18 October 1860
On 18 October 1860, British troops, who had fought their way into the outskirts of Beijing ten days earlier, set fire to one of the world’s greatest collections of art work and treasure, the legendary Summer Palace, also known as the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanmingyuan). Lord Elgin, who’s father had stripped the marbles sculptures from the Parthenon at Athens, gave the order for its destruction, although he allowed some time first for his men to finish the work of plundering its priceless contents. He later explained that ‘it was the Emperor’s favourite residence, and its destruction could not fail to be a blow to his pride as well as his feelings.’1 Major Charles Gordon, who was among those selected for the task, wrote that ‘we accordingly went out and, after pillaging it, burnt the whole place, destroying in a Vandal-like manner the most valuable property which could not be replaced for four millions.’2
The soldiers were ordered to burn all the palace’s buildings, pavilions and temples, which stretched across thirty seven acres of land in the north west part of the city. An enormous task which occupied 5,000 men for three days. One of them recalled how, on entering the palace gardens, they ‘reminded one of those magic grounds described in fairy tales,’ but by the next day they were a ‘dreary waste of ruined nothings.’3 Robert Swinhoe, a British naturalist, who was working temporarily as a translator, described how the ‘crackling and rushing noise’ appalled him, adding that ‘the sun shining through the masses of smoke gave a sickly hue to every plant and tree, and the red flame gleaming on the faces of the troops engaged made them appear like demons glorying in the destruction of what they could not replace.’4 For days, billowing clouds of smoke dropped the embers of priceless works of art across the city.
- James Earl of Elgin, Letters and Journals of James, Eighth Earl of Elgin, Outlook Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 2018, p. 342.
- Charles Gordon cited in John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, Bookmarks Publications, London, 2013, p. 69.
- Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China, Picador, London, 2011, p. 265.
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