The British Empire

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-hsu, was told to implement a series of measures to limit the trade. 20,000 cases of illegal British opium was seized and then the British communities in Canton and Macau were expelled.

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, (1839-1842) the British used all the modern technology available to them such as steam gunboats, war rockets and muskets. At the start of the conflict Hong Kong was seized and annexed to be used as a naval base, and then gunboats were used on the Yangste River to shell Shanghai and Chungking before being taken by landing forces. Whilst the British killed many Chinese with their superior firing power, the British lost men to sunstroke, malaria, dysentery and cholera. The result of the Yangste campaign was that the Chinese government signed the Treaty of Nanking which confirmed British possession of Hong Kong and the use of Canton as a trading base besides the opening up of Amoy, Foochow, Shanghai and Ningpo as trading bases.

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-Radical coalition.

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 Summer Palace.

The Ashanti War 1873-4

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 - 4,000 British regulars from the Black Watch and the Rifle Brigade with native artillery. Wolseley did all he could to minimise the possibility of  his men falling  ill through any of the tropical diseases which plagued that area of Africa. They had specially made uniforms and had various devices to combat the heat. They had respirators against the heat, veils for insects, cholera belts and quinine. Three hospital ships lay off the coast and a second army of 8,500 men were kept in reserve  in case of losses.

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 - women who they subsequently killed. Events such as these convinced that he had to act to destroy the power of the Zulus.

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 3-4000 then crossed into Natal and attacked  the mission station at Rorke's Drift which was  defended by 139 men from the 24th regiment, many of them invalids. In  a battle that lasted over twenty fours the attacking Zulus were beaten off suffering losses of 500 dead. The Zulus were exhausted  from their  endeavours at Isandlwana and had  not eaten for two days and could not get the better  of the British fire power. Eleven soldiers  at Rorke's Drift were awarded the Victoria Cross. The Zulus always used the same tactics, a frontal  attack with two side horns  surrounding  the enemy.

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-square to concentrate their fire power and defeat the frontal attacks of the Zulus.  Chelmsford though decided to vacate Ulundi without  capturing  Cetewayo.

It was left to Wolseley to arrange the surrender  of  the Zulu chiefs which he had done by mid-August although Cetewayo remained at large. Wolseley setup a series of patrols and eventually Cetewayo was captured on  31  August. The  government did not want to annex Zululand so it was  divided into thirteen  provinces under chiefs from  the  pre-Chaka period. Every chief was required to sign a document agreeing to the abolishment of the Zulu military system and not to make war or seize land. British residents  were  not to  be imposed on the chiefs though, much to the disgust of Bartle Frere. Zululand kept its independence only until 1887 when  it too became a British protectorate. It  was then annexed to Natal ten  years later in  1897.

First Anglo-Boer War 1880-81

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-exert British control. This force under the command of Colley was routed at at Majuba Hill on 27 February 1881. Wolseley had made it clear to the British  government that the Transvaal was rich in minerals and  that gold had already been found. The new government in London though decided to drop plans  for federation and  restore  Boer independence. In negotiations at Pretoria (1881) and London (1884) independence was conceded  although the British government clung to the notion that they still had sovereignty over  the Boer republic -  this was part of the justification for the war in  1899.

Read On

d On

The British bombardment of Canton 1857

John Bowring, Governor of Hong Kong

The Imperial Palace, Peking

Hong Kong

The Ashanti War

Cetewayo, the Zulu leader

Lord Chelmsford, commander of the British forces during the Zulu wars 1879

Majuba Hill, February 1881