W is for Andrew Wilson

Needless to say this isn’t a picture of Andrew Wilson, blameless author of The Ever-Victorious Army, about whom more later. It is “a woodblock print of a Taiping leader which some Western observers mistakenly assumed was a likeness of Hong Xiukang”, the Hakka scholar who decided he was the second son of God after failing to get into the Chinese civil service. I owe the picture and the explanation to Richard P Bohr’s Did the Hakka Save China? which you can find online.

The Taiping Rebellion began on 11th January 1851 when Hong proclaimed the beginning of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. In March 1853 Taiping armies under his control captured Nanjing and christened it the New Jerusalem. The rebellion effectively ended in June 1864 when imperial troops led by Zeng Guofan recaptured Nanjing, though mopping-up operations continued into 1866. Both sides conducted the war with utter indifference to human life. The world’s bloodiest civil war is estimated to have cost at least 20 million lives and possibly as many as 30 million. This death toll comfortably exceeds the human cost of the Sino-Japanese War of 1936-1945. Rudolf Rummel in China’s Bloody Century has 3,949,000 Chinese killed directly by Japanese forces and about 6,000,000 more dying from starvation or disease. It wasn’t until the policies of the Great Leap Forward exacerbated the effects of the Great Famine of 1959-1961 that China suffered comparable human losses. Hostile commentators give vast numbers of deaths. The People’s Republic of China’s own census figures record a drop in population of 14,580,000 between 1959 and 1961.

This is not the place to try to understand the religious beliefs of the Taipings which are about as accessible to the non-believer as the Book of Mormon. Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son may or may not inform you further. Hong was influenced by Good Words to Admonish the Age, a tract pushed out by Protestant missionaries, but mixed Christian ideas with classical Chinese ideas about the supreme deity, Shangdi, to produce a dynamic new religion. He was aided in spreading his ideas by Yang Xiuqing, a charcoal trader with a direct line to Shangdi, and Feng Yungshan, the movement’s most effective missionary and later its strategist. It was Yang who provided an egalitarian leavening to Hong’s ideas, providing some justification for regarding the Taipings as proto-communists.

In the late 1840s the Taipings evolved from a secret Society of God Worshippers into a revolutionary movement enjoying much popular support. Immediately after the capture of Nanjing it seemed possible the Taipings would overthrow the Qing dynasty. A northern expedition reached Tientsin before it was turned back. A western expedition secured control of large parts of the Yangtse plain. However the mass slaughter of all the Manchus in Nanjing gave Qing separatists pause for thought while Taiping hostility to Confucianism ensured the movement could never enjoy wide support amongst the Chinese middle classes. In May 1852 Feng was killed by a chance shot from a Qing gunner and was never really replaced as a strategist. The following year Hong himself withdrew into seclusion where he became increasingly suspicious of Yang whose messages from the supreme deity were increasingly at odds with his own. In 1856 Hong’s followers murdered Yang and his family. This was followed by a protracted blood bath. The fact that the rebellion lasted another eight years had more to do with Qing incompetence than any remaining shreds of Taiping dynamism. It also had precious little to do with the Ever Victorious Army.

There was a time when I had lots of books on the Taiping Rebellion. A personal favourite was Ti-Ping Tien-Kwoh by Lin-Le who described himself on the titlepage as “special agent of the Ti-Ping general-in-chief.” Lin-Le’s real name was Augustus F Lindley. He was a salty character even by Shanghai standards, spending many pages attempting to explain why he boarded the sailing vessel Firefly in 1854 and then handed it over to the Taipings. It had 19 chromolithographs, 9 of which were garishly coloured. Heaven knows what it would fetch nowadays. The only reason I have Andrew Wilson’s book is because of its library stamp. I have an old friend who spent his early days in Tokyo in a surprisingly grand flat. The reason he was able to live in such state was because it overlooked a Shinto graveyard. You have about as much chance of flogging an ex-library book to the Chinese as you have of renting a flat with a view like that to the Japanese.

Andrew Wilson (1831-1881) was an eyewitness only of the earliest of the events he describes. He was born in Bombay to John and Margaret Wilson, Scots missionaries in India, and was educated at Edinburgh and Tubingen Universities. After a brief stay in Italy, he returned to Bombay where he edited the Bombay Times in the absence of its editor George Buist. He then went to Hong Kong where he edited the China Mail for three years. He left Hong Kong in March 1861 and returned to England via San Francisco, the Panama Canal and New York, contributing articles about his adventures to the China Mail. This is part of what he wrote about the voyage from Hong Kong.

Wilson remained in Europe until 1873 dogged by increasingly bad health. He had some kind of wasting sickness which made walking increasingly painful. He went to Switzerland in the mid 1860s in an unsuccesful attempt to recover his health. He supported himself by freelance journalism but mainly through contrbutions to Blackwood’s Magazine. In the July 1881 edition, in a generous obituary, the editor commented, “With the exception of his work in journalism, almost the whole of Andrew Wilson’s literary remains have been first given to the public in the pages of the magazine.” This was as true of The Ever-Victorious Army as it was of his best known book The Abode of Snow.

In 1873 Wilson returned to India theoretically to edit The Bombay Times. In practice he spent most of his time travelling or writing about his travels. He was by now seriously unwell. But you wouldn’t guess that The Abode of Snow was written by a man who could barely drag himself upstairs let alone along the Himalayan fringes of British India. The editor of Blackwood’s meant well when writing, “his health denied him that power of unremitting application….” which would have crowned his life’s work by a serious journey of exploration followed by a book recording new discoveries. I beg to differ. The Abode of Snow is a supreme illustration of unremitting application. In 1877 Wilson made a final excursion to Kathiawar. It did for him. He returned to England and died four years later.

What makes The Ever-Victorious Army a valuable historical source is that it is based on the “private” diary of Charles George Gordon later of Sudan fame. More about Gordon and his “private” diaries later. In 1885, Samuel Mossman took advantage of the furore about the British failure to relieve Gordon in Khartoum, to get Sampson Low Marston to publish General Gordon’s Private Diary of his exploits in China. Reviewing this and other books about China in the Fortnightly Review a few years later, Colonel R H Vetch criticised The Ever-Victorious Army, commenting, “by introducing into his work disquisitions on the Chinese system of philosophy, the foreign policy of Pekin, and a variety of other topics, Mr Wilson contrived to obscure what he intended to illustrate….” He digressed in other words. You’ll be surprised to hear I’m unsympathetic to Vetch’s viewpoint.

And so to the point, which is in case you’ve forgotten, The Ever-Victorious Army and its part in the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion. In origin the Shanghai Foreign Arms Corps was formed as a local defence force by Chinese officials loyal to the Qing. It was funded by a banker Yang Fang and recruited from the sort of westeners who hung around the Shanghai docks. Until the summer of 1861 it always had fewer than three hundred men under arms. Its leader was an American called Frederick Townsend Ward.

From Holger Cahill’s Yankee Adventurer to Richard Smith’s Mercenaries and Mandarins there have been plenty of books that take Frederick Townsend Ward seriously. One of them, Caleb Carr’s The Devil Soldier, was optioned for a movie with Tom Cruise in the lead, but Hollywood producers know a dud when they see one, so the movie was never made. In my view Edward Alexander Powell got the measure of this Boys’ Own adventurer back in 1913.

Here in Gentlemen Rovers we see Ward and his men about to take Sunkiang from the Taipings in July 1860. The actual event was less gung-ho though the mixed weaponry is about right. In Wilson’s narrative, after hiding out all day, Ward “contrived to seize a gate of the city just at sunset, repulsing all the Rebel attacks until next morning, when the native Imperialist troops coming up were enabled to drive out the Taipings.” It says a lot for Ward’s leadership that he got his gang of ne’er do wells to perform as well as they did.

In sober reality, Ward lost as many actions as he won. He was recovering from a wound at the end of 1861 when either he or Li Hung Chang (1823-1901) came up with the idea of training Chinese soldiers in the use of western arms and western light infantry tactics. Li Hung Chang was a complex man who was to play an important role in China’s survival during the era of unequal treaties. He said of himself, “to know me and to judge me is a task for the next millennium.” He was right. The PRC is busy reassessing him right now. In 1861 he was still comparatively junior. His naval operations on the Yangtze, which had driven Nanjing yet closer to starvation, had been noted and approved by Zeng Guofan commander of the Xiang Army which was conducting an ever closer siege of the Taiping capital. On Zeng’s recommendation Li was made Governor of Kiangsoo with orders to raise a new force to block Taiping thrusts that were intended to divert Zeng himself from Nanjing. Li’s new force eventually developed into the Huai Army.

Li Hung Chang in 1896

Li took an interest in Ward and his ideas about training Chinese soldiers. He freed him from the control of his banking backers and provided imperial funds for the purchase of weaponry from the British whose policy in China had changed somewhat since the burning of the Winter Palace. From this moment Li’s firm intention was that Ward’s force should indeed be “ever-victorious”. He needed them to win battles if he was to persuade the traditionalist Zeng Guofan to provide funds for the equipping of Li’s new Huai Army. Under Li’s tutelage Ward got rid of many of his European and American mercenaries. The rest served as officers in the new and largely Chinese force that was named The Ever Victorious Army in March 1862 after a few earlier successes. The operations of the Taiping’s Faithful King around Shanghai are complex, bloody and confused. It’s not even certain he was aiming to take the city. His retreat – if it was a retreat rather than a relocation – owed little to Ward and much to Shangdi, Hong and the confused orders emanating from Nanjing.

The campaigns of the Ever-Victorious Army were always something of a sideshow. Li’s Huai Army eventually amounted to 60,000 well-armed men drawn mainly from Taiping deserters. By contrast the Ever-Victorious Army was never more than 5,000 strong. Its function was to win battles that would persuade Zeng to fund Li’s increasingly large ideas. On the whole it performed its task admirably. Occasionally it was let down by its Chinese allies as in the first attack on Taitsan when it failed to cross a moat filled with thirty feet of water that was shown on Chinese maps as a dry ditch. On occasions like that, when a foreigner was at fault, Li sacked the man who had taken Ward’s place and applied to Sir Charles Staveley, the commander of British forces in China, for a replacement.

Green turbans – wiki commons – don’t knock it

The man Staveley recommended was Captain (soon to be Colonel) Charles George Gordon of the Royal Engineers. Staveley had been sent down from Tientsin at the end of 1861 with orders to clear the rebels from a thirty mile radius around Shanghai. Gordon “was of the greatest use to me,” he wrote, remarking favourably on how “he reconnoitred the enemy’s defences, and arranged for the ladder-parties to cross the moats, and for the escalading of the works, for we had to attack and carry by storm several towns fortified with high walls and deep wet ditches.” You can find the technical details in Gordon’s own Notes on the Operations round Shanghai published in the 1871 volume of Papers on Subjects connected with the duties of the Corps of Royal Engineers of which there is a precis in Wilson’s book. Staveley had however noted a disturbing trait in Gordon’s character. He ignored orders he didn’t like. “He was, however, a source of much anxiety to me from the daring manner in which he approached the enemy’s works to acquire information.” Staveley put Gordon’s behaviour down to pluck, and since he was on the spot, having been left behind to make a survey, recommended his appointment.

It was worse than Staveley knew. Gordon took his orders from a higher authority than the War Office. In a letter to his mother shortly after his appointment, Gordon wrote

There is precious little there about obeying orders. Nor about the problems his appointment caused at home which resulted in a 36 page blue book China No.7 of 1864 entitled Correspondence relative to Lieut-Colonel Gordon’s position in the Chinese service. J S Gregory in Britain and the Taipings summarises the diffculty

Gordon was oblivious. God and his conscience were the only things that mattered. It’s typical of Gordon that the moment he got back to England he should lend his “private journal” to a jobbing journalist. He was to repeat the trick in 1884 shipping back parts of his Khartoum Journal to Cairo in the hope of forcing Gladstone to invade the Sudan. Gladstone, who was at least as stubborn as Gordon, delayed too long. The Grand Old Man turned into the Murderer of Gordon. But that’s another story.

The Ever Victorious Army was broken up in 1864. Hong died of food poisoning before the fall of Nanjing. Many of the Taiping kings were less lucky and fell into the hands of the imperial Chinese. There is a memorial to the Ever Victorious Army in Shanghai.

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