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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Oct 24, 2022

Last time we spoke the horrifying trade of Poison and Pigs. The “Poison” referring to the still thriving opium trade and “pig” being the kidnapping of Chinese coolies. We also briefly talked about the rise of the Taiping rebels under Hong Xiuquan, the self proclaimed brother of Jesus Christ. The Taiping rebellion alongside the trade of Poison and Pigs was wreaking havoc upon the Qing dynasty and then to ignite the powder keg came a rather small event. The Arrow incident set into motion Ye Mingchen to butt heads with Harry Parkes and John Bowring and all 3 of these men would begin a duel that set into motion the kindling for another opium war. Soon things got completely out of hand and Rear Admiral Seymour was brought into the mix leading to him ordering the first official shots of what will become the second opium war.

#19 This episode is Part 1 of the Second Opium War: Seymour’s onslaught


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 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.

Ye Mingchen upon learning of the threat immediately called upon Canton’s militia, but their response was not exactly enthusiastic. Unlike the previous Lin Zexu, a noble and very charismatic figure, Ye lacked public support and the rank and file soldiers often disregarded him. A large reason for this was because of the brutality he unleashed on the Taiping Rebels in the two provinces he ran. Ye’s two hundred warships while numerous, in the face of the British state of the art gunboats and steamers, were basically childs toys. Parkes sent Ye another demand: to grant British residents the right to live and work outside the factories. Ye refused the demand and on October 28th, the British sent the steamer Encounter to shell the rooftop of the vice regal residence. This action did drive some popularity for Ye as many began to say the viceroy was fearless and had remained in his courtyard reading a book as the shells missed him. Ye then upted the anty by placing a price on British heads from 30 to 100 dollars. Ye also placed a whopping 30,000 dollars for Parkes head.

When Seymour came to Canton he found the Encounter moored off the city near the factories. He sent the Sampson and Barracouta to seize the Blenheim and Macao forts meeting no resistance. One of the British sailors named William Kennedy described the city “The river was alive with every kind of craft, from the little sampan, propelled by a single oar in the stern, to the heavy trading junk with her single iron-wood mast and mat sails. Numerous flower-boats belonging to wealthy mandarins were moored off the town, conspicuous by their gaudy paint, and crowded with laughing girls, who kept up an incessant chatter as they peeped out at the foreign devils!” The next day, Seymour seized the Bird’s nest fort and then the two Shameen forts guarding the passage. All of the guns they found in the forts were rendered unserviceable. 

When the bombardment of Canton had begun, a hole was made in Canton’s walls and this allowed a detachment of Royal Marines to land and get into the factory sector to protect the inhabitants. Chinese guns on the walls did not fire upon the invaders who all entered the city to an eerie silence. Some Chinese matchlocks did fire upon them but it seems many were antiquated and did no damage. W.t Bates, the captain of the HMS Actaeon planted the Union Jack atop Canton’s wall, and he was joined by an American envoy to Hong Kong, James Keenan who likewise was waving the Stars and Stripes. Now this is an interesting bit, because the US remained neutral during the conflict between China and Britain. James Keenan apparently was shit faced when he did this haha. The British began to move a large cannon through the wall breach and used it to further shell Ye’s residence.. The royal marines and sailors formed posts and barricades with field gun support around certain streets to guard against counter attacks. On October 25th the Chinese forces attacked the British pickets, but were easily repulsed, resulting in 14 casualties for them. On October 27th, the Encounter opened fire on Ye's poor residence as the Barracouta and Sulphur Creek shelled Chinese positions along the hills in the back of Canton. The British forces warned the Chinese civilians to evacuate themselves and their property. On october 28th, the British attacked again, this time from the Dutch Folly where they placed 2 large guns. The shelling of Cantons walls set fires within the city and the next morning the British began firing upon Chinese counter artillery being mounted on the opposite side of the Dutch Folly.

Seymour then led a 400 man party personally to capture Ye’s residence, but they found it to be abandoned. Seymour reported “the Chinese troops offered little resistance beyond a scattered fire from the streets and houses”, two British were killed with 12 wounded. Seymour did not have nearly enough men to hold Canton, so he soon pulled back to a safer encampment outside the walls, but not before sending Ye a threat “The lives and property of the entire city are at my mercy, and could be destroyed by me at any moment,”. Ye sent an emissary to Parks with a truce offer, but Parkes rebuffed it by making vague threats about allying with the Taiping rebels. It was most likely a bluff, because Bowring personally loathed what he called “the Jacobin like God worshippers”. It seems even Ye knew this to be a bluff as well. Seymour continued his siege of Canton and managed to gain control of all the seagoing traffic in the gulf of Canton by chasing off all the Chinese war junks that came near. Seymour estimated it would take at least 5000 men to hold the city. 

Meanwhile Ye began to really saber rattle, making a proclamation to the residents of Canton to “preserve quiet minds, guard your property, but do not give way to alarm”. It should be noted Ye said this from a very safe hiding place. Well the Chinese and European residents gradually began to desert Canton as Seymour’s bombardment grew more intense and many had to flee for their lives. Snipers inside the city returned fire on the British using antiquated matchlocks, but it amounted to nothing. By the end of October, Ye finally agreed to parley with the British, but still refused to meet them in person, instead sending subordinates, which was most likely also a face saving insult to the British. Bowring demanded in person negotiations and sent Seymour a letter to toss at Ye “In the administration of all matters in China the rule adhered to is that which heaven shows is the right one to pursue: the chief consideration is the people. It is said in The Book of History, ‘Heaven sees as my people see; Heaven hears as my people hear.’ Is this not an additional reason why I should be unable to constrain the people? I must add that as it is the habit of Your Excellency’s nation to adore the spirit of Heaven, it behooves you in my opinion so much the more to conform in your actions to the principle given us by heaven. Let Your Excellency maturely consider this.

On November the 6th the British seized the French Folly fort along the pearl river near Canton. Enroute to it they ran into a armada of 23 Chinese war junks, but easily sent them into a rout, but at the cost of 1 death and 4 wounded sailors. The battle lasted no more than an hour and Parkes described the defenders as “putting up a very hot resistance, the battle was exceeding creditable to the bravery of not just our men, but of the Chinese also”. 

Just before november the 12th, Seymour sent word to the Qing commanders garrisoning the bogue forts “The British Admiral wishes to spare life, and is not at war with the Chinese; and as it is necessary for him to hold possession of the Bogue Forts, until the conduct of the Viceroy Yeh can be referred to the Emperor of Pekin, one hour will be given for the purpose of clearing out; if this offer is at once accepted, boats will be permitted to pass to and from the main land and the Wantungs. In this case, the forts will remain uninjured, ready to be returned in the same state to the Chinese when these differences are over; and the rebels will neither be allowed to pass the Bogue Forts, nor to enter them whilst in our possession” Seymour waited an hour but received no answer. In truth the Qing commander of the forts could not give an answer, if he did he would be beheaded. On November 12th, a British squadron of 6 ships opened fire on the two Wangtong island forts which were both fully manned, holding over 200 guns. The Qing defenders tossed stink pots at the first Royal marines to enter the forts. The Chinese fired upon the invaders, but as soon as enough British had entered the forts the defenders fled to prepared escape boats. As Seymour described it “the battle was a considerable, though ill-directed resistance of about an hour or so”. The British had one death and 5 wounded aboard the HMS Nankin. The next day the British attacked and captured the Anunghoy forts, each holding 200 guns whereupon Seymour chided “there was some resistance”, there were no casualties.

The Americans also got to have a go at the Qing at this time. The USS Portsmouth and USS Levant were sailing off the Chinese coast when they received news of the war. The two sloops of war were tasked with protecting American lives and to land 150 marines at Canton to do so. They made a peaceful landing and began to occupy the city. Commodore James Armstrong and Captain Henry Bell came aboard the USS Jacinto, landing additional forces in Canton. On November the 15th the American force withdrew from the city. As they were withdrawing, Commander Andrew Foote of the Portsmouth was rowing to his ship, but as he did so a Chinese garrison fired on his small boat a few times, nearly hitting him. The next day the US marines decided to retaliate against the Qing for what had occurred.

The Steam frigate USS San Jacinto alongside the two slopes of war made their way up the Pearl River and launched an attack on Canton’s coastal forts, also known as the barrier forts. The USS Portsmouth was the first to fire upon the nearest fort on November 16th. For 2 hours the American bombardment harassed the forts until the forts stopped firing back. Before sending the marines to attack though, the Qing commander and American officials attempted diplomacy, but it failed to reach any result by November 20th. Commodore Armstrong ordered his ships to continue firing upon the forts. During the mayhem the USS Levant received 22 cannonball hits to her sail and hull. Under the cover of their naval bombardment, 287 American troops led by COmmander Andrew Foote landed unopposed. 50 marines led by Captain John Simms spearheaded the attack and they quickly captured the nearest fort and proceeded to unleash its 53 guns to attack the second nearest fort. When the Qing saw the fort was shooting at them they launched a counterattack of 3000 soldiers from Canton. The melee lasted until november 24th, until the combined efforts of the Americans on land and their naval squadron managed to push back the Qing army killing and wounding dozens. The Americans then seized 2 more of the forts and spiked 176 of their guns. It is alleged the Qing had around 250-500 casualties while the Americans suffered 22. The USS Levant lost a man and had 6 wounded during the cannon exchange. Afterwards Armstrong tried diplomacy again and signed an agreement of neutrality between the US and the Qing for the duration of the war. America would respect the agreement until another incident in 1859. 


In the meantime with the siege going on at Canton trade fell apart. Howqua and the other Cohong merchants faced ruin. On november 12th, the Cohong merchants pleaded with Parkes. Howqua explained their impossible position. He said they agreed the British should be allowed to live in Canton outside the factories, but they currently lacked enough firepower to enforce this. Parkes said of the Cohong groveling “Their weight as a class both with [the] authorities and people is far less than we suppose. The people, particularly the rural population, were opposed to our admission.” Nonetheless the Canton stalemate continued till november 17th, when Bowring left for Hong Kong. Bowring reported to the foreign minister lord Clarendon “I have exhausted all the means with which I could influence either the hopes or fears of this incarnation of ancient Chinese pride, ignorance and unteachableness.” The Taiping Rebels heard about the situation and offered military assistance to the British, but the British distrusted them. Towards the end of november a armada of rebel ships with 1500 men showed up to Canton hoping to coordinate an attack on the Qing. Instead the Taiping were met by a British fleet commanded by Captain Keith Stewart. But Parkes did use the Taiping offer to intimidate Ye, telling one of his assistants  “partisans of the revolutionary factions had intimated their wish to cooperate in an attack on the city, but that the Admiral had declined all connection with their proceedings.” Parkes added to this that the British decision could change depending on Ye’s actions. 

Ye was making a mistake during all of this, he assumed because of the lack of British manpower that they also lacked resolve. So on November 28th Ye made another proclamation “The English barbarians have attacked the provincial city, and wounded and injured our soldiers and people. Wherefore I herewith distinctly command you to join together to exterminate them, killing them whenever you meet them, whether on shore or in their ships.”. By mid december Ye felt emboldened enough to order the destruction of the foreign factories, but also officially denied any involvement in it. At around midnight of December 14th, some Chinese bearing torches burnt the factories to the ground. The British tried to fight the fires, but were unable to extinguish them. All that remained of the foreign buildings were the British chapel and boathouse in the end. Parkes was in Hong Kong that night, but a member of his staff, Henry Lane died in the fire. 

Ye’s bounties prompted some atrocities to take place on december 29th. The chinese crew of the steamship Thistle, carrying mail from Hong Kong to Canton, mutinied en route and beheaded all 11 european passengers, aided by some other Chinese who had snuck aboard disguised as passengers. The Thistle was set on fire and found drifting into Canton harbor with the headless victims. The heads were brought for reward, at that point its alleged Ye was paying 100$ a head. The Chinese figured out a primitive but effective way of fighting the British. In January of 1857, the Qing launched a flotilla of fire ships containing over 8000 pounds of gunpowder against Seymour’s ships at harbor. The attack failed, but it certainly unnerved Seymor who never expected such retaliation. Seymour sailed out of Canton harbor with 2 ships, the Encounter and Niger and made way for the relative safety of Macao. 

Before making it to Macao, on January the 4th, Seymour took 9 ships to attack and capture the Macao Fort which was located on an islet around 3 miles south of Canton. The Qing threw 70 War junks at the force incorporating an array of strategies such as fire boats, regular naval cannon warfare and using smaller row boats to toss stink pots at the British vessels. The Qing were soon overwhelmed and had to give up on the naval battle, allowing Seymour to claim the fort. On January 15th, 400 residents in Hong Kong got extremely ill after eating bread from the local bakery. The doctors at the scene said it was arsenic poisoning, but the culprit had either not wanted the British to die or was too incompetent to know how to poison properly. Turns out he put so much arsenic in the dough that it forced the victims to throw up the poison and thus led to no fatalities. Bowring’s wife and children were some of the victims and Lady Bowring almost died. This led Bowring to write to the Colonial secretary Labouchere “I beg to apologize if anything should have been forgotten at this last moment. I am shaken by the effects of poison, every member of my family being at this moment suffering from this new attempt upon our lives”. The owner of the bakery went on trial despite the fact his own family was poisoned as well, luckily he was acquitted. Yet the British public demanded justice and they pointing their fingers at Ye Mingchen. Ye Mingchen at the time was hosting Napoleon III’s representative, the Comte de Courcy and said this to the man about the incident “Doubtless there are many Chinese whose hatred against the English has been much increased, but to poison people in this underhand manner is an act worthy of detestation. Whoever he is, the author of this poisoning is an abominable creature, but since he is in [Britishcontrolled] Hong Kong, I find it difficult to proceed against him.” Well the British police in Hong Kong arrested 52 of the Bakery’s employees as Bowring prevented a mob from lynching them. The arrested were jammed into a single room only 15 feet square for 19 days, the jailers simply did not have the space. The prison doctor eventually demanded they be moved to better quarters fearing an outbreak of plague might occur. The public went into a mass hysteria because of the poisoning event and a witch hunt began. It became almost comical, almost 500 arrests were made and some of the charges were simply “the man looked suspicious”. The native population of Hong Kong began to freak out and nearly half of them would leave to immigrate to Australia and California. 

The Arrow incident and Thistle massacre had provided Bowring a justification to increase hostilities. On January the 10th Bowring sent a letter to the Governor General of India, Lord Canning asking for reinforcements, because he thought Seymour’s expeditions in the Gulf of Canton were not providing results. What Bowring really wanted was to seize Canton, in his words “The gate of China is Canton, and unless we can force an entrance there, I believe the difficulties of obtaining any improved position in China will be almost invincible. The valor of H.M. naval forces [is] not able to take the city.” Bowring also stated he had spoken with Seymour and that both men agreed on the necessity for military aid in the form of at least 5000 men with a small amount of artillery. Back home in Britain, parliament anticipated Bowrings requests and on January 31st, before learning of the request Bowring had sent to Canning, ordered Canning to dispatch a regiment and artillery to Canton.

On February 9th, the foreign minister ordered Seymour to seize the entrance to the Grand Canal which would effectively cut off the capital's rice supply. Beijing could be starved into submission since Seymour’s countless capturing of Forts and victories on the sea had not produced any real response from the Emperor. Bowring was given new orders to obtain new concessions, now Britain wanted; a permanent British ambassadorial presence at Beijing, even more ports and rivers open and the right for British commercial and missionary access to China’s interior. However back in Britain there was great concern for the cost of conflict with China. The Times estimated that a war with China may cost up to 10 million pounds in lost trade and tax revenues. Eventually the leader of the Tories brought a motion of no confidence against the Whig government and in particular against Palmerstons management of the conflict in China. On February 24th, the Tories denounced Bowring and Palmerstons as a quote “bald faced and illegal land grab and the usurpation of an independent nations sovereign powers”.  The Torries leader, Earl of Derby said this “I am an advocate for the feeble defenselessness of China against the overpowering might of Great Britain. I am an advocate for weakness against power, for perplexed and bewildered barbarism against the arrogant demands of over-weaning self-styled civilization. The Arrow issue is the most despicable cause of war that has ever occured”. You know its kind of a meme today to mock Britain for being this evil empire for most of history, but instances like this that often go unheard that there were people trying to stop conflict. The more you know as they say. Derby called upon the conscience of the bishops in the House of Lords and his secular colleagues “to declare that they will not sanction the usurpation of the most awful prerogative of the Crown, the declaring of war; that they will not tolerate the destruction of the forts of a friendly country; that they will not tolerate the bombardment and the shelling of a commercial and open city”. Derby was met with a standing ovation for his speech.

Palmerston managed to influence Lord Shaftebury, a philanthropist and notorious critique of the opium trade, to join his side of the argument. Turns out the prime minister had bribed him by giving him control of the appointments of bishops, such appointments brought with them a cathedral, extensive lands and a salary from rent that allowed many Bishops to live like lords. Yet Shaftesburys conscious was troubled by the situation and he wrote in his diary “A sad result. Right or wrong, the government must be supported to bring these matters to a satisfactory close. Hope and believe that God, having employed [the Prime Minister] as an instrument of good, would maintain him. But his ways are inscrutable. Opium and Christianity could not enter China together.” Now Lord Clarendon had quite a battle on his hands with his opposition, Mr. Derby. Clarendon stood up to give a speech after Derby, but the standing ovation and cheers for Derby persisted heavily. The foreign secretary argued the Arrow was indeed a British vessel and decried the Emperor for not living up to the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing. Clarendon then made a case for military action “I fear that we must come to the conclusion that in dealing with a nation like the Chinese, if we intend to preserve any amicable or useful relations with them, we must make them sensible of the law of force, and must appeal to them in the manner which they alone can appreciate.” Some responses began to pour out such as the tory member, Lord Malmesbury who began to denounce Bowringer as a warmonger who was lying to both Seymour and Ye Mingchen. Lord Ellenborough a former governor general of India tossed at Bowring “that he had disregarded the instructions of four successive secretaries of state, supported, as I supposed he is by an influence with the government which I cannot comprehend”. Ellenborough began to condemn Britain's activities in China on the basis of economic loss. After two days of debate, Derby’s motion was put to a vote. It was 146 against 110, in favor of the current government. 

On the same day the Whigs won out in the house of lords, the commons took up the Arrow registration debate and Bowrings requests for reinforcements to invade Canton. Richard Cobden, a MP from Manchester and a adamant pacifist brought the issue to a motion of no confidence. Cobden argued the seizure of the Arrow was justified and a legitimate exercise of Chinese sovereignty while condemning Bowring’s and Seymou’rs actions. He addressed his colleagues stating Bowrings military actions threatened Britain's commerce in Canton. He ended his speech with this “Is not so venerable an empire as that deserving of some sympathy—at least of some justice—at the hands of conservative England?” The issue of the opium trade was brought up by other MP’s such as Gladstone and Samuel Gregson. Gladstone said “Your greatest and most valuable trade in China is in opium. It is a smuggling trade. It is in the worst, the most pernicious, demoralizing and destructive of all the contraband trades that are carried upon the surface of the globe.” Gladstone and some other MP’s called for negotiations and treaties rather than blockades and bombardments. 

The Whig rebuttal to the Torries came in the form of a speech from the Prime Minister. He argued that when the Qing forces seized the Arrow, they had pulled down the Union Jack. This seems to have enraged more people in the house of commons than the seizure of the Chinese crew, don’t be touching the Union Jack. Palmerston then made a speech rambled about how the opium trade had nothing to do with the situation at hand. But then went on to contradict himself by saying this  “The existing restrictions on our commerce are one cause of that trade in opium to which [Cobden and Derby et al.] so dexterously alluded to…We can pay for our purchases only partly in goods, the rest we must pay in opium and silver.” The vote was made, and it came to 263 vs 247 to censure. Queen Victoria then 38 years old and pregnant with her 8th child, confided in her husband Prince Albert “I am grieved at the success of evil party motives, spit and the total lack of patriotism”

And so Palmerston dissolved Parliament and decried “there will be no change, and there can be no change, in the policy of the government with respect to China”. Palmerston continue to argue the Arrow was a British ship and that Ye Mingchen was a quote “An insolent barbarian wielding authority at Canton has violated the British flag, broken the engagements of treaties, offered rewards for the heads of British subjects in that part of China, and planned their destruction by murder, assassination and poisons. He is one of the most savage barbarians that ever disgraced a nation. Ye had been guilty of every crime which can degrade and debase human nature.” Kind of overkill don’t you think Palmerston? Palmerston then pointing fingers at the Torries saying their moral high ground was simply an act to force the Whig ministry to fall and not in fact to save China from Britain's war upon her. He then alleged there would be a massacre of all European residents in Canton if the house did not back the war. 

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Rear Admiral Seymour led an onslaught against the city of Canton and multiple Qing forts along their riverways. The British politicians were racking their heads trying to figure out how to proceed, but in the end it seems war will be back on the menu.