Naval – The Far East: 1856-65

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Vice Admiral Augustus Kuper, British Commander-in-Chief on the China Station, 1862-4. His firmness and diplomacy were fully tested by the Taiping rebellion in China and difficulties with Japan.

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The Battle of Fatshan Creek, 1 June 1857. In this inlet above Canton a large body of Chinese war junks was defeated by British forces under Admiral Seymour and Commodore Henry Keppel.

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The Opium War of 1840-41 had not only consolidated the British position in Hong Kong but secured important concessions in Canton from which European and United States’ trade with China could continue to expand. However, instability within China gave opportunities in the late 1850s for local initiatives, from piracy to governmental measures, that interfered with Western interests and were thought to threaten the whole basis of trade.

In consequence the British Commander-in-Chief, Rear Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, directed an attack on the defences of Canton. The outlying forts were taken in October 1856, and the fleet commanded the approaches to Canton. Further progress was bogged down by unexpectedly strong Chinese resistance on the ground and the skilful diplomacy of Commissioner Yeh, and a stalemate persisted throughout 1857, the British effort being weakened by the need to divert forces to India in consequence of the mutiny. The only significant British success that summer was in Fatshan Creek, above Canton, where a large force of Chinese war junks was routed and burnt; steam, firepower and discipline were the keys to success.

In December a French squadron arrived to reinforce the British off Canton, and troops from both countries became available. The main assault (including a British naval brigade of 1,500 men) went in, after an ultimatum, on 28 December 1857 and the city was effectively occupied by 30 December. It was one thing, however, to make a military conquest of a city of a million people, and quite another to administer it. The Chinese authorities knew this very well, and the situation entered a new sort of stalemate.

Negotiation with the Imperial Chinese Government was considered necessary. But a proposed meeting in Shanghai failed to materialize, and the Western plenipotentiaries thought it necessary to negotiate from a position of strength. Naval forces were therefore sent north, and an ultimatum delivered to the commander of the Taku forts, at the mouth of the Peiho and commanding the approaches to Tientsin and Peking. On expiry of the ultimatum, combined British and French forces were landed under cover of fire from some eleven warships. Resistance was overcome without much difficulty and the fleet moved through to Tientsin, where the Chinese authorities signed a treaty on 27 June 1858. The USA and Russia were also parties. The treaty gave many concessions, commercial and diplomatic, to Western powers.

Difficulties soon arose over interpretation of the treaty, and almost exactly a year later a new team of British and French envoys was charged with ensuring Chinese compliance. Once more it was deemed necessary to pass the Taku forts and take a naval force through to Tientsin. In the interval, however, the Chinese had much improved the fortifications. The British under their new Commander- in-Chief Sir James Hope were over-confident, the French forces were mostly elsewhere, and the American presence was nominally neutral. An assault by naval landing parties alone was frustrated by boom defences and fixed obstructions, heavy fire from the forts, and most of all by mud, which made the approach to the forts almost impassable. The British were repulsed with heavy loss. Some de facto non-firing help was given by the US force under the direction of Commodore Tattnall USN, who remarked famously that ‘blood is thicker than water’.

It was in the spirit of the times that this reverse should be regarded as an ‘insult’ to be avenged. But not until the next year was sufficient force assembled to make sure of a successful attack on the Taku forts. The British and French troops which landed at Pehtang in August 1860 amounted to over 20,000, and in the face of this overland attack, supported by fire from the gunboats, the Taku forts surrendered on 21 August. The army units went on to Tientsin and subsequently to Peking, where a further treaty, more favourable to Western interests than that of Tientsin, was signed on 24 October.

The situation in China was confused by the Taiping rebellion against central government, which had been going on since 1858. The years from 1860 to 1862 saw British policy endeavouring to protect the Western interest on the Yangtse and particularly at Shanghai, already a most important trading port on the China coast. Commanding officers of gunboats, often only of lieutenant’s rank, found themselves in acutely difficult diplomatic situations trying to support a policy that was overtly non-interventionist but often, effectively, favoured the central government.

Rear Admiral Kuper, who succeeded Hope in February 1862, successfully tapered off British operations against the Taipings. He had other preoccupations, further afield in Japan. That country too was in confusion, brought on partly by the decay of the Shogunate and partly by efforts from the Western powers, in the wake of Commodore Perry’s visit in 1853, to open up Japan to trade – a deeply divisive issue. Isolated attacks were made on Western nationals and consulates in the autumn of 1862 and these were taken extremely seriously by the British, who demanded reparation.

Influential forces in Japan remained split and by mid 1863 the faction demanding the removal of all foreigners appeared to be getting the upper hand. French, Dutch and American ships were fired on in the Strait of Shimonoseki and retaliated with a bombardment and landing. In August Kuper was instructed to take coercive action against the Satsuma clan, which led the anti-foreigner party. Between 15 and 17 August seven of his ships carried out a bombardment of Kagoshima in the southern island of Kyushu. All were wooden-hulled but steam-powered, and their breech-loading guns did not perform well. In spite of this the damage to Kagoshima was considerable and the effect on Japanese opinion immense; for reasons of expediency, the majority of the ruling elements now favoured opening Vice Admiral Augustus Kuper, British Commander-in-Chief on the China Station, 1862-4. His firmness and diplomacy were fully tested by the Taiping rebellion in China and difficulties with Japan. the country to foreign trade and influence.

One Japanese faction however remained opposed, and gained control over the Strait of Shimonoseki which lay at the western entrance to the Inland Sea. In the summer of 1864 Kuper sailed from Yokohama and joined up with French, Dutch and American forces to force the Strait. Altogether eighteen vessels were assembled, mounting nearly 300 guns in all; a British screw line-of-battle ship, the Conqueror, was the largest present, and it was probably the last time such a British ship was in action.

The operation was a sequential one from east to west, softening up each set of forts in turn by bombardment and following up with landings by detachments from all the nations involved, to spike guns that could not be moved and bring off those that could. It lasted three days, from 5 to 8 September, and was completely successful in military terms, with light casualties on the attackers’ side. It was also successful in its immediate political effects; the Strait was opened and treaties satisfactory to the West were concluded with Japan.

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