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Chapter 10

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Old China Trade

Foster Rhea Dulles

published by
The Riverside Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 12
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p160  Chapter XI
Anglo-Chinese Hostilities

The situation in Canton toward the close of 1839 could not have been more confused. The English were still holding out resolutely against the signature of any bond imposing those extreme penalties for the further importation of opium which had been proposed by Commissioner Lin, but at the same time they were trading actively with the Chinese merchants through the medium of American ships. The San Jacinto still refused to withdraw from the position they had assumed and the members of the co‑hong were forbidden to trade with the English, but they also were glad to take advantage of the facilities for trade offered by the Americans. In both cases principle was warring against commercial interests. Victory might have gone to the latter had it not been that behind the immediate cause of the Anglo-Chinese controversy lurked the one important question which could not be settled by compromise: that is, international equality.

But if that principle lay at the bottom of the quarrel between the English and the Chinese, it was nevertheless a series of minor incidents which brought matters to a head and resulted in actual war. For one thing, the trade in opium started up again. Before the Chinese had destroyed the surrendered chests, it was renewed by the British dealers, and Captain Elliot, who had done what he could to keep the opium ships from Lintin, reported to his Government that 'a most vigorous trade is carried on at places about two hundred miles to the eastward of Canton.' A few months later, a similar statement was made in the 'Chinese  p161 Repository.' The opium traffic, it declared, 'seems to be as vigorously prosecuted as ever, and with as much safety and profit.'1

This open disregard of the reform which the Chinese were honestly trying to enforce naturally served to increase their resentment against the British, while at the same time two further complications occurred which stiffened their attitude and shut the door to possible compromise. The first of these was the death of a Chinese, one Lin Wei‑hi, in a drunken affray between some Chinese villagers and English sailors on the island of Kowloon; the second was the action of the British ship Thomas Coutts, which calmly disregarded Captain Elliot's order for an embargo on all trade and proceeded to sign the bond required by Commissioner Lin. If the one incident brought up the old controversial question of Chinese jurisdiction over the foreigners, the other convinced the authorities at Canton that if they held out long enough the self-interest of the English traders would induce them to follow the example of the captain of the Thomas Coutts and compel Captain Elliot to surrender.

The British official had no such idea. He was more than ever persuaded of the necessity of forcing things to an issue. Hostilities, in fact, were not far distant. In November, a force of twenty-nine war junks swept down upon the English merchant fleet anchored off Hongkong to demand the surrender of Lin Wei‑hi's murderer. Captain Elliot did not know the murderer, and in any event had no intention of handing any English sailor over to Chinese justice. This he told the admiral in command of the junks, and when the latter continued to advance upon the English fleet, he took decisive action. The British ships opened fire,  p162 and after blowing up four of the junks, they forced the rest to retire. It was war.

None of these events had any effect upon the Americans. They continued to trade as best they could throughout 1839 and even in the succeeding years of actual war. They were constantly protesting against any British attempt to blockade Canton. For the handful of traders who remained in the Chinese city, the slogan which they preached, and on which they invariably acted, was 'Business as usual.'

Before hostilities had broken out, eight of these American merchants had sent a memorial to Washington suggesting that the time had come for united action on the part of England, France, Holland, and the United States to induce the Chinese to increase foreign trading privileges, but they did not really expect their Government to intervene.​2 They do not seem to have been vitally interested in the matter themselves, and certainly not to the extent of wishing to run the risk of inviting Chinese hostility. Some of them had little confidence in such British aims as the opening of new ports to foreign trade. They were, by and large, content with conditions as they had been before Commissioner Lin and Captain Elliot had brought affairs to a crisis.

The scene now shifts to London, where the imminence of war resulted in the inevitable parliamentary debates. The policy of the Government in allowing Chinese relations to drift into such a serious impasse was vigorously attacked, but events had gone so far that the necessity of using force  p163 to uphold British prestige was generally accepted. No one advocated war because of the seizure of the opium, but the trade in the contraband drug was condoned and Palmerston maintained that the Chinese were not sincere in their efforts to suppress it. The Opposition might express grave doubts as to whether the case of the Chinese was not actually stronger than that of the British, but a division along purely party lines upheld the Government and Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the Colonies, declared that war had been 'set afoot to obtain reparation for insults and injuries offered Her Majesty's superintendent and subjects; to obtain indemnification for the losses the merchants had sustained under threat of violence; and, lastly, to get security that persons and property trading with China should in future be protected from insult and injury, and trade maintained upon a proper footing.'

No official declaration of war was ever made by either Great Britain or China. Commissioner Lin had sent a characteristically bombastic declaration to Queen Victoria. 'You savages of the further seas,' he pompously wrote, 'have waxed so bold, it seems, as to defy and insult our mighty Empire. Of a truth it is high time for you to "flay the face and cleanse the heart," and to amend your ways. If you submit humbly to the Celestial dynasty and tender your allegiance, it may give you a chance to purge yourself of your past sins. But if you continue and persist in your path of obstinate delusion, your three islands will be laid waste and your people pounded into mincemeat, so soon as the armies of his Divine Majesty set foot upon your shores.'

Great Britain's answer was also characteristic. An Order in Council was adopted to obtain 'satisfaction and reparation for the late injurious proceedings,' and sixteen ships of  p164 war carrying five hundred and forty guns, four steamers, one troopship, twenty-seven transports, and four thousand land forces were immediately dispatched to Chinese waters.

Official operations against the Chinese were initiated with a blockade of the river and port of Canton on June 28, 1840, but the orders brought out from England by Admiral George Elliot, who had been appointed British Commissioner jointly with his cousin Captain Elliot, were to carry the war to the north and open negotiations directly with Peking for the settlement of Great Britain's grievances. Consequently, Tinghai, capital of the island of Chusan off the coast of Chekiang, was occupied, and, after blockading Ningpo and the mouth of the Yangtze, the British fleet took up its position at the Peiho River near Tientsin.

The Chinese had been powerless before this display of force and had no means of resisting the advance of the British war vessels. They were ready to sue for peace. Negotiations were entered into by Captain Elliot and Viceroy Kishen of the Province of the Chihli, which resulted in a convention whereby the Chinese agreed to surrender Hongkong to the British, pay an indemnity of six million dollars, open trade at Canton, and permit direct official intercourse between England and China on terms of absolute equality.

This settlement satisfied no one. The war party at Peking, merely slow at getting into action, was still far from convinced of Britain's obvious superiority in war, and the Emperor was besieged with memorials urging him to renew hostilities and drive the impudent foreign devils into the sea. The vainglorious mandarins of the capital, whose pride was equaled only by their ignorance, were convinced that the Emperor had but to show the real strength of his ever-victorious armies for the barbarians to flee. They were  p165 far from ready to submit to the humiliation of the peace which the British would have forced upon them.

Nor were the English content with the convention signed by Captain Elliot. Having once started upon war, the Government was determined to carry it through to the point where full satisfaction was secured. If from the Chinese point of view the convention granted far too much, from that of the British it granted far too little.

Captain Elliot had ended the occupation of Chusan, which had taken a heavy toll in English lives through sickness, and was prepared to open the trade at Canton, but the war party at Peking soon forced his hand. The Emperor ordered a concentration of troops at Tinghai and at Canton to 'destroy and wipe clean away, to exterminate and root out the rebellious barbarians . . . beings that the overshadowing vault and all‑containing earth can hardly suffer to live.' A 'majesty-bearing generalissimo' supported by 'rebel-quelling generals' took the field, and high rewards were offered for the capture of British ships and of Englishmen, dead or alive.

Commodore Sir Gordon Bremer, who had now succeeded Admiral Elliot in charge of the fleet, thereupon moved up the Pearl River. The Bogue forts were captured and seventy‑one war junks and shore batteries mounting over sixty guns were destroyed in a general engagement off the foreign factories. Preparations were then made for an assault upon Canton itself with artillery and infantry, when at the last moment the Chinese merchants of the city offered to pay a ransom of six million dollars to save it from attack. Captain Elliot, still anxious for peace and zealous in the interests of the tea trade, accepted this offer.

This was in May, 1841. Within a few weeks Colonel Sir Henry Pottinger and Rear-Admiral Sir William Parker  p166 reached China with commissions to supersede those of both Captain Elliot and Commodore Bremer. Palmerston was discontented with the somewhat dilatory tactics of Captain Elliot and determined to push things through. His instructions to Sir Henry Pottinger were to reoccupy Chusan, force new negotiations at the mouth of the Peiho, and secure in full Great Britain's aims. National interests were no longer to be subordinated to those of commerce.

The war then entered a second and far more vigorous phase. Again the British fleet started north with 2519 troops. Amoy, Tinghai, Chinhai, and Ningpo were captured in rapid succession. The Chinese were at the mercy of the invaders. They could do nothing. At times they put up a brave resistance and fought valiantly, but their lack of discipline, their unfamiliarity with the tactics of modern warfare, and their want of weapons left them helpless before the onslaughts of the trained and well-equipped British forces.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is a depiction of the capture of Tinghai in 1841.]

The courage and desperation of the Manchu garrison, whose scorn and hatred of the foreign barbarian made any fate more desirable than that of falling alive into his hands, often resulted in scenes of tragic heroism such as the English soldiers had never witnessed or imagined. At Chapu the garrison stood to its post until not only were the troops decimated, but the women and children had been offered to the sword in order to prevent their falling into the enemies' hands. More than twelve thousand persons perished, either in the attack of the English or by their own swords, in an action in which the invaders lost but nine.

At Chinkiang, where the steady advance of the British next carried the war, even more desperate scenes were enacted. 'Such was their terror and hatred of the invaders,' writes S. Wells Williams in 'The Middle Kingdom,' 'that  p167 every Manchu preferred resistance, death, suicide, or flight to surrender. Out of a Manchu population of four thousand, it was estimated that not more than five hundred survived, the greater part having perished by their own hands.' The throats of the women were cut and babies thrown into wells to save them from what the Manchus regarded as the far worse fate of capture.

It was only after Shanghai had fallen and an assault had been ordered against Nanking that the imperial court recognized the inevitable and accepted the British terms. The Chinese had at last been forced to recognize that their country's claims to world superiority could not be supported and that the Son of Heaven no longer could exact tribute from the Western Ocean nations. The haughty and insolent self-esteem of the Manchus had been ruthlessly punctured by British bayonets. War had succeeded where diplomacy had failed. When China sued for peace, the day when the foreign devils could be treated with impudent scorn had come to a disastrous end.

Neither Commissioner Lin, who had brought this war upon China, nor Commissioner Kishen, who had signed the first articles of peace, were empowered to treat with the English. They had paid the price the Son of Heaven always exacted for failure. The latter had been degraded and exiled; the former left Canton in chains and was transported to the Amur. 'You have not only proved yourself unable to cut off their trade,' read the imperial edict, 'but you have proved yourself unable to seize perverse natives. You have but dissembled with empty words, and so far from having been any help in the affair, you have caused the waves of confusion to arise, and a thousand interminable disorders are sprouting; in fact you have been as if your arms were tied, without knowing what to do: it appears, then, you are no  p168 better than a wooden image. When I meditate on all these things, I am filled with anger and melancholy.' True it was Lin had sown the tempest and reaped the whirlwind, but he had only followed his orders.

The terms of the British-impose peace were signed at Nanking aboard H. M. S. Cornwallis by Sir Henry Pottinger and three Chinese envoys, Commissioners Kiying and Ilipu and the Nanking Viceroy, Niu Kien, on August 29, 1842. The treaty provided for the cession of Hongkong, the opening of trade at the four additional ports of Shanghai, Amoy, Ningpo, and Foochow, the establishment of British consuls, an indemnity of twenty‑one million dollars, of which six million dollars was for the destroyed opium, the abolition of the monopoly of the co‑hong as a system of trading, the establishment of a uniform and moderate tariff, and the recognition of absolute equality between China and Great Britain. Nothing was said about the trade in opium.

This was the first Anglo-Chinese war, which has gone down in history as the 'Opium War.' It has been vilified as strongly by British historians as by those of other nationality.3 Its immediate origin and the circumstances under which it began cannot be very well defended. Yet at the same time it must be admitted that Great Britain had submitted to much provocation in the insolent manner in which China had met all its previous attempts to establish friendly relations, and in so far as it fought to maintain the equality of nations, it was fighting the battle of the Western world. Its great and indefensible mistake was in allowing  p169 a crisis to arise over opium, in which the Chinese were clearly and unmistakably right. That blot upon the relations between China and the West can never be removed.

In the next chapter contemporary American opinion upon the war will be fully discussed. As for the Americans at Canton, they had been able to hold aloof from the war, maintain their cordial relations with the Chinese, and with some interruptions continue their trade. It was peace which brought new problems. The opportune arrival in Canton of Commodore Lawrence Kearny, of the U. S. Frigate Constellation, fortunately gave them an official representative to take up with the Chinese authorities the changed conditions of trade as effected by the Treaty of Nanking.

Commodore Kearny had arrived in Chinese waters some few months before the end of the war and proceeding up the Pearl River, the first American warship to pass the Bogue, he found a situation quite different from that which any former American naval officer had ever experienced. Thanks to the salutary lesson which the Chinese had learned from their struggle with the British, foreigners were now treated with something akin to respect. Relations between Commodore Kearny and the Canton officials were established automatically and an entirely amiable correspondence was carried on without reference to the hong merchants. A Chinese admiral even paid a formal visit to the Constellation and was greeted by an official salute and the manning of the yards. The day of frantic proclamations forbidding foreign war vessels to 'loiter about' had passed.

Almost the first thing done by Commodore Kearny upon his arrival was to issue through the United States Consul an announcement that his Government would not sanction  p170 any opium smuggling under the American flag. What is more, he meant it. The American merchants were warned against the risks such a course would entail, and before he left the China coast the Commodore gave even greater point to his declaration of policy by forcing the schooner Ariel to dispose of an illegal cargo and depriving her of her American papers. In view of the somewhat equivocal attitude of the British, it is no wonder that the Canton Viceroy hailed this friendly act and even went so far as to declare — with evident exaggeration — that the American ships had always obeyed the law.

Commodore Kearny next entered a protest against an incident of the previous year which had resulted in the death of one American and the injury of several others when the Chinese had fired upon a boat of the ship Morrison. The reply was most conciliatory. The Chinese official explained that the Americans had been mistaken for English, and as soon as their identity had become known, every attempt had been made to make restitution for the unwarranted attack. Commodore Kearny was requested to fix an indemnity for the outrage in conference with hong merchants and eventually the American claims were fully met by a payment of seventy-eight thousand dollars.

The points at issue between the Americans and Chinese were thus satisfactorily settled. Direct communications with the Viceroy were allowed, commercial relations were on a most favorable footing, and the American flag was respected. Still Commodore Kearny was not satisfied. Peace having been agreed upon by China and Great Britain, he was anxiously concerned to know if the new privileges granted to the English would also be extended to the Americans. Consequently, on October 8, 1842, he wrote to Commissioner Kiying, who was also Governor of Canton,  p171 expressing the hope that American interests would not be over­looked in the new arrangements for foreign commerce and that the trade and duchess of the United States would be 'placed upon the same footing as the merchants of the nation most favored.'

The prompt reply to this communication was all that the American envoy could have expected. Kiying promised that the matter would be taken up at once. 'Decidedly it shall not be permitted,' he wrote, 'that the American merchants shall come to have merely a dry stick.'

In this somewhat cryptic statement may be found the genesis of the most-favored-nation doctrine as applied to China's foreign relations, which in turn was to form the foundation of the open-door policy. The line of development from this exchange of letters between Commodore Kearny and Commissioner Kiying to the reassertion of the open door by Secretary Hay some fifty-seven years later is clear and direct.

It is true that a year earlier Captain Elliot had announced that the British sought no special individual privileges in their attack upon China, but nevertheless there was nothing in the treaty which they eventually signed to indicate that they expected the Americans to share in all the rights secured to them by war. It was action by the Chinese themselves, as foreshadowed in this statement by Kiying, which assured for the Americans their equal rights in the new China trade. Naturally it was a question in which the merchants of the United States were vitally concerned, for no matter what their feelings might be in regard to the Anglo-Chinese War, they could not stand by and see their position in China completely undermined. They had not fought for the opening of the new treaty ports and the granting of new privileges, but if they were to  p172 be secured by the British it was essential that they be enjoyed by the United States.

That Chinese were prepared to admit these claims is a tribute to their political sagacity, and it subsequently developed that they had officially provided for such action even earlier than was at first realized. In a treaty with England supplementary to the Treaty of Nanking, signed at the Bogue on October 8, 1843, the Chinese text differed somewhat from the English in stating that 'the merchants of the various nations of Europe should be allowed to proceed to the four ports of Foochow, Ningpo, Amoy, and Shanghai for the purposes of trade, to which the English were not to make any objections. . . .'

In all events, Commodore Kearny now felt that American rights were fully protected, and he would have left Canton had not the American Consul and American merchants prevailed upon him to remain until conditions became somewhat more settled. His precaution was effective in securing indemnification of $253,430 for American property destroyed in the riots which broke out in Canton toward the close of 1842. Then before he left the China coast he again took up the question of American trading privileges, as at that time it still seemed uncertain whether the new ports were really going to be open to all foreigners.

On this occasion the Chinese officials referred to his communication as a request 'to solicit the favor of the Emperor,' and suggested that if the Imperial Commissioner and the Commodore could meet 'face to face, the relations between the two countries may be arranged.' Commodore Kearny detected in this reply a recrudescence of Chinese superiority. His answer was that the United States was seeking equal treatment, not as a favor, but as a right, and that the Emperor should appoint high commissioners to  p173 negotiate a special treaty with similar officials of the United States.

This was not exactly the Chinese idea. Further treaties with the foreigners were not altogether to their liking, and the answer given to Commodore Kearny was that the accord he proposed 'would be an unnecessary and circuitous act.' Nevertheless, it was again emphasized that the Americans would not be shut off from the privileges granted to the English, and it was definitely stated that 'the various particulars relating to the commercial duties to be paid by each country are all to be regulated uniformly by one rule, without the least partiality to be manifested towards any one.'

Here was a written promise supplementing Kiying's first acknowledgment of American rights and pointing the way to the subsequent treaty which the United States was to negotiate to counterbalance the treaties signed by Great Britain. Commodore Kearny could leave Canton content. By bringing up the question at the opportune moment, he had assured for the United States, without a single hostile act, those same privileges which the English had won after hostilities extending over almost three years. What is more, the traditional friendship of the Americans and the Chinese had not been sacrificed one iota.

The first accounts of the early relations between the United States and China painted a satisfying picture of American kindness and forbearance toward the Chinese as contrasted with the aggressive and warlike attitude of the British. More lately the pendulum has swung the other way. We have a picture of the United States selfishly holding aloof while the British fought its battles, and then rushing in to demand for itself the privileges which the British had won through so many sacrifices in the common cause.

 p174  Neither picture would seem to be entirely true. The United States did not concern itself with the first Anglo-Chinese war because its interests were not vitally affected. The Americans at Canton were the only one concerned and they were on the whole satisfied with the conditions under which they were allowed to trade, and opposed to the traffic in opium. For entirely selfish reasons — the continuance of their trade — they were consequently more friendly than the British toward the Chinese and more willing to submit to the petty annoyances and vexations to which the merchants of both nations were subjected by the haughty mandarins of Canton. They might have favored a joint exhibition of force to convince the Chinese of the respect due to foreigners, but they opposed war.

Nevertheless, once the war had been fought and the British had secured new trading privileges, the United States could not stand by and see its trade still confined to the old channels. That would have been practically impossible. It would have caused the withdrawal of the Americans from China altogether, because they could not possibly have competed with their privileged rivals. It is easy to see — as the Chinese quickly recognized — that it was as much to the interest of China as to that of the United States that the position of England should not be favored above that of other Western nations.

Self-interest was entirely responsible for the first flowering of the open-door policy in China. But there is no reason why this should discredit a development which first cast America in the rôle of friend to China, and subsequently was to check her division into separate spheres of foreign influence.

The Author's Notes:

1 Consul Snow reported, on September 23, 1839, that at that time there were no Americans in the opium trade, despite British activity.

[decorative delimiter]

2 Some comfort had been afforded the Americans by the opportune arrival, in the very midst of the excitement of their imprisonment at Canton, of two American ships of war, the frigate Columbia and the sloop John Adams, under the command of Commodore Read. But the naval officer had agreed with the Consul that the bond required by the Chinese should not be signed. When trade had been resumed, the squadron thereupon left Canton, in the face of frantic protests from the mercantile community.

[decorative delimiter]

3 In his A History of Our Own Times, for example, Justin M'Carthy says: '. . . in the beginning and the very origin of the quarrel we were distinctly in the wrong. We asserted, or at least acted upon the assertion of, a claim so unreasonable and even monstrous that it never could have been made upon any nation strong enough to render its assertion a matter of serious responsibility.'

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