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French Men of War at Pagoda Anchorage, Foochow, 1884


In this, the first of a series of posts by undergraduate finalists in history at the University of Bristol, Nicholas Barker reflects on a tense moment caught in a seemingly quiet image.

French Men of War at Pagoda Anchorage, Foochow, 1884 Oswald Collection Os01-116 © 2008 SOAS

The stillness of this photograph masks a brutal reality. The anchored vessel in calm water suggests an inquisitive innocence. Yet, on closer inspection the photograph reveals a more striking image: an iron hull pierces the waterline and a French flag limps from the rear mast. This closer image is a more telling one. At 2pm on 23rd August 1884, Admiral Courbet opened fire on the Chinese Fujian fleet at Pagoda Anchorage, Foochow, marking the first engagement of the Sino-French War (August 1884 – April 1885). This relatively unknown conflict was the culmination of increasing French intervention in Indo-China driven by economic fantasies and amour propre.[1] The battle at Foochow was practically over in seven minutes as the modern French navy obliterated the Chinese. The Times correspondent called it ‘a sickening business’ and ‘a massacre’.[2] The French lost 6 men, whilst the Chinese dead numbered over 1,500.[3] The confrontation was even watched for professional reasons by British and American seamen: it was the first time that torpedo ships were used in combat.[4] Warfare had thus become a site for the display of technological innovation.

This photograph of the Duguay-Trouin epitomises the shift towards mechanized, technological destruction, with the marriage of military, industry and science. The vessel was a first-class iron cruiser, built in Cherbourg in 1879. It weighed 3,478 tons, was 294 ft long and carried five guns. This photograph was part of the collection of John Oswald, a tea trader and race horse owner based in Foochow. The positioning of the ship in the centre of the photograph emphasizes its magnitude and suggests a novelty to the vessel that was worthy of the viewers’ full attention. It was truly a symbol of European difference.

Yet, this was not simply a battle between unmatched fleets. It is not right to bracket all the Chinese vessels as ‘mere toy transports’, but instead important to appreciated that the Chinese did have some technologically advanced ships, including the corvette Yang-Wu.[5] Indeed, nine of the eleven Chinese vessels were of the ‘Foochow’ class, built by Prosper Giquel at the shipyard at Fuzhou and armed with Krupp guns.[6] Thus, whilst their armour was inferior, their artillery was supposed to be equal to the French. Technological difference was therefore not the only reason for the Chinese defeat. The disparity between the navies was also apparent in the proficiency of the seamen. Admiral Courbet received a note of congratulations from the international spectators on the bravery and professionalism of his men. It was claimed that whilst the French commander was embroiled in the thick of the fighting, his Chinese counterpart, Zhang Peilun, was seated in a sedan chair on his way to Kushan, a celebrated monastery overlooking the river.[7] Furthermore, the lack of co-ordination between the northern and southern navies disadvantaged the Qing. Li Hongzhang refused to send the Beiyang fleet to support the Fujian flotilla at Pagoda Anchorage. Thus, as Benjamin Elman has rightfully argued, the inadequacy of the late Qing Chinese navy was due to a multitude of factors, including poor armament, insufficient training, lack of leadership, vested interests and lack of funding, and low morale.[8]

This Chinese defeat has come to symbolise the failures of the ‘self-strengthening’ movement undertaken in China after the Taiping Rebellion. The ‘self-strengthening, movement’ (1865-94), backed by the statesman Li Hongzhang, was an attempt to develop China’s economic and military strength through the adoption of Western technology. An October 1884 article in The Times argued that the battle represented an ‘admirable example of the complete defencelessness of the coast of China, and this after the yearly expenditure of the fabulous sums of money for many years past’.[9] The correspondent went further, stating that ‘the country is rotten’, lacking ‘national feeling’ and steeped in ‘corruption’. Thus, the progressive reform attempts had failed to produce a military strong enough to repel Western encroachments. Indeed, the navy faced further budget cuts between 1885 and 1894, and further military defeats would ensue during the Sino-Japanese War (1895-96).

The Duguay-Trouin represents the aggressive European militarism which had come to epitomise Western interactions with the Chinese, especially in the Treaty Ports. These modern warships, efficiently crewed with good leadership, were symbols of difference and vehicles of power and influence. The warship, as both a symbol and instrument, was constantly used as a lever for trade and diplomatic prestige. Yet, the guns mounted on such vessels were not without purpose: they posed a real threat to China and were repeatedly used to inflict violence on her populace.


[1] Hans Van de Ven, Breaking with the Past (New York, 2014), 112.

[2] ‘France and China’, The Times, 25 Aug 1884.

[3] ‘France and China’, The Times, 25 Aug 1884.

[4] ‘The Bombardment of Pagoda Anchorage’, North China Herald, 29 Aug 1884.

[5] ‘Hostilities at Foochow’, The Times, 23 Oct 1884.

[6] ‘The Bombardment of Pagoda Anchorage’, North China Herald, 29 Aug 1884.

[7] ‘Hostilities at Foochow’, The Times, 23 Oct 1884.

[8] Benjamin Elman, ‘Naval warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895’, Modern Asian Studies, 38, (2004), 283-326.

[9] ‘Hostilities at Foochow’, The Times, 23 Oct 1884.

Regimental Cartes de Visite


Following the copying of the Royal Hampshire Museum’s collection of China- related photographs by the Historical Photographs of China project, Dr Andrew Hillier shows how these can reveal the personal aspects of a regiment on campaign in empire.  

First created and patented by the French photographer André Disdéri in 1854, by the 1860s, cartes de visite had become an early form of social media, connecting family and friends, as well as constituting a means of networking. Within the empire, they were particularly popular as a way of maintaining links between home and abroad and were also regularly exchanged within the sociable milieu of a regiment. As such, they provide an important source of family, imperial and military history.

The Royal Hampshire Museum is fortunate in having an album of cartes, which belonged to an officer of the 67th, who served in China between 1860 and 1864, and contains pictures of his regimental colleagues. It therefore, supplements the Museum’s China collection which I discussed in my previous blog. We are grateful to the Museum for permitting us to copy these images which can now be accessed here. See also the George Atchison Collection for further photographs relating to the regiment’s China campaign.

According to an August 1975 annotation by the museum’s archivist, C. D. Darroch, the album of cartes was owned by Lieutenant-General Sir John Wellesley Thomas, KCB (1822-1908), although on the brass cover it is stated that it was ‘presented’ by Thomas (presumably to the regiment) in January 1867. Either way, he seems to have been the originator of the album which has, apparently, remained in the regiment’s possession ever since. Thomas who had already had a distinguished military career before serving with the 67th in the North China campaign in 1860. Wounded when commanding a half-brigade in an attack on the Taku Forts, he was mentioned in dispatches and appointed Companion of the Bath.

Lieutenant-General Sir John Wellesley Thomas, KCB, 1860s. Royal Hampshire Collection (RH03-02).

Two years later, promoted to colonel, Thomas captured Jiading (Khading) during the Taiping rebellion and left China when his regiment sailed for India in 1864, remaining its commanding officer until 1872. He retired in 1881 and was appointed Colonel of the Hampshire Regiment in 1882. He never married.

Album cover. Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum ref: M1503.

Detail of album cover, with text: “PRESENTED BY COLONEL J.W. THOMAS. C.B. / JANUARY. 1867 / SOUTH HAMPSHIRE 67.”

There are some seventy cartes, six on each page –some have been removed and there are blank pages which may have previously held cards. Plainly the pictures were taken over a long period, some in Britain and some in India, where the regiment was stationed from time to time. Some seem to be personally signed which suggests they may have been exchanged as tokens of friendship during Thomas’ career. There are some twenty cartes of officers who, on the basis of their service records, we can assume served in China between 1860 and 1864, when the regiment sailed back to India.

Page of cartes de visite in Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum album M1503.

The album includes a picture of John Eyles Blundell who, as we saw in my previous blog, assembled his own collection of photographs relating to China

John Eyles Blundell. Royal Hampshire Collection (RH03-81).

The images are also accessible on the museum’s web-site – and it is hoped that this may trigger a response from some of their descendants.

It would be interesting to know whether other regiments have similar albums of cartes. These pictures and the other images of the China campaign which can be viewed on Historical Photographs of China, together with the accompanying journals, show how this rich resource can provide a vivid picture of a regiment in empire, both in its military and in its more personal aspect.

No Great Wall


The latest book to use one of our photographs on its cover has just arrived in the post.

Felix Boecking teaches modern Chinese economic and political history at the University of Edinburgh, and his volume, which grew out of the ‘History of the Chinese Maritime Customs’ project — as did Historical Photographs of China — is out now from Harvard University Press.

The very striking cover is derived from a photograph of the harbour at Chefoo — Yantai — possibly taken in the winter of 1936-37.

It came with a modest set of photographs from Dr Bill Sinton, whose parents worked for the China Inland Mission in Sichuan, where he was born in 1924. Sinton boarded at the Chefoo School in 1930s, and the photograph is one of a number of ships in the harbour, all of which show them caught fast in ice.

Barges and steamships in frozen harbour, Chefoo, Sinton Collection Si-s08 © 2010 Dr William Sinton

The calligraphy on the cover is by Chiang Kai-shek. So, by way of cross-linkages, this provides an opportunity to showcase another photograph from the wonderful Fu Bingchang collection of Chiang, and his calligraphy, carved in stone on Jinmen Island. The calligraphy itself dates from 1952. We would be grateful for information about the history of the inscribing of the stone.

Chiang Kai-shek, with slogan in his hand, carved in stone on Jinmen Island, Fu Collection, Fu-s158 © 2011 C. H. Foo and Y. W. Foo