A New English Expedition to China

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Should the quarrel which the English have picked with the Chinese be pushed to extremity, it may be expected to end in a new military and naval expedition similar to that undertaken in 1841-42, on the basis of the opium quarrel[1]. The easy success of the English on that occasion, in extorting an immense sum of silver from the Chinese, will be apt to recommend a new experiment of the same sort to a people who, with all their horror of our filibustering propensities, still retain, not less than ourselves, not a little of the old plundering buccaneering spirit which distinguished our common ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet remarkable changes in the position of things in China, which have occurred since that former successful plundering inroad on behalf of the opium trade, make it very doubtful whether a similar expedition at the present day would be attended by anything like a similar result. The new expedition would doubtless set out, like that of 1841-42, from the island of Hong-Kong. That expedition consisted of a fleet of two seventy-fours, eight frigates, a great number of sloops and brigs-of-war, twelve steamers, and forty transports, having on board a military force, marines included, amounting to fifteen thousand men. The new expedition would hardly be attempted with any smaller force; indeed, some of the considerations we are about to state would indicate the policy of making it much larger.

The expedition of 1841-42, sailing from Hong-Kong on the 21st of August, 1841, took possession first of Amoy, and then, on the 1st of October, of the Island of Chusan, which they made the base of their future operations. The object of these operations was to penetrate into and ascend the great central river Yang-tse-Kiang as far as the City of Nankin, about two hundred miles from its mouth. The river Yang-tse-Kiang divides China into two quite distinct portions—the North and the South. About forty miles below Nankin the Imperial Canal enters and crosses the great river, affording the means of commercial intercourse between the northern and southern provinces. The theory of the campaign was that the possession of this important communication would be a fatal thing for Pekin, and would force the Emperor[2] to make peace forthwith. On the 13th of June, 1842, the English forces, under Sir Henry Pottinger, appeared off Woosung, at the entrance of the small river of that name. This river flows from the south, entering the estuary of the Yang-tse-Kiang very near its débouché into the Yellow Sea. The mouth of the Woosung River forms the harbor of Shanghae, situated a short distance up. The banks of the Woosung were covered with batteries, all of which were stormed and carried without difficulty. A column of the invading force then marched on Shanghae, which surrendered without any attempt at resistance. But, though little resistance was as yet experienced from the peaceful and timid inhabitants on the banks of the Yang-tse-Kiang, who, after a prolonged peace of nearly two hundred years, had now their first experience of war, the estuary itself, and the approach to it from the sea, were found to present great impediments. The broad estuary of the Yang-tse-Kiang enters the sea from between shores half covered with mud, and hardly discernible, as the sea for many leagues[3] off is a muddy yellow, whence comes its name. Ships intending to enter the Yang-tse-Kiang are obliged to move cautiously along the southern shore, keeping the lead constantly going, in order to avoid the bars of movable sand with which the approach is impeded. These banks extend up the estuary as high as the upper end of the great island Tsang-Ming, which lies midway in it and divides it into two channels. Above this island, which is some thirty miles long, the shores begin to show themselves above the water, but the course of the channel becomes very serpentine. The tide flows up as far as Ching-Kiang-Foo, about half way to Nankin, and where, in fact, what has hitherto been an estuary or arm of the sea, first takes on, for ascending vessels, the character of a river. Before making this point, the English fleet met with some serious difficulties. It took them fifteen days to make the distance of eighty miles from their anchorage at Chusan. Near the Island of Tsang-Ming several of the larger ships ran aground, but succeeded in getting off by the help of the rising tide. Having conquered these difficulties and approached the city of Ching-Kiang, the English found abundant proof that, however deficient the Tartar-Chinese soldiers might be in military skill, they were not lacking in courage and spirit. These Tartar soldiers, who were only fifteen hundred in number, fought with the utmost desperation, and were killed to a man. Before they marched to the battle, as if anticipating the result, they strangled- or drowned all their women and children, great numbers of whose dead bodies were afterward drawn from the wells into which they had been thrown. The Commander-in-Chief, seeing that the day was lost, set fire to his house and perished in the flames. The English lost a hundred and eighty-five men in the attack—a loss which they revenged by the most horrible excesses in sacking the town—the war having been conducted by the English throughout in a spirit of brutal ferocity, which was a fitting counterpart to the spirit of smuggling cupidity in which it had originated. Had the invaders met with a similar resistance everywhere they never would have reached Nankin. But such was not the case. The city of Qua-Chow, on the opposite side of the river, submitted and paid a ransom of three millions of dollars, which the English freebooters of course pocketed with immense satisfaction.

Above this point, the channel of the river had a depth of thirty fathoms[4], and, so far as the bottom was concerned, the navigation became easy, but at some points the current ran with great swiftness, not less than six and seven miles an hour. There was nothing, however, to prevent ships-of-the-line from ascending to Nankin, under the walls of which the English at length cast anchor on the 9th of August. The effect thus produced was exactly what had been anticipated. The Emperor was frightened into signing the treaty of the 29th of August[5], the pretended violation of which is now made the occasion of new demands which threaten a new war.

That new war, should it occur, will probably be conducted on the model of the former one. But there are several reasons why the English could not anticipate a similar easy success. The experience of that war has not been lost on the Chinese. In the recent military operations in Canton River they have exhibited such improved skill in gunnery and the art of defense as to lead. to the suspicion of their having Europeans among them. In everything practical, and war is eminently practical, the Chinese far surpass all the Orientals, and there is no doubt that in military matters the English will find them apt scholars. Again, it is likely that the English may encounter artificial obstacles to the ascent of the Yang-tse-Kiang, should they again attempt it, such as do not appear to have been met with on the former occasion. But,—what is the most serious consideration of all—the reoccupation of Nankin cannot be supposed to be attended with anything like the same terror and alarm to the Imperial Court at Pekin which it caused on the former occasion. Nankin, for a considerable period past, as well as large portions of the surrounding districts, has been in possession of the rebels, one or more of whose chiefs make that city their headquarters[6]. In this state of the case its occupation by the English might be rather agreeable to the Emperor than otherwise. They might do him good service in driving the rebels from a city which, when they had got it, might prove a possession rather difficult, troublesome and dangerous to keep, and which, as recent experience has shown, may be held by a hostile power without any immediately fatal results to Pekin or the Imperial rule.

  1. A reference to the bombardment of Chinese maritime towns and posts on the Yangtze and other rivers by the British naval and land forces in 1839-40, during the First Opium War (1839-42), an aggressive war waged by Britain against China which started China's transformation into a semi-colony. One of the clauses of the Nanking Treaty imposed on China provided for the opening of five Chinese ports to foreign trade.
  2. Tao Kuang.—Ed.
  3. One nautical league equals 5.56 km.—Ed.
  4. One nautical fathom equals 1.83 m.—Ed.
  5. This refers to Article 9 of the Anglo-Chinese treaty of October 8, 1843 signed to supplement the Treaty of Nanking.

    The Treaty of Nanking, concluded between Britain and China in 1842, was the first of a series of unequal treaties imposed by the Western powers on China, reducing it to the status of a semi-colony. The Nanking Treaty made China open five of its ports to British commerce—Canton, Shanghai, Amoy, Ningpo and Fu-chou, cede the Island of Hongkong to Britain "in perpetuity" and pay a large indemnity. It introduced import and export tariffs advantageous to Britain.

    The supplementary protocol of 1843 concerning the general rules for trading in the five open ports contained articles (2, 7 and 13) envisaging cooperation between the British and Chinese authorities in inspecting the goods brought to the ports and in organising their work. According to its Article 9 the Chinese who cooperated with the British were not subject to China's jurisdiction.
  6. Engels is referring to the Taiping uprising in China. In 1850 popular unrest spread over a number of southern provinces in China and developed into a powerful peasant war. The insurgents established a state of their own over a considerable part of Chinese territory. It was called the Celestial Empire (Taiping Tankuo, hence the name of the movement—the Taiping uprising). The leaders put forward a utopian programme calling for the existing social order to be transformed into a militarised patriarchal system based on the egalitarian principle. The movement, which was also anti-colonial in character, was weakened by internal strife and the formation of its own aristocracy in the Taiping state. It was dealt a crushing blow by the armed intervention of Britain and France. The Taiping uprising was put down in 1864. In March 1853 the Taipings captured Nanking and made it the capital of their empire.