Late Qing Catastrophes: The Taiping and the West

By Tyler Parsons


This is a series of articles about the Taiping Rebellion, the first summed up the Military campaign, the second the internal problems of the rebels and the third the simultaneous Second Opium War.


Sir George Bonham, Third Governor of Hong Kong.

Throughout the 1850s, the west’s declining decline in relations with the Qing had not been accompanied by a commensurate improvement in relations with the Taiping. For the first few years of its existence, the Taiping Rebellion was somewhat shrouded in mystery, with only limited and contradictory information of its activities reaching westerners in their coastal enclaves. At most, some would have been aware of its connection with the strange young man who had come to Canton and studied with the missionary Issachar Roberts for a few weeks in 1847.


It was only with their capture of Nanjing, just a few hundred miles upriver of Shanghai, in March 1853 that the Taiping could begin to form a more definite shape in the western imagination. Intermittent diplomatic contact followed, mainly taking the form of western diplomats sailing up to Nanjing. The first of these was Britain’s George Bonham in April 1853, followed by France’s M. de Bourbolon in November, and America’s Robert McLane in May 1854.


The Taiping did not make a positive impression. This is unsurprising. The Taiping leadership had no training in diplomacy or experience interacting with westerners- prior to the First Opium War westerners had been limited to Canton, and their interactions largely limited to a guild of Chinese merchants. The Taiping leadership, by contrast, was largely drawn from peasant villages in Guangxi and Guangdong. Even Hong Xiuquan, who had grown up in the environs of Canton, had only the most fleeting interactions with foreigners. As such, the Taiping largely adopted traditional Chinese diplomatic posturing.


There was quibbling over issues of prestige and dignity, with the Taiping adopting the arrogance and hauteur the westerners had found so odious in their interactions with the Qing. Bonham left outraged at the ‘’insurgent chiefs’’ who had demanded British acknowledgement of Hong’s universal overlordship, and cynical about the Rebels’ claimed Christian faith. He would return from his trip advocating strict neutrality in China’s civil war.


In addition to such arguments over protocol, there were more deep-seated issues surrounding Taiping-western relations. McLane was perturbed by the Taiping’s unique take on Christianity, and many would come to share his unease. Hong’s hostility to missionary attempts to ‘’correct’’ his theology did little to help matters. Western merchants worried about the effect that the Taiping’s prohibition and energetic crackdowns would have on the opium trade. Others found the Taiping’s draconian system of punishments and propensity for executions off-putting.


Perhaps the most devastating element of these early interactions, however, was that the westerners came away sceptical of the Taiping’s ability to govern the country. Bonham’s successor John Bowring (seen in my previous article instigating the Second Opium War) quickly came to the conclusion that they were unable to provide rational, mature government for China, instead being a force of upheaval and discord. He noted, in particular, that no person of eminence had joined the Rebels. His cynicism increased with the defeat of the Taiping’s Northern Expedition in 1855, and his perception that the Rebels were losing popular support.


This opinion would endure in subsequent western figures. Elgin sailed to Nanjing in 1858 after concluding his treaty with the Qing, and came away distinctly unimpressed. His interpreter, Thomas Wade, had ties with Chinese elites and little reason to be sympathetic to the Taiping. Frederick Bruce, who was the ranking British official in Shanghai in August 1860 and senior British diplomatic figure in China following his brother’s departure, was similarly cynical about the Taiping’s prospects. He concluded that the Rebels’ programme was hostile to traditional Chinese values to the extent that they could not attain any widespread national support. Like Bowring, he identified the Rebel’s utter failure to win over traditional Chinese elites.


A handful of British officials did become sympathetic to the Taiping, but they were distinctly outnumbered. Instructive is the case of Thomas Taylor Meadows, who had served as an interpreter on Bonham’s trip to Nanjing and became a prominent proponent of the Taiping- but found himself transferred from Shanghai to a less significant posting. Even Harry Parkes, who had been imprisoned and beaten by Qing forces whilst serving as a diplomatic envoy, strongly favoured the Qing as the best option for British interests.


This widespread agreement that the Taiping were incapable of effective governance was devastating for any prospect of western support for the Taiping. The west was concerned, above all, with trade. The Taiping brought discord and instability, and were thus bad for trade. The Qing, for all their many deficiencies, were viewed as the party better able to govern China, and thus the one more conducive to western interests.


Hong Rengan

Even the ascent of Hong Rengan, who had spent five years living amongst the western community and who outlined a platform of wholesale westernisation, failed to shake this negative impression. His promotion was greeted with joy from some among the missionary community, and the American missionary Issachar Roberts even travelled to Nanjing, but those that mattered had already come to their conclusions. Rengan, despite being the most experienced of the Taiping leadership when it came to interacting with the west and understanding the potential of western technology, remained naïve. His foreign policy was largely predicated on an optimistic belief that the west would embrace the Taiping as fellow Christians. The multifaceted nature of western diplomacy, and the myriad different interests encompassed therein, were outside his knowledge.


Shanghai and Intervention


Rengan’s naiveté is perhaps most evident in his belief that the Taiping could simply saunter up to Shanghai, occupy the city, co-opt its wealth, and purchase gunboats and other weapons of war from the western community. This action would prove grievously misguided, and would provoke the hostility of the western powers whose friendship he was so desperate to attain.


Shanghai was the centre of western influence in China. Its growth as a trade emporium throughout the 1850s had led to the development of a mutually beneficial customs regime that linked western interests with those of local Qing officials. Westerners had recently experienced disorders in the city with the uprising of the Small Swords secret society, which had seized control of the Chinese city for a period from 1853 to 1855 and only been suppressed when the French aided Qing forces. A desire to prevent a recurrence of this chaos undoubtedly motivated their actions in 1860. That uprising, combined with the upheavals of war on the Yangtze, had also seen the city’s population swell with refugees, with foreign landlords profiting greatly from renting to the desperate. Neither Qing officials, nor refugees, had any reason to be complimentary of the Taiping. By 1860, westerners had thus been hearing tales of Taiping savagery and brutality for the better part of a decade.


There was then, or at least there was felt to be, a comfortable status quo that had to be defended when the Taiping marched on the city in August 1860. Frederick Bruce, cooling his heels in the city after being rebuffed by the Taku Forts the previous year, took a leading role. Fearful that chaos would ensue if the Taiping were allowed to take Shanghai, he came to the conclusion that it was Britain’s moral responsibility to defend the both the foreign settlements and the Chinese city. He thus began organising a western volunteer force. In doing so, he ignored the entreaties of Meadows, then still Consul in Shanghai, as well as several missionaries who had visited the Taiping and been impressed. Bruce also staunchly refused to open letters from both Hong Rengan and Li Xiucheng, which contained effusive proclamations of friendship and promised that the Taiping would leave foreign persons and property entirely unmolested.


Consequently, when the Taiping army advanced on Shanghai they were fired upon. Reacting with bafflement, they did not return fire and retreated after a few days of stalemate. The main casualties suffered in Shanghai were those caused by a French contingent who had wantonly rampaged through the Chinese settlements below the city walls. Bruce had an entirely defensive mindset, however. He declined regular entreaties from Qing officials that he should use British forces against the Taiping in a more pro-active manner, and occasionally even acted to restrain the more gung-ho French. The Taiping agreeing to refrain from approaching within 30-miles of Shanghai was thus an entirely satisfactory end to the whole affair.


Indeed, the Taiping remained deferential, agreeing to British demands about free trade and navigation on the Yangtze when Admiral Hope visited Nanjing in February 1861. Sailing further upriver on this expedition, in March Harry Parkes would dissuade the Taiping’s Brave King Chen Yucheng from attacking poorly-defended Hankow on the grounds that it had been opened to the British by treaty. This had the effect of blunting the Taiping’s great western offensive, which had aimed to break the Qing siege of Anqing by cutting off the river behind them.


There is no guarantee that the Taiping offensive would have been successful had Parkes not intervened. Li Xiucheng’s southern pincer would still have been several months late to the intended rendezvous, and it seems doubtful Chen would have been capable of crossing the river and seizing the key city of Wuchang by himself. But Zeng Guofan’s besieging force reached very dire straits in April 1861, and news of a setback to the rear could have had a decisive impact on flagging morale or provoked a panicked response.


What actually happened, of course, was that Anqing eventually fell in September. The collapse of the front to the west of Nanjing, with Zeng subsequently initiating his siege of the Heavenly Capital, forced the Taiping to turn their eyes to the eastern provinces as a source of resources with which to drive Zeng from the gates of Nanjing. The need to secure the eastern provinces necessitated the capture of Shanghai, as otherwise it would remain a Qing bastion. A decisive turn against the Europeans was further encouraged by Hong Rengan’s fall from grace. He had been demoted after the initial rebuff outside Shanghai, and all attempts to encourage cordial relations with the west had failed. When western missionaries were coaxed into visiting Nanjing, Rengan found himself placed in an impossible position. The missionaries expected him to ‘correct’ the Taiping theology, the Taiping expected him to win western support. Throughout, he had to maintain his loyalty to his paranoiac and delusional cousin, who did not look kindly on missionaries who questioned his spiritual authority. This was not a tightrope Rengan was capable of walking, and most of his western visitors left disappointed. Perhaps most damaging was the departure of Issachar Roberts, who had stayed in Nanjing and worked with Rengan for over a year, in January 1862. Roberts proceeded to spread a fallacious story that Rengan had gone mad, threatened his life, and murdered one of his servants. Roberts had been the last missionary in Nanjing, and his departure broke the line of communication between Rengan and any sympathetic westerners. The dream of Christian brotherhood, then, was comprehensively dead.


Taiping forces under Li Xiucheng thus advanced on Shanghai for a second time in early 1862, in a significantly more aggressive mood. Much had changed in the intervening period, with the death of the Xianfeng Emperor and the subsequent coup against his chosen regents, leading to a government in Beijing much friendlier to western interests. Thus, not only had the west decided that the Taiping were incapable of effective governance, but there was also finally a government in Beijing which was willing to work with westerners for their mutual benefit.


1861 photo of Frederick Townsend Ward

Li Xiucheng had clear numerical superiority in his advance on Shanghai, but was slowed by unseasonal snow. He also came up against the American adventurer and mercenary Frederick Townsend Ward. Previously a follower of filibuster and sometime President of Nicaragua William Walker, Ward had established a mercenary force with the backing of Chinese merchants in Shanghai in 1860. Initially it was composed of Europeans and Filipinos, mainly deserters and sailors who had jumped ship, and was of limited military utility for its first few years. By early 1862, however, it had been revamped into a primarily Chinese force officered by westerners. Equipped with state of the art weapons, this force proved effective against the Taiping, and was bestowed with the name ‘the Ever Victorious Army’.


This unorthodox force, combined with a smattering of western military units and naval vessels, proved effective in holding off the Taiping advance for the first few months of 1862. Indeed, they went on the offensive, and cleared out the Taiping from 30-mile radius surrounding Shanghai. In April they were reinforced by 9000 men who had been raised by Zeng Guofan’s protégé Li Hongzhang, which were shipped downriver in British steamboats. Thereafter, these three forces acted in concert to drive the Taiping away from Shanghai.


Official western intervention remained limited, however. By the middle of 1862 it had become apparent to the commanders on the ground that they did not have the manpower to maintain their gains around Shanghai- and reinforcements were not coming, given Britain’s unwillingness to shoulder the financial burden of a major campaign. In May, after his French counterpart Admiral Protet had been killed, British commander Admiral James Hope withdrew his forces to Shanghai. Shortly thereafter, he would be replaced by the less aggressive Admiral Kuper, and from this point on prosecution of the war was largely left to Li Hongzhang and the EVA.


That partnership, however, was a complicated one- particularly after Ward’s death in battle in September 1862. His immediate successor, Henry Burgevine, quarrelled with Li Hongzhang. Ultimately, a minor mutiny over pay led Burgevine to assault the EVA’s financier, and this led to his dismissal. He sulked off to Beijing to protest this to the American Minister, and was eventually replaced by the British Royal Engineers officer Charles Gordon.


Under Gordon’s leadership the EVA made major contributions to the Qing war effort, using modern artillery to reduce Taiping strongholds. However, his tenure was far from an easy one. Finances continued to be an issue, and the brutality of his Qing allies regularly offended Gordon’s sensibilities. Much of the EVA remained loyal to Burgevine, and Gordon had to replace many of its commanders with British officers to clamp down on this mutinous feeling. Many of these former officers joined Burgevine when he reappeared in the war zone in August 1863, stole a gunboat and defected to the Taiping in Suzhou.


Burgevine, ever quarrelsome, and his band of hard-drinking men only lasted a few months in Taiping service. His heart, in any case, wasn’t in it- he reputedly met secretly with Gordon to try and convince him they should join forces, march on Beijing, and unseat the dynasty for themselves. A more steadfast westerner in Taiping service, Augustus Lindley, was disgusted by Burgevine’s desertion, and began putting together a group of western officers to form a Taiping counterpart to the EVA named the ‘Loyal and Faithful Auxiliary Legion’. This group also managed to steal a gunboat, but was largely annihilated when Suzhou fell. Lindley himself was able to return Britain, where he wrote a pro-Taiping book and vociferously criticised Gordon’s conduct. Also floating around at this point was a paramilitary naval force under the command of British Admiral Sherard Osborn. This had been recruited on the initiative of interpreter Horatio Nelson Lay, but once it arrived in Shanghai it was found that Osborn and the Chinese government had fundamental disagreements on how the force was to be used and its precise chain of command. The fleet was ultimately sold at a loss and dispatched back to India and Britain, though for a time it was feared that it would desert to the Taiping or turn to pro-Confederate piracy. The profusion of such western paramilitary adventurers in China is a fascinating element of the conflict.


Suzhou would ultimately fall in December 1863, when its commander was betrayed by several of his underlings. The brutal execution of these underlings, to whom Gordon had promised their lives, outraged the British officer as well as British public opinion. Gordon was persuaded not to resign, but the EVA ultimately outlived its usefulness and was disbanded in May 1864- two months prior to the fall of the Heavenly Capital. Its shadowy French-officered counterpart, the ‘Ever Triumphant Army’, remained in action longer, but also took no part in the siege of Nanjing. Zeng had remained leery of foreign mercenary troops, and likely wanted to retain the glory of capturing Nanjing to his own Hunan Army.


The ultimate contribution western intervention and the EVA made to the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion is difficult to judge. Gordon’s rise to fame and subsequent entry into the pantheon of British imperial heroes has perhaps led his role to be overemphasised. Zeng Guofan and his Hunan Army plainly did the heavy lifting, and was already ensconced outside Nanjing by the time the westerners opted to intervene.


However, western intervention did force the Taiping to fight a two-front war. The stress this placed on the Taiping cause is palpably demonstrated by the movements of Li Xiucheng, who spent the final few years of the war desperately rushing between Nanjing and the eastern front, unable to halt the deteriorating situation in either location. Without western intervention, the Taiping could conceivably have secured control over the wealthy and populous eastern provinces, marshalling these resources to repulse Zeng. Could, of course, doesn’t mean would. We have already examined the ineffectiveness of Taiping governance, and even without the foreign presence the eastern provinces could have proved recalcitrant. Their wealth meant there was a profusion of gentry committed to the traditional order, who would surely organise resistance to the Taiping. There was also a concentration of refugees in the area who had already fled Taiping depredations upriver, and might be inclined to take up arms if their backs are up against the wall. How much of the wealth of the east would actually reach the Sacred Treasury and aid the war effort must also be doubted, given the leniency of the Taiping tax regime and tendency to cut deals with local worthies to secure control over an area.


The western intervention was, additionally, highly effective militarily, in large part thanks to advantages in weaponry- regularly defeating significantly larger Taiping forces, and ejecting Taiping garrisons from towns that may have held indefinitely against regular Qing troops. The west’s ultimate decision to back the Qing had effects other than outright military victories, too. See Harry Parkes’ intervention at Hankow, and Bruce banning western merchants from supplying the Taiping, both of which contributed to the fall of the crucial city of Anqing. Morale wise, the betrayal of their perceived brethren might also have taken a toll on the Taiping. Hong Rengan, certainly, was left bitter and despondent by the utter failure of his foreign policy. He was also discredited, and swiftly lost his pre-eminent place in the Taiping regime, robbing it of potentially effective executive leadership.


I think, on balance, it can be said definitively that western intervention certainly hastened the defeat of the Taiping, without necessarily being decisive.


A Pro-Taiping West?


So, is there any way to make the west back the Taiping?


It is difficult. This is not simply a matter of removing one figure who was unfairly prejudiced against the Taiping, because being anti-Taiping was the overwhelmingly prevalent opinion amongst western officials. Moreover, the basis on which the west decided against the Taiping- that they were incapable of establishing effective governance- was entirely reasonable.


To an extent, the Taiping also seem doomed to make a negative impression. Their eccentricities and perceived threat to trade, unique conception of Christianity, and diplomatic naivety meant relations were always going to be difficult.


As discussed in the previous article, tinkering can be done to keep western relations with the Qing incredibly strained or even in a state of outright war. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d throw open their arms- and the gates of Shanghai- to the Taiping. The hard-headed economic rationale is that restoration of peace to China is necessary to restore trade, and keep the exchequer full, but the choice between an unremittingly antagonistic Qing regime and a Taiping that many had decided were incapable of governing is not an easy one. Whilst London prevaricates those on the ground in China, when faced with a hostile Beijing and the alien Taiping, might decide the best way to protect western interests is to assume greater control in their coastal enclaves. There were already calls to turn Shanghai into a free port under a foreign protectorate IOTL, and these would be louder in a scenario where the Qing remain uncooperative. London resisted these calls IOTL, gripped by a pathological fear that territorial acquisitions in China would turn it into ‘another India’ (a fear particularly focused by the recent Mutiny). However, if the foreign community is frustrated by the British government’s failure to resolve the trade issue arising from the civil war, might they be inclined to take precipitous action?


As opposed to just sabotaging Anglo-Qing relations, the best way to bring about genuine cooperation between the Taiping and the west is probably by having them advance on Shanghai at an early stage. In 1853-1855 there would have been few troops present to resist them, and the Chinese city was already in the hands of the nominally pro-Taiping Small Swords Society.


This would see a situation where the Taiping are interacting with westerners regularly from a much earlier point, which has myriad effects. The Taiping might become less naïve in their dealings with westerners, and might make a favourable impression if they conducted themselves well- some cooperation would be necessary for the establishment of a customs regime. They’d be able to communicate with the west directly, compared to OTL when the centre of western influence in China was swarming with refugees spreading stories of Taiping brutality. Access to such a Treaty Port gives them ready access to western arms and munitions, and might see western military adventurers default to joining the Taiping cause. Ward himself supposedly wanted to join the Taiping initially, but found it too difficult to reach their territory. The Qing also won’t have access to a wealthy and secure base on the Heavenly Kingdom’s eastern flank.


However, the Taiping’s attentions after the capture of Nanjing were already hopelessly divided IOTL, with major expeditions going both northward and westward. Taking Shanghai would necessarily detract troops from these other offensives, with potential consequences for the Heavenly Kingdom’s territorial integrity. Additionally, one would have to overcome the reason that the Taiping didn’t focus on Shanghai in this period IOTL- that they did not appreciate its long-term potential as a trade centre. Again, the Taiping had precious little experience with the west, and did not understand the scope of the potential benefits that might come from possessing a Treaty Port.


When it comes to the crucial period of intervention in the 1860s, perhaps the most intriguing route for improving Taiping prospects again involves distracting Britain elsewhere. How, for example, would Britain getting mixed up in that other great mid-19th century civil war affect their policy in China?

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