Sunday, January 15, 2012

Recriminations: British Defeat at China's Pei-ho in 1859

The Polynesian’s September 3, 1859 edition reported that the U.S.S. Powhatan had arrived in Hong Kong on May 10.

“The U.S. steam-frigate Powhatan arrived at Hongkong, May 10, with Gen. Ward, the American Minister. The Powhatan leaves for Tien-tsin [Tianjin today], and will be the first to test the reported obstructions at the mouth of the Pei-ho. It is supposed the Russians will have a steamer of light draft awaiting the arrival of Gen. Ward.”

In the same story is this: “There is a report that the Russian Government has given eight thousand pieces of cannon to the Chinese in consideration of land cessions at the Amoor.”

I was looking for specific references to Commodore Josiah Tatnall’s coming to the aid of a British ship during the military exchanges with the Chinese. None were found.

More details of the “disastrously defeated” British naval forces were prominently featured in the October 8, 1859 edition of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, published in Honolulu. “The British naval force at the mouth of the Pei-ho made an attack upon the Chinese on the 25th of June, and were disastrously defeated with terrible loss of life.” More detailed were featured on the first page of the October 15 edition of the paper.

The January 12, 1860 edition of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser provided further details through a published letter from R.S. Maclay on the third page, dated September 21, 1859 from “Fuhchau, China.” Despite the battle at the Pei Ho the following is reported regarding American Minister Ward:

“Mr. Ward, the American Minister, arrived at Pekin about the 28th of July, 1859, and remained there fifteen days with his suite. The President’s letter was delivered at Pekin, and the exchange of the treaties took place at Pehtang, a town at the northern entrance of the Peiho.” But still no mention of Commodore Josiah Tatnall.
The September 3 edition of the Polynesian also reported infighting in the Japanese government, casting doubt on the Japanese Embassy visit to the United States:

“THE MINISTER FROM JAPAN TO THE UNITED STATES. The latest number of the China Herald has this paragraph:
There seems to be considerable doubt if the proposed embassy to the United States will take place. The conservative party, who are opposed to all innovations, are determined to prevent this infraction of the law which prohibits Japanese from leaving their country. The two delegates who have been named for Washington are themselves anxious to go but their departure will certainly be delayed for the present at least. A council for foreign affairs has been established at Jeddo, consisting of five princes.”

I found this story from the October 8, 1859 (page 2, column 5) edition of The Polynesian:

Late and Important from China.
SEVERE BATTLE-THE ENGLISH FORCES DISASTROUSLY DEFEATED. –From the San Francisco Times we learn that the bark Sea Nymph arrived at Victoria, V.I., on the 13th ult., 37 days from Hong Kong, with files of China papers up to the day of sailing. The news is important.

The British naval forces at the mouth of the Pie-ho made an attack upon the Chinese on the 25th of June, and were disastrously defeated. The fleet consisted of 12 vessels, mounting 28 guns and manned by 1,000 to 1,200 men.

There were 7 officers killed, and 28 wounded. The affair seems to have grown out of a misunderstanding of the preliminaries to the exchange of treaties between the allied ministers and the Chinese authorities, consequent on which an attempt was made by Admiral Hope to force the passage of the Pei-ho.

The North China Herald says that the total loss is as follows: -British, total killed and wounded, 464; French, 4 kiled and 10 wounded (including Captain Tricault of the Chayle, wounded in the arm.)
A correspondent of the China Mail (Hong Kong) says: The belief is universal throughout the squadron that Europeans manned the batteries, as well as Chinese. Men in grey coats with close cropped hair and with Russian features, were distinctly visible in the batteries, and the whole of the fortifications were evidently designed by Europeans.

The Mail says:
The lamentable intelligence we have to convey by this mail is a new difficulty with the Chinese authorities, which led to an attack on the 25th of June from and upon the Taku forts at the mouth of the Pei-ho, resulting in the total defeat of the British force, with the loss of no less than five gunboats, and between four and five hundred men, or about one-third of our force employed.

This matter will form a subject of Parliamentary discussion. The Hon. Mr. Bruce has not the power to collect troops for carrying on a new war with China; and if he applies for assistance, as it is reported he has done, to the Governor-General of India, we trust that Lord Canning will not comply with the request until her Majesty’s government have had time to examine the whole affair. There is more in it than meets the eye, and the most intelligent in this country-are disposed to believe that the Chinese are entirely to be blamed.
Five Days later.
By the ship Maria, arrived at this port from Hong Kong, we have dates to Aug. 9. From the Overland Mail we quote:
Since then matters have gone from bad to worse, and more unsatisfactory tidings than this mail communicates, were never perhaps taken from China. In the first place, as to the effect of the Peiho disaster upon political relations. The dispatch of Sangkolinsin, the Tartar Generalissimo, (a translation whereof is affixed,) duly appeared in the Pekin Gazette. This completely fastens upon the Chinese as deliberate act of treachery, for whist the Generalissimo boasts of the conception and perpetuation of the deed, the High Commissioners had studiously by their fair promises completely discarded all ideas of resistance from the minds of the members of the foreign Legation.

Since the defeat, the British and French Ministers have wisely forborne to negotiate with the Chinese authorities, either directly or otherwise, and are evidently awaiting instructions from their respective governments.

Nothing has been heard from the United States Minister since the dispatch of the last mail. He certainly proceeded north of the Peiho to the point indicated by the Chinese authorities where an officer of rank would meet and convey him to Pekin. The Chinese have it that he has actually proceeded thither, which would appear very probable.

Of Russian complicity to the disaster at Takow, there can be no doubt whatever. The Cantonese aver that Russian engineers built the forts, Russian guns armed them and Russian artillerymen manned them.

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