3 May 1863
On 3 May 1863, Chinese imperial troops, under the command of Major Charles Gordon, who was later to become legendary as General Gordon of Khartoum, killed hundreds of civilians and prisoners after they seized control of the city of Taitsan. Neither Gordon nor the British troops under his command did anything to intervene. According to August Lindley, a British volunteer who had served in the ranks of the defending Taiping rebels, the imperial troops committed ‘the most revolting barbarities.’ He recalled how ‘hundreds of civilians were killed for the sake of their heads, and some prisoners were taken to the camp of the British Corps de reserve, formed in conjunction with an Imperialist one, and there cruelly tortured to death.’1
A gruesome account of the torture inflicted was given in the North China Herald. ‘About 11 o’clock am…,’ it reported, ‘seven prisoners were brought into the Imperialist camp near Wy-con-sin; being stripped perfectly nude they were each tied to a stake and tortured with the most refined cruelty… Strips of flesh were cut, or rather hacked (judging from the appearance presented the instrument seemed too blunt to cut) from different parts of their bodies, which hanging from a small portion of skin, presented an appearance truly horrible… For hours these wretched beings writhed in agony.’2
Gordon did nothing to prevent this or other atrocities and Major-General Brown, commanding British forces in China, was unsympathetic to the critics, dismissing the report of the ‘cruel treatment’ as ‘highly coloured and exaggerated.’8 He forwarded an eye witness statement from the Acting Field Adjutant, Lieutenant Robert Cave, who explained that ‘the men had evidently been sentenced to the punishment “of ling-che” or “slow and ignominious death,” what we call “cutting into a thousand pieces.”’
Cave claimed that they had been ‘spared as much as possible, and little more than the form of this punishment carried out,’ adding that ‘each man had a piece of skin, not flesh, about four inches by two, partly stripped from one arm and hanging down and one or two arrows had been pushed…. through the skin in different places.’3 He also reported how the officer responsible had explained to him that ‘it was not possible to restrain the Imperial soldiers for taking some vengeance’ for atrocities the rebels had committed earlier. Some years later, Gordon’s biographer, Alfred Egmont Hake, also sought to plead mitigating circumstances, arguing that ‘the moment after the splendid victory they (the Imperial Chinese forces) had won for him, and the heavy losses they had sustained, was scarcely the time for punishment (of those who had indulged in torture.)’4
- August Lindley Ti-Ping Tien-Kwoh: The History of the Ti-Ping Revolution, London Day and Son 1866, pp. 611-612.
- The North China Herald cited in “The Alleged Torture of Taeping Prisoners,” The Morning Post, 17 August 1863, p. 6.
- “The Treatment of Rebel Prisoners in China: From Tuesday night’s Gazette,” Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 26 September 1863, p. 3
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