Once a gunboat had been sent to the Far East it was Admiralty policy that she should end her days there, with any necessary repairs being carried out at Hong Kong. Commissions lasted between three and four years, with replacement crews being sent out aboard transports or troopships. Service aboard gunboats was uncomfortable and so cramped that tall officers shaved with their heads through the skylight and their mirrors propped up on deck. The food was dreadful and the ships themselves notoriously bug-ridden. Nevertheless, the service was popular. It provided junior officers with a real chance to distinguish themselves, and it gave the crews a far more interesting life than they would ever have had aboard the spit-and-polish battleships of the Home Fleet. It did not matter whether a man was serving aboard a gunboat, a gunvessel or a sloop – being a gunboat man indicated a special state of mind involving the use of personal initiative and action, and that set him apart from the rest of the Navy.
Gunboat service could also be lucrative. Long before, the Admiralty had introduced an incentive known as Head Money, awarded as a bounty to crews in proportion to the number of slaves freed from captured slavers, and pirates killed or captured. For example, the crews of Niger, Clown and Janus shared £1600 for the actions of March 1859 described above. Once the Second Opium War was over, the gunboats returned to the suppression of piracy with a will. Kestrel, repaired after her battering at the Taku Forts, received £1400 for actions on 23 and 25 July 1860 and 18 November 1861. The gunboat squadron’s biggest earner was undoubtedly Opossum, whose crew received £1000 for nine actions between 29 October 1864 and 17 October 1865; £1000 for two actions in February 1866; shared £2000 with Osprey for an action on 18 July 1866; shared £1715 with Cockchafer, Haughty and Algerine for various actions between October 1863 and March 1868; and shared £2500 with Janus, Bouncer, Leven and Haughty for actions between May 1865 and June 1869. As a commander earned £301 per annum, a lieutenant £200, a mate or sub-lieutenant £66, a midshipman £31, and an ordinary seaman £23, these figures are impressive, especially when one takes into account the small size of a gunboat’s crew. Altogether, a total of £56, 238 was paid in such bounties between 1851 and 1869, indicating the scale of the problem, the principal beneficiary being the sloop Bittern which, prior to the arrival of the Crimean gunboats, earned £10,000 between June 1854 and March 1856. Complaints that the system was open to abuse by the over-enthusiastic may have been justified in some cases, but it produced results. By 1869 coastal piracy was all but dead, leaving the gunboats free to concentrate on maintaining order on China’s rivers, along which trade was steadily expanding inland.
Pirates were not the only problem facing the gunboats. Quite apart from its troubles with foreign powers, the Chinese Imperial government was engaged in a protracted and bloody civil war with the Taiping rebels, who wished to place their own candidate on the throne. Officially, the United Kingdom played no part in the conflict, but when British interests in Shanghai were threatened by the Tai-pings, Admiral Hope threw the Royal Navy’s weight behind the Peking authorities. On 10 May 1862 the Imperial army launched an attack on Ningpo, off which was anchored a small Allied naval force under Captain Roderick Dew of the sloop Encounter. Several Imperial junks deliberately placed themselves close to the Allied ships, so that the latter were also treated to some of the defenders’ fire. Dew, a fire-eater, promptly retaliated by ordering all his ships, including the gunvessel Ringdove, the gunboats Hardy and Kestrel and the French gunboats Etoile and Confucius, to open fire on the walls of the city, which were then stormed by the grateful Imperial faction. Taking the Hardy and Confucius with him, Dew proceeded up the Yangtse and began interpreting neutrality in his own fashion, forming a naval brigade which assisted an Imperial force in the capture of Kahding on 24 October 1862. For Whitehall, already embroiled in a dispute with the United States over the British-built and crewed commerce raider Alabama, this was one exercise in personal initiative too many, and Dew was recalled early the following year. Curiously, command of the rag-bag Chinese force, designated the Ever Victorious Army by Peking, was given to a seconded officer of the Royal Engineers, Major Charles Gordon, who we shall meet again.
No summary of gunboat operations in Chinese waters would be complete without mention of an unusual squadron known as The Vampire Fleet. This was nominally part of the Imperial Navy and consisted of seven former British ships, including the gunvessel Mohawk and the gunboat Jasper. The Vampires were commanded by Captain Sherard Osborn, now a Chinese admiral, but soon established a reputation for doing just as they pleased, which sometimes lay well beyond any recognised definition of law and order. One of his subordinates, Captain Hugh Burgoyne, VC, another veteran of the Azov Flotilla, went off to become a blockade runner for the Confederacy; returning to the Royal Navy, he lost his life when his ship, the experimental battleship Captain, capsized while on manoeuvres with the Channel Fleet on 7 September 1870. Osborn resigned command of the Vampires when Peking suggested his ships be placed under the control of local mandarins, believing that the latter would simply use them in their own petty squabbles. To prevent their falling into pirate or Taiping hands, the British insisted that they were sold outside China.
As has already been mentioned, the wooden Crimean gunboats had been rushed into service and obviously they would not last forever. Their bigger replacements, of composite iron and wood construction, began entering service in 1867. They had a barquentine rig and, depending upon their class, were driven by either single or twin screws at a speed of nine or ten knots. Armament consisted of two 64-pounder muzzle-loaders and two 20-pounder Armstrong breech-loaders; in the 1880s some were rearmed with 4-inch and 5-inch breech-loaders. New gunvessels also began entering service in 1870. Some, with twin screws, were designed specifically for work in Chinese rivers; others, with a single screw, were intended for ocean-going service. Their common armament was one 7-inch rifled muzzle-loader between the funnel and the mainmast, and two 68-pounder muzzle-loaders or two 64-pounder breech-loaders, one at the bow and the other at the stern.
In 1860 there were 24 gunboats and six gunvessels serving on the China Station. Thirteen years later there were only three gunboats and eleven gunvessels present, proof enough that the Chinese equivalent of the Jolly Roger had been driven from the seas, although the great rivers of China could never be regarded as being completely safe from gentlemen of fortune. They required constant patrolling by the gunboats of the Western nations but, by and large, a form of stability had been imposed that would last until the ancient empire was swept away by revolution.