7 October 1860
On 7 October 1860, British officers joined French troops in looting Beijing’s legendary Summer Palace. The complex might 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 forces, 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 himself happily pocketed a fine French enamel of a man in a wig which had been gifted to the Chinese Emperor by Louix XIV. Similarly, Captain Charles Gordon, who 25 years later became legendary for his fearless and bloody last stand at Khartoum, expressed his distaste for acts of premature vandalism, denouncing the reckless French who had ‘smashed everything in the most wanton way.’3 However, he later admitted in a letter to his mother that ‘in fact these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully…. Everybody was wild for plunder.’4 Gordon managed to obtain several antique souvenirs, which he reluctantly relinquished after being compelled to hand them in towards a public auction. The loot auctioned off raised £50,000. (equivalent to approximately £6 million today) which was then distributed among the officers and men, at the rate of £50 for officers and £3 for privates.5
The monarch was not left unforgotten. 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.6 It was perhaps fortunate for the dogs that they were removed from the Palace grounds, since shortly afterwards, on 18 October, British troops burned the entire complex as an act of retribution, the huge clouds of smoke dropping embers across the city.
- The North China Herald cited in ‘The Chinese Emperor’s Summer Palace,’ The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 3 January 1861 p. 1.
- Garnet Wolseley cited in John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, Bookmarks Publications London 2013, p. 69.
- Charles Gordon cited in Saul David, Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire, Penguin Books, London, 2007, p. 394.
- Charles Gordon cited in Ian Hernon, Britain’s Forgotten Wars: Colonial Campaigns of the 19th Century, The History Press, Stroud, p. 390
- Saul David, op. cit., p. 394.
- ‘Looty the Royal Booty,’ The Daily Mail, 12 September 2017.
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