Chapter 1.3: Metal Sharpened at the Forge
Chapter 1.3: Metal Sharpened at the Forge
Burlaks of the Pearl River
Feeding into the Pearl River are a series of smaller streams and rivers, intersecting with one another in the heart of Guangdong Province to create a vast, arable lowland upon which Canton was built. Whilst the majority of these streams are too small to be navigable, the Xi River system, which passes from Brasilian Macao to the Taiping holdout of Nanning, is a notable exception. The river is wide enough, the currents calm enough, for a force of British gunboats to be towed against the current.
The modern narrative is that the British, with their superior steamboats and mighty guns, sailed against the river current and landed in Nanning after a short journey, took the city in a swift siege, and thus rewrote history. The truth is somewhat different.
Whilst it is true that British forces did have substantially superior equipment to their Chinese counterparts, only 2 steamboats were used in the 12-strong British flotilla which sailed up the Xi River; and of the 13,000 men who made their way upstream towards Nanning, only 2,200 were British or Indian. The majority of the force was Chinese in origin, recruited by predominantly Cantonese gentry-collaborators, who considered the British the new face of law and order. A fleet of 37 war junks, the remnants of Admiral Zuo’s fleet, were assembled under the authority of the Viceroy of Liangguang, and trailed behind the Anglo-Indian flotilla. Along the Xi River, thousands of Chinese burlaks were conscripted by their gentry betters to help haul the British flotilla upriver, and within the month, the British force had arrived at Nanning.
At it’s heart, the Imperialist ideology was much less racialist than it was culturalist. The native aristocracy, be it Chinese, Indian or African, was greatly preferred over the products of London's inner-city slums, or of the Welsh coal mines. British Imperialists believed the upper-middle class public school graduate was the best humanity had to offer, or as the New English scholar, William L. Langer put it,
“We (the British) are the Patricians of the human race.”
Whilst there was a racialist aspect to Imperialism, that was predominant only amongst the then-opposition Conservative Party. The British therefore, considered themselves the protectors of the Chinese gentry class, and that sentiment was reciprocated by the gentry aristocracy. The Tiengued, who sought to topple the gentry order, were the enemies of both Britain and the gentry. The Tiengued were trapped between a rock and a hard place. Both the Qing and the British sought their destruction, and so the Tiengued put up a spirited resistance. Nanning held out for a fortnight, and the Hakka rebels fought even as their walls were torn down by British cannon. Brigadier-General Gordon would even admit to pondering a retreat from Guangxi, lest the rapidly closing Li Hongzhang attempt to evict the British and spark a diplomatic incident.
Once the British took Nanning, the Tiengued disintegrated within the year, splintering into regional warlords. Yang Xiuqing, East King of the Tiengued, would at one point unite the warring factions and march on Guangzhou, but he was captured and executed by British authorities in late 1863. Smaller Tiengued’s remnants would evade capture and integrate themselves as the new ruling class of Northwest Guangxi, eventually becoming a part of the gentry class themselves and betraying the cause.
The Tiengued Rebels
Since the Viceroyalty was still officially part of the Qing Empire, Britain had no authority to reform Liangguang’s administration. However, Liangguang was informally redrawn into 6 “administrative regions”, 2 of which were designated “homelands” for the Hakkas, 1 for the Teochew and 2 for the Cantonese. The last province, being Canton and its environs, would be for the “common and peaceful coexistence” of the peoples of Liangguang. That said, these divisions were not strict partition lines, for the time being at least.
His job concluded with quite the success, Charles Elliot would be promoted to Governor of Bengal, and left on a fast ship to Calcutta in March of 1864. His deputy, the now-famous George “Chinese” Gordon would be appointed Colonial Secretary, and in 1866, assumed the title of Lieutenant-Viceroy of Liangguang, nominally subservient to the ageing Zeng Guofan.
Gordon was the man behind the Viceroyal throne. Despite his military credentials, ostensibly the sword of Imperialism, Gordon was remarkably enlightened for his time. The Secretary learnt both Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka during his tenure as Governor, even making a failed effort at Teochew towards the end of his tenure. This greatly impressed the Liangguang gentry, who still formed the backbone of the local bureaucracy. To formalize the influence of the gentry, Gordon established the Shenyiju, or the Gentleman's Affairs Committee, an organization which held periodic meetings with the Secretary to discuss rural and bureaucratic affairs, an organ for the native Chinese elite to express their political opinions and serve an advisory role.
Like in India, the British were careful to prevent the gentry from growing overly powerful. Playing the Hakkas, Cantonese and Teochews off each other, the Shenyiju was rarely a unified political grouping, with different groups aligned with and against the British on an issue-by-issue basis. The three major peoples of Liangguang could not even agree on a lingua franca for the colony, and were forced to continue using Mandarin, not spoken by the natives of Liangguang, as a court language.
This begs the question: how much did British rule actually change?
For one, the Qing Examinations would be continued throughout the 19th Century. A 4-tier examination, students progressed up village, county, provincial and imperial exams, with the ultimate imperial exams being supervised by the Qing Emperor in Beijing itself. This remained a highly prestigious mode of academic advancement for natives of Liangguang, though students hailing from Liangguang would be barred from taking the Imperial Examination by edict in 1877. Even before 1877, many Confucian scholars would claim to be natives of neighbouring Jiangxi province in order to avoid the stigma of being a British subject.
A member of British Liangguang's Chinese elite
Furthermore, Chinese law still held sway across much of Liangguang. Chinese Law, ordained by the Daqing Luli, or Great Qing Legal Code remained in force across Chinese communities, who deferred to the local village elder or gentry magistrate for judgement. On the other hand, British Law governed British nationals hailing from the home country, from India, from the White colonies, or all non-Chinese foreigners, with all legal disputes being deferred to the local Justice. Deep into the age of British imperialism, serfdom remained in force across Guangxi under Chinese law, as did execution by decapitation and the taking of concubines.
The Liangguang Police Force, essentially a (somewhat) modernized Green Standard Army would be established in 1869 towards the end of Gordon’s term. The Police Force was a glorified militia, owing their loyalty not to the administration in Canton, but to the local magistrate. Most shockingly, this meant that village gentry could maintain their opposition to missionary work in rural areas of Liangguang, turning a blind eye to the lynching of Chinese Christians, especially in the Hakka highlands. The Colonial Government lacked the means to enforce its will and protect missionary work, since the gentry elites were both the sponsors of and roadblock to anti-Christian violence. The Viceroyalty was very much so the “Wild West” of the Orient, and was governed as such.
Perhaps Gordon’s greatest legacy was economic. Under his rule, commercial steamboats were popularised in Liangguang’s mercantile circles. Screw propellers had been introduced to the world in 1849, quickly launching a revolution in commercial shipping in the West. The dockyards of Bengal were quick to pick up on the new trend, and wealthy Chinese merchants followed suit in the 1860s. Steamers would pick up textiles from Calcutta, round the Malaccas to Guangzhou, whereupon the textiles would be transported legally or otherwise to Mainland China for sale. Trade beget financial, entrepot and logistical services, ultimately causing a commercial boom in Liangguang.
Indian aesthetics were more ostentatious than their American or European counterparts, favouring gigantic “palace-steamers”, expensive, luxurious monstrosities of little practical use beyond the prideful. A famous incident involves the teenage Diwan of Baroda, Behari Lal Gupta’s palace steamer the Lakshmi Vilas,breaking down at the Mouth of the Dongjiang River, blocking all commercial traffic for a week. The uproar it caused in Guangzhou is a testament to the rapid growth of trade in Liangguang under British rule.
Coming soon: the Great Game