Nov 7, 2022
Last time we spoke the reluctant Lord Elgin took up the job as the new emissary to China. Alongside his french counterpart Baron Gross, both men would overlook their military coalitions expedition in China to force the Qing emperor to abide by their treaty and some new demands. They began with a bombardment and occupation of the grand city of Canton and then Ye Mingchen was hunted down and arrested. Ye was replaced with a puppet named Pih-Kwei who would be nominally controlled by the European forces. Now the coalition would fight their way to Beijing to force an audience with Emperor Xianfeng, but something lied in their way, the famous Taku forts at the mouth of the Bei He River. Could the coalition fight past these legendary forts and strangle Beijing enough to get their demands met?
Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.
#21 This episode is Part 3 of the Second Opium War: battles for the Taku Forts
At high tide the Taku Forts were surrounded by water, the Bei He River became something like a natural moat. The entrance to the Bei He River was 200 yards in width, forcing the British and French warships into a bottleneck gauntlet with each shore holding 137 pieces of antiquated artillery. When the invaders arrived, the Qing forces quickly went to work creating earthwork walls with sandbags to bolster the defenses. The Qing forces presumed the European gunboats hulls were too deep and thus they would not risk entering the river until it was very high tide to avoid going aground. That presumption was a grave error as Seymour and Rigault were willing to risk it and mounted a surprise attack at 10am on May 20th. Elgin made one last ditch effort to get Tan to surrender peacefully, but Tan did not even bother to respond to Elgins message. Now in a similar fashion to the first opium war, as you might remember a large problem for the Qing was their outdated artillery. Their cannons were usually immobile, unable to aim at all degrees and angles. The Taku Fort cannons were aimed in such a way to hit warships at high tide, but the British-French force was going to attack during low tide. Alongside the Taku Forts cannons another defensive obstacle was a 7 inch thick boom made out of bamboo. The Europeans opened fire unleashed pure hell upon the forts and when the forts unleashed their own volley, literally all of their shots went over the European masts. To add insult to injury, the British sacrificed one of their ships, the Coromandel to ram into the boom which broke with ease. The Coromandal received a nasty gash in her hull, but the job had been done. As pieces of the boom floated away, the rest of the European armada began to steam through the gap while the Qing helplessly fired their cannons straight over their masts. The French ships Mitraille and Fusee alongside the British Cormorant fired upon 2 of the Taku Forts on the left bank while the French Avalance, Dragonne and British Nimrod fired upon the 3 forts on the right. The Chinese manning Gingalls had much better luck than the cannons, though it also came at the price of making the Europeans laugh watching men fall over from firing each shot. However not all was funny as Gingalls could be properly aimed unlike the cannons and managed to kill 5 British and 6 French while wounding another 61. Then tragedy happened when a gunpowder cache in one of the Taku forts accidentally exploded killing 100 Chinese. Alongside the invaders maelstrom of gunfire and the defenders despair at the futility of their cannons many began to panic. Even before many of the British and French forces began to land ashore, countless Qing forces were deserting the earthen parapet en masse. In desperation seeing his men flee, the Qing commander launched 50 fireboats stuffed with straw at the barbarian ships, only to see the fireships crash into the bank at the bend in the river. Not a single fireship was able to cause damage to the invaders. With the last ditch effort a complete failure, the commander of the Taku Forts went to the Temple of the Sea God and slashed his jugular vein with his sword killing himself.
The Viceroy of Zhili province was banished to the desolate border territory with Russia in the north. As he packed his bags, Emperor Xianfeng condemned the Viceroy’s mismanagement of the Taku Fort defense as being “without plan or resource”. Elgin after witnessing the victory over the Taku Forts had a really interesting thing to say “Twenty-four determined men with revolvers, and a sufficient number of cartridges, might walk through China from one end to another.”
Back home in Britain Elgin was being praised and was rewarded likewise with carte blanche for all further military actions and negotiations. The new Prime Minister, Lord Derby, haha looks like those grand speeches worked out for him, well he sent Elgin a congratulatory dispatch “giving me latitude to do anything I choose, if only I will finish the affair.” The very same man who condemned British imperialism the year prior was now a warhawk. Lord Malmesbury became the new foreign minister replacing Lord Clarendon. Back in China, the European gunboats made their way up the Bei He River triumphantly towards the next Qing stronghold, Tianjin. Tianjin was around 30 miles away from Beijing. The 3 Plenipotentiaries stayed further behind at the Taku Forts for their own safety as Seymour and Rigault took the lead. As they steamed up the Bei He River, both the Fusee and Cormorant ran aground numerous time, but the Europeans found some very unlikely allies to help, the local Chinese. Turns out a lot of the populace absolutely hated their Manchu overlords and volunteered their tugboats free of charge to help the Europeans. Apparently when the Europeans tried to pay them many refused if it is to be believed.
On June 4th the European armada arrived at Tianjin without any resistance along the way. The Qing defenders at Tianjin morale was so low they were at the point of surrender. There was also a rumor spreading around that Emperor Xianfeng had been overthrown and replaced by a new dynasty who was willing to simply sign a new treaty with the Europeans. Seymour and Rigault advised Elgin he should stay at the Taku Forts for security, but he disregarded this and came up to the war party on May 26th. Elgin wrote in his diary as he made his way up the river. “Through the night watches, when no Chinaman moves, when the junks cast anchor, we laboured on, cutting ruthlessly and recklessly through that glancing and startled river which, until the last few weeks, no stranger keel had ever furrowed. Whose work are we engaged in, when we burst thus with hideous violence and brutal energy into these darkest and most mysterious recesses of the traditions of the past? I wish I could answer that question in a manner satisfactory to myself. At the same time there is certainly not much to regret in the old civilisation which we are thus scattering to the winds. A dense population, timorous and pauperised, such would seem to be its chief product. “ The Plenipotentiaries were quite surprised when they were met outside Tianjin by a detachment of local Qing officials and merchants who came looking for opium. Yes these were those types of middle men folks who were used to bribes and the lucrative business of moving opium. Despite the rumors, Emperor Xianfeng had not been overthrown, but he was willing to negotiate with the Europeans. Emperor Xianfeng sent commissioners to Tianjin in the hope of stopping the European advance to Beijing. Meanwhile with Tianjin not putting up a fight, Elgin wrote in his diary “[I have] complete military command of the capital of China, without having broken off relations with the neutral powers, and without having interrupted, for a single day, our trade at the different ports of the Empire.” The Europeans were treated with the utmost respect and the lavish temple known as the Supreme Felicity was used as headquarters for the Europeans. The Europeans transformed the temple by creating a bowling alley, they used its myriad of altars for washbasins and placed vanity mirrors in front of statues of the gods. This cultural vandalized would be an appetizer for events in the future. Two emissaries were sent by Emperor Xianfeng, both were commissioners, the first was the 74 year old Guiliang, a senior military officer. The other was a 53 year old Mongolian military officer. They met with the Europeans at the Temple of Oceanic Influences southwest of Tianjin. Elgin arrived on June 4th alongside 50 Royal marines and a band from the warship Calcutta to add some muscle.
The first meeting went…terribly. The commissioners had the authority to negotiate, but lacked carte blanche to finalize any deal. Elgin stormed out of the first meeting, completely blowing off this lavish buffet the Qing had set for the party to celebrate the new peace treaty. Elgin was well known to be courtes, but after spending 6 months in China had quickly learnt the only way to get Qing officials to act was to show some bravado. Elgin even wrote to his wife at the time “I have made up my mind, disgusting as the part is to me, to act the role of the ‘uncontrollably fierce barbarian.’” As Elgin stomped his feet walking off he made a threat that he would soon march upon Beijing, even though in truth the Europeans did not have the land forces to do so. Elgin left his brother to continue negotiations, Lord Frederick Bruce. One of Fredericks interpreters, Horatio Lay decided it was a good idea to use some Sturm und Drang and began to literally scream at the Qing commissioners whenever they talked about clauses in the new treaty. Lay even threatened to lay waste to Beijing and would slap the Emperor himself, this guy had some balls. Lay’s abuse of the two commissioners became so bad, the men went around his head to speak to Putiatin and the American envoy William Reed. Reed sent a letter to Elgin asking him to help rein in the tyrannical Lay, but Elgin ignored the letter, wow. Putiatin asked Gros whom he knew had grown very close to Elgin, to intercede, but Gros declined to do so as he feared it would alienate his friendship to Elgin. The Qing then resorted to bribery, they tried to give Lay a horse, but Lay did not change his aggressive stance.
The negotiations were taking very long, it was the typical Chinese strategy of procrastination. Elgin was becoming livid and wrote in his diary about Reed and Putiatin “These sneaking scoundrels do what they can to thwart me and then while affecting to support the Chinese act as their own worst enemies.” Elgin also felt British parliament had failed to back him up. Elgin received a letter from the new Foriegn minister Lord Malmesbury on April the 9th, berating him for not concluding the peace treaty in due time. “A Cabinet has been held today and it is our anxious wish to see this Chinese business settled if it can be done without loss of honour and commercial interests as at present enjoyed. Our reputation is sufficiently vindicated at Canton and we do not look at the chance of a war with the Chinese Empire without much apprehension. I trust therefore that you will not engage us in a contest of this sort if you can possibly avoid it.” The negotiations over the terms of the new treaty stretched for 3 weeks and the Qing were rejecting two clauses the British absolutely wanted: free passage throughout China and for a permanent British and French embassy at the Qing imperial court. The two commissioners stated that accepting either of these would cost the men their lives. Gros and Putiatin began arguing that the permanent embassy point was not critical as long as their ministers had access to Beijing in some form. After much arguing the commissioners conceded to the two points and thus the Treaty of Tianjin was formed. The Europeans made sure to add a clause they henceforth they would no longer be called barbarians in official communications and treaties, though it should be noted the term used by the Chinese literally just meant “those who don't speak Chinese”.
The Treaty of Tianjin opened new ports for trade: Tianjin, Hangzhou and Nanjing. It should be noted the Qing were all too happy to toss Nanjing into the treaty as the Taiping were occupying it as their own capital. Perhaps if they were lucky, the Europeans would go to Nanjing, run into some trouble and attack the Taiping for them! Baron Gros raised concerns over the clauses as he argued Britain would have to bear even more military might to enforce the treaty. As Gros pointed out to Elgin, the Confucious principle, a promise made under duress does not need to be kept. Another item on the treaty clauses was the payment of 2 million taels of silver to Britain for the damage to their factories at Canton and another 2 million in general reparation. The French were to receive 2 million taels as well. Now the warnings Gros made concerned Elgin and he was having second thoughts. One major concern was the idea of extracting he enormous sums of money from what seemed to be an Empire on the verge of Bankruptcy. Elgin wrote back to the foreign minister, concerned that extracting the large sums of money would lead to the toppling of the Manchu rule “Everything we saw around us indicated the penury of the Treasury. To despair, by putting forward pecuniary claims which it could satisfy only by measures that would increase its unpopularity and extend the area of rebellion.” Elgin ended by saying the humiliating treaty would be a large beacon for the Taiping Rebels. William Reed recommended legalizing opium as a clause, arguing the tax revenue from it would benefit the Qing Empire. The British wanted a tariff of only 30 taels and the Cohong merchants supported this. Jardine & Matheson & co released a statement “The use of opium is not a curse, but a comfort and benefit to the hard-working Chinese.” Boy you can’t get any more gross than that one. The French for their part performed a study of the opium problem in China. Baron Gros found that users who smoked upto 8 pipes per day had a life expectancy of only 6 years. Casual consumers could expect around 20 years after starting to smoke it, many died around the age of 50 or so. Opium addicts were found to be spending 2/3 ‘s of their income to feed their addiction. The Russians and Americans agreed with the French that the opium trade was horrible. The French however have little to nothing to say about another form of trade they took part in with China, the “pig trade”, that being the enslavement of coolies. Now you have to hear this one, this is so symbolic of the event as a whole. The translator for the treaty took forever because he was an opium addict. You just can’t make this stuff up folks.
The Russians agreed to the terms first on June 18th Putiantian signed off, making Elgin feel betrayed and abandoned because he still had qualms. What was really important to Russia was the border they shared with the Qing, it had been a source of much conflict. Thus Russia settled with a visiting ambassador to Beijing with no permanent status. Christianity received a formal toleration and the Russians got access to 2 more ports on Taiwan and Hainan. Five days later the Americans signed off on a similar agreement to the Russians. Both the Americans and Russians made sure to include the most favored nations clause in their treaties, which meant that whatever further concessions went to the British and French, they too would enjoy them. Thus the 2 nations who brought zero military aid and did basically nothing reaped the same benefits as the 2 nations shouldering everything, ain't that nice? Putiatin sent Elgin and Gros a copy of Russia’s treaty urging them not to topple the manchu rule with too many humiliating concessions. Reed made a similar appeal. Gros reached an agreement on june 23rd and did not hesitate to sign the treaty because he did not want to undercut Elgin’s negotiators, preferring to let them finish the job. The French also sought much less than Britain from the Chinese. A week after and the British had still not come to an agreement, Gros became impatient and sent Elgin a letter, that if the British did not sign soon the French would simply sail off.
The British were stuck on two key issue; to have a permanent ambassador in Beijing and freedom to travel anywhere in China. The Chinese commissioners desperately sought the aid of Gros and Putiatin, indicating to them the Emperor was going to have them killed if they agreed to the two clauses. Elgin threatened to march on Beijing and it seems the commissioners were forced to give in. On June 26th the British Treaty of Tianjin was ratified. The Chinese would pay 5 million in war reparations, Christian missionaries would be allowed to work unhindered throughout China and 11 ports would be opened for trade. Taxes on imported goods would be set on a follow up meeting at Shanghai, and there 5% was agreed upon. Taxables goods would be silk, brocades and of course opium. The taxation agreement basically made opium legal in China, but without bringing the subject up. The Commissioners signed the treaty, but when they got back to Beijing, take a wild guess, the Emperor rejected the humiliating terms.
Now Elgin failed to bring up the issue of the opium trade and its official legalization as were his instructions from Clarendon. Elgin probably felt since Clarendon lost his position he no longer had to respect the order. Clarendons successor Lord Malmesbury did not give a similar order. On July 3rd, 400 men and a naval band serenaded Elgin signing the Treaty of Tianjin at the Temple of Oceanic Influences under some paper lanterns. And despite the fact the commissioners, as they said it, were soon to be beheaded, they invited Elgin to a lavish dinner at the temple after the signing. At the dinner one of the commissioners, Hua Shan gave Elgin copies of some famous poetry. The next day, Baron Gross signed the French treaty but cheekily added some new demands that the commissioners were forced to abide by. He demanded the release of all Chinese christians imprisoned for their faith. Gros sent a triumphant report back home stating “Je suis heureux de pouvoir annoncer aujord-hui à Votre Excellence que la Chine s’ouvre enfin au Christianisme, source réelle de toute civilisation, et au commerce et à l’industrie des nations occidentales.” (“I am happy to be able to announce today to Your Excellence that China has at last opened itself to Christianity, the real source of all civilization, and to trade and the manufactures of the nations of the West.)”
Back in Britain Elgins triumph was met with mixed reviews, though most were favorable. Elgins private secretary Laurence Oliphant, noted the impressive cost/benefit ratio of the casualties in his 1860 account of the campaign, ‘Narrative of the Earl of Elgin’s Mission to China and Japan’: “Hostilities with the Empire of China had terminated with a loss to the British arms of about twenty men killed in action...and a treaty had been signed far more intensive in its scope, and more subversive of imperial prejudices than that concluded fifteen years before, after a bloody and expensive war, which had been protracted over a period of two years.” Karl Marx, yes the Karl Marx, was working at the time as the European correspondent of the New York Tribune wrote a letter to his writing partner Friedrich Engels on some thoughts towards the conflict “The present Anglo-Chinese Treaty which in my opinion was worked out by Palmerston in conjunction with the Petersburg Cabinet and given to Lord Elgin to take with him on his journey is a mockery from beginning to end.” Karl Marx would have a lot more to say about the Taiping Rebellion, which is quite interesting given the rebellion is considered a proto marxist one. Elgin himself was quite depressed over the ordeal, he wrote this in his diary “I have an instinct in me which loves righteousness and hates iniquity and all this keeps me in a perpetual boil. Though I have been forced to act almost brutally I am China’s friend in almost all this.”
To try and raise the celebration somewhat, Elgin decided to take 5 ships up the Yangtze River as a demonstration of Britain's naval power and to discourage the Chinese from going back on the new treaty. However news of some raids against Canton forced him to pull be short. The new Viceroy of Canton named Huang had incited a rebellion rallying Canton residents to quote “Go forth in your myriads, then, and take vengeance on the enemies of your Sovereign, imbued with public spirit and fertile in expedients.” In July a group of Cantonese got their hands on some artillery and began to shell the British resident at Whampoa. The Cantonese mob followed this up by performing a raid after they heard about the humiliating terms of the treaty of Tianjin. During a short conference in Shanghai, Elgin demanded Viceroy Huang be removed. On top of the Canton problem, the two commissioners, Guiling and Hua Shan had reneged on the treaty clauses about allowing British ambassadors in Beijing. They sent a letter to Elgin stating that had agreed to such clauses under duress and suggested that future British ambassadors visit Beijing from time to time as diplomatic business warranted. They argued that because of large scale xenophobia in Beijing, they feared for the lives of any British dwelling there. Then 4 days later they added another excuse; they said that to allow British ambassadors to live in Beijing would generate fear and a loss of respect for the Qing government. Such further humiliation might very well topple the Manchu and allow the Taiping to take over. Elgin was somewhat swayed by the Taiping excuse and said he would pass their message onto his foreign officer. Elgin was also in a tough position as the fact a rebellion was occurring in Canton made it seem clear that guaranteeing the safety of British ambassadors in Beijing would not be an easy task. The French concurred with Elgin, that to have ambassadors in Beijing would be dangerous now. In the meantime Elgin had set up a 2 month survey of the Yangtze River using 2 gunboats to demonstrate Britains new right of travel throughout China. The idea had been to see if the local Chinese would obey the treaty clauses. Elgins tour wound up going past the Taiping capital of Nanjing and it is alleged a single cannon perched on a Nanjing wall fired upon Elgin’s ships. Elgin’s reprisal was pretty brutal, he sent a volley knocking out the Taiping cannon then ordered a 99 minute naval bombardment of Nanjing before sailing on. Eglin had planned to finish the trip by meeting with the Emperor and giving him a letter from Queen Victoria, but the worsening of the Canton situation forced him to pull back south.
In February of 1859 Cantonese rebels ambushed and massacred 700 British marines around the countryside of Canton. In retaliation, General van Straubenzee, the military commander of 3000 troops in Canton, hunted down the headquarters of the rebels which they found at Shektsing a few miles south of the city and completely annihilated all those there and razed everything to the ground. The destruction of the rebel camp seems to have worked quite well as suddenly the Emperor sent word to ratify the treaty of Tianjin’s clauses and had Huang removed from power and demanded the rebels disband. While Elgin dealt with the renewed China problem, his brother Frederick Bruce returned to Britain with the signed Treaty of Tianjin. Lord Malmesbury rewarded Bruce by naming him the first ambassador to China, a post Elgin would have received, but he was too wary of the post given the circumstances now. Elgin left China in March of 1859, taking the chance to link up and meet his brother in Sri Lanka in April as Bruce was on his way back to China. Now Bruce was not lets say, as great as his brother. He had recently been the Lt-governor of Newfoundland, then the Colonial secretary of Hong Kong. In all honestly a lot of his appointments were merely a result of him being Elgin’s brother. But Bruce did have working knowledge of Chinese customs.
Bruce arrived back at the mouth of the Bei He River on June 18th of 1859 alongside a force of 16 warships. Admiral Seymour had returned to London and was replaced by Rear-admiral James Hope. Unfortunately it seems Hope was even more racist and hated the Chinese more than Seymour. 3 days later the new American ambassador showed up John E Ward aboard a steamer, the Powhatan. The French representative, Anton de Bourbelon brought 2 warships with him as the French fleet had remained close by in Indo-China. Now Emperor Xianfeng wanted above all else to keep the Europeans the hell out of Beijing. The Emperor suggested right away that they ratify the new treaty at Shanghai, but all 3 of the European powers declined this. Many of the Emperors close advisors wanted to resist the foreigners taking up residence in Beijing. Some of these high ranking officials gave orders for 3 large bamboo booms, 3 feet thick to be strung across the Bei He river to block the foreigners advance. It looked like war was back on the menu and in a vain attempt Bruce tried writing a letter to Beijing politely asking the booms be removed. Well Bruce got no reply and this prompted Admiral Hope to ask permission to blow the booms apart. On June 21st, Hope sent captain Willes aboard a steamer to break through the first boom which went successfully, but the other 2 proved unbreakable. The British tried using some gunpowder but it just couldn't do the job, then to add insult to injury during the night the Qing repaired the first boom.
On June 25th Bruce received a letter from the Viceroy of Zhili, Heng Fu. Heng suggested the ambassadors lodge at Beitang, around 8 miles north of Beijing, basically it was a face saving gesture. The British however were armed to the teeth and had just undergone 3 annoying and long years of negotiations and war and had no patience. Bruce told Admiral Hope to attack the booms again. That afternoon Hope took his flagship Plover and attempted ramming the boom, but this time hit ship was stopped cold. The Qing had learnt a lesson from the previous conflict and this time had made the 2nd and 3rd booms out of full sized tree trunks sling together with heavy chains. As the Plover staled and the other European gunships had to stop just before it, all of a sudden the forts portholes were cast aside to reveal a full complement of 40 cannons and they opened fire. The first salvo took the head right off Plovers bow gunner and 3 other sailors fell wounded. For 3 hours Plover was pulverized.
Hope unwisely stood on his deck wearing a gold braid basically showing the Chinese he was a high ranking official. A Qing sharpshooter landed a shot hitting Hope in his thigh. Hope fell on deck and was bound up by a surgeon as the Qing retaliated. For a rather surprising change, the Qing cannons, though still immobile were better aimed and managed to blow Hope’s second in command and 8 other sailors to pieces, 22 others were wounded. Plovers hull eventually burst sinking the ship into the mud and this would lead to the deaths of countless crew. Hope believe it or not got up and rowed over to another ship, the Opossum and began standing on its deck in plain sight. Because of his thigh wound he had to hold onto a railing to hold himself upright and that said railing was hit by a Qing cannonball. The railing collapsed and Hope fell breaking several ribs, ouch. This prompted him to turn command over to Captain Shadwell. The Qing volleys managed to disable 5 of the invaders frontal gunships prompting Bruce to order 7 more which were 8 miles away to come forward and replace the damaged ones. By the evening, 5 British warships had been immobilized and 2 had run aground and one was a sitting duck for fort cannons.
The fort guns went silent in the early evening and the British officers took it to mean that the forts garrisons had fled like they had in the previous year. The landing parties surged ahead as planned and that was when disaster struck again. It turned out to be a ruse to entice the landing parties to storm the beach. The landing party soon found out to their horror 2 trenches were dug in front of the walls, filled with water and mud and some large iron spikes behind them. That was bad, but immediately when the marines got off their barges the muddy banks seized their feet leaving them helpless as the forts unleashed carnage upon them. Those lucky enough to make it to the trenches found the muddy water was too thick to swim. Many men in despair clambered beside the base of a fort wall to escape the trenches and gunfire. The Qing began setting off fireworks to illuminate the trapped marines as they fired upon them.
Although America said it would remain neutral, Commodore Josiah Tattnall aboard the USS Powhatan was trying to get past the booms as well when he ran into the conflict. Tattnal was a veteran of the war of 1812 and like pretty much any American at the time disliked the British. Tattnal received word that Hope had been shot and upon witnessing the horror show he suddenly cast neutrality to the wind. Tattnal was from Georgia, a loyal southerner with a lets say, strong sense of racial pride…yeah we will call it that. Whatever hate he held for the British was cast aside as he suddenly screamed out “blood is thicker than water, I’d be damned if I stood by and watched white men butchered before my eyes!”. Tattnals charge forward hardly turned the tide of battle, it amount mostly to him towing more British marines forward to their horrific death. Some of his men grabbed and operated some British guns firing at the fort while Tattnall personally tended to Hope. A single american died and the breach of neutrality could have caused a catastrophe, but one thing it did do was set a new tone for British-American friendship. As the London times wrote “Whatever may be the result of the fight, England will never forget the day when the deeds and words of kindly Americans sustained and comforted her stricken warriors on the waters of the Bei He.”
Around 7pm, as the Qing set off fireworks to illuminate the area, Captain Shadwell with 50 royal marines and French seamen led by the French commander Tricault landed on some muddy flats outside one of the Taku forts. They clamored through knee deep mud as the defenders rained Gingall fire down upon them at short range. The British-Franco force found themselves literally stuck in the mud, unable to use their wall scaling ladders to get over the fort. Shadwell sent word back to his superior that he and his men were pinned down and requested reinforcements to storm the Taku walls. There was no more fighting men available however, he was eventually order to limp back to the ships. The British and French suffered high casualties. Shadwell was wounded, Tricault was dead, and of the 1000 men who took part in the battle around half were killed or wounded, 29 of them officers. Many men dragged themselves or limped through mud to get back to their ships. A lot of these men were veterans of the Crimean war and had never tasted such defeat. One veteran of the battle of Balaclava said he would rather have relived that battle three times over than suffer the Taku Forts again. The gunboats, Lee, Plover and Cormorant were disabled, the Kestrel sank.
Admiral Hope sent a dispatch to the Admiralty showing his shock at how the Qing performed “Had the opposition they expected been that as usual in Chinese warfare, there is little doubt that the place would have been successfully carried at the point of the bayonet.” To try and save face, Bruce reported back to Britain that the sudden military prowess of the Qing forces at the Taku forts was because Russians were helping them. He alleged based on eyewitness testimony that some men in fur hats and European dress had been seen directing operations atop a Taku fort, it was mere bullshit. The real reason for the Qing victory was because of Prince Senggelinqin. Senggelinqin was a mongol cavalry commander that had helped the Qing crush a large army of Taiping rebels. He was a member of the Borjigin clan and the 26th generation descendant of Qasar, a brother to Genghis Khan. He led Qing forces to smash the Taiping during the Northern Expedition in the southern suburbs of Tianjin. When the Second Opium War broke out he was appointed Imperial commissioner in charge of the defense of Tianjin.
Seng rejoiced in his well earned victory. He wrote back to the emperor acknowledging the British and French might return with more ships, but asserted confidently he would thrash them again and again “the pride and vainglory of the barbarians, already under severe trial, will immediately disappear. When that happens, China can then enjoy some decades of peace. The barbarians, already somewhat disillusioned and repentant, may lend themselves to persuasion and be brought under control. If they of their own accord should wholeheartedly become obedient, then peace would be secure and permanent.” The Emperor responded with caution “the foreigners may harbor secret designs and hide themselves around nearby islands, waiting for the arrival of more soldiers and ships for a surprise attack in the night or in a storm” Emperor Xianfeng still shared a sense of relief and expressed hope the foreigners needs for Chinese goods would mean that they could sort out their problems in Shanghai and that there would be no need for ambassadors in Beijing nor new treaties. Seng also pointed out during the battle the Americans got involved. “Although the starting of hostilities was by the English barbarians, France and America’s cooperation in the melee is also inescapable.” Seng based his claim off intelligence extracted from a Canadian POW named John Powers. John claimed to be a neutral American in an attempt to escape imprisonment. The Chinese did not free him and instead used him as proof the Americans had abandoned neutrality. Seng much like most Chinese at the time were weak on Western Geography and assumed Canada was part of the United States, sad Canadian noises. At one point an American missionary who spoke Chinese tried to explain to Seng the difference between English and French Canada and the United States, Seng described the experience in a letter to the Qing imperial court. “[The missionary] stated that America contained Englishmen and Frenchmen, and when there was fighting, the flag was the only criterion.” Eventually John was released after a month, the Qing simply did not want to add America to a list of growing enemies.
I would like to take this time to remind you all that this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Please go subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. If you are still hungry after that, give my personal channel a look over at The Pacific War Channel at Youtube, it would mean a lot to me.
The battle for the Taku Fort was an absolute catastrophe resulting in humiliation for the Europeans for once. Prince Seng had a grand victory, perhaps now the foreign barbarians would learn their lesson and stop their war. Or perhaps the Europeans would like their wounds and come right back.