In August 1868, an angry group of Yangzhou residents burned down the home of Hudson Taylor, a British missionary who had arrived in the city with his family only two months prior and whom the local populace suspected of kidnapping children for nefarious purposes. Taylor and his family fortunately escaped the blaze, though they were roughed up a little by the crowd, but when the mighty mighty vexed Englishman went to complain to the Yangzhou prefect, the local official failed to see the urgency in the whole ‘house on fire’ situation and instead used the time to grill Taylor about where the missionary had hidden all the kidnapped children that were clearly not in the house, because as everybody could see, there were no charred little bodies in the smoking ruins of their home…so, you know, what gives?
True to form in cases like this, the British sent their man in Shanghai, Sir Walter Henry Medhurst, to obtain redress (read: “shake down”) the governor-general at Nanjing, Zeng Guofan, who–by the by–passed away on this date in 1872, but I digress…*
Anyway, Medhurst sailed up the Yangtze in a British warship piloted by a naval officer who was, unfortunately for Medhurst as well as for British Imperial Pomp and Power Everywhere, about to come down with a sudden case of dysentery. The Shanghai consul disembarked in Nanjing only to find his ship already hightailing it down river so the captain could recover in the relative comfort of Shanghai.
Then British minister to China, Sir Rutherford Alcock (and no, I’m not making up the name) was incensed at this deriliction of duty and fired off an angry missive which suggests to this historian that the British often times just didn’t quite get it or else had a fine sense of irony even in moments of diplomatic crisis:
“Our representative has been left in a humiliating and helpless position, obliged to take refuge in a house-boat, and deprived of all the moral influence and prestige which the presence of the ship of war gave.”**
Fortunately for British Imperial Pomp and Power Everywhere–not so much for Zeng Guofan and Qing sovereignty–Medhurst returned later that year with four ships, about 300 troops, and a list of demands. The celebrated Qing statesman had little choice but to give the British what they wanted: reparations for damages, punishment for the city officials who allowed the house to be torched in the first place, and an official proclamation saying that the missionaries were really okay people, quite tip-top actually, and that they were, in fact, not in Yangzhou to simply steal the organs of children for alchemical use. Always an important public health & safety tip.
* Also Sun Yat-sen, who died of cancer in Beijing on March 12, 1925.
** To be fair to Sir Rutherford, he was not overly optimistic about the missionaries’ chance of success in inland China and was generally ambivalent about using force to solve local disputes. In January, 1869 he wrote: “I do not consider it either necessary or possible for Her Majesty’s Government to provide a gun-boat to be permanently stationed at every port…if the missionaries cannot carry on their labours…peaceably, it seems very doubtful that Her Majesty’s Government will hold themselves justified in resorting to measures of a warlike character for their protection away from the ports.”
From Paul A. Cohen, China and Christianity: The Missionary Movement and the Growth of Chinese Anti-foreignism, 1860-1870. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 188-189, 193.