Qing and Opium Wars III


Second Battle of Chuenpi. The Nemesis (right background) destroying Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay


The Nemesis and boats of the Sulphur, Calliope, Larne, and Starling destroying the Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay, 7 January 1841.


British forces advancing in Chuenpi. The storming of the forts and entrenchments of Chuenpee on 7 January 1841.

The French artillery schools, particularly the Ecole Royale d’Artillerie, were famous not just for their exacting curricula, but also because of their alumni, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte. As a student, he took detailed notes on Robins and Euler, paying special attention to air resistance and the fact that Robins’s work showed one could make effective field guns by shortening barrels and decreasing weight. As a student he even conducted his own research into ballistics, writing a treatise on the use of standard cannons to fire mortar rounds. In fact, Napoleon so enjoyed his studies that he later said that if his military career hadn’t worked out he would have been content as a math professor. Some have suggested that his mathematical background may have been key to his wider success, giving him a scientific understanding of warfare. That may be overreaching, but there’s no doubt that his mastery of scientific ballistics helped him in battle. His field cannons decimated enemies in precisely the way that British field cannons would later annihilate Chinese forces.

The British refused to be outdone by the French and invested in their own military academies. An academy at Woolrich was established in 1741, to instruct “the raw and inexperienced People belonging to the Military Branch of this (Ordnance) Office, in the several parts of Mathematicks necessary to qualify them for the Service of the Artillery, and the business of Engineers.” Robins’s New Principles of Gunnery became the basis of the curriculum and was even used as a textbook.

As a result of such education, the British artillerists who fought in the Opium War were able to use ballistics models that took into account the expansion of gas in the gunpowder reaction, the loss of pressure due to the leaking of gas through touchholes and past projectiles, and the effects of wind resistance. The Qing gunners had no such resources. Renaissance ballistics models had been imported into China in the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, and data from the Sino-Dutch War of 1661 to 1668 suggest that Chinese artillerists were as effective as the Europeans, perhaps more so. (As the Dutch governor of Taiwan once lamented, during an artillery battle, “The enemy … is able to handle his cannon so effectively.… They put our own men to shame.”) But in the mid-eighteenth century, while Europeans were experimenting with the ballistic pendulum, the Chinese were making no significant investigations into ballistics, and this gave the British an overwhelming advantage. In fact, Qing gun carriages usually didn’t even allow for easy rotation or changing elevation, whereas British guns had all manner of aiming devices.

But calculations weren’t just for aiming. They were also about timing. The new ballistics science revolutionized the use of explosive shells. Chinese and Europeans had fired explosive rounds for centuries, but thanks to the new science of ballistics—and to considerable experimental data concerning the speed at which fuses burned—European artillery officers were able to time the explosion of shells with unprecedented precision. Success was measured in hundredths of seconds. When firing mortars, for instance, the object was to make the shell explode just after it had landed. When firing against human targets, the shell needed to explode in the air above the enemies’ heads. The new artillery manuals contained detailed tables classified by gun type, size of gunpowder charge, and so on, and these tables could be used effectively only if one possessed the requisite mathematical training.

Like carronades and howitzers, explosive shells played a key role in the Opium War. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi, for example, shells were lobbed into a Chinese fort, exploding “with great precision … much to the astonishment of the Chinese, who were unacquainted with this engine of destruction.… The Chinese could not long withstand the fire of the 68-pounder of the Queen, and the two 32-pounder pivot-guns of the Nemesis, the shells from which could be seen bursting within the walls of the fort.” Field pieces also used exploding shells, especially the dreade howitzers, which, as we’ve seen, caused so much carnage in Ningbo that its handlers had to stop shooting because the corpses piled too high. Howitzers, placed in batteries and fired in concert, to deadly effect, are referred to repeatedly in British sources on the Opium War. In general, explosive shells were one of the technologies most marveled at by Chinese.

The ballistics revolution may have been the most important scientific advance of the eighteenth century as regards war, but it was far from the only one. Europeans also conducted research into gunpowder. Perhaps the greatest innovations came after 1783, when William Congreve the Elder (1742–1814) was placed in charge of gunpowder manufacture at England’s Royal Powder Mills. He conducted systematic experiments and built dedicated testing ranges, new saltpeter refineries, and special proving houses. Among his findings was the discovery that charcoal made in sealed iron cylinders produced superior powder. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, this “cylinder powder” gave British gunpowder a reputation as the best in the world, nearly twice as powerful as traditional powders and far less vulnerable to spoilage.

In contrast, in the 1830s the Chinese were still using the same methods for producing gunpowder that had been used in the early Qing period. The British recognized its inferiority. Lieutenant John Elliot Bingham captured some Chinese powder in 1841 and wrote that “though the proportions in Chinese powder are very nearly ours, it is a most inferior article.” He and his comrades threw several thousand pounds of it into the ocean. Sometimes the British condescended to use Chinese powder to blow up captured ships or forts, but even then it was found wanting.

Even as European powder got better, it got cheaper and more plentiful. The Napoleonic Wars created demand for gunpowder and attracted funding for new equipment and personnel, which William Congreve the Elder used to increase experimentation and production.

He died in 1814, but his son, William Congreve the Younger (1772–1828), continued the experiments. He developed a machine that mixed the ingredients of powder in the correct proportions and another machine that could granulate powder, with toothed rollers and filters that sorted granules by size.

He was also good at the main task that scientists face: gaining financial support. A tireless lobbyist, he made his case on the basis of warfare. Napoleon, he wrote, controlled realms that were so vast that Britain had to invest in technology to even the odds: “England has now, with ten millions of population, to wage war against ten times that number—what man can do, Englishmen will accomplish! But there is a limit to all physical force; and when the difference in number is so enormous, it is no disgrace to have recourse to every aid that human ingenuity can support. He, therefore, that strives to supply the deficiency of real power by mechanical combinations, cannot but deserve well of his country.”

Congreve the Younger was particularly excited by rocketry. His famous “Congreve rocket”—whose “red glare” features so prominently in the USA’s National Anthem—was actually inspired by Indian rockets. In the late eighteenth century, the Sultanate of Mysore, located in what is today southern India, fought against Britain in a series of conflicts known today as the Anglo-Mysore Wars (1767–1792). Although the British eventually prevailed, the sultanate’s forces proved effective, and among their weapons were large iron rockets, which the British began trying to copy. Congreve didn’t like to admit this. He merely noted, in an aside, that rockets were invented by some “heroes of Chinese antiquity.”

His rockets, however, were unusually effective. By means of experiments he improved their range, accuracy, and power, and he lobbied the Royal Navy to use them as a lighter alternative to shipborne mortars. He had to overcome skepticism. As one naval commander wrote, “Mr. Congreve, who is ingenious, is wholly wrapt up in rockets, from which I expect little success.” Yet Congreve had powerful patrons. The Prince of Wales himself read Congreve’s plans at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, a mock Mughal temple whose interiors were decorated with Chinese dragons, miniature pagodas, and paintings of mandarins in official robes. The prince ordered expensive sea trials. They didn’t go terribly well, but Congreve was persistent, and eventually his rockets were adopted by the Royal Navy.

They played a devastating role in the Opium War. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi (1841), for example, a Congreve rocket helped defeat a Chinese fleet of fifteen warjunks (or perhaps eleven, depending on which source you believe). A British participant later recalled the flying body parts:

One of the most formidable engines of destruction which any vessel … can make use of is the Congreve rocket, a most terrible weapon when judiciously applied, especially where there are combustible materials to act upon. The very first rocket fired from the Nemesis was seen to enter the large junk against which it was directed, near that of the admiral, and almost instantly it blew up with a terrific explosion, launching into eternity every soul on board, and pouring forth its blaze like the mighty rush of fire from a volcano. The instantaneous destruction of the huge body seemed appalling to both sides engaged. The smoke, and flame, and thunder of the explosion, with the fragments falling round, and even portions of dissevered bodies scattering as they fell, were enough to strike with awe, if not with fear, the stoutest heart that looked upon it.

The effect was so terrifying that everyone paused for a moment, frozen with shock. The Qing abandoned the rest of their ships. Thirteen warjunks were destroyed.

Congreve rockets were also useful on land. On 27 February 1841, they helped the British capture an island guarding the approaches to Guangzhou. One British account notes that “operations commenced by throwing a few rockets into … the … custom-house, situated at the entrance of the North Wang-Tong fort; and such was the precision with which these were directed, that the place was soon in a blaze of fire, which rapidly communicated with the encampment, and presented an animating and inciting appearance.” Again, the precision and destructive power of the rockets created shock and awe: “The panic created by the bursting of the shells and rockets, which were quite new to them, evidently threw them into great disorder. It was reported, and there is reason to believe with truth, that the Chinese officers abandoned the place at the first commencement of the firing, and ran down to their boats.” At nearly every major engagement in the war, rockets proved enormously effective, and, as a British account noted, “amused the enemy.”

Examples of Britain’s deadly use of rockets, carronades, field cannons, explosive shells, and howitzers abound in Opium War sources, and all of these weapons were based on experimental science. Robins’s ballistics revolution, which developed from the work of Newton, Boyle, and Bernoulli, and which was carried forward by Leonhard Euler and dozens of other scientists, mathematicians, and artillerists, represented a deep transformation in the understanding of how guns worked. The experiments were painstaking, the results far from intuitive. Without the experimental culture and heritage that made them possible, the knowledge would never have been won, and it turned out to be a very practical knowledge, which directly influenced the work of war makers. When British observers noted how bad Chinese guns were, or how poor at aiming the Chinese artillerists were, they were drawing a clear and objective contrast. British gunnery was based on experimental science. Chinese gunnery wasn’t.

To be sure, the Opium War was also decided by more typical tools of industrialization. The steamer Nemesis was the war’s workhorse, paddling against the wind and towing sailing vessels upriver. Nor was steam power the Nemesis’s only edge. It also had a very shallow draft. In the 1500s and 1600s, the Chinese had used shallow-draft vessels against the Dutch and Portuguese, outmaneuvering them by sailing on flats and shallows. Such tactics didn’t work against the Nemesis, which drew only five feet (one-and-a-half meters) with keel retracted. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi, for example (1841), a fleet of warjunks took refuge in shallows. She maneuvered right up to them, and when they tried fleeing into an even shallower channel, she simply towed them away from their moorings and destroyed them. One British officer records the words of some Chinese who watched the Nemesis maneuver where, at low water, they were accustomed to wade: “He-yaw! how can! My never see devil-ship so fashion before; can go all same man walkee.”

The Opium War was an industrial war: steamers like the Nemesis played key roles, and industrial manufacturing techniques helped make steel, bore cannon, and mix powder, even as they made those products cheaper. Nonetheless, it was the science developed by Robins and others that played the greatest part in Britain’s Great Military Divergence vis-à-vis China, combined, of course, with the fact that China had undergone a long period of relative peace.

But now that the Great Qing Peace had been overturned, how would the leaders, statesmen, and scholars of China react? In the Ming and early Qing periods, China had adapted quickly and effectively, maintaining parity with European powers. The nineteenth century proved more challenging.

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