren't true.

The commander of the 37th M.N.I. assumed that his detached company was safely with the Cameronians, the commander of that unit had apparently never been informed that he was supposed to be looking for a bunch of wandering Madrassis and never reported linking up with them, while the force commander didn't check to find out who, if anyone, was right.

After the storm passed and Gough and the company infantry advanced back to where the 26th regiment was posted - forward of the 37th but south of the location of the main engagement - Gough discovered ("...was exceedingly annoyed to find..." is the way he puts it) that the missing company was not with the Cameronians at all and never had been.

There's nothing like losing thirty soldiers in the middle of a hostile countryside in a battle in the piss-pouring rain to motivate military leaders. Gough immediately dispatched two companies of Royal Marines armed with percussion muskets (unlike flintlocks relatively impervious to the wet) to find LT Hadfield and his missing sepoys.

They were located a little after nightfall, in a square defensive formation surrounded by "several thousand" local Chinese levies and their powder and weapons still completely soaked and useless except as clubs or spears.

The relieving Marine companies used their functional weapons to shoot up the Chinese who "dispersed...with great loss". The entire British force then retired to its camp again; Gough does not record whether or how many of the sepoys were killed or wounded in this little standoff, observing only that the junior British officer of the unit was badly wounded. Perdue (2011) says that one trooper was killed and 15 wounded. Whatever the total, it was small.

Casualties among the Chinese militia are not detailed in any account I can find.

At first the following day, 30 MAY, seemed to promise more of the same. The local volunteers appeared on the hills to the north, again, in mass, and made it clear that they weren't ready to go away without having a go at these foreign devils. This time, however, Gough keeps the troops in reserve and sends to the head Qing official (which he calls the "Kwang-chow-Foo"; I am guessing that this was the provincial governor of Guangdong, a place that Gough commonly spells Kwang-chow, but the actual name of this person in Gough's account is unclear. In his summary of the capitulation agreement Gough lists several Qing officials but doesn't identify any one of them as this particular officer. I have encountered the name She Baoshun in another account, but I am not sure if this is correct).

Gough warns this individual, whoever he is, that if something isn't done about all these revolting peasants the white flag comes down and then it's going to be hell to pay in Guangzhou Saturday. The Kwang-chow-Foo hurriedly insists that he has nothing to do with this unseemly mob, which, he says, "...was without the knowledge and against the wishes of the Chinese authorities; that there were no mandarins with this militia in our rear; that it had assembled to protect the villages in the the plain; and that he would immediately send off a mandarin of rank...with orders for its immediate dispersion." The mandarin (and a British officer) were saddled up, rode out to wave their arms and bellow "Disperse, ye rebels, ye villains, disperse!", and the villagers did so.

And that was 三元里事件, the "San Yuan Li Incident".

The reality was, as reality often is, less than dramatic. It is with the retelling that this bizarre little engagement becomes important, as we shall see.

Captains and the Kings Depart - 1 JUN 1841

So the Qing troops marched away, the British force stowed away a tidy five million in silver, and Gough writes "I acceded to the wish of H.M.'s plenipotentiary to embark the troops." The Qing authorities helpfully supplied some 800 laborers to hump the British artillery and ammunition back to Tsinghae, the units formed up, boarded the ship's boats and then the ships themselves, and bid what was probably a fairly profane farewell to scenic south China and the Guangzhou region. The entire mob was afloat by 1500 hrs and back to the main anchorage downriver of Guangzhou by nightfall.

It is nowhere recorded what observations on the manners and methods of the recent visitors and their own rulers the battered citizens of Guangzhou made from the events of the final week of of the fourth month of the 21st year of the Daoguang Reign.

I suspect they were not particularly philosophical or pleasant.

I wonder what they would have added had they known that the site of the foreign factories and the cause of so much misery that May would one day become Ground Zero for wealthy Westerners swooping in to snatch up Chinese babies?
The Outcome: Grand tactical British/HEIC victory

The Impact: The actual military impact of Second Guangzhou was pretty negligible. The First Opium War continued for another year and a half, ending up with the British expeditionary force dictating a victor's peace before Nanjing in August, 1842.
Elliot's withdrawal was as much because of the uselessness of southern China as a strategic lever to affect the Qing as a dislike of useless bloodshed. The entire campaign appears to have convinced him - and his plan was carred forward by his successor, Pottinger - to try gunboat diplomacy on the Yangtze again.

So in August 1841 the British were back at Amoy, took Chusan, and then Ningpo in October, with a bloody (for the Chinese troops alone, of course) defeat at Chinhai between. The British wintered around Ningpo, and then in March 1842 beat hell out of several Qing attacks, including one inside Ningpo itself which included a frantic and pointless street fight on 10 MAR in which an assault column of bannermen attempted to bull through a firing line of British infantry supported by a howitzer. LT Ouchterlony of the Company's Army called it a “merciless horror in the street,”;
“The corpses of the slain lay heaped across the narrow street for a distance of many yards, and after the fight had terminated, a pony, which had been ridden by a mandarin, was extricated unhurt from the ghastly mass in which it had been entombed so completely as to have at first escaped observation.”
Five days later the Qing troops were butchered again at Segaon outside Ningpo.

Now reinforced to a total of 12,000 ground troops, the British moved north up the Yangtze first to Hangchow (which was surrounded by mudflats and inaccessible to the warships) and then, bypassing Hangchow, to Chapu on the coast between Hangchow and Shanghai.

Chapu was a so-called “Tartar” city intended as a centre of Manchu military power; most of the residents were families and servants of banner troops, and were steeped in the win-or-die tradition of the Manchu.

The combat itself was the usual lopsided victory, and after the fighting petered out the invaders found a dead city; the grannies, wives, and children of the banner troops had killed themselves, either with poisons, or worse - been strangled or butchered by their own parents or children.

Shanghai - then a relatively small town - was taken in June, and then Zhenjiang - important both for it's walled strength and its location at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Grand Canal - in late July.

This was the "last stand" of the banner army. Outnumbered and outgunned, thousands of the garrison were killed, and then the usual human disaster of suicide, plundering and burning - much of it by Han Chinese peasants and local badmashes. Of the fight at Zhenjiang, Edward Cree wrote in his journal: “Our loss in killed is estimated at 200, but I never knew of so many deaths from sunstroke in one day. The enemy’s loss is reckoned at 2,000 out of 5,000 said to have been engaged.”
By early August, the British expeditionary force invested Nanjing. The game was over. Unable to pretend they were winning anything, the Qing government signed the Treaty of Nanjing on 29 AUG 1842. This treaty opened the five ports, cost China 20 million silver dollars, abolish the Cohongs, and set a fixed, low schedule of customs duties.
And Britain got Hong Kong. Forever.

Not bad for a bit of rough drug dealing.

For Britain and John Company, the whole business was just another day at the office. They would be at it for another hundred years.

For China, it was the beginnings of a century of utter misery.
Beyond Guangzhou, the Opium War had several damaging effects on China as a whole.

The most immediate was purely physical; destruction of several cities, and damage to several critical areas in south China and the Yangtze valley, along with the deaths of certainly thousands and probably tens of thousands of Chinese either directly at the hands of others (whether British or Chinese) or through disease, starvation, and exposure.

Political consequences included a steepening of the decline of the Qing government, and (something we'll talk about a bit later in depth) a widening of the gulf between the rulers and the ruled. The Qing had developed a reputation for incompetent brutality already; now not only could they not rule others effectively, they couldn't even defend themselves.

But the events of May 1841 are likely to have had some very specific effects on south China.

Because for the first time in a long time, the autocratic, top-down leadership that had characterized China since, well, since it had become China was turned upside down.

And the place it turned was San Yuan Li.

It's hard to overestimate the importance of this ridiculous little skirmish in the eventual overthrow of the autocratic governments of China, both the imperial and, later, the Kuomindang.

Because the legend of the defeat of the hated foreign devils grew in the telling like a G.I.'s tale of improbable barstool romance. Instead of a nasty, pointless bit of slashing in the rainy dusk the story goes around China that heroic Chinese, just ordinary people, armed with spears and knives and bits of wood, butchered scores of the foreign devils, setting them to panicked flight. The entire idiotic little flurry becomes a combination of the Fall of the Bastille, Bunker Hill and the Storming of the Winter Palace.

In his work Modern Chinese Warfare 1795-1989, Bruce Elleman says;
"The Sanyuanli Incident seems to prove (to the Chinese people) that Chinese militia could face and defeat a modern foe. Instead of giving proper credit to the advanced weaponry and training of the foreign forces that allowed it to repel a force ten times its size, Chinese heard exaggerated reports of the "victory" and wrongly believed it confirmed the validity of their own methods."
The Qing military never did improve; the forces that met and were similarly butchered by the British in 1860 and an international Western force in 1900 were practically identical to the sad bastards who were so badly hammered at Guangzhou in May 1841. The legend of San Yuan Li was the rapturous poison of the Sirens, leading generations of Chinese, soldiers and civilians both, to death and misery by convincing them that spears and swords could defeat rifles and breech-loading artillery.

And the other impact of Second Guangzhou is the impact it didn't have; the effect on the Qing government itself.

Another government might have looked at the fall of Guangzhou as an exclamation point to the warning that the events leading from the Macartney meeting were telling them in letters of flame on the battered walls of Canton that their system wasn't working against the foreigner invaders.

Another government might have taken the opportunity to reform the many places that corruption and maladministration had nearly destroyed the bond between the people and their rulers.

The Qing bureaucracy did no such thing.

And that failing combined with the legend of San Yuan Li may have played a critical part in spawning one of history's most horrific events;
The Taiping Rebellion.

If there's one most terrible tale that runs through the threads of China's history that includes the mess at Guangzhou in 1841, it seems to be to be the one of awful governance.

When you think about it, China has never really had a "good" government in the sense of having one that was or is designed to work well, and benefit the mass of Chinese, consistently. Where the ruler has been beneficent if has been by his own individual virtue, and as we know, personal virtue is as rare among humans as personal probity or fidelity. Most people, especially when given unchecked power, are bastards. And so history has proved in China again and again.
In this case, the failings of the Qing were matched with the brutal greed of the opium sellers, and the brutal pride of the British adventurers, and between them they meant a great deal of misery for the poor sods who were merely trying to live their lives along the broad plains of the Pearl River that spring so many years ago.

There really are no heroes here, just another sorry fight in another sorry war for some of the sorriest reasons one group of people ever took up arms against another, between a merciless invader and a thuggish defender, and all so that fifty years later a native of Shanghai could not walk in a park under trees growing from the earth of their home city and their own country.

The legacy of the Opium Wars was a century of Westerners rubbing Chinese noses in the fact that these upstart "barbarians" considered them roughly on the level of talking animals, to be used as needed and ignored or butchered when not, or when they got uppity. It's important not to forget how much this still subtly poisons the relationship between China and the West.

Because sometimes even generations aren't enough to rub out the memory of being a despised outsider in one's own country.
So, should you should ever wonder why they hate our freedoms...

13 comments:

Don Francisco said...

Ah, the Brits and our love of tea, what we won't do to keep it.

Pretty despicable stuff! Up there with the slavery, which was to the labour to work the cane fields so us Brits could have sugar in our tea (bit of a pattern forming there)....

Chief, no apologies needed for the delay, this was another great post. I can see why you got sucked into the period - there is just so much of interest and curiosity, humanity at its most venal, greedy and ambitious. And then there's the Victorian sideburns- my masculinity can't help but feel threatened.

Leon said...

Another good article Chief.

Regarding "sham-shu", "huáng jiǔ" is pronounced "hu-wong gee-o" in Mandarin. I've no idea how it's pronounced in Guangzhou, I can't understand that dialect. It's like a Scott trying to understand from Cornwall.

I've visited Shanghai several times to see my parents and you can see the architectural differences in the various parts ceded to the Brits, French and Germans. The Japanese quarters I think are/were mostly factories and I never saw them. I went to the British and French areas several times and it's weird to go from traditional Chinese houses one street and then see large 'English' style houses on the next. Many of those sections survived the communist era's intact and are quite nice to look at.

China's return as a super-power is greatly influenced by the past humiliations from the opium wars, the Taiping rebellion and then the Japanese invasion. I think many western politicians forget this.

Lastly I think 'siege weapon of love' is designed to batter down Republicans.

Ael said...

Great work as usual Chief.

About the carronades, note the class of ships they were on: small ships, not line of battle ships (i.e. not the kinds of ships you think of when you hear the word "Trafalgar").

These small ships were devastating instruments of war. They could blow away small or poorly armed ships easily and easily run from those they could not destroy.

mike said...

Sun Tzu must have been spinning in his grave, to say nothing of Kangxi and earlier Qings who had swept south out of Manchuria 200 years earlier. What is with the tiger stripes and catwoman headgear? That kind of psychological warfare probably scared the crap out of Han peasants. But why not, the Brits also used it with their foot-tall shako caps to make them look giganto. It amazes me that they still used shakos in the 1840s.

This was another good one Chief. You missed your calling. Your research is note-perfect and you make history come alive. One minor snivel on my part, I wish that in previous posts you had given the Southern Unionists the same courtesy you give the English opposition to this war. As much as you point out the comparison between the Medellin Cartel and Brits, I do not believe that the English deserve the pass you gave them regarding Gladstone’s objections. Sounds like the post 1945 German public: ". . . but we never knew about Auschwitz”.

FDChief said...

Thanks for the hat-tip, guys. This one was tough but a lot of fun to research and write.

DF: Read somewhere that in the 18th Century something like one West Indian slave died for every ton of sugar. Brutal.

And the thing that I love about the Victorians is how they combine this huge, larger-than-life greed, lust, wrath - name your deadly sin - with this incredible need for propriety and neatness. Amazing era...

Leon: Same with Guangzhou; Shamian Dao is still packed with old European buildings, the rest of the city not so much. Pretty, if you can overlook the history behind it...

And I can't think of any fortification capable of withstanding that pink bombard thing...

Ael: True; the big line-of-battleships typically had carronades - big-ass 68-pound ones, at that - on the upper deck but long guns below. But the little ships, as you noted, had just bow- and stern-chasers with the carronades making up the bulk of the armament. Consistent with the RN's idea that these small units didn't engage in a fleet action but when on detached service were expected to close with and destroy any enemy...

mike: I think the British public was culpable for negligence and indifference, but not active malice, at least on this one. The whole opium-pushing thing really did set of alarms in the British press and amongst many portions of the public.

Which did NOT make that public any less imperial and jingo when the occasion came along to expand British power at the expense of some poor dusky bastard that was NOT also expected to smoke dope.

So on this issue I think the British get a teeny bit of forbearance. On most other colonial adventures, though, no.

Leon said...

Again Chief, publish and be damned!

Really look into it. There's a ton of books on battles out there but the thing is how really important in the operational or strategic sense? I think we get fixated on the tactical level and forget that it's very difficult to win a war on a strictly tactical level. You however do the research and identify a lot of obscure engagements that do significantly affect history.

basilbeast said...

I'm reading this in sections, like a book. I'm with Leon, you could have the makings of a good book here.

I had a strong interest in the Far East in my teens, and it continues to this day. Part of it is the language. IMO, Chinese in her various dialects is one of the more musical languages of the world.

If you stop and just listen to the sound of another person speaking, you'll find we all sing. What is rare is the person who speaks in a flat bare monotone.

One of the most remarkable things in history for me was that after the Boxer Rebellion against the foreign intrusion into China, the reparation money China paid to the US was turned into a scholarship program for Chinese students to study in America. A truly bright spot in the normally sad thread of human existence on the planet.

bb

FDChief said...

I'll think about it, Leon. One thing I'd have to be careful about, though, is that a lot of the images I use here are culled from the 'Net and used without permission. And, yes, I'm aware of all Internet traditions...

Basil, I thought I'd read up on the Rebellion, but I wasn't aware of the scholarship deal. That IS a nice little story in what is otherwise a pretty grim tale...

Leon said...

Musical language? BB, you've never heard Cantonese in it's native format. Two old Cantonese women screaming it to each other on a bus. As a (bad) Mandarin speaker, Cantonese (to me) is an awful sounding language - all nasal with elongated vowels.

Also, I know for a fact that Chinese Opera was used to torture American POW's during the Korean War. Two songs and they'd be giving up the password to the President's Facebook page.

Oh and Chief, isn't it usually the editor's worry to find the appropriate images? Or to assign someone to go about getting the permissions?

ChimericaWar said...

Great Read, really enjoyed it and fantastic source material.

However, I think you make the mistake of jumping to the conclusion, like most people, that the British sent in the ships to defend the opium traders. Nothing in the real timeline suggests this.

Sure the opium lobby was very vocal in calling for war, but opium did not 'green light' the war.

Parliament only began to take real notice once the trade and TEA stopped.

Having had stunning success in curbing the opium traders, Lin upped his game and thought he could finally kick out all the foreigners as he was on a roll. When the Royal Navy didn't show to defend the destruction of the opium, Lin wrongly guessed that the British were paper tigers. So he moved from opium to Tea, trade and missionaries. It was this ensuing chaos and cessation of trade, especially the TEA, that got the British cogs of war moving. Sure, the British press enflamed the situation by recounting how British women missionaries were being ravaged and murdered by the Chinaman. And it was stories like this, whether true or not that roused the British public and Parliament.

Saying it was principally opium is to over simplify the times. Sure, opium was a significant causation - but once the Tea stopped and there were maidens to save -then it was time for war

Sure opium played a factor - but Britain never went to war solely to push opium.

It would be like saying now that the US went to war in Iraq over WMDs. Well, we all know that that was just one of the factors that was at play in 2003. Certainly, if people tried to call the Iraq war the WMD WAR we would say they were being disingenuous - as a whole host of other factors were at play that finally brought the wrath of the US military machine down on Saddam's head. The WMD lobby was a strong vocal voice, but it wasn't the only defining factor.

Likewise, the Opium Wars a very one dimensional way to look at a complex part of history.

You rightly point out - this war was much more to do with the pig-headedness of both the British Empire and the Chinese Empire - or to quote Highlander -- "There can be only one."

Just like WMDs, opium was a convenient excuse to push some bigger ideological points.

FDChief said...

Chimerica: Point(s) well taken.

I did try and make the distinction in motives in the body of the post, but let me try and clarify what I think happened;

For the China traders, people like Jardine, it sorta WAS about the opium. Or, more specifically, it was about opening China to their trading and opium was a terrific money-spinner; incredibly profitable for its bulk, like all recreational drugs, it was basically pure profit. But you're right in that it wasn't about the "right" to sell opium per se: it was about using military force to open the China markets. Still pretty despicable, but not QUITE as despicable as straight-up dope-dealing by force.

For most of the REST of Britain it was, as you point out, more about the usual imperial suspects; national pride, anger with the uppity Chink, our-brave-lads-and-lassies-in-danger, and a spot of opportunism, I'm sure.

And I didn't let the Qing off the hook, either; the Donguan Emperor and his deputies played this one about as badly as they could have. Read my (or any) account of the Battle of Adwa to see how to stymie European imperials, and it has a hell of a lot more to do with repeating firearms, logistical, and military skill then with cultural hubris, which is about all the Manchus had in spades.

All in all, Guangzhou in particular and the Opium Wars in general are a fairly depressing observation on human nature, really.

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