Dagu Forts, 1859: First round to the Qing

CKS1185_SaleCatp113An upcoming Christie’s sale in London, of the Hanshan Tang Reserve Collection, includes (lot no. 96), a gorgeously illustrated copy of an album of handpainted scenes of battles in the Second Opium, or Arrow, War. This is described on p.63 of the catalogue, from which the illustrations reproduced here are taken. As it was completed before the Anglo-French assualt on north China in the autumn of 1860, it concludes on a triumphal note with the allied defeat at the Dagu Forts on 25 June 1859. Well it might, for this was a comprehensive victory for the Qing, and a complete disaster for the British forces.

CKS1185_SaleCatp63The British were attempting to force their way to Beijing to secure ratification of the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin, and thought the forts, which guarded the entrance to the Beihe, would be a pushover, not least as the forts had been captured a year earlier without a struggle. Then, the garrisons had simply fled. In the interim, however, the defenders had been improving their discipline, their weaponry, their defences, and their artillery targetting. The progress made was revealed, with considerable effect on 25 June.  So confident was the British belief in Qing incompetence and cowardice, however, and so hysterical was the response to the drubbing received, that the only explanation many Britons accepted was that the Russians were behind it all, and must have equipped and trained the Chinese forces, if not helped out in the fighting.

Four hundred Bitish soldiers and sailors were killed, many cut down as they waded across mudflats towards the forts in a frontal assualt, and tried to negotiate pallisades. Four ships were lost. The British retreated from north China. Qing officials who opposed compromise gained the upper hand in discussions about what to do about the foreigners. Everybody settled down to coninue the war.

Felice Beato, Scene

Felice Beato, Scene inside the Dagu forts, August 1860

The Dagu forts are best known, visually, through Felice Beato’s war photography. That might serve to counterpoint the colourful images of Qing victory, for unfortunately for the Manchus, and the garrisons at Dagu, the British and French came back in August 1860, and they took the forts from the landward side. Then they marched on Beijing. Behind them they left the death and devastation caused by their more advanced weaponry, including the new Armstrong Guns that they were testing in action. Ahead of them lay the Yuanmingyuan – the Old Summer Palace. The destruction of the complex later that year by the British was one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism of the nineteenth century. Partly driving that act, aside from the sheer difficulty of the fight in 1860, and the killing and maltreatment of allied prisoners, was a desire for revenge, not least for the bitter defeat of June 1859.

The Boxers, in Hove

The Boxer uprising of 1900 was the indirect prompt for a landmark moment in the history of cinema. British director James Wiliamson took savvy advantage of the feverish news coverage of events in north China, and assembled a team of actors (including his daughter Florence) at a house in Hove, near Brighton, and made ‘Attack on a China Mission’. The four-minute film was first shown ‘with appropriate music’ — what ever that might have been — at Hove Town Hall on 17 November 1900, and includes the first reverse angle cut yet identified by film historians. Williamson’s film jumps from its view of the ‘mission station’ under attack, to the reverse view: the arrival of the rescuers, a party of British marines, a mounted officer in the rear, who line up in fours and fire directly into the camera, and into the Boxers. For that brief moment a British audience might be said to have shared the same view of British military might as the people of north China.

The marines are coming: Still from scene 3, 'Attack on a China Mission' (1900).

British marines advance over the north China plain …: Still from scene 3, ‘Attack on a China Mission’ (1900).

I wrote about ‘Attack on a China Mission’ in chapter 11 of The Scramble for China. You can now view some of the surviving footage here on Youtube, or here (46 minutes in) presented in the context of other work of the time. If you have access you can also watch it on the British Film Institute site (the supporting material is open access), and there is an academic piece about the technical innovation involved here. The 2006 BBC/BFI documentary ‘Silent Britain’ includes footage missing from the version online linked to above, notably the cut back to the arriving rescuers, and their volleys into the camera.

The Shanghai Volunteer Corps

SVCLOGO2One hundred and seventy years ago this week, the North China Herald reported on a series of consular and public meetings which had led to the creation of what was originally called the British local Volunteer Corps, and in time became officially know as the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. Formed after the seizure of the walled city of Shanghai by a rebel ‘Small Sword Society’, it saw action the following year in the 2 April ‘Battle of Muddy Flat’. This was a successful, if incompetent affair which drove away Qing government forces who were besieging the rebels, but who were camped too close to the foreign settlements, thereby drawing fire onto foreign property. Most of the handful of SVC dead were probably killed by ‘friendly fire’.

Quiescent thereafter until 1870, a revived SVC came under the control of the Shanghai Municipal Council, and in time became a vital component in foreign military defence schemes, and in internal security. A servig British officer was seconded to lead the Corps. Different foreign communities served in national or other companies (American, German, Jewish, the Customs, Philippine etc); the Shanghai Light House deemed itself the socially most prestigious; the Shanghai Scottish probably had most fun in the Mess; and the Chinese Company was formally the most efficient: they shot well and true.

t-flagIn 1927 a paid Russian detachment was created from refugee White Russian soldiers, becoming in 1932 the Russian Regiment. In 1941 this was transferred to the Shanghai Municipal Police as the Russian Auxiliary Detachment. The Corps was abolished in early 1942 after the takeover of the international settlement by Japanese troops. In 1954 a gala dinner at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club commemorated the centenary of the ‘Battle of Muddy Flat’ with fillet steak, wine and song.

At times a very significant proporton of young foreign businessmen served in the volunteers. It can not have helped the way many of them understood the nature of the foreign presence in China, let alone the way they were perceived by the Shanghainese who regularly saw parades of armed foreign traders marching down the Nanjing road.

Remembering Sir Robert Hart

The post below was originally published on the website of the British Inter-university China Centre, which I direct.

BICC has been collaborating with Dr Weipin Tsai at Royal Holloway University of London, on her imaginative initiative to restore to public view the achievements of Sir Robert Hart, the Ulsterman who served from 1863-1911 as Inspector-General of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. The first stage of this programme was completed on 22 February, when sixty guests assembled at All Saint’s Church in Bisham, near Marlow in Berkshire, for a ceremony to rededicate the gravestone of Sir Robert and Lady Hester Jane Hart.


Hart tombstone before restoration, 2012

The tombstone had been in danger of being removed, as it was in a decrepit state, but the team have had it professionally restored. On a freezing cold, but sunny morning, an audience of former diplomats, business figures, Chinese studies academics, several descendents of Customs staff, including descendents of Hart himself, and visitors from China, assembled for a simple rededication ceremony. The grave is but a few yards from the Thames, and there the Reverend Sara Fitzgerald led a service which included addresses on Hart’s spiritual life and motivations from Hans van de Ven, at Cambridge University, and on Hart’s contribution to Anglo-Chinese relations from Robert Bickers.

Sir Robert and Lady Hart's tombstone after restoration, February 2013

Sir Robert and Lady Hart’s tombstone after restoration, February 2013

Wreaths were then laid by Etain Alexander, great grand-daughter of Sir Robert, Deidre Wildy on behalf of his alma mater Queens’ University Belfast, Julie Shipley, Head of the Sir Robert Hart Memorial Primary School in Portadown, Dr Mary Tiffen, in memory of the Carrall family, and Weipin Tsai on behalf of The Royal Philatelic Society London, Taiwan Chapter; Chinese Taipei Philatelic Society; The China Stamp Society, Inc. Taiwan Chapter. (Hart was appointed to manage the new Imperial Chinese Post Office when it was established in 1896).

Waltham St Lawrence Silver Band, in All Saints' Church, Bisham

Waltham St Lawrence Silver Band, in All Saints’ Church, Bisham

In recognition of Hart’s place in the history of the European classical music’s reception in China — he organised and ran the first secular brass band in the country — the local Waltham St Lawrence Silver Band played a selection of pieces. These included some that are known to have been included in the programmes played by Hart’s own band in the gardens of his residence in Peking.

The ceremony was followed by a reception and presentations about Hart and his legacies, including his archive at Queens’ University Belfast Special Collections, and discussion of how the rich private archives of the British presence in China, not least its photographic records, can help furnish unique materials for understanding China’s modern history, its heritage, and social life and customs.

Hart joined the Customs in 1859, and 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of his formal appointment to the Inspector-Generalship. He was a Chinese civil servant, and never let the foreign nationals on his own staff forget this point, and he worked consistently to try and fashion structures and practices that would reduce the potential for tension between China and the foreign powers. He did not always succeed, but he undoubtedly had a significant impact on the course of events. Hart’s reputation has varied over the years. In Anglophone historical writing in the 1950s-60s he was presented as fairly central to any understanding of China’s interaction with foreign power, but thereafter new scholarly trends explored different fields and approaches and he largely fell out of sight. In China, until relatively recently, he was viewed simply as an agent of foreign, principally British, imperialism.

Attitudes in China today are more nuanced, and there has been a revival of scholarship internationally into the rich and varied history of the activities of Hart and his service. This event was part of a wider initiative, which will include a film, which aims to place Hart back into broader debates about British-Chinese relations, their history, contemporary features and their future. In particular, those state to state relations are at heart also relations between people, British and Chinese. In Hart, and the 22,000 foreign and Chinese staff of the Customs, and in the legacies of those careersdown to today, we have a rich field in which to explore how people shaped such abstractions as ‘Anglo-Chinese relations’.

The booklet accompany this commemorative event, Between Two Worlds: Commorating Sir Robert Hart, compiled by Weipin Tsai, can be found on the History of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service project website.

Hugh Hamilton Lindsay

A dominating presence in the opening chapters of The Scramble for China is Hugh Hamilton Lindsay (1802–1881), probably the first Briton to visit Shanghai, in 1832 on board the Lord Amherst. It was frustrating to write about a man of whom no images whatsoever appeared to have survived. At a late stage, I was alerted to a watercolour in the Chater Collection of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, which seems to show him ‘leaving Canton in a fast-boat’, according to a description written on the painting. It is an atmospheric image, and I used it in the book, but the man shown is fairly indistinct.

Hugh Hamiton LIndsay, painted by George Chinnery, copyright Sir W. Young.

Hugh Hamiton LIndsay, painted by George Chinnery, copyright Sir W. Young.

In September 2011 I fleshed out Lindsay’s life and career more fully in a lecture to the Royal Historical Society, now published in the Society’s Transactions. Afterwards, as a result of the publicity, I received an email asking if I would be interested in seeing a portrait of the man, painted by the great India and China coast artist, George Chinnery. Within a few days I was holding this delightful small painting in my office in Bristol.

Lindsay had no children, but the owner was a descendant on his sister’s side. It shows a man perhaps not yet 30, in a romantic style. It fits very well with descriptions of LIndsay in the journal letters of the American Macao resident Harriet, Low, ‘droll’, handsome, ‘always ready, for adventures of any kind’. Lindsay commissioned the famous drawing of Karl Gützlaff in Chinese clothing by Chinnery, which is best known in the form of a print, and it made perfect sense to find that the artist had painted the Scotsman as well.

So there he is, at last: Hugh Hamilton Lindsay, would-be Sinologist, restless traveller, warmonger, Member of Parliament, angry young man, embittered old China hand. He railed successively against the East India Company which employed him until 1832, the Qing empire which thwarted his ambition in China, the British state which did not follow a ‘forward’ enough policy there and, later, he fought with ‘Rajah’ James Brooke over concessions in Borneo. Most of that story was yet to come when George Chinnery captured the spirit of this nonetheless charming adventurer, sometime around 1830, in sleepy Macao.

China on my mind

Two things have been keeping me busy recently. One is setting up a blog to accompany the Visualising China platform, our online, open-access resource of 8,500+ digitised photographs of China, mostly to be found in Britain, and mostly in the hands of private families with historic connections to China. These are the descendents of the people I’ve been writing about in my books, and one wonderful by-product of the research for the books has been making contact with such families. They’ve been very generous with information, documents and photographs, and I’ve drawn upon this resource, as much as I’ve drawn upon official archives and documents.

The other source of busy-ness has been the appearance in paperback of The Scramble for China, in its very handsome cover.