Battle of Taku Forts (1859)

The London government had originally decided that the new resident ambassador to Beijing should be a very senior official. The French thought the same and offered their appointment to Baron Gros. He declined, on the sensible grounds that the Chinese emperor would hardly wish to receive in person people who had forced such revolutionary concessions on him at the point of the bayonet. But when it became clear that Elgin had, in effect, agreed not to exercise the right of permanent residence, Paris and London decided to appoint persons of lesser rank as ministers, rather than as full ambassadors. By mid-January 1859, it was decided to send Frederick Bruce out to China again to exchange those necessary ratification documents for the 1858 treaty and then to assume the post of non-resident minister plenipotentiary at the Chinese court. However, the government continued to insist that ratification proper must take place in Beijing, though Bruce could see the emperor privately rather than in a public ratification ceremony.

In addition, Bruce was told to relieve Sir John Bowring as superintendent of trade, though Bowring could continue as governor of the Hong Kong colony. Bruce himself should be established at Shanghai, as the base both for his Beijing mission and for the superintendency of trade. Frederick Bruce promptly left London and crossed paths briefly in Ceylon with his brother Elgin, who was now on his way home.

While he was on his way, there was more trouble at Canton. Ye’s successor as viceroy instructed his people to `Go forth in your myriads. and take vengeance on the enemy of your sovereign’. By now, too, the Russians had promised to supply the Chinese with 10,000 rifles and 50 cannon. Meanwhile, in February 1859, van Straubenzee at Canton had finally decided to do something about the guerrilla nuisance. He led a column to destroy a guerrilla fort some seven miles outside the city. Later, when some Chinese set an ambush for a party of military police doing their rounds, and killed seven of them, the general retaliated by demolishing the entire street where the ambush had happened. There was no more trouble. Hope Grant, the general who would command the British force a year later, said afterwards that his wife and Lady Straubenzee `were carried in sedan chairs through the crowded streets and by-lanes without meeting with any incivility’.

Bruce stayed only briefly in Hong Kong before sailing on to Shanghai, now accompanied by his new and fiery little French colleague, Count Alphonse de Bourboulon, the new French minister to China. The Frenchman was a lively professional diplomat, one of whose distinctions was to have married the tall, slim and statuesque Catherine Fanny McLeod during a posting in the USA. The social position of the de Bourboulons was much enhanced by Catherine’s claim that her family was connected with royalty. In any event, Bruce and de Bourboulon arrived at Shanghai in early June 1859, just as the political cycle in London was turning again to bring Palmerston back as prime minister, this time with Lord John Russell as foreign secretary.

Before leaving Hong Kong to sail north, Bruce learned that the emperor was so angry about the Tianjin Treaty that no envoy would be received in any kind of audience. He also heard that military preparations were going ahead not only at Tianjin and Beijing but also at the river’s mouth at Dagu, where new cannon were being cast, and that the task of preventing any foreign armies from approaching Beijing had been entrusted to one of China’s most eminent soldiers, who also seemed to have headed the pro-war party at court. This was the renowned Mongol cavalry general, Prince Sangkolinsin (naturally the cheeky British soldiery promptly translated that to `Sam Collinson’ and started a rumour that, far from being a Chinese prince, he was a rebellious Irish marine). He brought some 4000 elite Mongolian cavalry with him and was later said to have, altogether, some 50,000 Manchu and Mongol troops under his command. Sangkolinsin came from the Horqin Left Black Banner of Inner Mongolia that traced its ancestry back to the founding Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. In 1825 he became a Chinese imperial prince of the second degree. He also became adjutant-general under the old Daoguang emperor, who was his patron. After Daoguang’s death, he became in 1853/1854 a national hero when he and his Mongol cavalry pushed back a Taiping rebel drive into North China and captured one of its leaders. Two years later still he became a prince of the first degree. As the Anglo- French campaign loomed, he was appointed imperial commissioner to lead the campaign against the invaders.

He was very ready to sound warlike but was also a realist. Two of his memorials to the throne, presented back in 1858, were pessimistic about the defences between Tianjin and Beijing and stressed the low morale of his soldiers. All the same, it remained fairly obvious to the allies that, given Chinese preparations, the Franco-British mission would need to be backed by an adequate force if it was to make an impression. Not only that, but the news about Prince Sang only strengthened Bruce’s determination to insist on sailing upriver to Tianjin and showing the flag there, if only because `on the Mongol prince in charge of the works, the hopes of the war party (at Beijing) repose, and if he is defeated in his attempt to keep us out of the river, pacific counsels will prevail’. Moreover, Bruce was helped by the fact that, even before leaving China, Elgin, who knew how dilatory Seymour could be, had told the admiral to collect some shallow draught gunboats to escort his brother to the mouth of the Haihe.

At Shanghai, Bruce and de Bourboulon were told that the two senior Chinese commissioners who had negotiated the 1858 treaty had arrived and wanted to discuss a few points. The allies responded much as the Chinese had responded in previous years to allied pleas to tweak the texts of previous treaties: the texts were the texts and there was nothing to talk about. So now Bruce replied, with de Bourboulon’s agreement, that there was nothing to discuss until the treaty had been properly ratified at Beijing. When the two Chinese commissioners tried to argue, Bruce and de Bourboulon simply sailed north without seeing them and arrived at the mouth of the Haihe, but beyond the sand bar, on 18 June. This time, the allies had 16 warships in place, including one ship of the line, all commanded by Rear Admiral Sir James Hope, a Scot who had succeeded Admiral Seymour a couple of months earlier. Hope had joined the navy at age fifteen and reached the rank of captain by the age of thirty. The French had only two small ships present since most of the French navy in the East, and a force of some 4000 under Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, was now busy in Indo-China, in operations against Annam.

On arriving at Dagu, it was at once clear that the forts had indeed been greatly strengthened since the allies had so easily occupied them the year before. There were many more guns and men in place, and chains and heavy bamboo trunks had been installed as booms across the river entrance.

Here was obviously a foretaste of trouble. But, contrary to various later conspiracy theories, it was not, it turned out, that the Chinese necessarily wanted to bar all access to Beijing. It was true that the court still hoped to deal with ratification of the 1858 treaty at Shanghai, but it was willing to let the negotiators come to Beijing. On the other hand, the Chinese did want the embassies, if they had to come to the capital, to go to there by road after landing at Beitang, a small coastal town about ten miles up the coast from Dagu, not just because they wanted the details of the new Dagu defence arrangements kept secret, but for overriding reasons of national politics and morale. (Also, did the very idea of a British fleet of sixteen warships sailing up the Haihe seem too much like a victory parade?) In any case, on 18 June the Grand Council ordered that three buildings be prepared as residences at Beijing for the British, French and American ministers `in conformity with the precedents of various tribute-bearing barbarians’. So the buildings were outside the eastern gate of the capital.

The new American minister, John Ward, did as the Chinese demanded. He had also arrived at Dagu on his way to the capital for the ratification of his treaty and was also invited to go, with an escort, via Beitang. He did. He was left to cool his heels at the small port for some three weeks. Then, on the first stage of their 160-mile journey to Beijing, the Americans were taken along the Haihe River in large sampans and then by some rough carts pulled by mules – a normal mode of transport for subject peoples and tribute-bearers – over some very stony roads. The carts were so uncomfortable, having no springs, seats or cushions, that for the last stretch of the week-long journey the Americans chose to walk. By now, of course, they were entirely in the hands of the Chinese without any support or protection of their own. They entered Beijing on 27 July before a crowd eager to see the vanquished enemy make his submission – after all, had not the Americans had a hand in the Dagu battle? Ward’s group was accommodated in large, comfortable houses and given servants and food. But they were not allowed to fly their own flag and were prevented from moving around the city or from contacting the Russians (who had already ratified their own 1858 Treaty of Tianjin with the Chinese; this had been done on 24 April by the Russian representative and Sushun, the president of the Board of Revenue). Ward wanted to hand over President Buchanan’s letter of credence personally to the emperor, in the manner normal in the West. But that immediately ran into the problem of the kowtow. The Chinese explained that though the emperor regarded the US president as quite his equal, the formalities would have to be maintained. They had to insist on having the envoy at least bow and kneel. And if the formalities of an imperial reception for the minister had to be omitted, the normal formalities of handing the president’s letter to the emperor would have to be omitted as well. The American refused to kneel, so talks broke off, Buchanan’s letter was handed to Guiliang for transmission to the emperor and the American delegation returned to Beitang. There, on 16 August, the ratification ceremony was held with Guiliang and the governor of the province, and the Americans left to sail home. In effect, the Chinese had skilfully managed to ft the American approach to Beijing into the traditional manner in which tributary princes and delegations normally approached the throne, which was precisely what the British insisted on avoiding. The minister, deeply conscious that his mission had ended poorly, submitted to the president a request allowing him to retire.

However, President Buchanan professed himself entirely content with this outcome. He put it this way to Congress:

On the arrival of Mr Ward at Peking he requested an audience of the Emperor to present his letter of credence. This he did not obtain, in consequence of his very proper refusal to submit to the humiliating ceremonies required by the etiquette of this strange people. Nevertheless, the interviews on this question were conducted in the most friendly spirit and with all due regard to his personal feelings and the honor of his country. When a presentation to His Majesty was found to be impossible, the letter of credence from the President was received with peculiar honors by Guiliang `the Emperor’s prime minister and the second man in the Empire.’ The ratifications of the treaty were afterwards, on the 16th of August, exchanged in proper form at Beitang (Pehtang). It is but simple justice to the Chinese authorities to observe that throughout the whole transaction they appear to have acted in good faith and in a friendly spirit toward the United States. The conduct of our minister. has received my entire approbation.

The British envoy, Bruce, was, of course, from the start very conscious of the overriding political importance of the style and manner of his approach to Beijing. The foreign secretary had given firm instructions that he should approach Beijing by travelling via Tianjin `in a British ship of war’. Lord Malmesbury had not only told Bruce to beware of possible Chinese treachery but warned that every detail of his visit to Beijing, being the first mission of its kind to the Chinese capital, would inevitably be taken by the Chinese as a precedent for the future.

Admiral Hope therefore requested peaceful passage up the Haihe River. He asked that the Chinese barriers be removed so that the emissaries could sail through. Nothing happened, so on 21 June Bruce and de Bourboulon gave formal permission to the admirals to clear the obstacles. Four days later Bruce received a letter from the local viceroy, Heng Fu, suggesting that he make his way to Beijing, not via Dagu but through Beitang. For the usual reasons, the Chinese also wanted the allies to use a more indirect, modest and quasi-tributary way of getting to the capital. There were additional reasons for Bruce to find Heng Fu’s note unhelpful. Among other things, in the Chinese note the name of Queen Victoria had been written at a lower level than that of the emperor – in Chinese usage a not very subtle assertion of superiority, even dominance. In any case, Malmesbury had already stipulated that Bruce should go to Tianjin in a warship. That was not just to make a demonstration. Only if Tianjin was threatened by the guns of a British warship was a British envoy likely to be properly treated by, and in, Beijing. Conversely, if Bruce did go via Beitang and travel overland, with his gunboats still outside Dagu, his chances of success at Beijing itself would obviously be greatly reduced.

However, by the time Bruce saw Heng Fu’s letter he could in any case no longer communicate with Admiral Hope, who was on the verge of launching his attack on the Dagu forts. Hope therefore went ahead. But his movements were slow and, reflecting a confidence in British superiority, undertaken virtually without proper reconnaissance. Only after 2 p. m. 25th June, did one of the British boats, the Opossum, start to cut a passage. Only when she, followed by three other gunboats, got to the second barrier did some thirty to forty Chinese guns open an uncomfortably accurate fire. Within a few minutes the gunboats were heavily damaged and had to retreat behind the first boom. Admiral Hope himself, on board the Plover, was twice severely wounded and fell down. His own gunboat was left with only nine men left standing out of a crew of forty. The artillery duel continued but had died down towards evening, by which time 6 of the 11 British gunboats were out of action, most of them with heavy casualties and some even aground.

The American naval contingent on the scene, there to observe events but remain neutral, also got involved. Its colourful commander, Commodore Josiah Tatnall, had been appointed flag officer of the US Asiatic station in the previous October. Shortly before the allied action began he found his own flagship aground and having to be towed off by the English. Later, when he rowed over, through Chinese fire, to see his wounded friend, Admiral Hope, he could not stand the sight. A good many of his American sailors seem actually to have helped to man British guns during the fighting. He even ordered his own steamer to tow several launches filled with British marines into action and others, filled with wounded, away from the fire. Later, when pressed on all this, he famously replied (since the English were, after all, cousins) that `blood is thicker than water’ and found himself backed by public opinion and the government back home. When the American civil war broke out shortly afterwards, Tatnall resigned his commission and became a captain in the Confederate Navy and commander of naval defences in South Carolina and Georgia.

In any case, by 6 p. m. it was clear that if the Dagu forts were to be taken that day, the storming parties would have to go ashore at once. It would be risky because some of the Chinese guns were still in action and it was clear that behind the walls of the forts were lots of Chinese troops with infantry weapons. On the other hand, a British withdrawal and resumption of the attack next day would mean simply abandoning the four gunboats now aground within easy reach of the forts. Withdrawal would therefore mean rescuing the crews but not the ships. With Admiral Hope being too badly wounded to make a sensible decision, his number two, Captain Charles Shadwell, made it, deciding to press the attack.

By now, though, the tide was out and the landing boats had to leave the marines to wade across deep mud to reach land, with ammunition and weapons often soaked and no protection from heavy Chinese fire for the 150 or so men who landed. Some fifty of the landing party managed to reach the wall of the southern forts but were pinned down there.

Eventually they were ordered to withdraw, with their wounded, and the evacuation was completed at 1:30 in the morning. Altogether, the British lost 519 soldiers and sailors killed and 456 wounded out of the 1100 engaged. Some of the men who were veterans of the Crimean War were heard to mutter that they would rather fight the Battle of Balaclava again three times over than have another go at the Dagu forts. (Later, Palmerston even thought that the Chinese guns had been so effective that they must have been manned by Russians.)

In the next few days Admiral Hope recovered and managed to make all his boats seaworthy again – except three. By 1 July he acknowledged to Bruce that he could not tackle the forts again. It was clear that everyone would have to move back to Shanghai, where there were no signs of any Chinese wish to open a new `front’ against the allies, whose governments were anyway happy to think that there was no need to expand the war, especially to places where peaceful trading with the Chinese was still possible. Indeed, Lord John Russell, the new foreign secretary, took care to tell Bruce later that, whatever might have happened at Dagu, `there are no reasons for interrupting friendly relations with the Chinese at Shanghai, Canton and elsewhere’.

Among the allies, both in China and back home, the Dagu defeat was so entirely unexpected that a series of conspiracy theories were immediately concocted to account for it, including stories that the Chinese had indeed been helped by Russians. The most important theory was that the Chinese had never intended to ratify the Treaty of Tianjin but had simply laid a trap for the peaceful British negotiators: the Chinese had wantonly attacked the British, who were trying, peacefully, to go about their diplomatic business by sailing upriver. Tom Wade, thinking it over once he was back in Shanghai, had an only slightly less complicated explanation. As he wrote on 14 July: `The Chinese knew we were coming to Peking. If the Government had said, you don’t go by such or such a route, which is closed for military reasons, I don’t see how, professing peace, we could have forced the door; but they carefully kept all officials out of the way. The villagers who met our marines at Taku (Dagu) maintained that none were near, and that the works were all the work of the people for the exclusion of pirates etc. I am much puzzled and believe that pride, vindictiveness, treachery, and yet great cowardice are all jumbled together in the producing causes of the collisions.’.


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