The Chinese expedition: Sir Harry Parkes on the sack of the Summer Palace

Author(s) : LANE-POOLE Stanley, PARKES Sir Harry
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Letter from Sir Harry Parkes to his wife, British Embassy, Peking, 27 October 1860

“We have passed since I last wrote you on the 14th from a state of war to a state of peace, and have signed our Convention, exchanged the ratifications of Embassy the Treaty of 1858, and our people are now walking about Peking in small parties of threes and fours very much in the way that we do at Canton…
On the 13th, as I told you, a gate of the city was placed in our hands, which gave us of course a great command over the place and would have terminated hostilities had it not been that the treatment of our prisoners was too atrocious to be passed [over] without exemplary punishment. But the difficulty was to know what punishment to inflict. Some advocated a heavy indemnity; others the burning of Peking; others the destruction of the Imperial Palace in the city. I think Lord Elgin came to the right decision in determining to raze to the ground all the palaces of Yuen Ming Yuen, the Emperor's Summer Palace, five miles outside Peking, where the Emperor and whole Court have lately spent two-thirds of their time, and where our poor countrymen were taken in the first instance and put to torture by direction of the Court itself. The allied troops had already plundered these palaces, or several of them, and some said that it was an ignoble sort of revenge on that account; but there appeared to be no other choice than the destruction of the palace within the city (which had not been looted), and considering that Yuen Ming Yuen was the scene of the atrocities committed on our countrymen, I consider that it was the proper one of the two to make a monumental ruin of. To have burnt Peking would have been simply wicked, as the people of the city, who would in that case be the sufferers, had done us no harm. At Yuen Ming Yuen we could only injure the Court. This palace has with the Chinese very much the position that Buckingham Palace has with us, as compared with St. James's. To have exacted a national indemnity for the murder of our countrymen would have been to make money out of their blood. So Yuen Ming Yuen was doomed, but an ample compensation of half a million of taels was demanded for the families of the deceased.”
Quoted in The Life of Sir Harry Parkes, Sometime Her Majesty's Minister to China & Japan, Volume 1: Consul in China, by Stanley Lane-Poole, London: Macmillan, 1894, pp. 399-400

Publication Title :
The Life of Sir Harry Parkes, Sometime Her Majesty's Minister to China & Japan
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