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Late Qing Catastrophes: The West and the Second Opium War

By Tyler Parsons

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

Interior of the Angle of Taku North Fort Immediately After Its Capture by Storm. Photo by Felice Beato.

On August 19th 1860 a tentative Taiping advance on Shanghai was repulsed by Anglo-French forces and various foreign volunteers. On August 22nd, Anglo-French forces defeated Qing forces and seized the Taku Forts at the mouth of the Peiho River, the prelude to a campaign that would ultimately drive the Qing Emperor from Beijing and result in the burning of his Summer Palace.

This situation- adopting a belligerent stance towards both sides of a civil war- is rather incongruous. The next two articles will explore precisely how this came about by examining the evolution of western relations with both the Qing and the Taiping throughout the 1850s and first half of the 1860s. This article will focus on the Qing.

Rising Tensions

The Treaty of Nanjing, which had brought the First Opium War to an end in 1842, was a compromise that satisfied nobody. This is perhaps exemplified by the fact that the treaty maintained a careful silence on the issue of Opium, the illegal trade of which consequently continued to thrive.

It had also failed to resolve many other longstanding issues between China and Britain. The allure of the five new Treaty Ports swiftly wore off, and foreign traders were soon demanding further concessions, such as the opening of new ports and the right to sail inland up the Yangtze.

Violence continued to bubble away. The residents of Canton remained reluctant to admit foreigners into their city, precipitating a series of beatings and stonings. Here, and elsewhere, the British remained willing to indulge in the occasional act of gunboat diplomacy.

The other kind of diplomacy had little prospect of success. The Manchus remained wedded to a worldview in which China was paramount and superior, with other nations its subservient tributaries. Attempts to maintain this fiction in diplomatic dealings through careful use of protocol and terminology continued to infuriate westerners. Another favoured tactic was sending junior officials with no power to actually negotiate to meetings with western envoys. Such obstructionism increased after the accession of the nineteen year-old Xianfeng Emperor in 1850, as the young emperor’s ear was swiftly captured by a conservative and belligerent courtly faction. When increasingly blunt western demands for treaty revision met with such dissimulation, frustrations inevitably mounted.

Other diplomatic manoeuvrings and creative treaty interpretations abounded. Chinese officials refused to grant passes to Chinese vessels travelling to British-held Hong Kong, in an attempt to stifle British hopes to turn it into a trading centre. The British responded by granting letters of protection to vessels based in Hong Kong- the owners of these vessels were now, after all, British subjects.

This was only one way in which the treaty regime created a massive legal grey area covering a hazy intermediate community. Chinese who had obtained British nationality as residents of Hong Kong or Malaya could choose whether to submit themselves to Chinese authority or claim foreign protection. In some cases this was done literally with a change of clothing, wearing foreign clothes to claim foreign protection or Chinese clothes to melt into the local population.

Such loopholes did little to help with the rampant piracy that plagued China’s coast. British naval vessels hunted Chinese pirates. Chinese fishing vessels armed themselves against pirates, though sometimes they became pirates. Convoys developed to protect against piracy, but this turned into a racket. Pirates took up service in the Qing navy but continued to racketeer. Armed vessels flying the British flag acted as a law unto themselves, contracting to protect Chinese merchant and fishing vessels, able to intervene in Chinese feuds but capable of claiming foreign protection.

Xianfeng Emperor

Second Opium War

It was out of this anarchy that the Second Opium War emerged. Qing officials seized a Chinese-owned but British-flagged ship named the Arrow in October 1856, on the (probably correct) suspicion that it had engaged in piracy. When demands for an apology and the release of the crew were not immediately met, it provided the pretext for British Consul John Bowring to push for treaty revision by force of arms.

Over the next year, hostilities were largely limited to the area around Canton. Britain’s initial response to the war was sluggish. Bowring’s forceful action, strongly backed by Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, saw the government brought down by a vote of censure promoted by William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Palmerston, however, won the ensuing general election.

As if this domestic turmoil wasn’t enough, the expeditionary force dispatched to China under the command of James Bruce, Earl of Elgin, was waylaid for a time in India and stripped of troops to deal with the Mutiny there. His arrival led Canton to be decisively captured in December of 1857, its Governor-General carted off as prisoner to Calcutta.

Thereafter Elgin and an Anglo-French Expeditionary Force went north, and stormed the Taku Forts at the mouth of the Peiho River. They then anchored in Tianjin and began to march on Beijing, only for the Emperor to capitulate before they arrived. The subsequent Treaty of Tianjin was rapturously received by the foreign community, as it granted them the right to sail up the Yangtze, opened up 10 new Treaty Ports, and granted them the right to permanently station diplomatic representatives in Beijing.

The Xianfeng Emperor, however, was deeply perturbed by these concessions and remained influenced by belligerent voices at court. When an Allied force returned the following year, with Elgin’s brother Frederick Bruce expecting to ratify the Treaty and take up his position as British plenipotentiary in Beijing, it found the Chinese unwelcoming and the Peiho blocked.

They attempted to force their way past the Taku Forts, but the defences here had been much improved. After the disaster the previous year the Emperor had assigned one of his trusted and more competent generals, Senggelinqin, to the area. Senggelinqin’s forces humiliatingly repulsed the Allied attack, inflicting 400 casualties on a force only 1300 strong. The humiliation was so great that Josiah Tattnall, commanding an observational American warship, felt compelled to abandon his country’s neutrality and spring to the aid of the British. His justification was that ‘’Blood is thicker than water!’’ and ‘’he’d be damned if he’d stand by and see white men butchered before his eyes’’.

The Allies returned with a vengeance the following year, again under Elgin’s oversight. Over 24 000 men had been marshalled, and their artillery arsenal included brand-new Armstrong guns. A series of decisive battles throughout August seemingly had the Qing willing to capitulate, but negotiations floundered once again on issues of protocol and prestige- in this case, whether British officials had to kneel before the emperor. The war was thus renewed, with Allied outrage further sparked by the fact that Britain’s lead negotiator Harry Parkes and a number of others had been taken prisoner by Qing forces.


On September 21st, Senggelinqin was decisively defeated in battle, his Mongol cavalry massacred by western artillery. The Emperor and his court then fled Beijing, followed by much of the city’s wealthiest inhabitants, with the Allies occupying the city in early October. Prince Gong, left to preside over the capital in his brother’s absence, immediately released Parkes and the other hostages, though not all had survived their harsh treatment- the most noteworthy casualty being the Times reporter Thomas Bowlby. In response, Elgin would order the burning of the Emperor’s ornate Summer Palace, which had already been thoroughly looted. This act of destruction would see Elgin compared to his father, whose infamous theft of the Parthenon Marbles remains such a vexatious issue.

Post-War Rapprochement

After this nadir, however, western relations with the Qing swiftly improved. The Convention of Beijing, which ratified the previous Treaty of Tianjin, granted them everything they wished- new Treaty Ports, the opening of the Yangtze to foreign vessels, freedom for missionaries, and a large indemnity for the indignities China had allegedly inflicted. However, the Convention had proved salutary in ways other than merely forcing China to accept their demands.

Prince Gong had proved a reasonable and moderate figure in negotiations to end the war- impressing western figures used to dealing with stalling and dissimulation. He went on to found China’s first dedicated Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Zongli Yamen, with himself at its head. This quickly established a working relationship with Frederick Bruce, convincing him to crack down on those smuggling supplies to the Taiping. It even began seriously considering western offers to aid in suppression of China’s internal disorders, though no action was taken at this time.

The Xianfeng Emperor, however, remained ambivalent, and refused to return to his defiled capital. This issue resolved itself with the Emperor’s death in August 1861. He left the throne to his five year old son the Tongzhi Emperor, and entrusted the boy to the same clique of conservatives who had pushed for war with the British, led by his councillor Sushun. This clique, however, was deposed in a coup pioneered by the young Emperor’s mother Cixi, Prince Gong, and another of the Xianfeng Emperor’s brothers. Cixi would come to dominate this triumvirate, going on to rule China for the better part of half a century and maintaining a complicated relationship with foreigners. For the moment, however, this signified that there was finally a regime in Beijing that, if not unabashedly pro-western, was at least willing to be relatively pragmatic in its dealings with the foreigners. Such a regime re-establishing control over China would seemingly be beneficial to western interests.

Additionally, there was a further element of self-interest. China’s finances were in utter ruin, and their ability to repay their indemnities was… the customs revenue it received from its trade with the west. The West’s ability to recoup their compensation was consequently dependent on China being restored to stability under Qing governance.

This confluence of factors ultimately prompted the western community to shift to a decisively pro-Qing stance. In 1862, official western military forces engaged in military action against the Taiping in the environs of Shanghai. From this point forward the Qing also received support in the form of arms and equipment, including gunboats and artillery the Taiping were incapable of matching, as well as western officers to serve on the staff of Qing generals and command mercenary units. Most famous of these, of course, was Major Charles Gordon.

The precise course of the intervention will be charted in more detail in my next article, but at this point it is only necessary to know that it significantly hastened the Taiping defeat. From an allohistorical perspective, if one wanted to improve the Taiping’s prospects of success, it would be necessary to prevent the improvement in relations that made this intervention possible.

Preventing Rapprochement?

There are three obvious, interconnected, routes here. Rapprochement with the Qing and subsequent intervention against the Taiping was made possible by 1) Britain deciding to embark on a war with China; 2) bringing that war to a decisive conclusion capable of shaking up the Chinese political establishment and extracting all the desired concessions; and 3) the establishment of a regime in Beijing more amenable to foreign interests.

With regard to the first two, Britain was quite busy militarily in the mid-to-late 1850s. From 1854-1856 they were engaged in a war with their great nineteenth-century rival, Russia, in the Crimea, and in 1857-1858 they struggled to retain their hold on India in the face of a mutiny by its sepoy soldiery and uprisings by other native elements. In the face of such commitments, China was never its primary concern. This is exemplified by the fact that Elgin’s first expedition was stripped of troops to face the Mutineers in India.

By juggling either the timing or the severity of these conflicts, Britain's desire to embark on the Second Opium War or capability to prosecute it to an emphatic conclusion could be diminished significantly. Had the Crimean War dragged on into the later part of 1856, or the Mutiny broken out a year early, would Bonham have taken such a belligerent stance over the seizure of the Arrow? Without a war to resolve their grievances, tensions would continue to simmer, and the foreign community may have been more inclined to take a positive view of the Taiping.

Alternatively, had the Mutiny been prolonged, and Britain remained engaged in a life-or-death struggle over the fate of their central colonial possession, would they have been able to spare over 10 000 troops to march on Beijing? Would they have settled for a less satisfactory conclusion to the war, or would they have persisted in a low-intensity state of war with the Qing that they didn’t have the resources to resolve? The latter scenario would definitely preclude any support for the Qing, and the former likely would have.

Finally, it is quite possible to see an anti-foreigner Qing regime remain in power. The Xianfeng Emperor was only thirty when he died, and could have lived for decades longer. Brooding and humiliated, at best he would be inclined to frustrate his brother’s efforts at fostering positive relations with the west- at worst, he could shut them down entirely. Similarly, if the Regents appointed by the Xianfeng Emperor had retained power after his death they would not have been amenable to western interests. Sushun had been prominent in crafting Qing foreign policy in the later 1850s, and even after comprehensive military defeat the clique desired the abrogation of the treaties. Whether they were committed enough to go through with that drastic action- which would likely have precipitated another war- them remaining in power would undoubtedly have seen relations with the west remain strained. Looking at a Beijing dominated by the same faction whose enmity towards the west had led to the last war, and likely seeing the pragmatic Prince Gong shunted away from power, perhaps the west would have made different calculations as to which of the factions in China’s civil war better served western interests as the 1860s wore on.

Ultimately, however, these discussions beat around the bush somewhat. To truly understand why the west decided against the Taiping- even defending Shanghai against them in August 1860 despite actively being at war with the Qing at that point- we must examine relations between the two in greater detail…



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