A Royal Navy force defeated a flotilla of Chinese war junks during the Battle of Fatshan Creek, before the Second Opium War.
In the midst of the domestic turmoil that accompanied the Taiping Rebellion, piracy increased dramatically; often, whether true or not, these pirates claimed political allegiance with the Taipings. In January 1856, the British instituted a scheduled north–south convoy system, sending a well-armed man-of-war with the British merchant ships. Chinese-owned ships registered in Hong Kong were also allowed to join the convoy and fly the British flag. By doing so, these Chinese-owned ships tacitly gained the same extraterritorial rights and protections from Manchu intervention as other British ships along the China coast. This decision soon led to conflict with Manchu authorities, who insisted that all Chinese-owned ships remain under the administrative authority of China.
On 8 October 1856, Guangzhou police boarded a Chinese-owned, but Hong Kong-registered, ship called the Arrow. This ship had a British captain but a Chinese crew. Hauling down the British flag, the police arrested twelve crew members. Immediately, Harry Parkes, the British Consul, demanded that Ye Mingchen, the Imperial Commissioner in Guangzhou, apologize for this “insult” to the flag. Commissioner Ye offered to release nine of the arrested sailors but refused to apologize, thereby disputing the British practice of registering Chinese ships and allowing them to fly British flags.
This incident gave Governor of Hong Kong, John Bowring a long-sought for opportunity to demand treaty revisions from China. After consulting with Admiral Michael Seymour, commander of the British fleet, it was decided to send Commodore George Elliot to Guangzhou with the Sybille, the Barracouta, and the Coromandel, and later the steam frigates Encounter and Sampson were added to this number. Under the threat of naval shelling, Commissioner Ye proved willing to return all twelve arrested sailors, but would not apologize for violating the British flag. The resulting British action has been described in detail by Gerald Graham:
Admiral Seymour proceeded to assault the four barrier forts, some five miles below the city. Carrying Royal Marines and the boats’ crews of the Calcutta, Winchester, and Bittern, the Sampson and the Barracouta, accompanied by the boats of the Sybille under Commodore Elliot, set out from Whampoa. Arriving at Blenheim Reach on 23 October, the two steam sloops, Sampson and Barracouta, ascended the Macao Passage in order to block the alternative backwater channel. Blenheim Fort capitulated quickly, as did Macao Fort, a well-sited bastion on an island in mid-river, mounting 86 guns. This later stronghold, Seymour prepared to hold and garrison.
By 25 October 1856, more than 150 Chinese cannon had been taken and spiked, while marines took control of the foreign factories and defended them successfully against a Chinese attack. Casualties during this three-day engagement were extremely light, with the British avoiding even a single death and the Chinese reportedly suffering only five troops injured.
With a strong military advantage on his side, Governor Bowring unexpectedly “upped the ante” by bringing in a new issue for discussion. Even though the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing gave British officials the right to enter Guangzhou’s city walls, this stipulation had never come into effect. Now, Bowring insisted that Commissioner Ye agree to allow British representatives free access both to the authorities and the city of Guangzhou. When Ye refused, the British breached the city wall on 28 October. On the following day, they entered and looted the Commissioner’s yamen. Although the British continued to solidify their position in the following days—sustaining one dead and a dozen injured—the Chinese Commissioner refused to back down.
China could not realistically hope to challenge the British fleet, but Commissioner Ye’s forces inside Guangzhou were estimated at 20,000 while the British had fewer than 1,000 marines and seamen. With this superiority of numbers, Ye felt confident that he could repel any attempt to take Guangzhou by force. The British retained their hold over the foreign factories along the Whampoa—at one point stationing about 300 troops in entrenchments dug in the factory gardens—but, by the end of January 1857, were forced to withdraw everywhere except for Macao Fort on Honam Island. The Chinese interpreted this retreat as a victory, and triumphal arches were raised throughout Guangzhou in Ye’s honor.
The war was far from over. During May and June 1857, the British succeeded in wiping out the majority of the Chinese Navy protecting Guangzhou; seventy to eighty Chinese war junks were captured and burned. This task was not an easy one, since the Chinese sailors had learned from their earlier mistakes and made great progress in maneuvering their fleet and concentrating their fire, and the British casualties numbered eighty-four killed or badly wounded. According to Admiral Seymour, the British victory was precarious, and during an engagement on 1 June 1857 the Chinese fleet “opened a new era in Chinese naval warfare” by showing greater judgment in disposing their fleet, as well as defending their ships with “skill, courage and effect.”
During spring 1857, the Palmerston government appointed James Bruce, the eighth Earl of Elgin, to be H.M.’s High Commissioner and Plenipotentiary to China. His task was to lead a naval and military expedition to the mouth of the Bei He River near Beijing to demand reparations for past injuries, diplomatic representation in Beijing, and treaty revisions that would grant Britain greater access to China’s river trade. Action was delayed by mutiny in India, but the arrival of the Sans Pareil, the newest screw-operated battleship, allowed Admiral Seymour to blockade Guangzhou on 3 August 1857.
The French joined the advance on Guangzhou, and by early December 1857 thirty ships and more than 5,000 troops had been assembled. Elgin issued a final ultimatum on 12 December to Ye, who refused it. Beginning on 15 December 1857, British troops took Honam Point while the British ships Nimrod, Hornet, Bittern, Actaeon, and Acorn moved within shelling range of Guangzhou. Shelling commenced on 28 December, and on the following day the combined British and French forces scaled Guangzhou’s southeastern walls. The British casualties numbered ninety-six and the French thirty-four.
Finally in full control of Guangzhou, the next goal was to find and capture Commissioner Ye. Although the best thing would have been to move into the “hinterland to carry on the campaign,” Qing law stated that “any official who lost his city should lose his head.” Unable to flee, Commissioner Ye was captured on 5 January 1858. With Ye’s subsequent removal on the Inflexible for a life of imprisonment in a British-owned villa outside Calcutta, the remaining Chinese troops in Guangzhou were soon disarmed.
With Guangzhou safely in British and French hands, the next goal became Beijing. This Franco-British “Northern Expedition” was delayed until mid- April 1858, when Elgin sailed aboard the Furious northward to the Bei He. During the next eleven weeks the expedition remained inactive while negotiations with Beijing were attempted; during this delay, the size of the British forces increased gradually as they were joined by stragglers. By 20 May 1858, all was in order, and at 10:00 a.m.—following Beijing’s decision to ignore an order to surrender—the siege of the forts at Dagu began. Opposition was light, and after an hour-and-a-half the fighting was over. British casualties were five killed, seventeen wounded, while the unexpected explosion of a Chinese magazine killed six and wounded sixty-one Frenchmen. With the taking of the Dagu forts, the riverine path to Beijing was now open; foreign ships docked for the first time at Tianjin on 26 May 1858.
Rather than fighting this foreign force, the Manchu Emperor quickly relented and sent Imperial Commissioners to Tianjin. On 26 June 1858, the fifty-six-article Treaty of Tianjin was signed with Great Britain. At almost the same time a separate treaty was signed with France, and several non-belligerents— Russia and the United States—gained similar advantages in their own bilateral treaties. By means of the Treaty of Tianjin, Britain received a more than £1 million indemnity for its losses in Guangzhou, tariff revisions, and the opening of five new treaty ports, including along the Yangzi River as far inland as Hankou. Most importantly, Beijing was now open to a British representative who would be treated as an equal by the Chinese officials. However, Elgin later agreed to modify this clause by stationing the British residence outside Beijing proper. This change gave “face” to Beijing and helped prop up the Qing Dynasty’s embattled “Mandate of Heaven” in its domestic quarrel with the Taipings.