1858 – Manuscript Firsthand Account of Second Opium War in China – Taku Fort

China Second Opium War
Firsthand Manuscript Accounts
Battle of Canton
First Battle of Taku Fort
Pirate Junk Captured

China, 1858. Manuscript letters containing firsthand accounts of the First Battle of Taku Forts in May, and the Battle of Canton in December, with shocking details of brutality, penned by a participant in the latter, a marine serving in China on HMS Surprise, identified only as Thomas. 8vo. Two letters and one partial letter, 10 pages combined. Single and double leafs, blue tissue-like letter paper measuring approximately 13 x 21 cm. Some age-toning, repaired tears at folds, otherwise in very good condition.

The recipient of this correspondence is Julia, the writer’s wife and mother of his children, one of whom he refers to a “Little Thomas.”

HMS Surprise, a British gunboat, had on 4 May 1857 departed England for anti-slavery duties on the West Coast of Africa. Her commission was soon changed however, being redirected to serve on the Coast of China where the Second Opium War was intensifying and the British government was preparing to launch offensives against the Chinese. On 13 November she 1857 arrived in Hong Kong. Captain Samuel Gurney Cresswell, commanded the ship, which was to intended to be used as a despatch steamer. As revealed in the present correspondence, however, HMS Surprise and her crew saw much frontline action in the Second Opium War, participating in at least two pivotal engagements – the First Battle of Taku Forts and the Battle of Canton.

A firsthand account of the Battle of Canton, 28-31 December 1857, is described by the mariner in the earliest letter of the lot, a partial letter which includes a mention of the death of Captain William Thornton Bate, Commander of HMS Actaeon who was killed while storming the walls of Canton. His vivid and contemporary recollection centers on men killed and injured on both sides, as well as the savagery of his Chinese assistant being decapitated, all in all a most tragic and unforgettable sight for any man. This correspondence would have been written in January 1858, after the 16th, or possibly early February. This correspondence is undated; what is present is one double leaf beginning at page 5.

[British High Commissioner, Lord Elgin, was keen to take the city of Canton (Guangzhou) as a demonstration of power and to capture Chinese official Ye Mingchen. To this end, he ordered an Anglo-French force to begin an assault on 28 December. They rapidly gained control over the important harbor and city of Canton (Guangzhou). The capture being complete and the battle over on 31 December 1857, the Alliance delayed entry into the city itself until 5 January.]

Excerpts from the letter:
“[page 5] boats came to our assistance… no casualties in our Ship… the sight of Canton was something terrific we fired about five Hundred pounds at the Bombardment… moored Head and Stern off [Gough’s?] Fort…” 

“… after the first three days we had to take the killed and wounded down to Hong Kong about 100 miles… Our ship leaked very much I had all my little notes destroyed…” 

“… we were moored by Captain Bates who was the first man killed after the first shot was fired on 28th December…” 

“… recovered: our gunner mate was almost blown to pieces. Our First Lieutenant was blown about 30 yards at a very large Fort which had been captured… we all ran to see what was the result… their was the gunner mate with all his clothes blown off him and very much burnt with powder, he is a little disfigured but all right now, also our First Lieutenant.” 

“I am very sorry my old friend Pim was shot in four places and had six of his men killed, one of the men had his head cut off at a village, it was very soon knocked down, I believe Pim is doing very well, it was a frightful sight.” 

“I thought of you all on Christmas day… on the 16th of January I drank [to] your jolly good health…” 
End Excerpts.

Another rare firsthand account, the letter of 23 May 1858 describes the First Battle of Taku Forts which took place three days earlier, the writer being a participant in this too. Owing to the Allied success of the earlier Battle of Canton, and the capture of the Forts, the writer anticipates an imminent conclusion to all wars in China, however, the Second Opium War would continue until October 1860. HMS Surprise would remain in China for five months after this battle, performing duties at Shanghai, Ningpo, again at Gulf of Pechelee, and then Hong Kong.

Excerpts from the letter:
“H.M.S. Surprise. Pe Chili Bay, May 23rd.” [The ship had arrived at the Gulf of Pechelee 5 May 1858.]

“I have just returned from the Forts… away this last three days from the Ship and thank God… we have captured the forts… ” 

“…we were under a very heavy fire all day yesterday… I marched with the Naval Brigade about 15 miles yesterday… I think now all the war in China is over, we are to go to Ningbo at once.” 

“On our arrival at Ningbo I will give you a full account of the battle but I expect you will see something in the paper…” [HMS Surprise arrived at Ningpo on 22 Jun 1858.]
End Excerpts.

[The First Battle of Taku Forts, the first invasion of the Anglo-French alliance of the fortifications, took place on 20 May 1958. Also called the Dagu Forts, or Peiho Forts, they are forts located by the Hai River (Peiho River) estuary, in Tanggu District, Tianjin. In 1851, Chinese Imperial Commissioner and General Sengge Rinchen had carried out a comprehensive renovation of the forts, building 6 large structures. Each fort had three large guns and 20 small caliber guns. Forts were constructed of wood and brick with an external curtain of two feet of concrete designed to minimize penetration by artillery rounds. The forts were around 10 to 15 metres (33 to 49 ft) high. Nonetheless, the forts were successully captured by the collaborative attack by the British and French under the command of Admiral Sir Michael Seymour.]

One final and swift but gallant battle – the letter of September 1858 recounts the capture of a Chinese pirate junk off the coast of Hong Kong. Immediately after this event, HMS Surprise, much to the content of the writer, to be sure, departed Canton for Africa.

Excerpts from the letter:
“H.M.S. Surprise. Hong Kong, Sept. 11th /58.” 

“… we have been running all over China…” 

I must tell you of our gallant affair with the Pirates… arrived at Hong Kong… ordered out about 10 miles when we fell in with 25 sails Piratical Junks, we closed them and when about four Hundred yards they opened fire on us three hundred and twenty seven guns, struck us in several places, we opened fire at once and after a sharp engagement of one hour and half we succeeded in our capture… the Admiral and every person has given credit our ship every credit.” 

“… we are now going to the Cape of Good Hope and I think by the time we get there we shall be ordered home.” 

“I am as busy as a man can be drawing stores…” 

“… I have seen quite enough now but thank God I am [alive?] … we may possibly meet the mail on our way down and then I must give you all the particulars…” 
End Excerpts.

HMS Surprise (1856), a Vigilant-class gunvessel of the Royal Navy, was commanded by Commander Samuel Gurney Cresswell from 11 March 1857. The ship served in the East Indies, participated in the Second Anglo-Chinese War, and from 1861 she formed part of the Mediterranean Fleet.


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