The Franco-British expedition to China, 1860

Period : 2nd Republic / 2nd Empire
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The Second Opium War

This timeline forms part of our close-up on: the Franco-British expedition to China, 1860.

The outbreak of the Second Opium War, in 1856, came from the western desire to further open up the Chinese empire to foreign trade and negotiate a more favourable position for itself in the territory. These demands (rejected outright by the ruling Qing dynasty), coupled with the Arrow incident on 8 October 1856 (which involved the Chinese occupation of a Chinese-owned but reportedly British-registered ship which had been accused of smuggling and piracy), resulted in the British occupation of Canton (today Guangzhou) and the forts surrounding Tien-tsin (Tianjin) between 23 October and 13 November. However, by the beginning of 1857, the limited British forces had been forced to retreat. The British government began preparations for an expeditionary force, which was to be launched in tandem with the French, who used the execution of a French missionary, Father Auguste Chapdelaine, by Chinese local authorities in February 1856, as a pretext to become involved in the matter. In December 1857, Canton was once again bombarded and occupied by the allied troops (under the command of Admiral Michael Seymour, Lord Elgin and Jean-Baptiste Louis Gros). Peace negotiations with the Chinese emperor’s representatives were begun and in 1858 in the town of Tien-tsin, a treaty was agreed between the western powers and the Chinese Qing dynasty, supposedly bringing an end to the fighting. The treaty comprised a number of articles, namely:

1) Britain, France, Russia, and the United States would be able to establish diplomatic legations in Peking (Beijing), previously closed to foreign ambassadorial presence.
2) A further number of Chinese ports would be opened to allow foreign trade.
3) The Yangtzse River would be opened up to allow free passage for all foreign vessels, including commercial ships.
4) Foreigners would be granted unrestricted travel throughout China.
5) An indemnity to be paid by China to Britain and France was fixed at 2,000,000 taels of silver each.
6) China would also be obliged to pay compensation (of 2,000,000 taels of silver) to British merchants for the destruction of property.

However, between agreeing to the terms and the return of the French and British diplomats for the ratification, the Chinese emperor had been persuaded by his more aggressive ministers to ignore the treaty and had subsequently given instructions that any allied advance on Chinese territory was to be strongly resisted. Hostilities opened once again in June 1859 as British, American and French ships tried to force their way up the heavily defended Pei-ho (today the Hai River) and past the Taku forts in order to establish their diplomatic legations in Peking. The attempt was a calamitous failure for the western powers.

Preparations for a new expedition

Britain and France were united in their desire to mount a new, more-thoroughly prepared expedition to China. Britain was primarily concerned with 1) ensuring that their imports were exempted from Chinese duties and 2) opening up the Chinese market to opium (a market that would have been legalized and guaranteed by the treaty had it been ratified), whilst France, interested in sharing the potential market for goods that would open up in China, also wanted to keep tabs on Britain as it expanded in the east. Both countries were also intent on reprisals for the embarrassment suffered on the Pei-ho. France, having used the torture and execution of Auguste Chapdelaine as a pretext to enter the war in 1856, maintained their position as the protector of Catholicism and religious freedom. By October 1859, however, Franco-British relations were at a low-point, as disagreements over Italian affairs, the struggle for influence in Morocco (including the Spanish-Moroccan War which had recently broken out), and the Suez Canal project (see our special dossier) combined to put a joint expedition to China in doubt. Nevertheless, a new combined expedition was eventually mounted, and the first French ships left France on 5 December, 1859.

An ultimatum is issued

A joint-ultimatum was issued to the Chinese emperor on 8 March, 1860, outlining the French and British demands, namely:

– A letter of apology for the attack on allied vessels on the Pei-ho.
– Assurances that the allied envoys would receive unrestricted passage to Tien-tsin and Peking.
– Assurances that the Chinese government was prepared to ratify the treaty agreed at Tien-tsin in 1858.
– Indemnity payment to cover the costs of the expedition.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government refused and on 8 April, 1860, after the thirty-day period accorded to the Chinese to make their decision had run out, Britain and France were officially at war with the Chinese empire. The French general Montauban, selected to lead the expedition and command the French troops, and his general staff had arrived in Hong Kong on 26 February, and were in Shanghai on 12 March. Vice-admiral Charner, who was named commander in chief of the French naval forces in the Far East – the most important naval command announced since the First Empire period – whilst Montauban was en route, arrived in Shanghai on 19 April, rendering Montauban’s position delicate. The latter nevertheless remained as Commander in chief of the expedition, but the tension borne of this disunity of command within the French expeditionary force was cause for much concern prior to the allied interventions in the later months. The British command was comprised of Admiral Sir James Hope (in charge of the British naval forces) and General James Hope Grant (in charge of the British army forces).

The French General Collineau offered a summary of the issues surrounding the expedition:

“This campaign has been nothing but a never-ending series of procrastinations [and] discussions with our allies that blow hot and cold; this has resulted in errors and mistakes. There [are] four commanders, all independent and free to act in the fullness of their powers: on the French side, General Montauban, commander in chief of the army and Admiral Charner, commander in chief of the naval forces; on the English side, General Grant and Admiral Hope. Even the smallest decision [requires] the concordance of these four wills; it [is] grotesque and dispiriting.” [Original French quoted in Bourgerie & Lesouef, 1995]

Preparations for military action

On 20 and 21 April, British and French forces occupied the islands that made up Chusan (today Zhoushan), in the Hangzhou Bay, with the goal of protecting access to Shanghai. Transport ships carrying French troops arrived off the coast of Shanghai on 1 May, and awaited further instructions as to the site of disembarkation. It was decided that Zhifu offered the best conditions for military preparations and was chosen as the site. By 6 June, French troops were assembled in Zhifu and a base of operations was set up, ready for the anticipated northern assault on Peking via the Gulf of Petcheli (the Bohai Gulf). The English troops were based across the water, in Talienwan (today Dalian), not far from the Korean coastline.

At a meeting of the allied chiefs held on 18 June in Shanghai, two disembarkation points for the allied forces were decided, along with a provisional date of 15 July for the operation. Troops under General Grant were to land north of the Pei-ho, at Beitang, whilst Montauban was to disembark with his French troops just south of the Pei-ho, at Chi-Kan. This last site was to be altered nearer the date, following reconnaissance work performed on 14 and 15 July by the French admiral Protet, and advice from a more unexpected source. Whilst in Shanghai for the allied council, Montauban met the Russian ambassador to Peking, a certain General Ignatief, who as the sole European representative at the Chinese court, was in a unique position to offer the allied forces intelligence regarding the expedition. Despite British concerns over his reliability, the French command received a number of maps along with the advice that an attack via the Taku Forts (today part of the Tanggu district, Tianjin) would be far more advisable.

Attack on the Chinese mainland

With the provisional date of 15 July postponed, a Franco-British council of war was held on 19 July on the Zhifu islet. There it was unanimously decided to land at Beitang and mount a joint attack on the Taku Forts. A date of 26 July was fixed for casting off, on 28 July the two forces regrouped en route, and on 1 August, an initial combined force of 4,000 troops landed at the village of Beitang. Having seized the village, the two forts on either side of the river were also occupied, an operation which was marked by a certain amount of pillage.

On 2 August, Beitang served as a base for the allied troops as the expedition’s supplies, munitions and material were unloaded from the ships. Following reconnaissance of the surrounding area, a Chinese camp was discovered in proximity to the village, and a larger force was sent forward to investigate. After a brief skirmish which saw the British forces came up against the Chinese ‘jingals’ (artillery guns often used to fire heavy musket shot), both sides retired. Heavy rain held up the allied forces, who used the time to finish landing their artillery and troops. Between 12 and 22 August, the river mouth of the Pei-ho was cleared of Chinese ships, and the villages and enemy positions held along the river were captured or destroyed, thus opening up the route to Tien-tsin. On 21 August, a joint allied force mounted an attack on the five Taku forts on the banks of the Pei-ho. This was to prove one of the last major engagements of the expedition. After a number of hours of heavy fighting, a truce was agreed between the two sides in order to remove the dead and wounded. A Franco-British delegation was dispatched to the small village of Shuiku, where the officials met with the viceroy of Petcheli. These discussions resulted in a memorandum of understanding, by which:

– All forts and camps on the north bank of the river, including cannons and armaments, were to be ceded by the Chinese.
– Chinese officers were to be dispatched to the forts to offer information regarding powder magazines, traps and mines present in the forts.

It was also agreed that the Chinese officers would provide the expeditionary force with intelligence regarding the barricade works installed around the Pei-ho mouth. Following the agreement, the Chinese forces evacuated the forts and withdrew to Tien-tsin before retiring on Peking in what was a huge loss of face for the Chinese emperor. On 22 August, the allied forces crossed the Pei-ho and occupied the remaining Taku forts on the north bank. The route to Tien-tsin lay open. Although the journey up the river was affected by reconnaissance issues, the occupation of Tien-tsin on 2 September passed uneventfully. Prior to the allied arrival in Tien-tsin, on 31 August, two Chinese plenipotentiaries arrived to open peace negotiations. On 7 September, after a week of discussions based on the same articles as the Treaty of Tien-tsin from 1858, the signing fell through when it transpired that the Chinese ambassadors did not have the capacity to engage with the imperial court. The negotiations had been merely a delaying tactic to allow the Chinese emperor to organise the defence of Peking.

Onwards to Peking

The allied forces’ departure for Peking took place on 9, 10 and 11 September. On 14 September, with the army en route once again, new peace talks were requested by the Chinese negotiators: refusing to be taken in this time, the offer was accepted by the allied ambassadors, but the location for these discussions was set as Tongzhou (now a district of Beijing), just 25 km from Peking, and the note of acceptance was tempered with the warning that the allied military action had not been suspended. It was, however, agreed that the allied troops would not cross a designated point 8 km to the south of Tongzhou and for any ratification that would take place in Peking, a limited escort of 2,000 men (and importantly, no artillery) would accompany the allied negotiators.

Smelling a trap, Montauban ordered up a number of reserves and on 17 September, he set off with 1,100 troops, plus artillery, for Matao, on the outskirts of Peking. It soon became clear that the negotiating party had been ambushed en route to Tongzhou by a large number of Chinese cavalry, and on 18 September, allied forces under Montauban and Grant defeated 30,000 Chinese troops under Sengge Rinchen in a pitched battle at Zhangjiawan, east of Tongzhou.

The Battle of Baliqiao

On 19 September, following a failed allied attempt to secure the release of the remaining prisoners taken during the ambush, preparations were begun for the decisive final battle. 30,000 Chinese troops were stationed at the bridge at Baliqiao (known in French as Palikao). At 5am on 21 September, eight to ten thousand allied troops advanced on the bridge. The battle became famous for the doomed cavalry charges performed by the Mongolian cavalry in the face of concentrated allied infantry and artillery fire, and the Chinese losses (killed or wounded) were estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000. The allied losses, as described in the official report on the campaign released in 1862, came to 1,200 wounded or killed. Following the action, Napoleon III awarded Montauban with the title of “Comte de Palikao”.

The looting of the Summer Palaces

Emperor Xianfeng fled Peking, leaving his brother, Prince Kong, in charge of peace negotiations. The allies received reinforcements and the advance on the Chinese capital was restrained and careful. On 5 October, they bivouacked about five kilometres from the city walls. On 6 October, learning that a detachment of Chinese cavalry had withdrawn to the Summer Palace, the allied troops advanced on the position. A number of skirmishes took place following the allies’ entry into the palace grounds, and the next morning, the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace were pillaged of their fabulous riches. Referred to euphemistically in the official French campaign report as “the collection of curiosities of the most precious nature”, the stated intention of the organised looting was to gather together the most impressive objects ready to be dispatched back to Britain and France. Whilst cases upon cases of jewels, stones and precious objects were sent back to Europe, the Chinese emperor’s private stash of gold and silver ingots – totalling about 800,000 francs – was divided up amongst the men. The night of 6 October, the pillage spilled over and became more violent as Chinese looters stole into the grounds and made off with some of the takings.

Peace negotiations

Negotiations with Prince Kong had begun on 22 September, and on 9 October, the diplomatic prisoners were released to the allies. On 10 October, with winter fast approaching, the allies gave Kong an ultimatum. He was to hand over control of Peking’s Anding gate (the Andingmen) and allow the installation of a number of allied troops along its ramparts before 13 October, or face the prospect of the wall being breached with explosives. After tense last-ditch negotiations, the gate was opened and allied troops occupied the area. On 17 October, Kong was given the deadline of 23 October to sign the Convention of Peking; failure to do so would result in the imperial palace being bombarded. In response to the torture (and in some cases, death) of a number of British, French and Indian captives who had been seized during the peace negotiations, on 18 October Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, ordered the destruction of the Summer Palace. It took three days to burn down.

On 20 October, Kong fearing further reprisals, agreed to pay indemnities totalling 4 million francs to the prisoners and their families and on 22 October accepted the remaining articles of the convention. These were for the most part the same as those of the Treaty of Tien-tsin from 1858, although the indemnity sum had risen to 8 million francs. The ratification and signing ceremonies took place on 24 and 25 October. Peking remained unoccupied by allied troops, who bivouacked outside the city walls.

On 26 and 28 October, the bodies of the allied prisoners tortured and executed by the Chinese were buried. On 1 November, the French troops left Peking for their winter quarters in Tien-tsin, arriving there on 6 November. The first English troops arrived on 12 November. Montauban left Tien-tsin on 22 November.

The winter in Tien-tsin was particularly hard in 1860, and in January 1861, there was an outbreak of smallpox amongst the allied troops. Amongst the forty-six cases was the French general, Collineau, whose situation deteriorated. He died on 15 January.


On 23 February, 1861, many of the objects taken from the looting and sent back to France were displayed in an exhibition at the Tuileries Palace, and in 1863, the most precious items eventually ended up at the Musée Chinois at Fontainebleau, where they remain to this day.

The 1862 exhibition in London had a large number of items taken from the palace and presented to Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, whilst an article appeared in The Times on 30 March, 1865, detailing the newly-opened private collection of “Chinese gems, relics, State emblems, and works of art” on display at Crystal Palace. According to the article, the collection, which The Times claimed far outshone the choice pickings set aside by the allied commanders and presented to their respective allied monarchs, belonged to a certain Captain Negroni, who apparently had purchased the items from French and British veterans of the campaign. It is believed that certain items in the British Museum’s Chinese collection – including some of its fantastic porcelain exhibits – originate from the palace looting.

In the past decade, there have been calls for foreign institutions, and in particular the British Museum, to return their Chinese exhibits to China. Since 2009, Chinese authorities have endeavoured to catalogue the numerous artefacts that were lost during the looting. The number of relics plundered during the destruction in 1860 has been estimated at 1.5 million, and the investigation has revealed that they are currently residing in some 2,000 different institutions in forty-seven countries.

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