Letters From China: The Taiping Rebellion

Regaining the Provincial Capital of Ruizhou.
Wu Youru. Originally uploaded to Wikipedia.

In 1855 19 year old Thomas 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.

Warwickshire County Record Office holds around 150 letters written by Adkins during his time in China to his parents, John Caleb and Temperance Adkins, of Milcote Hall, the vast majority of these dating from his first tour of duty in China (1855-1865). The letters covering the period 1861-5 form a dramatic, and at times harrowing, first-hand account of a particularly unstable period in China’s turbulent history, detailing the bloody final years of the Taiping rebellion against China’s ruling Quing dynasty of 1850 – 1864. Led by the fanatical Hong Xiuquan, the rebels, who had come to occupy Nanking and huge swathes of southern China, sought to overthrow the country’s ancient religions (for example, Buddhism and Confucianism) with a highly idiosyncratic version of Christianity in which Hong Xiuquan claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus.

Journeying to Nanking

Adkins’ letters deal directly with these events. Early in 1863 he was forced to journey to the rebel stronghold of Nanking in order to demand recompense for rebel assaults on British trading vessels. He finds himself in the palace of one of the rebel leaders, the self-styled prince of Cheng. Adkins’ letter recounts the remarkable drama that ensued with the apologetic ‘prince’ proclaiming that the rebel foremost in the raids on British boats will be executed. Adkins suggests that this is unnecessary, but has scarcely finished speaking when a man walks in with a huge bloodied sword to inform them that the rebel in question has been beheaded. The following year, after the Imperial forces’ defeat of the rebels and the suicide of Hong Xiuquan, Adkins again journeyed to Nanking, his letter home describing a scene of utter desolation, with the city in ruins and its streets strewn with bodies.

The letters are a powerful testament to the horrendous violence of the period, as instability and crime gripped the country. In a letter from March 1863 Adkins writes of a meeting with a disreputable American merchant gun-running to the rebels. Soon after the man’s boat is found deserted, the only trace of him, his blood-soaked waistcoat and boots.

A particularly sad letter

A particularly sad letter details the fate of another American merchant, his Chinese wife, and their infant child, robbed and horrifically murdered by their own crew.  Of the woman’s corpse, Adkins wrote ‘The expression of her countenance I shall never forget’.

Adkins also refers to a number of the key personalities of the time. For example, a letter discussing the defeat of Taiping rebels at Soochow in 1863 credits the victory of the Imperial forces to an English army Major by the name of Gordon. This was none other than Charles Gordon whose heroic exploits in China would earn him the nickname ‘Chinese Gordon’. To us, of course, he is better known as ‘Gordon of Khartoum’, whose death in the Sudan in 1885, fighting against the forces of the Mahdi, transformed him from Victorian hero to icon and martyr, bringing down Gladstone’s second government in the process.

More from Weston-on-Avon