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  • Canton, 1857
  • May Caroline Chan (bio)

January 1857 opened with a bang, if not four of them: thanks to two overzealous colonial administrators, Sir John Bowring and Consul Harry Parkes, four Chinese forts lay in ruins in Canton Province. Britain had been at war with China since October 1856 because these two men had contested the registration of the Arrow, a lorcha sailing vessel registered in Hong Kong with a British captain, Thomas Kennedy (Wong 3). While this vessel was docked in Canton Harbour on the morning of 8 October 1856, Chinese officials boarded it and arrested the Chinese crew because it contained two suspected pirates. The Chinese marine police also allegedly pulled down the British ensign during this arrest.

This act of aggression resulted in a general election and what historians now refer to as the Arrow War. Though Prime Minister Palmerston viewed it as only a "quarrel," Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels labelled it the "Second Opium War" (Marx). As this name suggests, they suspected that the excessive military response to the Arrow episode was really a British attempt to seize more territory and to open markets for Indian opium sales—in other words, to extend the largest drug trade in world history. Records of parliamentary debates in January and February of 1857 show liberal politicians were similarly wary about using military force in a thinly veiled endeavour to pressure the Chinese into concessions that they had refused to accept at the end of the First Opium War (1838-42). In the meantime, Parkes and Bowring bided their time, waiting for the right moment to unleash British firepower on what they saw as a recalcitrant Chinese government, unbowed after the Opium War.

China's Arrow War is often eclipsed by the horror and drama played out in India's Sepoy Mutiny, but the two events are tied together by shared military resources and Britain's opium profits. Britain was growing wealthy from Indian-produced opium, which was in turn sold illegally in China, redressing Britain's earlier trade deficit with China. Even after the Opium War, China restricted British trade to a handful of treaty ports and continued to ban opium. [End Page 31] Parkes and Bowring worked tirelessly to get Canton opened to British trade, to fulfill the last concession in the Treaty of Nanking, but to no avail—until the moment of the Arrow conflict.

China had been the original destination of British imperial troops before the Sepoy Mutiny started on 10 May 1857. The mutiny grabbed Britain's imagination with terrifying tales of innocents slaughtered and natives running wild.1 In the British imagination, the mutiny's suppression became a moral imperative. The public debate over using excessive military force to bend the Chinese will to Britain's economic agenda disappeared in the shock and revulsion over the Sepoy Uprising. Troops were quickly diverted to India, leaving Parkes and Bowring simmering in China, with their plans for retaliation on hold.

Unlike Parkes and Bowring, historians and politicians would describe Britain's war with China from October 1856 to October 1860 as "causeless" and "sordid" (Maxwell 124; Innes 218). The contested registry of the Arrow gave the pretext for the conflict and was soon forgotten for political expediency. Technically, the vessel was British only because of its captain and its registry at Hong Kong. Botanist Robert Fortune wrote in 1857 how lorchas had no clear identity:

Lorchas are not English vessels, as some people appear to imagine, and are rarely owned or sailed by Englishmen. They are Portuguese vessels .... They are manned, almost without exception, by Chinese .... These vessels, whether in convoying or in simple trading, do not confine themselves to the five ports at which foreigners are permitted by treaty to trade, and are well known both to the Chinese government and to foreigners as inveterate smugglers.


Fortune knew that British smugglers routinely bypassed the legal trading ports designated by the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, as he was the official smuggler of Chinese tea plants for the British tea plantations in Northern India and would therefore have been familiar with the technicalities of boat registry as exploited on all sides. British officials on...


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