[ 7 Ocobter 1860 ]

On this day in 1860, British officers joined French troops in looting Peking’s legendary Summer Palace.  The complex might however have been more accurately described as palaces, as there were over two hundred summer houses and pavilions within eighty square miles of landscaped gardens. As one correspondent noted, “its construction and the accumulation of precious property it contained must have been the work of centuries,” including tributes to the Emperor from across the world.[1]

Initially arrangements were made to divide the loot equally between the British and French forces, but disputes quickly arose and so Lieutenant-General Sir Hope Grant, commanding British troops gave his permission for a free for all.

Colonel Garnet Wolseley (who was later to become a Field Marshal) observed how British soldiers “seem to have been seized with a temporary insanity; in body and soul they were absorbed in one pursuit which was plunder, plunder.”[2] He was however, himself, delighted to pocket a fine French enamel of a man in wig which had been gifted to the Emperor  by Louix XIV and Captain Charles Gordon (later to become the legendary general who died at Khartoum) expressed his annoyance at acts of premature vandalism, but nevertheless managed to obtain several antique souvenirs, although soon afterwards he had to hand them in towards a public auction, which raised £50,000 which was then distributed among the officers and men, at the rate of £50 for officers and £3 for privates.

Queen Victoria benefited from the theft of Pekingese dogs, considered sacred to royalty, one of which was presented to her in April the following year. She called it Looty. It was perhaps fortunate for the dogs that they were removed since shortly afterwards, on 18 October,  British troops burned the entire complex as an act of retribution, the huge clouds of smoke dropping their embers across the city.


[ 7 October 2001 ]

On this day in 2001, Britain joined the United States in launching air strikes against Afghanistan.  Labour politician Tony Benn noted in his diary – “So we’ve launched into a war without any declaration of war, without any parliamentary authority for war, outside the United Nations, a war that is supposed to be directed simply at the Taliban in Afghanistan.”[2]

The United States and the United Kingdom had given the Taliban an ultimatum. Hand over Osama Bin Laden, a prime suspect in the 11th September attack on New York, or face military annihilation. The Taliban, many of whom were unhappy with the presence of Bin Laden, had asked for evidence and even negotiated for a possible trial either in Afghanistan or in a third neutral country. However, the American military plans for an attack on Afghanistan were at an advanced stage, accompanied by diplomatic threats to the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden, even prior to 11 September and no diplomatic or legal objections were going to persuade Washington to alter them, and London was equally dedicated to the mission of regime change.[3]

The British government had also been warned of a huge humanitarian crisis if they went ahead with a military assault with the possibility of up to a million Afghans facing starvation. Humanitarian aid was urgently needed, and relief efforts would not only have to be halted, but the bombing was certain to disrupt transport and distribution and lead to a rapid deterioration of food supplies.


  1. The North China Herald quoted in “The Chinese Emperor’s Summer Palace,”  The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 3 January 1861 p1
  2. Garnet Wolseley cited in John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, Bookmarks Publications London 2013, p69.
  3. Ruth Winstone (Editor), Tony Benn, “More Time for Politics: Diaries 2001-2007,” Arrow Books, London, p12
  4. Jonathan Steele, Ewen MacAskill, Richard Norton Taylor and Ed Harriman, “Threat of US Strikes Passed to Taliban weeks before NY attack,” The Guardian, 22 September 2001 accessed online at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/22/afghanistan.september113

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