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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Oct 31, 2022

Last time we spoke Rear Admiral Seymour took the charge as he waged war first on the city of Canton to hunt down the seemingly tyrannical Ye Mingchen. Seymour took the city quickly and with ease, but knew he had no way to hold onto it so he opted to start capturing all the forts he could along the riverways. Meanwhile back in Britain, the politicians were raging over the entire conflict and what was to be the best course of action. The Torries and Whigs fought another to use the issue for their own interests and it seems the Torries might be successful at thwarting the need for another war with China, but not if the Whigs had anything to say about it. Now a new figure will come to the forefront to be placed in charge of the China issue and it will consume his life.

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.

#20 This episode is Part 2 of the Second Opium War: Lord Elgin’s reluctant War

Now outside parliament, the British public was in a jingoistic mood after winning the Crimean War. Palmerston began to appeal to the masses on the basis of patriotism. Meanwhile the Prime Minister decided to appoint a plenipotentiary to carry out negotiations with the Qing court. The Duke of Newcastle was Palmerstons first choice, but he rejected the job as he knew it would be a thankless one and would earn him no favors. On March 13th, in the middle of a general election, Palmerston announced a new appointment for the new envoy to China. It was the popular Scotsman, former governor of Jamaica and British North America, James Bruce the Earl of Elgin, a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce.

Lord Elgin was the son of a famous antiquarian who had notoriously preserved or better said vandalized, if you're Greek, parts of Ancient Athens by shipping them back to Britain. Yes the British museum issue. Elgin also sold these pieces of history in question to the British Museum at around 35,000 pounds in 1816 before going bankrupt and leaving England in exile to escape creditors. So yeah daddy was not a good person so to say. Ironically Elgin’s fathers actions would haunt him in this story, because he would perform a heinous act on a similar level. During the 3 day voting period that began on March 28th of 1857, the Whigs managed to return to office with a landslide victory. Turns out Palmerston had won the public over, alongside the Queen and now parliament. 

The day before Palmerston named Elgin the plenipotentiary to China, Elgin wrote to his wife “My Dearest, I have had a note from [Palmerston] followed by an interview. The proposal is to undertake a special mission of a few months’ duration to settle the important and difficult question now embarrassing us in the East and concentrating the attention of all the world. On what grounds can I decline? Not on political grounds for however opposed I might be to the Govt. that would be a reason to prevent them from making the offer, but not me from accepting it. The very mission of a Plenipotentiary is an admission that there are errors of policy to be repaired.” Elgin’s wife responded “Dearest, it was unexpected but if your conscience and feelings tell you to say yes I would not for the world dissuade you. God bless you my own darling. I promise you to do my best not to distress you. Forgive me if I can’t write more today. Your own ever Mary.” Now Lord Elgin had a very impressive career, as I said he had been the governor of Jamaica and the governor-general of British North America, I live in quebec and he is quite the figure here. There is a statue of him in front of the Quebec parliament building. Lord Elgin attempted to establish responsible government to Canada, wrestled issues of immigration to Canada and took a surprising stance during a French English conflict. You see there were rebellions in what was then Upper and Lower Canada over various colonial issues. Lord Elgin ended up compensating French Canadians who had suffered during the rebellions and this greatly pissed off his British colleagues. On top of that Elgin invited the leader of the lower Canada revolt, Papineau to dine with him at the governor-generals residence in Canada. An English mob began burning parliament buildings in montreal, Elgin was assaulted, but instead of calling in the military, Elgin got his family to safety and allowed civil authorities to restore order. Anyways Elgin did a lot in Canada such as setting up economic treaties with the US and such, he is a large figure in my countries history, though I’d argue not many Canadians are even aware of him haha. Canadian history can be, the best way to put it, a bit boring.

Now back to the story at hand, Lord Elgin was a very well regarded figure for his capabilities and royal blood. But he also held a ton of debt from his father, the Greek artifact plunderer. Elgin was notably not xenophobic in a time when many British were. Elgin spoke English and French and was a highly educated man. The day before Elgin set off for China he was given detailed instructions from Lord Clarendon. Clarendon ordered Elgin that under no circumstance was he to try and retake Canton, a tall order since Bowring and Seymour were literally trying to do just that. Clarendon stated he was to acquire the right for Britain to send an ambassador to Beijing to conduct and direct negotiations with the Qing imperial court. He was to demand the opening of new ports of trade and to force the Qing government to adhere to the terms of the treaty of Nanjing. Military force was to be only a last resort if the Emperor refused and Elgin was urged to contain the military action to naval attacks only to save British lives. Elgin had his own demand, he wanted the British military forces in China to be under his sole command. Britain ended up giving Elgin joint command alongside Lt Generals Ashburnham and Seymour who could decide when and where to attack.

Elgin made record time journeying to China by riding on the brand new railroad that cut across the Isthmus of Suez. From Suez he took a ship, rounding the coast of India in late May. Elgin came across troops who had been summoned from Bombay and Calcutta. Interesting side note, in May, Sepoy’s, those being Indian troops of the East India Company Army, stationed in Meerut performed a mutiny. They had refused to follow orders from the British officers and on May 10th, an entire garrison killed their officers, their families and any Europeans in the vicinity. Word spread of the mutiny resulting in similar outbreaks amongst other sepoy units. Within just a few days there was a widespread rebellion as some Indian prince joined, rallying against the British Raj. Northern India was ablaze with bloodshed and it looked like Britain was at threat of losing its greatest colony. Elgin arrived in Singapore on June 3rd where he was met with two letters from Lord Canning the governor general of india. The letters told Elgin the dire news and begged him to divert troops assigned to the China mission to come help in India. Canning was an old classmate of Elgin and said “If you send me troops they shall not be kept one hour more than is absolutely needed.” Elgin had no time to consult with Plamerston or Clarendon, as it would take 2 months to get word back to London. Without hesitation Elgin diverted 1700 men of the 90th regiment from Mauritius to help quell the rebellion. I obviously cant go into the Indian Rebellion of 1857, but just want to say if you get a chance do learnt about it, an absolutely horrible event. Around 150,000 Indians were killed in the rebellion with 100,000 of them being civilians. The British suffered around 6000 troops and 40,000 civilians killed. The British forces performed massacres and numerous atrocities in places like Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow and Allahabad. On top of the war deaths, it is estimated up to a possible 800,000 Indians would die from famine and disease as well. A truly horrible event. 

Back to Elgin, he faced a period in Singapore where he had to await some troops from India to come over to China and during this period he began to study the China situation. Elgin visited an opium den in Singapore to witness the evil effects of the drug firsthand. He wrote this to his wife about the experience  “They are wretched, dark places with little lamps. The opium looks like treacle, and the smokers are haggard and stupefied, except at the moment of inhaling, when an unnatural brightness sparkles from their eyes,” As a result of dispatching men to India to help Canning, Elgin now had to go to China aboard a single ship, the Shannon without any troops. He arrived in Hong Kong on July 2nd of 1857 and was welcomed warmly by the Chinese. Seymour was not all too pleased to find Elgin arriving without any troops. Seymour soon pressed Elgin to form an attack on Canton, handing to him a petition signed by 85 British opium merchants who all believed if Canton fell to the British, the Emperor would have to capitulate to all of their demands. Elgin did not give in to the pressure, though he also did not have the troops to carry out the task regardless. 

Elgin then began to brush shoulders with Harry Parkes and they did not get off on the right foot. Parks said of Elgin  “He may be a man that suits the government well, very cautious, having ever before him [placating] Parliament, the world, the public, etc.” Parkes soon began a campaign against Elgin by sending a ton of letters back home criticizing Elgin for what he called “too generous a treatment of the Chinese”. As warhawkish as Seymour and Parkes could be, it was Bowring who really brought the heat. Bowring felt demoted by Elgin’s new position and began to work behind the scenes to bring Elgin down. Bowring also began to lecture Elgin on the imperative for  full scale military action against Canton. “There is quite an explosion of public opinion as to the fatal mistake which would be committed by any movement upon Peking until the Cantonese question is settled. Many think such a movement might imperil the whole trade of China. I am quite of the opinion that any action which refers the Canton question to the Emperor would be a most injurious and embarrassing step.” Elgin for the most part ignored Bowring and opted instead for negotiations as were his instructions. Elgin also shared a concern it seems the other men did not, Elgin worried about tearing China apart. Elgin did not want to topple the Manchu rulers of China and throw the nation into some Balkanization hellscape which would only make things harder for Britain to deal with. The Taiping and their talk of banning private property scared Elgin, who knew Britain's trade would be hurt by such rule.

In the end Elgin did not wait for his reinforcements from India, he instead went to India himself. Elgin gathered a small force of 400 marines and sailors aboard the 55 gun ship Shannon and sailed for Calcutta. Elgin made it to Calcutta on June 14th where he found the city abandoned by its European residents. Turned out there was a rumor the Sepoy’s were going to march into the city to slaughter the Europeans so they all fled, the rumor proved to be false however. Elgin was mortified by the situation in India. He was lambasted with horror stories of sexual atrocities committed against British subjects and mass hangings in reprisal. One Major Renard, ordered the execution of 12 Indians for allegedly turning their faces the wrong way as Renards troops marched past them. That same Major also allegedly burnt down every Indian village he passed and hung 42 villagers along the way. Elgin sent a letter back to his wife  “I have seldom from man or woman since I came to the East heard a sentence that was reconcilable with the hypothesis that Christianity had come into the world. Detestation, contempt, ferocity, vengeance, whether Chinamen or Indians be the object.” Elgin hopped aboard the steamship Ava on september 20th to return to China.

Back in China, Bowring had taken advantage of Elgin’s trip by making overtures to Ye Mingchen in violation of Britain's instructions that the Chinese viceroy should only deal with Elgin. When Elgin found out and confronted Bowring, Bowring simply denied it. A month after Elgin had arrived to China, his French counterpart arrived, Baron Gros. The French aristocrat quickly began to share Elgin’s hatred for Bowring upon meeting the man. Gros and Elgin both agreed to disagree with Bowring’s ideas from the offset. Gros and Elgin agreed the response to the arsenic bakery debacle and the murder of Father Chapedelaine, would be a well coordinated, measured and hopefully light on military deaths. Gros advocated for an attack upon Beijing, while Elgin urged for negotiation. However, foreign minister Clarendon chose another option. Clarendon sent Elgin a letter on October 14th supporting Bowrings ideas. Winter was fast approaching, and the Bei He River, the gateway to Beijing would be frozen before an allied army could reach the city gates. Thus Clarendon advocated for an attack on Canton. Elgin was forced to allow Bowring to take the lead.

In november, William Reed, the new American Minister showed up aboard the 55 gun steamship Minnesota. Reed was instructed by his government that America would remain neutral in the inevitable conflict. Russia’s emissary, Count Euphemius Putiatin also arrived in november aboard the Amerika. Putiatin brought with him a proposal for China, if the emperor would give Manchuria to the Russians, the Tsar would help the Qing stamp out the Taiping Rebels once and for all. So each of the 4 nations brought their representatives looking to strike a deal with the Qing dynasty. In December of 1857, 3 ships carrying 2000 British soldiers from Calcutta sailed into Canton’s harbor followed by a French fleet led by Admiral Rigault de Genouilly. Elgin and Gros sent Ye Mingchen separate ultimatums. France demanded the murderers of Father Chapedelaine to be brought to justice, reparations and permission to operate unrestricted in Canton. Britain demanded compliance with the terms of the treaty of Nanjing; a permanent British ambassador in Beijing; and unspecified reparations for the loss of life and property. Elgin felt his demands were reasonable, but also knew full well they were unacceptable for the Emperor.

Ye Mingchen believed the demands to be mere posturing rather than actual threats. He did not have the authority to satisfy the British and French ultimata. So he did nothing…well nothing is a strong word he actually began spending his time by beheading 400 Taiping and placed their heads on spikes atop Cantons walls. It seems perhaps Ye believed such actions would scare off the foreigners, because he had no real army or navy to back him up. Well his brutality against the Taiping sure backfired. The British enlisted 700 really enraged Hakka to man the artillery at the Dutch Folly which was across the Pearl River near the foreign factories. Hakka if you remember made up some of the Taiping ranks as they were a persecuted ethnic minority in Guangxi province. 8 British and 4 French steamships arrived to the scene to add extra military might. 

Ye Mingchen replied to the British and French in separate letters. To the British Ye stated, that in 1850 Sir George Bonham had agreed to give up access to Canton to avoid a war with the Qing dynasty. Ye heard that Bonham was given the Order of Bath and perhaps if Elgin did likewise he could also receive such a title. Ye was not aware that the title of Earl was high than that of Sir, but give the guy some credit for doing some homework on the foreign advisory. As for the treaty of Nanjing, Ye simply stated the Emperor declared the terms would be held inviolate for 10 millennium, it would be suicide to go against the Emperor. Ye sent a similar letter to the French and while he made these rather coy and cheeky remarks he did not seem to grasp the very real war threat going on. It may have been because he was too distracted by the Taiping rebellion, which to be brutally honest was a much more pressing concern, regardless Ye lacked any real strategy with how to deal with the foreign threat. When the British and French landed on Henan island, opposite of Canton of December 15th, Ye apparently made no move. The British and French disembarked without any resistance and found the strategic island undefended and without fortification. 200 Chinese war junks and sampans near Henan island fled as soon as the British and French had arrived. 

On December 21st, Elgin, Gros and Putiatin had a talk aboard the French flagship Audacieuse. They all agreed to give Ye Mingchen one more chance before the shelling of Canton began. They sent Ye a 2 day deadline to meet their demands. As they waited Elgin wrote in his diary “Canton the great city doomed I fear to destruction by the folly of its own rulers and the vanity and levity of ours.” While they waited for 2 days, Elgin and Gros discussed military organization. Admiral Seymour and Rigault would command sea forces, while land troops would be commanded by General Ashburnham. On paper the invaders seemed to be completely out gunned. Canton’s 6 mile wall circumference was 25 feet high and 20 feet wide. The allied force amounted to 800 men of the Indian Royal Sappers and Miners and the British 59th regiment of Foot, 2100 Royal marines, 1829 men of a British naval brigade and 950 men of the French Navy. The Qing forces were 30,000 strong at Canton, they were outnumbered 5 to 1. The Europeans did have one major tactical advantage however. The European ship born artillery had superior range and firepower compared to Cantons gun and their position on Henan island was within shelling distance of Canton. 

On December 22nd, Ye’s deadline ran out, but Elgin and Gros hesitated. On December 24th, perhaps because it was so close to Christmas they decided to give the Viceroy another 3 days to accept their terms, but Ye did not respond. On the evening of the 27th, the Europeans sent a reconnaissance team ashore a mile from the city's walls. On the morning of the 28th, the Anglo-Franco armada began shelling the city with artillery support from Henan. The bombardment went on for an entire day and on top of the shells, the europeans also fired incendiary rockets. It is alleged the Qing defenders only tossed back 2 shells. It is estimated the Chinese suffered almost 200 casualties to the shelling, while the incendiary rockets lit parts of Canton ablaze.While the day long shelling was raging on, 500 British and French forces landed and made their way through some rice paddies and came across a cemetery. At the cemetery Qing soldiers were taking up positions behind tombstones. Many of the Qing soldiers were armed with an 18th century weapon known as a Jingall. Now if you have a chance to google these, please do because they are comical to say the least. Its a muzzle loaded giant musket, the barrel is around 60 inches. Usually these were mount on walls, but they could be placed on tipods or on the shoulder of a comrade while you shoot it. Picture a comically big musket and thats basically what it looks like. In the west we call them “wall guns”, anyways they are extremely impractical. So for the Qing it took at minimum 2 men to fire one Jingall and usually when they fired them, the kick back knocked the men to the ground which provided quite the slapstick humor for the Europeans witnessing it. Many of the Qing soldiers also fired bow and arrow alongside some firelock muskets. On the other side, the British and French were using 19th century rifles, such as the British Enfield Rifle and French Minie rifle. Basically it was like Mike Tyson fighting an infant. The Europeans began to take up positions behind tombstones similar to the Qing. During the night the european formed an HQ in a temple on the cemetery grounds and apparently did nothing while some of their soldiers began to ransack the cemetery’s statuaries thinking they would find gems or gold inside them.

Dawn of the next day, the Europeans woke up to a shocking sight. On the hills behind Canton emerged 1500 Qing soldiers. The Qing soldiers had fled the battle to go atop the hill and were simply staring at the Europeans like they were watching a sports game. It seems Ye’s brutality had caused a lot of dissatisfaction amongst the local populace and this resulted in quite the lackluster will to fight. At 9am Admiral Rigault personally led French troops towards the walls of canton carrying scaling ladders. The defenders on top of the walls provided little resistance, while some Chinese artillery on some nearby hills tried to shell the invaders. By 10am British and French flags were flying from the 5 story Pagoda near the walls. Alongside the wall climbing, the British stormed the East Gate of the city with ease. Over 4700 British, Indian alongside 950 French troops scaled the walls in total. Seymour and Rigault had stopped the shelling to allow the troops to get atop the walls and began to fire again, but Elgin quickly forced them to stop deeming it overkill. The death toll was incredibly lopsided, the French reported 3 men dead and 30 wounded, the British reported 13 men dead with around 83 wounded. The Qing suffered upto a possible 650 casualties.

The allies set to work hunting Ye Mingchen who they believed was still hiding in the city. Ye’s second in command Pih-kwei came out suddenly making a proclamation that he would no longer associate himself with Ye Mingchen nor his disastrous policies. On New Years day, Elgin made a tour of Canton and noticed a lack of resistance, confirming to himself he made the right decision to halt the shelling. Then Elgin witnessed large scale looting. Elgin’s private secretary Laurence Oliphant noted “While honest Jack was flourishing down the street with a broad grin of triumph on his face, a bowl of goldfish under one arm and a cage of canary-birds under the other, honest Jean, with a demure countenance and no external display, was conveying his well-lined pockets to the waterside.” It seemed the French preferred to grab cash while the British sought out souvenirs. Elgin feared losing control of the men and ordered them to all stop looting, but he had no authority for the French forces. Upon seeing that the French were not halting their looting, the British soldiers soon rejoined the plundering spree. Elgin lamented the situation in his diary “My difficulty has been to prevent the wretched Cantonese from being plundered and bullied. There is a [Hindi] word called ‘loot’ which gives unfortunately a venial character to what would, in common English, be styled robbery. Add to this that there is no flogging in the French Army, so that it is impossible to punish men committing this class of offenses.” The son of Howqua and other Cohong merchants began to petition Elgin to do something to restore order and stop the plunder and destruction of Canton. Within mere days of the city's occupation, 90% of its inhabitants fled the city. One thing Elgin did not seem to mind though was “official expropriations” and sent one Colonel Lemon with a few Royal marines to Canton’s treasury where they seized 52 boxes of silver, 68 boxes of gold ingots and over a millions dollars worth in silver taels. This “legal plunder” wink wink, was put aboard the HMS Calcutta and sent post haste to India. After all, the war had to be paid for. 

On January 5th, over 8000 British and French marched through the gates of Canton unopposed. Harry Parkes grabbed a squad of 100 Royal Marines and rushed over to Ye Mingchens residence armed with a miniature of the man to identify him. This was quite the smart move, because many of Ye Mingchen’s subordinates had attempted to pass themselves off as the viceroy to protect him. Well the tactic provided results as they caught Ye as he was trying to climb over the rear wall of his residence. A marine seized Ye by his queue and dragged the man to a sedan chair enclosed with bars to humiliate him. The tiny prison was put aboard the steamship Inflexible to an audience of Europeans and many Hakka, including Taiping rebels who taunted the disgraced viceroy by making the slashing throat gesture. When the marines searching Ye’s residence they came across his letters back to the Qing court, giving them a ton of insight into how the Qing worked. That same day, Elgin and Gross named Ye’s second in command, Pih-Kwei the new governor of Canton, but he would be advised by the triumvirate of Parkes, Captain Martineau and Colonel Holloway. The 3 real powers behind Pih-Kwei were granted control of judiciary, and to vet edicts before they were promulgated. Each man spoke Chinese and would report to Clarendon. Elgin wrote to Clarendon to explain the situation “If Pih-kwei was removed or harshly dealt with we should be called upon to govern a city containing many hundred thousand inhabitants with hardly any means of communicating with the people.” The Europeans also created a police force for Canton to stop all the looting and restore confidence in the once great commercial city. Howqua, his son and the other Cohong merchants found the new situation with the Europeans a far better deal than what would occur if the Taiping took Canton.

Pih-Kwei received secret instructions from Beijing on January 27th, ordering him to organize an army of civilians and kick the invaders out. He also received orders from Seymour to hand over 17 Chinese war junks to help fight off a Taiping fleet obstructing the Pearl River. On the 28th, 2 french warships, the Fusee and Mitraille both shelled Ye’s residence to further Ye’s punishment. Ye’s subordinates made attempts to rescue him from his prison, so Elgin sent Ye into exile to Calcutta on February 20th. In Calcutta Ye lived under house arrest for a year until he starved himself to death.

Back over in Canton, the 70th Sepoy regiment arrived in March to reinforce Canton’s garrison. The Sepoys were delighted when they found out 200 Chinese servants were assigned to them as they had been dealing with a lot of racism. Notably the British called them the N word and the French killed 3 Sepoys claiming they were looting. No Europeans were ever shot for looting in Canton. Elgin, Seymour and Gross then took a naval squadron up north towards the mouth of the Bei He River by April 24th. The British, French and Russian plenipotentiaries sent a joint communique to the governor of Zhili province, Tan. Elgin, ever the pacifist, tried to negotiate a way out of further bloodshed writing to Tan to see if they could meet a minister duly authorized by Emperor Xianfeng. Tan performed the standard Chinese response, by stalling and claiming he didn't have the power to negotiate with them. Apparently in his letter response, he used larger characters for the Emperor than that of Queen Victoria which infuriated the British as it was yet again in violation of the terms to the treaty of Nanjing, that both nations be considered equal. Ironically if you think about it, the British and Qing were both so uptight about such status symbols and such. Tan sent another letter that indicated the Chinese position was shifting somewhat, iit offer some negotiation, opened some ports, granted religious freedom to Christians and agreed to pay reparations for the foreign factories being destroyed in 1856. Tan also said he passed on the Europeans request for an embassy in Beijing to the Emperor. What he did not tell them, was that the Emperor rejected that request outright. Putiatin in an attempt to avoid further bloodshed pleaded with the parties to accept this offer, but allegedly the French Foriegn office replied to him with a smirk “they are only Chinese lives”.

On a bit of a side note, a rather remarkable thing occurred on the Russian side of this story at this time. The Archimandrite, named Palladius, something of a spiritual leader to a tiny population of Russians living in Beijing was granted permission by Emperor Xianfeng to visit the European fleet at the end of may. He was forced to travel in a sealed litter. Prior to leaving, Putiatin got word to the man ordering him to gather as much intelligence as he could traveling towards them. Palladius was able to peer through a small crack in the shutter and did his best to get details on the position of the Qing fleet. When Palladius arrived he brought with him great news, apparently Beijing was starving and the rambunctious life of the Emperor was catching up to him. Please note the Emperor was only 30 years old, guy must have really partied it up. Another thing the Emperor was doing was strongly contemplating leaving the country because he was terrified. Meanwhile Elgin’s anxiety was being lifted day by day as more warships arrived. By late May, the combined Anglo-French fleet was now 26 gunboats strong, preparing to take on the famous Taku Forts that guarded the mouth of the Bei He River. D-day was to be may 20th and the invaders were just 100 miles away from Beijing.

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 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 reluctant Elgin had done it, they seized Canton and finally brought Ye Mingchen to British justice. The British French coalition was working its way slowly but surely to straggle Beijing and force its Emperor to abide by their demands.