Letters From China: The Second Opium War

Looting of the Yuan Ming Yuan pavilion by Anglo-French forces in 1860.
Godefroy Durand. Originally uploaded to Wikipedia.

In 1855 19 year old Adkins, a native of Milcote, near Weston-on-Avon, was appointed a supernumerary interpreter at the Superintendency of British Trade with China. He was to remain with the Chinese Consular Service until 1879, rising to become a diplomat, and ultimately consul.

The letters covering the period 1858-1861 form a dramatic, and at times harrowing, first-hand account of the latter half of the Second Opium War between the British and French Empires, and China’s ruling Quing dynasty.

Battles of the Taku forts

The letters include accounts of the battles of the Taku forts in June 1859 and August 1860, at the first of which Adkins was in the thick of the fighting, tending to the wounded, at one point seeing a marine standing next to him decapitated by a Chinese round shot.

Similarly, Adkins’ letters also tell of his time spent attached to the famous irregular Indian cavalry regiments raised by Walter Fane and Sir Dighton Probyn (awarded the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and in later life Keeper of the Privy Purse). Indeed, in places the letters read like pages from an adventure in the Boy’s Own paper, describing reconnaissance missions around the walls of Peking before the city was finally entered by Anglo-French forces in October 1860. In Peking itself Adkins was to meet Prince Kung, the Chinese Foreign Minister and brother of the Emperor.

The looting of the Xianfeng Emperor’s Summer Palace

Perhaps most dramatically of all Adkins was present at the looting of the Xianfeng Emperor’s Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan), Adkins himself taking the Emperor’s crutch and presenting it as a gift to Lord Elgin, the commander of the British force in China.

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