The Sieges of Albazin, 1685–1689

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The Qing siege of Albazin, 1686–1687.

This image depicts the siege of the Russian artillery fortress Albazin by Qing forces in 1686–1687. The Russian fortress is in the center, with four bastions protruding from the walls—the three to landward are of the angled type characteristic of the artillery fortress. On the island below the Russian fortress stands a temporary Chinese fort, with the square barbicans that are typical of Chinese fortifications. From Nicolaas Witsen, Noord en Oost Tartarye, p. 662.

The Russian settlement of Albazin was located on a bank of the Amur River, within lands that the Manchu Qing considered under their sovereignty. At first the walls were constructed of wood, which is why in 1672, when Moscow formally incorporated Albazin into its empire, the settlement was categorized as a fort and not a city. It grew quickly. Whereas other parts of the Russian Far East were too frozen to produce crops, Albazin’s lands were fertile. Buildings multiplied below the walls and farms spread through the valley. A monastery was founded, and tribute in furs was exacted from nearby peoples.

These tributes, however, were meant to go to the Qing, or at least that’s how the young Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661–1722) interpreted the situation. He was determined to counter the Russians’ growing power. In 1682, having won the great War of the Three Feudatories (1673–1681), he began preparing carefully, sending a reconnaissance mission to map out routes, acquire informants, assess Russian strength, and study the fortifications.

The reports noted that the Russians were tough and that Albazin’s walls, although wooden, were stout. “Without red-barbarian cannon,” they concluded, “it is not possible [to capture the fort].” Albazin stood a thousand miles from Beijing as the crow flies, but of course men and cannons can’t fly. To get there required a tortuous journey through forbidding lands. Still, the reconnaissance report was optimistic: one could transport huge cannons by moving across land in the winter, when the routes were solid, and over water in spring and summer, when the ice had melted.

The emperor planned assiduously, composing detailed instructions about the sizes of transport boats, the construction of granaries, the staffing of post stations. He studied reports and proposals, sending them back with annotations and demanding rewrites. The preparations took years, but eventually all was ready, testimony to the genius for logistics that was making the Qing such a great power.

It was June 1685 when three thousand Qing troops arrived before Albazin. The emperor had ordered them to try to avoid bloodshed: “We rule … by the principle of benevolence and never by bloodthirstiness.… Because our army is excellent and our equipment strong, in the long run the Russians cannot resist us, and they must offer up our territories and return our cities.” A Manchu general named Langtan (d. 1695) was the main commander, and his orders called for restraint: “Whether the Russians surrender right away or fight first and surrender later, you must under no circumstances slaughter or massacre them. With benevolence instruct them to withdraw and return home.”

Langtan did as he was told. Arriving at Albazin, he and the other commanders first sent envoys to solicit a surrender. Russian sources suggest that the garrison had only three cannons and three hundred muskets, and that powder supplies were low. Moreover, Albazin was not at this stage a Renaissance fortress. Its wooden walls might be useful against arrows and small guns, but they were not constructed to resist advanced artillery. Nonetheless, the Russians resolved to fight. Or, as the official Qing account put it, “the Russian demons, relying on the stoutness of their lair, refused to surrender.”

The Qing advanced troops to the south of the fort, setting up barricades and earthworks and placing bow and crossbow positions on top, “making as though preparing to attack,” but this was a feint. They were also secretly moving red-barbarian cannons to the north of the fort, while even more powerful “miraculous-power general cannons” were positioned to the sides, “to carry out a pincer attack.” Cannon boats were positioned on the river, to the southeast. How many cannons did the Qing have in total? Chinese sources aren’t clear, but European sources suggest an alarming amount, a “great might of guns,” with a generally reliable source saying that there were a hundred or a hundred fifty pieces of light field artillery and forty to fifty large siege guns. The Qing also seem to have had a hundred-man musketeer corps.

The firepower was overwhelming. “In the first days,” European sources say, “more than a hundred men [on the Russian side] were lost, struck by enemy shots, and the wooden walls and towers of the fort were badly damaged.” Qing sources suggest that the guns themselves didn’t work fast enough, and so they tried another method: “The attack went until the next day and it became clear that the fortress had still not quickly fallen, so it was ordered that below the walls on the three [landward] sides firewood and kindling be piled up and the walls burnt, at which the [Russian] chieftain was compelled to dispatch envoys to offer his surrender.” The Russian commander later explained that he was compelled by more than burning walls: a petition from the superior of the monastery and the town’s inhabitants begged him to surrender, so he reluctantly complied.

Is it true that, as official Qing sources suggest, the Russian officials, grateful for Qing benevolence, “all had tears running down their cheeks as they kowtowed in the direction of the imperial residence [in Beijing]?” European sources mention no tears or kowtowing, but they do agree that the Qing showed mercy. They also say the Qing showed a propensity for long-winded monologues about the emperor’s benevolence and the good life that could be had in his service. Many Russians decided to defect, and their descendants still live in China. The rest were allowed to leave, although some complained that their clothes were stolen and they were given barely enough food to survive the trek to Russian headquarters at Nerchinsk.

The Qing soldiers burned Albazin and the nearby villages and monastery, but for some reason they didn’t burn the crops as the emperor had instructed. After the soldiers had withdrawn, the Russians returned to reap the harvest.

This time, the Russian commander was explicitly ordered to build more powerful walls.51 In charge of construction was a Prussian military expert named Afanasii Ivanovich Beiton, who had been captured by the Russians in 1667 and sent as a prisoner to Siberia, where he joined the side of his captors. Some historians suggest that Beiton was a “trained and experienced military engineer,” but really we know little about his life before his Russian service. As second in command at Albazin, he was responsible for fortifications. Building the walls wasn’t easy. The workers had to forge new tools “because the Chinese had in their thievery taken all of such utensils with them.” But according to European sources, the walls eventually reached a height of five and a half meters and a thickness of seven and a half meters (three fathoms high and four fathoms thick). Qing sources suggest that they were perhaps a bit lower and thinner but acknowledged that they were uncommonly strong.

They were also unusual. One of Beiton’s subordinates “had learned a way to make walls with clay-earth and tree-roots that were woven and cinched together, worked in such a way that it became as hard as stone, and unbreakable.” A Qing reconnaissance mission similarly reported that the thick, sturdy walls “were made from interspersing trees, with a core of earth as the filling … and the outside filled in with clay.” Another European authority writes that the grass, mortar, and tree roots were “set so well together that it was stronger than a normal wall.”

With its new walls, Albazin was given a new status. No longer was it a mere fortress, or ostrog. Now it was a walled city, receiving from Moscow a coat of arms: a stern eagle with a crown, who held a bow in one talon and arrows in the other.

Was Albazin a renaissance fortress? Scholars have suggested that the Russians “never adopted the trace italienne to any large degree, but rather used the ‘reinforced castle’ style of fortification … considered … in the west to be less modern than the Italian style.” They say that Russians built few artillery fortresses and that most of them date from well into the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725). Yet evidence suggests strongly that Albazin was an artillery fortress. Nicolaas Witsen, a Dutch cartographer (and eventual mayor of Amsterdam), published a geographical treatise about Siberia, based on conversations and correspondence with Russians, Mongols, and Siberians, and in it he includes a detailed plate to illustrate the second Siege of Albazin. Probably based on a sketch by a participant, the plate shows clearly that Albazin had angled bastions. In contrast, it shows the Qing counterfortifications as having the square barbicans characteristic of Chinese walls. Another piece of visual evidence—an image drawn by Beiton himself, the man who oversaw the building of the walls—also depicts Albazin as an artillery fortress. So it seems safe to conclude that Albazin was an artillery fortress, or that it at least employed principles of geometric defense, as did many Russian fortresses built at this time.

The defenses of Albazin certainly were strong enough this time to hold back a long Qing siege. In July 1686, Commander Langtan came back with three thousand troops and dozens of boats filled with supplies and guns, including thirty or forty “newly cast” cannons. Six of his vessels carried nothing but gunpowder and ammunition. In contrast the Russians had just eight hundred men, and only eleven large cannons, although they did have bombs and grenades.

Langtan informed the Russians that the imperial patience was not inexhaustible. If they surrendered immediately, they would be treated well, but if they decided to fight, they would be punished. Once again, the Russians were defiant. They resolved “to hold the fortress as long as there was food, and that then they would melt down all the cannons, destroy any remaining weapons, and then, armed with just hand and side weapons, see if they could [fight their way out] and get through to safety.”

The battle began on 18 July 1686. Jeremy Black, who has argued that artillery fortresses were not as effective vis-à-vis non-Europeans as some might suggest, has asserted that the Qing won by blockade: “in capturing Albazin, the Manchu allowed hunger, backed up by superior numbers, to do their work.” But in fact, European and Chinese sources show clearly that the Qing actually tried many different times to penetrate the walls but failed. Moreover, the Russians, with few guns and a small and sickly garrison, inflicted serious losses.

Sources from both sides agree that over the first weeks of the battle, the Qing attacked vehemently a number of times, trying various tacks, but were driven back repeatedly. For example, Qing sources state that on 23 July 1686, Langtan ordered a two-pronged nocturnal assault. From the north he supervised bombardment with red-hair cannons, but the real attempt was made on the south, where his subordinates led troops to try to storm the walls. As Russian sources report, “the Celestials [Bogadaiskii—i.e., the Chinese Emperor’s People] fired on the town repeatedly with cannon and then these Celestials suddenly advanced on Albazin. A large-scale barrage of cannons from the town occurred and in the smoke neither the people nor the town could be seen, and the enemy, unable to do anything, retreated and stood in small groups below the town behind their gabions.” The famous historian and ethnologist G. F. Müller (1705–1783) wrote, basing his account on Russian sources, that the Chinese “attempted a storm but were driven back with great losses [mit grossem Verluste].” Afterward, the Russians conducted a series of sally attacks, during which they sometimes took prisoners. “During all of this,” writes Müller, “the losses on the Russian side were very slight. Some Russian participants gave numbers: one sortie, for example, killed a hundred fifty enemy troops, including two commanders. In contrast, the Russians claimed, their own side lost no more than twenty-one men.

This pattern—an initial attempt to bombard and storm the walls, followed by deadly sorties by the defenders—is precisely what happened in the Siege of Zeelandia. In both cases, the forces of China under-estimated the offensive ability of the artillery fortress. Even a minor prefectural capital of China looked far more imposing. But Chinese walls, with their square barbicans, couldn’t lay out the same deadly crossfire.

Unable to take Albazin by storm, the Qing tried other tactics but each time were stymied. For example, after the failed storm they bombarded the town all night, but according to Qing sources “the walls stood strong and could not be reduced.” A few days later (27 July 1686) Langtan launched another nocturnal assault, in an attempt to capture defenses to the south of Albazin. This attack, too, failed.

After this, he tried building siegeworks on the shore of the river close to the walls. The Russians shot fiercely to prevent this, and the Qing fired back: “Our troops,” Qing sources say, “used cannons and arrows and, shooting upwards, attacked all night.” The Qing managed to finish their works and left before dawn. Expecting that the Russians would emerge and try to dismantle the siegeworks, Langtan hid troops within them. The following day the Russians indeed emerged, under cover of a thick fog, and according to Qing sources the ambush worked. The Russians withdrew, although two days later, another foggy day, they attacked again.

Such attacks—and there were many—are described in Chinese sources as Qing victories because in each case Russian troops were driven back into the fortress. But Russian sorties were not intended to hold positions outside the walls. The aim was to destroy Qing siegeworks, and European sources suggest that they were successful: “Since the cannons [being fired] from the town damaged the enemy in no small degree, the enemy sought at first to build a wall out of spruce trees and then [a network of] extended structures made out of nassem wood, to protect themselves behind them, but the first was shot into flames and the second was blown up by mining.” As some Russian fugitives later reported, “the town had been constantly shot by cannons, but the enemy could not gain an advantage, because the besieged defended themselves so bravely.”

These are telling details. They suggest that the Qing had trouble determining where to place their batteries and siegeworks. An artillery fortress, of course, is designed to strike with flanking fire, to hit the enemy from various angles, and also to cover forces that sally forth. For those accustomed to traditional fortifications, this capacity for crossfire comes as a surprise. Each time the Qing constructed batteries or siegeworks the Russians worked to destroy them with cannon fire or sorties. The Qing were forced to move their positions, and the new positions also proved vulnerable. The parallels with the Dutch case are clear. Zheng Chenggong and his officers also kept trying new placements for their batteries and bulwarks and they too were consistently outmaneuvered by the Europeans.

Eventually, the Qing established walls that stayed up. In early August, Langtan “advanced troops directly against the enemy’s walls, digging a long moat and setting up ramparts to surround them [the Russians].” These new structures weren’t designed to capture the fort, however. They were intended to close off the Russians’ access to the river. The Russians tried to prevent this. Qing sources record that “the enemy was anxious and feared losing their water route, so they fought fiercely for four days and four nights.” Langtan had switched strategies. Instead of trying to take the city by storm, he was surrounding it to starve the Russians out.

His network of blockading walls and moats grew and grew. Russian reports note that “the Chinese fortified themselves and put up bulwarks, setting up gabions that were eleven meters [six fathoms] high, and on each bulwark were three cannons, in addition to another fifteen guns, which stood on the batteries. Around the city they had also dug trenches, as well as various places to live, behind, under, and within their works or fortifications.” The Qing counterdefenses were more extensive and massive than the walls of Albazin themselves. By the end of August the siege had transformed into a full-scale blockade.

Here again the parallels with Zeelandia are clear. After Zheng Chenggong failed to take Zeelandia by force, he set up a blockade. It didn’t work, because the Dutch fortress remained accessible by sea and because in subtropical Taiwan the besieged could harvest melons and vegetables through the fall and shoot seabirds and gather mussels in the winter.

There were no such opportunities in subarctic Albazin. By early October, the river had ice in it, and soon it was frozen across. But there was in any case nowhere to go. The Qing had built a fortress on the opposite bank. The other three sides of Albazin were also tightly invested, walls and moats stretching all the way around. Moscow had sent elite musketeers to relieve the fort, but the Qing controlled all approaches. No sleigh or dogsled could slip past.

The Russians began dying. When the siege had begun in July 1686, Albazin’s walls held more than eight hundred men and an unknown number of women and children. By the beginning of November, no more than a hundred fifty men were alive, a mortality rate of more than 80 percent. They had enough grain. What they lacked was fresh food. Many were killed by scurvy, caused by a deficit of vitamin C, and which Müller described as “an evil that in such situations is more feared than the enemy himself.” The Dutch in their fort had also suffered from scurvy, although for them the more significant nutritional disease was beriberi, associated with eating only rice and caused by a lack of vitamin B1. But the Dutch had much more access to fresh food, thanks to the climate and access to the sea.

The Dutch also had another advantage. Fort Zeelandia contained brick houses with windows and tile roofs—a slice of Amsterdam. In Albazin, only ten or so buildings had been completed when the Qing arrived, so its residents had dug themselves holes in the ground. It was believed that these poor dwellings caused illness: “The people of Albazin, because they had to live underground in the dankness … became very sick or died.” The most deadly killers were probably diseases of poor sanitation such as typhus and cholera. The Dutch had outhouses on piers that stuck out over the ocean, although sometimes Chinese took potshots at poopers. What did the Russians do with their excrement? It was difficult to bury in the frozen ground, and people at the end of their lives couldn’t be expected to leave their dugouts and defecate outside. Roommates had to deal with full night pans and soiled blankets. Dutch sources discuss at length the stench of urine and feces and vomit that pervaded the air around the church that served as a hospital. The Russian fortress must have been worse, although frozen feces is better than warm feces. In any case, it’s no wonder that in Albazin “many brave people were continually lost, because in the fall and winter bad illnesses occurred in those dank, unhealthy houses.” By the end of November, “there were no more than a hundred and fifteen healthy men, and fifty-five children and women.”

The Qing, too, suffered. A Qing defector revealed to the Russians that “toward the end of the siege many men in the Chinese camp were dying of hunger, and that they even ate each other.” European sources say that Albazin’s commander even sent taunting gifts of meat, which were refused, “but which they really wanted to accept.” It seems that by the end of November “the toll of dead besiegers exceeded fifteen hundred,” or around 50 percent.

Somehow, the Russians, their garrison depleted, many too sick to work, remained on alert. “Thirty held the watch,” writes Witsen, “and fifteen worked on the works.” He attributed the miraculous defense to the Prussian officer Beiton: “With just twelve healthy men left, Beiton managed miracles. He was able with these few people to keep the cannons firing, making it seem as though there were still many people within the fortress.”

Indeed, the siege was ultimately decided not by storm or starvation but by decree. In October 1686, Russian envoys arrived in Beijing with news that Moscow wanted peace. The Kangxi Emperor sent a messenger to Albazin, who arrived in December, just as Langtan was preparing a major assault. People on both sides of the walls watched as the imperial scroll was read out, an ostentatious occasion. As a Russian source noted, “whenever a letter arrived in the Chinese camp before Albazin, from the Emperor of China, all of the commanders and soldiers stood bareheaded as the letter was read, from which we can see what kind of great reverence these people have for the orders of their king.”

The letter said that the siege would be paused, and to build goodwill Kangxi even ordered his troops to offer food and medicine aid to the besieged. European sources say the Russians flamboyantly refused. “To signal the superfluity of food, Beiton had a pie baked, which weighed one pud [sixteen kilograms], and sent it as a present to the commander of the Chinese. It was received with thanks.” Qing sources, however, say that Beiton himself asked for provisions, and the man who delivered them returned with a dismal report: only two dozen Russians were still alive, and they were very hungry; even Beiton was sick. (He got better and, thanks partly to his defense of Albazin, went on to enjoy a brilliant career.)

Albazin itself was relinquished to the Qing in the famous Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689. In exchange, Russia received trading privileges in Beijing and the right to keep the city of Nerchinsk. Since Albazin never surrendered, the siege cannot, strictly speaking, be counted as a victory for the Qing, but it’s likely that the Qing would have prevailed if hostilities had continued.

Even so, the fact remains that a few sick Russians held Albazin for months against a much larger, better supplied, and better armed force.

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