The Chinese expedition: British account of the Taku Forts incident, June 1859

Author(s) : LANE-POOLE Stanley, PARKES Sir Harry
Share it

Waiting for war 1859-1860

“Whilst the Canton Commission was quietly but surely restoring peace and prosperity to the South, a breeze from the North wrecked all hopes of a speedy settlement of the China question. The Emperor had agreed to the Treaty of Tien-tsin in 1858 in order to get the allies out of their threatening position near his capital, but he had not changed his policy a hair's breadth, and he and his Ministers had not the smallest intention of allowing the “barbarians” to break down the old barriers which excluded them from intercourse with his Government and Court. Lord Elgin, in his ignorance of the Chinese character, was completely duped. Instead of demanding an audience of the Emperor, such as befitted the Queen's Ambassador, he did not even enter Peking. Instead of leaving an army at Tien-tsin to guarantee the fulfilment of the Treaty, he went away with his whole force; and afterwards, at Shanghai, where he arranged the details of the tariff with the Imperial Commissioners, he committed the fatal blunder of retreating from the position of the Treaty, which established a resident British Minister at Peking, and sanctioning the suggestion that our Minister would only occasionally visit the capital. The result of this weakness became apparent when, three months after Lord Elgin's departure from China, his brother, Mr Frederick Bruce, came out as Minister, to exchange 1859 the ratifications of the Treaty at Peking. The Chinese had taken Lord Elgin's measure, and identified it with the dimensions of the British Government. They had extorted a vital concession, and they resolved to press their advantage. As soon as the fear of the allied armies was removed, they had recovered all their former arrogance, and with a view to making a visit of a “barbarian eye” to Peking impossible, they had strengthened the Taku forts at the mouth of the Peiho, which Lord Elgin's force had dismantled in 1858. What happened was easy to be foreseen. On reaching Shanghai on 6th June 1859 Mr Bruce found that every obstacle was to be placed in the way of his approach to Peking; but his instructions were positive, and he had no alternative but to go on. He knew the Chinese better than his brother, and he was aware that “anything which looked like hesitation or irresolution would encourage the Chinese and render the object of my mission more difficult to attain without a fresh appeal to force.” So to the Peiho he sailed, accompanied by the French Minister, M. de Bourboulon, and a considerable naval escort. On arriving at the mouth of the river on 20th June they found the channel staked and barred with a boom, and an armed rabble prepared to resist their landing. No mandarin was there to explain the situation. Persisting in their advance, they were beaten back with heavy loss.”
Admiral Hope had calculated on no greater resistance than had been met with in 1858, when an hour and a quarter had sufficed to take the forts: he forgot that the Chinese had learned a bitter lesson, and had spared no pains to prevent its repetition. They had contrived their boom admirably, and trained their gunners to hit it: and the result was that when the gunboats brought up against the obstacle they were exposed to a deadly fire. A land attack failed to carry the batteries; and when night fell the Taku forts were still in the possession of the Chinese. Admiral Hope could not venture upon a second attempt. He had lost three gunboats and several hundred killed and wounded. Nothing remained but to retreat and meditate vengeance. The Treaty had been deliberately broken, and all Lord Elgin's cautious policy had done was to bring matters back to the state in which they were when he first arrived in the North. “As you were” is an irritating word of command to a squad of raw recruits: but it merely implies unproficiency in the beginners. In statesmanship it means failure in the commander.”
The Life of Sir Harry Parkes, Sometime Her Majesty's Minister to China & Japan, Volume I: Consul in China, by Stanley Lane-Poole, London: Macmillan, 1894, chapter XV, pp. 310-312

Publication Title :
The Life of Sir Harry Parkes, Sometime Her Majesty's Minister to China & Japan
Page numbers :
Year of publication :
Share it