Karl Marx in New York Daily Tribune
Articles On China, 1853-1860

The New Chinese War

Written: October 18, 1859;
Transcribed by: Harold Newson;
HTML Mark-up: Andy Blunden;

October 18, 1859

IN A former letter I asserted that the Peiho conflict had not sprung from accident, but, on the contrary, been beforehand prepared by Lord Elgin, acting upon Palmerston's secret instructions, and fastening upon Lord Malmesbury, the Tory Foreign Minister, the project of the noble Viscount, then seated at the head of & opposition benches. Now, first, the idea of the "accidents" in China arising from "instructions" drawn up by the present British Premier is so far from being new that, during the debates on the Lorcha war, it was suggested to the House of Commons by so well informed a penonage as Mr. Disraeli, and, curious to say, confirmed by no less an authority than Lord Palmerston himself. On February 3, 1857, Mr. Disraeli warned the House of Commons in the following terms:

"I cannot resist the conviction that what has taken place in China has not been in consequence of the alleged pretext, but is, in fact, in consequence of instructions received from home, some considerable time ago. If that be the case, I think the time has arrived when this House would not be doing its duty unless it earnestly considered whether it has any means of controlling a system, which if pursued, will be one, in my mind, fatal to the interests of this country."

And Lord Palmerston most coolly replied: "The right hon. gentleman says the course of events appeared to be the result of some system predetermined by the Government at home. Undoubtedly, it was."

In the present instance, a cursory glance at the Blue Book, entitled:

"Correspondence relative to the Earl of Elgin's special missions to China and Japan, 1857-59, will show how the event that occurred at the Peiho on the 25th June was already recorded by Lord Elgin on the 2nd of March. Page 484 of the said correspondence, we find the following two dispatches.


"SIR: With reference to my dispatch to your Excellency of the 17th ult., I would beg leave to state that I entertain some hope that the decision come to by her Majesty 5 S Government on the subject of the permanent residence of a British Ambassador at Pekin, which I communicated to your Excellency in a conversation yesterday, may induce the Chinese Government to receive, in a becoming manner, the representative of her Majesty, when he proceeds to Pekin for the exchange of the ratifications of the treaty of Tien-tsin. At the same time, it is no doubt possible that this hope may not be realized, and, at any rate, I apprehend that her Majesty's Government will desire that the Ambassador, when he proceeds to Tien-tsin, be accompanied by an imposing force. Under these circumstances, I would venture to submit for your Excellency's consideration, whether it would not be expedient to concentrate at Shanghai at the earliest convenient period, a sufficient fleet of gunboats for this service, as Mr. Bruce's arrival in China cannot be long delayed. I have, etc. ELGIN and KINCARDINE."


"My LORD: I have received your Excellency's dispatch of the 7th of March, 1859, and I have to inform you that her Majesty's Government approve of the note, of which a copy is therein inclosed, and in which your Excellency announced to the Imperial Commissioners that her Majesty's Government would not insist upon the residence of her Majesty's Minister being permanently fixed at Pekin.

"Her Majesty's Government also approve of your having suggested to Rear-Admiral Seymour that a fleet of gunboats should be collected at Shanghai in order to accompany Mr. Bruce up the Peiho.

"I am, etc. MALMESBURY

Lord Elgin, then, knows beforehand that the British Government "will desire" that his brother, Mr. Bruce, be accompanied by "an imposing force" of "gunboats" up the Peiho, and he orders Admiral Seymour to make ready "for this service." The Earl of Malmesbury, in his dispatch dated May 2, approved of the suggestion intimated by Lord Elgin to the Admiral. The whole correspondence exhibits Lord Elgin as the master, and Lord Malmesbury as the man. While the former constantly takes the initiative and acts upon the instructions originally received from Palmerston, without even waiting for new instructions from Downing Street, Lord Malmesbury contents himself with indulging "the desires" which his imperious subaltern anticipates him to feel. He nods assent when Elgin states that the treaty being not yet ratified, they had not the right to ascend any Chinese river; he nods assent, when Elgin thinks they ought to show much forbearance towards the Chinese in regard to the execution of the article of the treaty relating to the embassy to Pekin; and, nothing daunted, he nods assent when in direct contradiction to his own former statements, Elgin claims the right to enforce the passage of the Peiho by an "imposing fleet of gunboats." He nods assent in the same way that Dogberry nodded assent to the suggestions of the sexton.

The sorry figure cut by the Earl of Malmesbury and the humility of his attitude, are easily understood if one calls to mind the cry raised on the advent of the Tory Cabinet by the London Times and other influential papers, as to the great peril threatening the brilliant success which Lord Elgin, under the instructions of Palmerston, was about to secure in China, but which the Tory Administration, if for pique only, and in order to justify their vote of censure on Palmerston's Canton bombardment, were likely to baffle. Malmesbury allowed himself to be intimidated by that cry. He had, moreover, before his eyes and in his heart the fate of Lord Ellenborough, who had dared openly to counteract the India policy of the noble Viscount, and in reward for his patriotic courage, was sacrificed by his own colleagues of the Derby Cabinet. Consequently, Malmesbury resigned the whole initiative into the hands of Elgin, and thus enabled the latter to execute Palmerston's plan on the responsibility of his official antagonists, the Tories. It is this same circumstance which for the present has put the Tories in a very dismal alternative as to the course to be taken in regard to the Peiho affair. Either they must sound the war trumpet with Palmerston, and thus keep him in office, or they must turn their backs on Malmesbury, upon whom they heaped such sickening flatteries-, during the late Italian war.

The alternative is the more trying since the impending third China war is anything but popular with the British mercantile classes. In 1857 they bestrode the British lion, because they expected great commercial profits from a forcible opening of the Chinese market. At this moment, they feel, on the contrary, rather angry at seeing the fruits of the treaty obtained, all at once snapped away from their hold. They know that affairs look menacing enough in Europe and India, without the further complication of a Chinese war on a grand scale. They have not forgotten that, in 1857, the imports of tea fell by upward of 24 millions of pounds, that being the article almost exclusively exported from Canton, which was then the exclusive theatre of war, and they apprehend that this interruption of trade by war may now be extended to Shanghai and the other trading ports of the Celestial Empire. After a first Chinese war undertaken by the English in the interest of opium smuggling, and a second war carried on for the defence of the lorcha of a pirate, nothing was wanted for a climax but a war extemporized for the purpose of pestering China with the nuisance of permanent Embassies at its capital.