Wars of Expansion
The China Wars
In 1793 and 1816 there had been two British missions sent to China in order to establish diplomatic links but neither of them made any progress. It was perhaps inevitable given the weakness of the Chinese state and the British search for new markets for their goods that there would be a clash with China eventually and this came in 1839.
Canton was the main port open to trade with China and it was here that the first
collision came when the Chinese government decided it wanted to reduce the opium
trade which was having a detrimental impact on Chinese society. The Chinese commissioner
in Canton, Lin Tse-
Although the HEIC (Honourable East India Company) had lost its monopoly, the profits
from the opium trade still accounted for 40% of the total value of Indian exports
and the money made was often more than the sum total of the interest payable on loans
received by the HEIC from London. The HEIC and the British government was not willing
to allow this situation to go unchallenged. Consequently the Foreign Secretary, Palmerston,
authorised the sending of an expedition consisting of a fleet of gunboats and 4,000
troops to the mouth of the Canton River. In the war that followed, (1839-
This war exposed China's military weakness and established Britain as the dominant power in the Far East. Using the newly acquired port of Hong Kong Britain sought to make the coastline and rivers of China safe for trade by eliminating piracy. This was popular work for the crews which could earn good money from the bounties won. Relations between the two governments though were not good and not helped by the actions of British warships. These actions at sea helped to provoke another war with China in 1856 when Cantonese soldiers on 8 October 1856 boarded the British registered Arrow and hauled down its flag. The claims to British registration were doubtful as the registration had lapsed. The British captain of the Arrow reported the incident to the consul in Canton who demanded the release of crew members (some of whom were former pirates known to the Chinese).
Parkes, the Canton consul appealed to Browning, the Governor of Hong Kong who, seeing
an opportunity to extend his area of control, agreed to become involved and ordered
a British gunboat to board a Chinese vessel . As the crisis escalated a squadron
of the Royal Navy was sent up the river to bombard Canton and blockade the city of
Canton. The British cabinet was not whole heartedly in support of Browning's actions
but they decided to support him in the interests of trade and to punish the Chinese
authorities. The support of the Cabinet for what Richard Cobden described as an illegal
action prompted in January 1857 a heated debate in Parliament. In the House of Commons
with Palmerston warning the Commons not' to abandon a British community to a set
of barbarians.' It was not enough to prevent Cobden's motion of censure to win by
263 votes to 247. Palmerston, now the Prime MInister appealed to the country in a
General Election which he lost to a Whig-
Meanwhile Lord Elgin had been sent by Palmerston to China as an envoy to negotiate with the Chinese government to end the impasse over the Arrow. Elgin was joined in Hong Kong by a French envoy sent by Napoleon III to get compensation for the execution of a French missionary. The two envoys eventually authorised an attack on Canton itself and with 2,000 soldiers newly arrived from Calcutta and a powerful French fleet, the city was bombarded and then entered. The victorious troops stripped the city bare with Elgin himself taking 52 boxes of silver and 68 boxes of gold ingots. The allies deposed the Commissioner and replaced him with his deputy.
The Imperial government refused to accept the situation so an allied fleet of gunboats attacked and took five forts at the mouth of the Peihu river. This forced Chinese Commissioners to agree to what became the Treaty of Tientsin signed in 1858 by which China would pay £5m in war reparations, the opening up of China to Christian missionaries, the freedom of Europeans to move anywhere in China and a permanent representative in Peking. The Imperial government was slow to ratify the treaty and this produced the Third Chinese war of 1860.
Frederick Bruce, Elgin's brother was sent to Peking with a fleet of sixteen warships but the fleet failed to breach the booms put across the mouth of the River Peiho. By the time the news reached London Palmerston was back in power and he was determined that British prestige must be repaired. A large British and Indian force of 13,000 troops was sent together with 6,500 French troops to the mouth of the Peiho. The force took the forts at the mouth of the river without too much difficulty and then began their march on Peking.
Having arrived at the outskirts of Peking, the Emperor sent envoys to let it be known that two new commissioners had been appointed to begin discussions. After exhaustive discussions the Chinese commissioners agreed to all the allied demands but a party of British envoys was captured by a Tartar force. Elgin decided that it was time to use force rather than diplomacy against this Tartar army which was attacked before Peking. The much larger Tartar army was defeated and forced to retreat but not before they had beheaded two prisoners. As well as the retreat of the Tartar army, the Emperor himself fled leaving Peking to the allied army. The Summer palaces which contained the pick of Chinese art treasures were looted despite an agreement of the Allies to preserve the treasures.
Wolseley who was General Hope Grant's military secretary, believed that the looting
and the destruction of the Palace ordered by Elgin in October helped to hasten the
signing (by the Emperor's brother Prince Kung) of the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin. As
well as ratifying the earlier treaty, Kung and Elgin agreed the transfer of Kowloon
to the British. The expedition had been enormously successful with few military casualties,
huge reparations, and the permanent annexation of Kowloon to add to Hong Kong. It
was perhaps ironic that Elgin, the man who had saved the Parthenon friezes, destroyed
one of the wonders f the world -
The Ashanti War 1873-
The first of a number of colonial wars fought in the last quarter of the c19th was one fought in west Africa with the Ashanti people who lived in what is now Ghana. This war was very much a test of the British view of Imperialism. For many it was a clash between British Christianity and an Africa that was full of pagan illiterate peoples with childish customs and debased art. The Ashanti though were people with an advanced culture. They were excellent craftsmen in gold, silver and wood and had a capital city, Kumasi that was full of well designed buildings in streets that were clean with avenues of trees and with houses that had toilets, boiling water and with regular disposal of rubbish. The Ashanti though did practice human sacrifice with hundreds slaughtered to provide a retinue for the King. To the British the Ashanti appeared murderous and backward and when they began to make raids on the coastal tribes where British trading forts were based, the British government decided to act.
The man given command of the force sent against the Ashanti was the classic Victorian
colonial soldier, Garnet Wolseley. Wolseley gathered together his force in late 1873
An ultimatum was delivered to Kumasi but was ignored. Diversionary attacks were made and Wolseley had roads and bridges built through the thick rain forest. Despite being continually harried by the Ashanti, Wolseley steadily advanced until he arrived at the village of Ejiasi where the Ashanti were virtually invisible but their muskets were no match for the British superior fire power. The advance continued and on February 3 1874 the Black Watch entered Kumasi, the Ashanti having fled. Wolseley who had been at Peking in 1860, sent an ultimatum to the Ashanti wanting them to agree to terms. Wolseley wanted to leave Kumasi as soon as possible concerned about the possibility of disease. With no word coming he ordered that the city be destroyed. With that, messengers of peace were sent and Wolseley's terms were agreed to. Hostages were released, claims to the coastal fortress of Elmina were renounced and the independence of certain coastal tribes were recognised. The campaign led to Wolseley being hailed as 'Britain's only General' and the phrase 'All Sir Garnet' being introduced into the English language. He was given £20,000 by a grateful Parliament and made a Grand Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George.
The Ashanti War stoked the fires of Imperialism and excited the public imagination. In magazines, novels and newspapers, stories of Imperial victories would now appeal to owners who wanted to boost sales figures. Yet the British public understood little about the real nature of the war and of Ashanti society. This was to be characteristic of many of the succeeding campaigns in Africa. It also gave reassurance to a British public that was becoming increasingly concerned about the nature of British power, particularly coming just after the Prussian armies had destroyed the French armies and occupied Paris.
With the victory against the Ashanti, the British felt they were quite capable of meeting the demands of empire.
The Zulu War 1879
In 1877 Sir Theophilus Shepstone, a colonial officer, was the envoy sent to Pretoria to bring about the annexation which would signal the beginning of a federated South Africa with the Boers at last again under the control of the British. Before a federation could be constructed though, the new Governor of the Cape, Sir Bartle Frere, decided it was necessary first to destroy the power of the Zulu nation.
The Zulus, under the leadership of Cetewayo, were themselves increasingly concerned at the British annexation of the Transvaal and what it meant for them as the Boers were the traditional enemies of the Zulus.
Throughout 1878 the Zulus were seen as being more and more aggressive particularly
towards British missionaries. Missionaries were reporting to Frere incidents of torture
and the murder of converts. In May 1878 the Reverend Filter asked for help for his
community of 160 at Luneberg, Transvaal believing it to be threatened by the Zulus.
In July a force of 100 Zulus crossed the Tugela into Transvaal to take two Zulu women
who had taken refuge -
Although the conflict with the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape had come to an end in 1878, Frere asked London for more soldiers to deal with the situation but wars in Afghanistan and the possibility of war with Russia over Constantinople brought a refusal from London, both for troops and for any war with the Zulus. Despite this Frere and Shepstone determined to bring the situation with the Zulus to a head. Another telegram from London had been sent to Frere reiterating the Government's opposition to war but before Frere had seen it a group of English envoys met with Zulu leaders on the banks of the Tugela river, and in a four hour speech Frere read out a list of demands for Cetewayo to consider, including the disbanding of the Zulu army, the abrogation of the Zulu laws on marriage and the handing over of those Zulus responsible for the murder of the two captured women. Cetewayo was given twenty days to respond. When no response had been received by 1 January 1879, Frere had his excuse to wage war on the Zulu nation.
At daybreak on 20 January a force of 1,200 troops led by the new commander in chief
in South Africa Lord Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo to establish a camp at Isandlwana.
Leaving the main force to establish the camp, Chelmford took a reconnaissance force
to search for the main Zulu force thought to be to the south. Whilst Chelmsford
was still away from the main force, it was attacked and all but wiped out by a
Zulu force that had enveloped them. Only six men survived. In defiance of orders
a Zulu force of 3-
Chelmsford had attacked Cetewayo in complete defiance of the British government that had replaced him Wolseley. Wolseley had learnt in May that he was to be sent to Africa to make peace with the Zulus and to safeguard existing British territories. Wolseley reached Cape Town on 23 June 1879 and Durban on 28 June. It was whilst he was at Pietermaritzburg that he heard that Chelmsford was defying orders and marching on Ulundi with 4000 British soldiers and 1000 native allies.
On 4 July Chelmsford attacked and defeated the Zulu army of an estimated number
of 20,000. Even though Cetewayo had urged the use of guerrilla tactics the Zulus
did not change their tactics and the British this time kept their army together
and in the attack on Cetewayo's stronghold of Ulundi used the traditional tactics
of the red-
It was left to Wolseley to arrange the surrender of the Zulu chiefs which he had
done by mid-
The pacification of the Zulus after the Battle of Ulundi removed a threat to the
Boers who had never accepted British rule. General Wolseley made it clear in a meeting
with Joubert that British rule was irrevocable but once the Boers realised this,
they rebelled. In December 1880 the Boers of the Transvaal declared their independence
from the British. Small parties of British soldiers in the Transvaal were attacked
bringing a larger force to re-
The British bombardment of Canton 1857
John Bowring, Governor of Hong Kong
The Imperial Palace, Peking
The Ashanti War
Cetewayo, the Zulu leader
Lord Chelmsford, commander of the British forces during the Zulu wars 1879
Majuba Hill, February 1881