1860-1899

Thousands murdered after British led imperial army takes Suzhou

General Gordon had guaranteed the safety of the garrison. Photo via Wikimedia.

9 December 1863

On 9 December 1863, thousands of men and women in the Chinese rebel city of Suzhou were massacred,  four days after the town was seized by British and imperial Chinese forces. Colonel Charles Gordon (later lauded as a war hero for his last stand and death at Khartoum in 1885) had guaranteed the safety of the garrison promising them, to cite The Times, ‘a free pardon and permission to retire with their property.’1 They naively accepted his words, throwing open the gates of the city, with devastating consequences. As the mercenary and travel writer Augustus Lindley recalled three years later in his account of the Taiping Rebellion, Gordon’s military successes were always followed by ‘the wholesale massacre of the vanquished.’2

A report carried in several newspapers, including the London Standard and Lloyd’s Weekly Messenger was unusually frank in its description of the butchery and looting, noting that ‘on the fourth day after the Imperialists got possession of the city the greater part of it was completely gutted by the Chinese troops and peasantry…. Great pools of blood and ghastly heads lying scattered about, marked the extensive massacre which had been carried on.’ It added that ‘much private property of value was looted… Silks and furs were being sold in considerable quantities and at very low prices.’ It also admitted that the massacre and looting ‘were likely to give rise to serious complications (in any future negotiations),’ because ‘General Gordon, to whom the Chinese government is indebted for the capture of the city… had guaranteed the safety of persons and property.’3

The killings appear to have started soon after imperial troops entered the city on 5 December, but by 9 December it was clear that a more wholesale massacre was taking place, with historians estimating the number of those slaughtered as high as thirty thousand.4 Even the correspondent of The Times, reporting back to London on 20 December, had to admit that it was ‘a subject of regret that we should have allowed English officers to associate themselves with a cause the members of which are utterly deficient in every feeling of honour and humanity.’5

FOOTNOTES

  1. The Times cited in ‘How Soochow Was Captured,’ The Glasgow Daily Herald, 5 February 1864, p. 4.
  2. Augustus Lindley, Tai-Ping Tien-Kwoh: The History of the Ti-Ping Revolution, Day and Son, London 1866, p. 759.
  3. “The Capture of Soochow,” The Standard, 4 February 1864, p. 5 and Lloyd’s Weekly Messenger, 7 February 1864, p. 1.
  4. John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, Bookmarks Publications 2013 London, p. 71.
  5. The Times, op. cit..

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