Letters From China: Thomas Adkins, an Introduction

Regaining the Provincial City Anqing. A scene of the Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864.
Wu Youru. 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. He returned to England, retiring to Long Hyde House at South Littleton in Worcestershire, where he died in 1912.

The Warwickshire County Record Office holds almost 150 letters1 written by Adkins during his time in China to his parents (John Caleb and Temperance Adkins, of Milcote Hall). The vast majority of these letters date from his first tour of duty in China (1855-1865).

A cataclysmic period in history

Adkins’ career in China (initially spent in Hong Kong and Ningpo, and later Peking) coincided with a particularly cataclysmic period in the country’s turbulent history and his first three years there were no exception. When Adkins began work in Hong Kong in 1855 the bloody Taiping Rebellion, a Holy War led by the fanatical Hong Xuiquan against China’s ruling Quing dynasty, had been raging for 5 years (the Taiping rebels would not be defeated until 1864). In a letter of December 1855 Adkins alludes to rumours that there were 5,000 Taiping rebels lurking in Hong Kong itself. Moreover, in 1856 the British and French Empires commenced with the Quing dynasty in what became known as the Second Opium War (this conflict was to continue until 1860).

A remarkable account of the war

Adkins’ letters form a remarkable account of the war as witnessed from close quarters. He refers to such momentous events as the fall of Canton to the British and French in December 1857, the exile of its governor Yeh Mingchen to Calcutta (we learn that Adkins’ colleague, the splendidly named Chaloner Alabaster, went to Calcutta, to serve as Yeh’s interpreter), and the conclusion of the Treaty of Tientsin, which ended the first half of the war in June 1858. Perhaps most dramatically, in a letter from January 1857 Adkins tells of how he is among those ill from the effects of an unsuccessful attempt to poison the Hong Kong’s inhabitants when arsenic was added to the bread at the E-Sing bakery, supplier to almost all the European households in the colony. The following month, he writes of the trial and acquittal of Cheong Ah Lum, the baker thought responsible for the outrage.

The letters are of further interest for the ‘insider information’ they contain about prominent figures like Sir John Bowring, then governor of Hong Kong, and the 8th Earl of Elgin, commander of the British force in China, and later Viceroy of India, whose staff Adkins hoped to join.

1 Reference CR3554

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