Steamed Victory: The Nemesis I

Iron Steamer Nemesis Attacking a Masked Battery, China 1841 – William Adolphus Knell 1802-1875 Oil on canvas

Steam was the nuclear power of the nineteenth century. Relatively clean, efficient, and more reliable than wind or oars, steam power made its worldwide naval debut in the First Opium War. The Nemesis, a 660-ton steamship, was launched on the Mersey River in 1839, and made its way to Liverpool before beginning the voyage to China at the height of the Ningbo hostage crisis. An exemplar of state-of-the-art technology, the Nemesis was the first steam-powered vessel to round the treacherous Cape of Good Hope. Twelve years before its more famous counterparts the Monitor and Merrimac clashed during the American Civil War, the Nemesis also boasted a hull of iron. But fueling this coal-guzzler was a nightmare, and its journey was slow as it made frequent stops to take on more coal in order to feed its Rabelasian appetite of sixty-five tons per week. As the Nemesis steamed up Africa’s eastern coast, a violent storm nearly sent it to the bottom after a long rip in its seams almost tore the ship in half. When the Nemesis reached Sri Lanka, her captain, William Hall, an early advocate of steam power and much experienced in the operation of steamships, received orders to proceed to Canton. On November 25, 1840, the Nemesis arrived in Macao. After a brief meeting with the Portuguese governor Pinto, Hall crossed the Gulf of Canton and set anchor in Danggu, twentyfive miles northeast of Macao, where it rendezvoused with the man-of-war the Melville.

The Nemesis arrived just in time to have an intimidating effect during the next parley between Qishan and the two Elliots. They met in Canton on November 29, 1840, aboard the Melville. Qishan, who cast aside protocol and status by agreeing to meet on the enemy’s turf, the Melville, brought with him encouraging news.

The New Year (1841) came and went with no movement toward a settlement on either side. An opium ship slipped into Canton, carrying not only the contraband, but a rumor that the Emperor had decided on war. Elliot decided to preempt the enemy, and on January 5, 1841, began preparations for an attack. Still hoping to avert hostilities, Elliot informed Qishan that if an agreement couldn’t be reached within the next two days, war would recommence. He even set a specific time, eight in the morning of the 7th.

As promised, on the morning of January 7, 1841, fifteen hundred Indian soldiers and one hundred British marines, sailors, and infantry aboard the Nemesis, Enterprize, and Madagascar landed without a fight at the mouth of the Canton River, the gateway to Canton. The Anglo-Indian force, backed by artillery aboard the Calliope, Hyacinth, and Larne, as well as the Nemesis and four smaller steamers, attacked Chuanbi Fort while the guns of the Samarang, Druid, Modeste, and Columbine targeted the walls of Tycocktow Fort across from Chuanbi. Eight thousand men inside the fort’s tower returned fire, but stopped after a few minutes. The Chinese cannon had been tied down and couldn’t be aimed at the invaders. The British and Indians took advantage of the cease-fire, and two companies of marines went over Chuanbi’s earthen walls at 9:30 A. M. The muddy flats in front of the fort slowed the artillery pieces that the men dragged along behind them. The Manchu Dynasty’s elite corps of Manchu troops waved flags and banged gongs, but volleys from the British men-of-war soon knocked out their guns. The Manchus believed propaganda that the British killed all prisoners, so they resisted until most of them were dispatched by the invaders. “A frightful scene of slaughter ensued, despite the efforts of the [British] officers to restrain their men,” an English participant recalled. By 11 A. M., the yellow Chinese flag was lowered by the invaders, and the British Union Jack flew in its place. Six hundred Manchus died, and another one hundred, apparently not taken in by propaganda, surrendered. The British had only thirty casualties, none fatal, and their injuries were caused not by the defenders, but by the accidental explosion of an overheated artillery piece.

The Chinese defenders fled the city, but a flanking move by Major Pratt of the 26th regiment forced the refugees back into the fort. Ships’ artillery shelled the city, killing many of the defenders. The Nemesis and other British ships went in for the kill, setting ablaze eleven Chinese warships at anchor in the mouth of the river and using Congreve rockets as incendiaries.

The Chinese artillery at the fort and aboard war junks did not return fire. To escape the deadly bombardment, some defenders jumped into the water, where gunfire from British ships killed many of them. Others inside the fort were burned and disfigured when their antiquated matchlocks’ gunpowder exploded-their misery compounded by British gunfire. The British took very few prisoners. Years later, a staff officer, Armine Mountain, wrote, “The slaughter of fugitives is unpleasant, but we are such a handful in the face of so wide a country and so large a force that we should be swept away if we did not deal our enemy a sharp lesson whenever we came in contact.” In contrast to the slaughter of the Chinese, the British suffered no fatalities and only twenty-four wounded.

The successful seizure of Chuanbi was followed by a naval battle that was more like a rout, at Anson’s Bay, to the east of Chuanbi. There, the steamship Nemesis demonstrated that it was a navy unto itself by firing on fifteen Chinese war junks. A rocket from the Nemesis had the blind luck of hitting one of the junk’s powder magazines, and the ship was blown to pieces. At the sight of this ferocious new technology and its devastating effects, the fourteen remaining junks began to flee, but not fast enough for some of their terrified crew, who jumped overboard. The Nemesis didn’t pursue the junks, but steamed up river where it found two more junks and another village that had been deserted as soon as the news of the massacre at Chuanbi made its way upstream. The Nemesis torched one of the junks, seized the other, and then rejoined the fleet.

Three other forts remained near Chuanbi. On the next day, just as British ships were about to shell the forts, a physician under a white flag of truce arrived with an offer from Admiral Guan, the commander of the Chinese troops, asking for a three-day cease-fire to allow him to confer with Qishan. Captain Elliot had been horrified by the massacre at Chuanbi, and to the fury of his men, who wanted to capitalize on their quick victory by marching on Canton, he accepted the cease-fire. Elliot displayed a conflicting combination of pacifism and belligerence in a letter to James Matheson after agreeing to the truce. “I hope we shall settle without further bloodshed. The Commissioner [Lin] knows we can take much more than he would like to lose whenever we please.” Elliot channeled his men’s bloodlust into demolishing the walls of the Chuanbi and Tycocktow Forts.

Qishan and Elliot parleyed at the Lotus Flower Wall, twenty-six miles south of Canton. Elliot showed up with an intimidating entourage of fifty-six Royal Marines, a fifteen-member fife-and-drum band, and Captain Rosamel, commander of the French corvette Danaide, anchored in Canton Bay. Elliot’s invitation to Rosamel was both a diplomatic courtesy and a clever political ploy to keep an eye on the French, whom he feared would try to share in the British spoils without having fought for them.

While the Chinese feted Elliot’s men with wine and mutton, and the British entertained their “hosts” with a musket drill that was part show, part threat, Qishan and Elliot conferred aboard a boat in the middle of the Canton River. By January 20, 1841, they had agreed to what would be known as the Chuanbi Convention. In light of the annihilation of the Chinese forces, the British were surprisingly magnanimous about the terms, which in the hands of a more vengeful power could easily have devolved into a diktat. The British agreed to buy Hong Kong for $6 million, ambassadors at last would be exchanged, all contact between the two powers would be direct and official, there would be no more linguistic squabbling about “tribute-bearing barbarians,” and trade would resume. The British also agreed to return the forts they had captured, including all of Chusan Island. To pay for the war and save Palmerston from a budget battle in Parliament that might cause the government to fall, the Chinese were forced to pay $6 million, neatly neutralizing their gain from the sale of Hong Kong. Qishan presumed that the Emperor and his court would agree to the indemnity because they planned to extort the sum from the Hong merchants, which they in fact did. (Howqua alone coughed up the enormous sum of $820,000 as his contribution to the indemnity.) Far from home and burdened by slow communication, Elliot couldn’t know that the Chuanbi pact would infuriate Palmerston, who still wanted the instructions he had given Elliot followed, namely reimbursement for the twenty thousand confiscated opium chests and the cost of the war. The Emperor was even more outraged, especially by the cession of Hong Kong, and recalled Qishan to Peking. Impotently, the Emperor, still operating in an alternate universe, however celestial, also ordered Elliot to report immediately to the capital for his execution.

On February 1, 1841, Elliot unilaterally proclaimed Hong Kong British territory and the residents subjects of the Crown, neither of which assertions had been agreed to in the Chuanbi Convention. A week later, eight Protestant missionaries from Macao arrived on the island. British justice was also installed and practiced with the cruelty that was more appropriate for shipboard discipline than a civilian population, and included flogging. “None of the Chinese ever stood more than six blows of the cat [whip], when they invariably fainted,” a resident of the island wrote.

Elliot met again with Qishan at Second Bar, an island twenty miles southeast of Canton, this time in the company of a French ship’s captain. Qishan refused to put the Imperial seal on the Convention of Chuanbi. By now Qishan’s position had become untenable. The Emperor was furious with the mandarin for ceding Hong Kong, and he had already been fired when Elliot met with him, which may explain why no progress was made. Qishan did not inform Elliot of his removal from office, but ascribed his refusal to illness.

As Chinese soldiers began to mass around the Bogue, Elliot decided to use arms again when diplomacy failed. On February 26, 1841, the Melville, the Queen, the Wellesley, the Druid, and the Modeste began to shell forts on Wangtong and Anunghoi islands on the Bogue. The stationary guns of the forts were set at such a high elevation they only damaged the topsails of the British ships. Within fifteen minutes, the Chinese stopped firing at the fleet as marines, sailors, and Indian soldiers landed on the beach on the southern portion of Wangtong. “Opposition there was none. The unfortunate Chinese literally crammed the trenches, begging for mercy. I wish I could add that it was granted,” the leader of the troops, Edward Belcher, reported in the Repository. The Indian soldiers began executing the prisoners. When Belcher tried to save the prisoners, “two were shot down whilst holding my shirt, and my gig’s crew, perceiving my danger, dragged me away exclaiming, `They will shoot you next, sir!’” When the invaders occupied the fort, they learned that the defending soldiers had retreated before the landing had begun, leaving the civilians to be butchered by the Indian troops. Within two hours, the forts on Anunghoi were also seized with minimal effort. Elliot narrowly missed being killed by a cannonball as he reclined in a hammock on the deck of his ship. Three Chinese died in the engagements, one hundred were wounded, and more than a thousand taken prisoner. Admiral Guan’s body lay among the defenders, a bayonet in his chest. The British accorded the old warrior a cannon salute from the Blenheim when his family retrieved the body and sailed off with it. With the fall of the remaining Bogue forts, the mouth of the Canton River and the gateway to Canton belonged to the British.

On February 27, 1841, Elliot made his way up the Canton River aboard the Nemesis. A few miles upriver, he came across the Cambridge, which had been captured earlier and was now surrounded by Chinese warships, all of which fled after a brief bombardment by the Nemesis. The Cambridge’s Chinese crew jumped overboard as the British boarded her. Unable to tow the Cambridge, Elliot put the ship to the torch. The only British fatality was a marine whose musket exploded in his hands.

Elliot, now backed by more ships and soldiers, continued on toward Canton, removing barrier chains and demolishing forts. As the armada approached the city, ten thousand residents fled, including Lin’s family. James Ryan, an American merchant who had remained behind, wrote that the city “never looked so desolate.” The hatred of those who had not fled registered in their faces, Ryan observing that they “scowl upon every one of us in a way indicative of a greater dislike than I have ever before observed.” Canton harbor was too shallow for the Nemesis to dock, however, so Elliot and the Nemesis, unaccompanied by the rest of the fleet, turned back and steamed up and down the Canton River, destroying more forts and nine Chinese warships. The Chinese had never seen a steamship before, and the sudden apparition of the Nemesis on the river terrified them.