28 DECEMBER

BRITISH BOMBARD CANTON TO PROTECT THEIR OPIUM TRADE

The bombardment of Canton, 28 December 1857. The Illustrated London News, 13 March 1858, p. 257.

[ 28 December 1857 ]

On 28 December 1857, twenty five British and French gunboats commenced a heavy bombardment of the Chinese port city of Canton. Prime Minister William Gladstone had dispatched a punitive military expedition, after a Chinese owned and crewed pirate ship, flying a British flag, had been detained by local officials a year earlier. Although the registration of the ship had lapsed, Britain was determined not to allow any interference with freedom to trade in the Chinese market, particularly because it might negatively impact the stupendously valuable export of opium from British administered India. In a secret dispatch, marked ‘secret and confidential,’ the Cabinet instructed Lord Elgin, plenipotentiary to the expedition, to ensure that China’s hinterland be opened to British merchants and that the Qing dynasty be forced to legalise the opium trade. The French government, realising it too might stand to profit from the opening up of China’s market, also decided to join the operation.

Canton was one of the largest cities in the world with approximately one million inhabitants and news of the Anglo-French assault was greeted with euphoric commentary in the press. An editorial in The Times, declared that ‘it is impossible not to be well pleased… now we have the insolence of the Canton Government punished by a mere handful of English and French.’ Trumpeting its exclusive report on the bombardment, it proudly noted that ‘the effects of the fire (shelling) were seen in the blazing houses throughout the city.’1 On the following page its special correspondent, George Wingrove Cooke, described how the crowded metropolis ‘soon became like our Shropshire iron counties at night – a plain of fire.’ It was, he assured the paper’s readers, a ‘creditable exercise’ which was ‘singularly well planned and wholly successful,’ blaming the destruction and hundreds of casualties on the actions of their ‘obstinate’ mandarins ‘who have rendered all this necessary.’2 The following day the city walls were stormed by a combined force of 4,700 British and 950 French troops. A few days later Cooke reported that ‘the Chinese are engaged in clearing away the rubbish to rebuild their burnt homes,’ adding that ‘the spirit of insolence has departed out of them.’3

FOOTNOTES

  1. Editorial, The Times, 15 February 1858, p. 6.
  2. ‘China: The Bombardment of Canton,’ The Times, 15 February 1858, p. 7. See also Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China, Picador, London, 2011, pp. 257-258.
  3. ‘The China Mail,’ The Times, 23 March, p. 12. Also cited in other newspaper reports such as ‘A Visit to Canton,’ The Hull Advertiser, 27 March 1858, p. 7.

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