Causes of the War
Canton Waterfront
Canton Waterfront
The Opium War, though named after a single substance, was fought over cultural, diplomatic and trade differences between Britain and China. Because of it's many centuries of isolation from the West, China had no need of western goods or services to match the Western taste for spices, silk and tea. Opium from India, however, of high quality and potency like nothing cultivated in China, found popular favour with China's massive population, a people willing to pay well in currency of silver. Scottish merchants, like Jardine Matheson, therefore transported opium from ports in India and sold it at great profit to an increasingly addicted Chinese populace.

Chinese officials became increasingly uncomfortable with problems of crime, fecklessness and social irresponsibility that resulted from opium misuse. The Emperor of China himself appointed Lin Tse-Hsu as Imperial Commissioner for the Destruction of Opium. Western traders bristled at this interference with trade and profit but, undeterred, Lin arrived in Canton, the only Chinese city where trade with the West was permissible, in March 1839, and set about destroying 20,000 chests of opium. The international Hong merchants of Canton were henceforth forbidden to trade in opium on pain of death.

This action was seen by Britain as an unwarranted attack on free trade, as destruction of British property, and as dangerous interference with British subjects abroad. Troops were sent out from India to reinstate European-style free trade. By July 1840 when the attack on Tinghai occurred, British warships in South China carried initial forces of some 4,000 men, including a corps of artillery, sappers, miner and engineers as well as 3 regiments of foot.

Preparation and Arrival
Lord Auckland, governor-general of India, sent Major-General Sir High Gough off to China with the expressed hope that he would not ask for more troops, but one of Gough's first acts on reaching Hong Kong in early March 1841 was to request 2 more battalions, one British and one Indian. They were in fact needed. In a letter to Archibald Arbuthnot, his son-in-law, he wrote, 'I cannot think that Lord Auckland will withhold them'. Indeed he did not; the troops were sent.

Gough's first task in China was simply to give such support as he could to the naval forces engaged in reducing the forts guarding the great commercial city of Canton. He had plenty of time to initiate one of those unpleasant controversies that were to mark the remainder of his military career. This one was with Captain Charles Elliot RN, Britain's plenipotentiary in China, whom Gough described as being ' as whimsical as a shuttlecock'. Gough argued for a vigorous forward policy: he wanted to occupy Canton and then attack Amoy. Elliot believed Britain could achieve it's desired aims - the cession of Hong Kong, the resumption of trade (including opium) and the payment of an indemnity of 6,000,000 dollars - through diplomacy.

Gough fumed, cursed Elliot and appealed to Lord Auckland. At last he prevailed, and a joint army-navy operation, 3,200 sailors and marines under Captain Sir Le Fleming Senhouse and 2,200 soldiers under Sir Hugh, got under way. It was hoped that Canton would be taken by 24th May, Queen Victoria's birthday. This proved impossible but Gough celebrated the day by landing troops at Tsingpo, on a creek 4 miles west of Canton, and a royal salute was fired from the Warships.

Canton, May 1841
There was no opposition to the landing, and Gough, without bothering to make a reconnaissance, recklessly advanced on the outlying forts protecting the metropolis, bringing his infantry under cover just out of range, where it waited until the rocket battery and 6 heavy guns could be brought up. By 8 o'clock on the morning of the 25th May the artillery was in place; after an hour's bombardment he sent his infantry charging forward, with bayonets bared. By the end of the day the protecting forts had been subdued and the British were at the city's gates, ready for a frontal assault at first light, but dawn revealed a white flag floating over the ramparts. Under a pouring rain, tents were hurriedly erected between the lines for a parlay, but Gough refused to treat with anyone other than the commanding general. As no Chinese general was willing to appear, the tents were struck and a four pronged attack on the city was prepared. It was never launched, for while while Gough laid his plans the Chinese appealed to the plenipotentiary, and Elliot, without consulting either Gough or Senhouse, arranged a deal.

Within the next few days the Chinese paid 5,000,000 of the 6,000,000 dollars demanded and gave security for the remaining million. Holding Canton to ransom gave the expedition something of a buccaneering aspect, as Gough noted, but the old soldier was delighted to be again on campaign, and he wrote exuberantly to his wife Frances of his 'deep unaltered gratitude to that Being who in my old age (62) enables me to serve my country'.

Soon after Canton's capitulation, Gough received the good news that he had at last been appointed colonel of the 87th Foot and that he had also been named commander-in-chief of the Madras army, though he was asked to stay put until the war was over. There were at this time significant changes in the high command in China: Sir Le Fleming Senhouse died on board ship off Hong Kong and was replaced by Rear-Admiral William Parker. To Gough's delight, Captain Elliot was replaced as plenipotentiary by Sir Henry Pottinger. Under the new triumvirate a campaign against the island city of Amoy was undertaken with complete success.

Amoy 1841
Throughout the China campaign Gough exhibited a clear understanding of the rough, unprincipled nature of his soldiery and a fine regard for the lives and property of non-combatants. In general orders he reminded his troops: 'Britain has gained as much by her mercy and forbearance, as by the gallantry of her troops. An enemy in arms is always a legitimate foe, but the unarmed, or the suppliant for mercy, of whatever country or whatever colour, a true British soldier will always spare'. Before the attack on Amoy he warned, 'Private property must be held inviolable; the laws of God and man prohibit plunder; and the individual appropriation of the goods of others, which in England would be called robbery, deserves no better name in China'. His exhortation was unheeded. When his troops entered Amoy, they rampaged through it's streets in a frenzy of destruction. In a letter to Frances he wrote,

'The moment a house is broken open... Every article is destroyed. The wanton waste of valuable property is heart-rending, and has quite sickened me of war'.

British successes made little impression on the Emperor of China, for he was under the pleasant illusion that his armies were winning the war. The charming skill of the mandarins in ingeniously presenting defeats as victories in their dispatches kept him pacified. Amoy had fallen because his forces had burned and sunk five of the barbarians' warships and a steamer, they explained. 'The south wind blew the smoke in our soldiers' eyes, and Amoy was lost'.

Tinghai, September 1841
From the ransacked Amoy, the expedition moved northward on the 5th September 1841 to attack Tinghai, on the south shore of Chu Shan Island at the mouth of the Yangtze Kiang River. Gough and Admiral Parker worked well together, and the combined sea and land assault on the city walls was a complete success; 100 iron guns, 36 brass cannons, and 540 gingalls (heavy muskets or light guns mounted on swivels) were captured for the loss ot two killed and 27 wounded. The expedition then moved on to capture Chinhai, on the left bank of the Ningpo River.

Although in every battle the British were outnumbered by their opponents, they were better armed and, more importantly, better disciplined. Invariably the Tartar and Chinese troops were forced to give way before their resolute assaults.

Honours were not slow in coming to the victorious commanders; Parker was promoted vice-admiral, Gough was given the local rank of lieutenant-general and raised to the dignity of Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.

The war was not popular in Britain, it seemed unduly protracted. Lord Ellenborough, who had replaced Lord Auckland as governor-general of India, feeling the pressure of opinion at home, rashly promised Queen Victoria that the expeditionary force would be in the Emperor's palace by her next birthday; Gough was then pressed to fulfil his quixotic pledge.

Chin-Kiang-Fu, July 1842
Manchu General during Opium War
Manchu General
Gough was often accused of being reckless, but never of being dilatory. With Parker, he planned and carried out an expedition further north: a 200 mile advance up the Yangtze Kiang River. After several smaller actions near the river's mouth, the expedition, now heavily reinforced by fresh troops from India (including the 55th), occupied Shanghai. From here, Gough and Parker launched an attack upon Chin-kiang-fu, the fortified town that protected Nanking, 45 miles upriver.

The British force sent by Gough to storm Chin-Kiang-Fu was made up of the 2nd and 3rd Brigades. The 2nd, consisting of the 55th Foot, 2nd and 6th Madras NI and one company of Madras Rifles, was led by Major-General James Schoedde who was to become the Colonel of the 55th fifteen years later. The 3rd Brigade, made up of the 18th Foot, 49th Foot and the 14th Madras NI, was led by Major-General Bartley. Schoedde's brigade was to scale the walls with ladders on the east side and Bartley's to go in by the main gate on the west.

Schoedde's plan was to have the Madras Rifles and 2nd MNI create a diversion along the east wall while the 55th and 6th MNI were to scale the bastion at the north east corner. The grenadiers of the 55th led the attack and were virtually unopposed due to the success of the diversion led by Captain Simpson of the Madras Rifles. The fortress was defended by 2,300 Manchu banner-men, called Tartars by the British, who were garrisoned there with their families. They were at first preoccupied by an exchange of fire with the diversionary group but when the alarm was raised they hurried towards the north east section where they found two columns of British infantry formed up inside their walls.

The defenders were armed with matchlocks but managed to keep the columns pinned down for a while. The more easterly column which was led by Capt F A Reid of the 6th MNI proceeded with difficulty to reach the north east gate where there were many Manchus in the guardhouse. When the 6th managed to break in and bayonet the remaining defenders they opened the gate to let in the 2nd MNI. Both regiments then rushed to the west side to catch up with the 55th, who were led by Major C Warren.

Chin Kiang Fu in Opium War
Chin Kiang Fu Map
The grenadiers of the 55th led by Capt Macleane had had some trouble with determined defenders who were firing at them from a two storey guardhouse on the north wall. They suffered most of their casualties at this point, however they were reinforced by the rest of the regiment and the grenadiers rushed in to take the guardhouse after a fierce hand-to-hand fight, bayonet verses sword. The main gates on the west side was reached after four hours of fighting that had started at 8 am.

Chin Kiang Fu Main Gate
Main Gate
Meanwhile, the 3rd Brigade occupied buildings outside the main gates. Part of the Grand Canal ran the length of the west wall. The 18th, 49th and 14th MNI were on the west bank facing the city on the other side. The gate to the fortress was cleverly constructed for defence purposes. If the outer gate was breached, the attackers had to rush along a 500 yard open space to the inner gate. This space was overlooked by high walls from which the defenders could rain down heavy fire quite comfortably.

The brigade was assisted by a party of Royal Marines and seamen who reached the gate by boat and proceeded to scale the walls while the brigade provided covering fire. Sappers placed 3 powder kegs against the outer gate and blew it open. The high walls were cleared of defenders by the marines and seamen while the brigade stormed through expecting heavy resistance at the inner gate. Instead, the gate was opened and the 55th were lined up to receive them. One final and insane attempt by the Manchu to beat off the foreigners was put down and the two brigades settled down to occupy the the city. The soldiers were dismayed to find that many misinformed Manchu families had committed suicide rather than suffer a terrible fate at the hands of foreign 'monsters'.

Chin-kiang-fu was stormed on 21st July 1842. British casualties totalled only 114, of whom the dead numbered 3 officers and 31 other ranks who were either killed in battle , died of their wounds or were felled by the intense heat of that summer in China. Chinese casualties were equally light, but in his dispatch, Gough described the horrors he and his men discovered on entering the town, mute testimony to the terror that the advance of the British barbarians had struck in the hearts of the Chinese, and particularly their Tartar rulers:

'Dead bodies of Tartars in every house we entered, principally women and children thrown into wells or otherwise murdered by their own people. A great number of those who escaped our fire committed suicide after destroying their families; the loss of life has been appalling, and it may be said that the Manchu race in this city is extinct.'

And he wrote home,

'I am sick at heart of war and its fearful consequences'.

In spite of an outbreak of cholera, the British army advanced on the great city of Nanking, second city of the Empire, while Parker's ships disrupted the normally busy river commerce. Gough was preparing to assault the town's walls when the Chinese capitulated. The Treaty of Nanking was signed on board a British warship on 29th August 1842. Under its terms the Chinese agreed to the cession of Canton, Amoy, Fu-Chou, Ningpo and Shanghai, cities that became known as the treaty ports. The treaty made no mention of the opium trade, although 6 million Chinese dollars of the indemnity was given in compensation for the destruction of the opium stores of British merchants at Canton.

With the end of the war in China, Gough returned to India. For once he could find no cause for complaint in the recognition given him for his services. He was rewarded with a baronetcy and given the thanks of both houses of Parliament. The Duke of Wellington himself praised both Gough and Parker in the House of Lords.

Image of campaign
map of campaign
Canton River Map
Map of Chin-Kiang-Fu
Chinese Map of War
British and Imperial forces
British Units
Royal Marines
18th (The Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot
26th (or Cameronians) Regiment of Foot
49th (or the Hertfordshire) Princess Charlotte of Wales's Regiment of Foot
55th (or Westmoreland) Regiment of Foot

Indian Units
1 coy Madras Rifles
2nd Madras Native Infantry
6th Madras Native Infantry
14th Madras Native Infantry

British Commander
Sir Hugh Gough
Audio
Opium War
A History Today Podcast
Suggested Reading
The Chinese Opium Wars
Beeching, James London, 1975

Narrative of the Expedition to China, from the Commencement of the War to Its Termination in 1842
Bingham London, 2002

Victorian Military Campaigns
Bond, B London, 1967

Foreign Mud: being an Account of the Opium Imbroglio at Canton in the 1830s and the Anglo-Chinese War that followed
Collis, M London, 1946

Eminent Victorian Soldiers - Seekers of Glory
Farwell, Byron Viking, 1986

The Opium War 1840-1842
by Peter Ward Fay Chapel Hill

Victoria's Enemies
Featherstone, Donald London, 1989

British and Indian Armies on the Chinese Coast: 1785 - 1985
Harfield, Alan Farnham, 1990

The Opium Wars in China
Holt, E London, 1962

The Opium War
Inglis, B London, 1976

Queen Victoria's Enemies
Knight, Ian London, 1990

The Paper Dragon: An Account of the China Wars 1840 - 1900
Selby, J London, 1968


| Campaigns |





Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames |


by Stephen Luscombe