Page images
PDF
EPUB

262

DISSOLUTION OF GORDON'S FORCE.

palace to reside in such as the Emperor allows to princes of the blood, and insisted on the arrangement be made being carried out. Prince Kung, however, refused to have an interview with him, and the members of the Foreign Board who admitted him to their presence would not give bim what he considered satisfaction. The result was, that the vessels were sent back to this country to be sold on account of the Chinese Government; and all the monetary obligations entered into with the officers of the fleet were honourably fulfilled. The whole affair cost the Chinese about half a million sterling, and would have cost them more had not Sir Frederick Bruce, ashamed of the transaction, and of the way in which her Majesty's Government had been mixed up with it, agreed to repay the expenses of the fleet returning home out of the indemnity-money which was being paid, by China to Great Britain on account of the last war, out of the Imperial customs. This arrangement was almost incumbent upon Sir Frederick, because he had objected on political grounds to so powerful a squadron being left in the hands of the Chinese, and it received the sanction of the home Government

After this fiasco Mr Lay seems to have gone down to Shanghai, still labouring under the impression that he was a dutiful servant and invaluable agent of the Chinese Government, but was soon undeceived by a despatch from the Prince of Kung, dismissing him from the post of Inspector-General of Customs, and directing him to hand over all his accounts to Mr Hart. The Prince observed on this occasion, that if Mr Lay had been a Chinese subject, he would have been punished for his conduct in uselessly wasting public money; but, despite that, he was treated very leniently, for the Government allowed him £1000 a-month for the expenses of his establishment

MR LAY'S AMBITION.

263

at Peking; they continued his salary at the rate of £8000 a-year for several months beyond the period which he required to make up his accounts, and they also gave him a gratification of £2000 to pay his expenses to England, though it had been expressly understood from the outset that he held his appointment only at the will of the Government, and might at any moment be dismissed without reason given or pension allowed.

Sir Frederick Bruce wrote home a very able despatch on this subject,* in which he said, “The Chinese Government comprehended the scope and bearing of this scheme, and look upon it as an insidious attempt to take the administration out of their hands. They are profoundly irritated, not only because of the embarrassments in which they are involved by his [Lay's] having exceeded his authority, but on account of the position he thus sought to create for himself. They attribute his conduct to personal motives, and their confidence in the good faith of Foreign agents has been most seriously shaken." In answer to this and other observations, Mr Lay published a pamphlet in the end of 1864, misentitled Our Interests in China,' in which he violently attacked the British Minister, and garnished his pages with amusing quotations from some letters which Sir Frederick had written in the confidence of private intercourse. The pamphlet, however, makes no alteration in the case as I have stated it above, and there can hardly be a question, except perhaps in the mind of Mr Lay himself, that Lay's scheme failed from its own prodigiousness, and could only have been accepted by a government which was prepared to abdicate altogether, which was very far indeed from being the position of that of China Perhaps never was there a

* Blue-Book, China, No. 2 (1864), p. 22.

[ocr errors]

264

DISSOLUTION OF GORDON'S FORCE.

finer repetition of the old fable of the fly which had settled on the axletrce of a carriage, exclaiming, “Behold what a dust I make!” The course of events had exalted Mr Lay into a position for which he had no very special qualifications, and he seems to have supposed that he had done it all, and was the pivot round which everything in China turned. Had there been no Colonel Gordon in the world, and had the Chinese Government been in circumstances a hundred times more alarming than those which existed at this period—when it had made peace with Foreign nations, and the Emperor's viceroys had swept the Tai-pings out of the Yangtsze valley—it would scarcely have dreamed of accepting the degradation which this scheme implied.

At the same time, there was something of importance in the ideas which Mr Lay thus abused. The possession of a small efficient force, well drilled in the European fashion, and provided with European artillery and small arms, would bave enabled the Chinese Government to have dealt much more effectually than it had hitherto been doing with rebellion in all parts of its domain. Such a force could only have been obtained by employing European officers of good character, and these would not have entered such a service without sufficient guarantees as to the period and the manner of their employment. Hence it may very reasonably be asked, whether Colonel Gordon, giving his valuable services in the generous way he did to the Chinese Government, did not spoil a great opportunity of inducing it to establish such a force, and lead the Chinese to imagine that if ever they fell into similar difficulties by their own mismavagement, they could calculate on receiving Foreign aid on their own terms? This is not a subject to dogmatise upon; but it seems to me that his action

GENERAL EFFECTS OF GORDON'S ACTION.

265

had no evil effects in that respect : because, firstly, the Peking Government was not in such straits as to stand greatly in need of Foreign aid ; secondly, it was not prepared to carry out any great reform in its military system; thirdly, it was not in a position to make so great a change in the customs of the country; and, fourthly, it would hardly have been decent in us to have taken advantage of its temporary distress to force upon it such a measure.

On the first of these heads enough has been already said to show that though the Peking Government was willing to accept Foreign aid for a special purpose, it had got the upper hand, and without that aid would have put down the Rebellion sooner or later. As to the second, all our officials who have been thrown into contact with the higher Mandarins of late years, will acknowledge that there never was any abasement in the demeanour of these officers, and that we frequently offered assistance before it was asked for. Though the Chinese Government was rapidly increasing in knowledge of Foreign affairs, and gradually adapting itself to changed circumstances, yet it had never displayed any wish advance beyond the point of having a certain number of its troops accustomed to Foreign drill and the use of Foreign arms. And even if the Government had been exceedingly desirous to make a change in its military system, by establishing, a small efficient army which it could employ in any part of the empire, it could not have done so in face of the opposition of Tseng Kwo-fan and the other generals who for many years had been successfully opposed to the Rebels. I daresay the Tartar section of Peking officialdom would have been not averse to a military reform which might have been a formidable counterbalance to the growing influence

and

power of Tseng Kwo-fan, Tseng Kwo-tsung, Li, and other purely Chinese Mandarins in the south and centre of the country; but these latter would have had the support of the people in their opposition to such an innovation. Any departure from the old time-honoured system of leaving the government of

every
district

very much in its own hands is opposed to Chinese sentiment, 'and a rash introduction of much additional interference from Peking would have been viewed by the masses of China as an interference with their rights of self-government, and, in point of fact, as something very like that intolerable Tartar domination which Sir Frederick Bruce and Colonel Gordon have been so erroneously accused of upholding. Lastly, it may be asked, with what face could we, after our treatment of China, and when the Rebels were drawing their chief strength from a section of our traders, have taken advantage of a temporary distress on the part of the Government to gain its consent to measures to which it was averse ? It may be said, that we might have done nothing, that it was our duty to observe strict neutrality; but to have really done this, and to have acted up to treaty obligations, it would have been necessary to have undertaken the almost impossible. task of preventing British subjects from joining the Taipings, and from supplying them with munitions of war.

« PreviousContinue »