Journals 9.3 – Seward’s Travels Around the World (Part 3)

This is the third part of my article on William H. Seward’s journal.  For the first and second parts, please see the entries posted on 2nd and 6th November 2015.


An 1851 drawing of the entrance to Peking (now Beijing) and the Grand Canal.

Seward’s first destination in China was Shanghai, although he did not feel quite like he had actually arrived in the country, as Shanghai was already so Westernised.

Let no one, however, infer from this date that we have arrived in China. Shanghai, as we have thus far seen it, seems to us less like an outpost of the Central Flowery Kingdom, than a town on our native shores. This hospitable mansion of Russell & Company, all the other houses, this quay, this street, all the streets, this bridge, these churches, these banking-houses, warehouses, and steamers, these carriages and horses, these men and women, all that we have seen on the river or on shore, are European; for so they call here whatever is foreign, whether it has come from one side of the Atlantic or from the other. This is, in short, the “Concession.”

A Concession was a territory within China that was governed by a foreign power. Since the 1860s Shanghai had been under the joint control of Britain and the USA, a situation that remained in place until the end of the Second World War. The atmosphere was a little uneasy to say the least at the time of Seward’s visit. Earlier in the year, rumours had spread around the region concerning a French orphanage, with suspicions that children were being sold to the orphanage and murdered. The practise of baptising children who were unwell and near to death led to the belief that the baptisms were actually the cause of the deaths. A riot ensued, nuns, priests, and Chinese Christians were murdered, along with the French Consul and his assistant. Foreign gunboats were brought in to restore order. Relations between the Chinese and foreigners in Shanghai remained uneasy, and would eventually lead to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

Shanghai is immensely agitated concerning the recent massacre at Tien-Tsin. We find European volunteers, a hundred strong, drilling for defence against an apprehended Chinese invasion of “the Concession.” Mrs. Seward, the consul-general’s wife, has just presented those volunteers with a standard of colors. Everybody is astonished at Mr. Seward’s rashness in going to Peking at the very moment they understand that all the foreign legations there are coming to this port for protection, under the guns of their respective nations.

It was essential to all the foreign powers to preserve the peace and control over the area, as it was an important location for trade.

From its dilapidated walls we counted two hundred vessels of all sorts and sizes anchored in the bay, although Chee-foo confines itself exclusively to the coast-trade. In this trade, pressed tea prepared for the Russian market in the form of bricks, and scarcely more nutritious, is the chief article.

The value of trade with China, as Seward observed, was perhaps of the greatest significance for Britain.

The prestige of Great Britain throughout the world, even on the European Continent, is derived chiefly from the dominion and the influence she wields in the East, and the commerce which results. This commerce, again, is the essential support of the manufactures which are the basis of the prosperity of the English people. Great Britain, therefore, wisely spares no care and no cost in maintaining not only a diplomatic force, but a naval predominance, in the East. India, China, and Japan, are her proper theatre. In this great national policy she necessarily encounters rivalry and resistance. She has appeared in China more than once as an enemy, and proved her power, as well to destroy as to protect and save. It suits her interest to be here now as a magnanimous friend, like the United States. Long may the two nations remain in that accord!

Visiting Tien-Tsin itself, Seward found a sombre atmosphere prevailed following the ‘massacre’ and he was keen to see a respectful attitude maintained.

A Strauss waltz, suggestive of a dance, was struck up by the band after dinner, probably at the request of the younger officers at the foot of the table. Reflecting on the excitement produced at this moment, not only in China, but throughout the world, by the recent massacre of Christians in this very place, Mr. Seward remonstrated against the festivity. The young people reluctantly acquiesced, but they are consoled this morning by his admission that we had a noche triste.

The Chinese were assembling a military presence in the area, adding to the uncertainty and fear, as their motives were the source of speculation. Were they there to put down any further uprisings, or were they there to fight against foreign powers? Seward was unimpressed with their appearance.

We saw an army of ten thousand men, infantry and cavalry, enter the city as we passed the western gate. At a distance the array was imposing, but, as we neared it, we discovered a woeful lack of uniformity, as well in dress as in arms and equipments. The infantry arm varied from a wooden club of three feet long, to a matchlock with a seven-foot barrel; the music thoroughly discordant, but the yellow banners were frequent, gay, and gorgeous. The march was as straggling and disorderly as the return of the troops from Ball Run to Washington. It is notorious that, since the massacre, the Chinese have been gathering a large army at Tien-Tsin. Foreigners say it is a preparation for war; Chinese official persons, on the contrary, assure us that it is a precaution against further outbreaks here. It is too early, however, for us to speak on this exciting topic.

This was clearly a dangerous time to be travelling in China, and at one point Seward feared for his life and the lives of his travelling companions. Travelling from Tung-Chow to the US Legation at Peking, Seward and his group found themselves unexpectedly divided into smaller parties by their guides, all of whom set off in different directions. He was worried about what their motivations could be for this act. First, he described the incident from his wife’s point of view:

We do not know how nor where the little mounted party last mentioned fell under the guidance of a mute Chinaman on a strong, fast horse. Pointing, however, to his red cap, either as a mark for them to follow, or as a badge of his authority, he hastened them forward and onward. Only for a short time they saw their friends in the chairs coming on, but falling more and more behind. They passed under the great Eastern Gate, too much terrified to study its architecture. They turned into a narrow lane, then by a zigzag movement into another, at times crossing broader streets which were obstructed with carts, booths, merchandise, and theatres; then again into lanes, dark, deserted, and ruinous. If any one can conceive an obstruction not described, it may be brought into this picture. Now they climbed steep, slippery embankments, dashing and splashing against stone posts, sign-boards, and booths, scattering angry passengers, then pitching into nauseous, muddy pits. They not only lost all idea of courses and distances, but also lost sight of our whole column, and were effectually lost by them. It required intense and watchful effort to keep the saddle. What could all this mean? Was the mute Chinese guide a decoy, leading into an ambush? What could be the motive in bringing: a stranger and a woman there? If not a decoy, why were they led by a course so blind and tortuous?

Meanwhile, Seward himself was travelling by a different, and seemingly dangerous route:

His adventurous journey, as he described it, had been even more perplexing than theirs. Separated from them and from the rest of the party, he, like them, had at once lost all knowledge of both, not knowing that he had any guide except the two mandarins who had accompanied us from Tien-Tsin, and who now trod along side of his chair, as he was conveyed by a route entirely different from those which had been taken by the other portions of the party, and equally narrow, obstructed, and dangerous. At times, he jostled against camel-caravans; at other times, against motley, hurrying crowds; now crossing a muddy moat, then scaling the slippery glacis of a frowning bastion, he occasionally had a glimpse of the admiral’s chair, or Miss Risley’s, or of a mounted marine or musician, but these invariably crossed his track, or were going in an opposite direction. He had his thoughts and his anxieties.

Fortunately, the motivations of the guides were honourable, and Seward was reunited with the rest of his group at the Legation, where all was explained:

We soon found out, but not without much inquiry, how it had come to pass that our entrance into the capital, contrary to our expectation, was so irregular and disorderly. The Chinese Government is at this moment profoundly anxious to prevent a renewal of the popular commotions which have recently culminated in the tragedy of Tien-Tsin. They had been informed, by the messenger whom the mandarins dispatched from Tung-Chow, of the construction and organization of our party. They had stipulated with Mr. Low that our band should not play along the road, or in the streets of Peking. They had, moreover, cautiously sent forward a competent number of mounted guides, wearing red caps, with instructions to break up our formidable procession at the Eastern Gate, and to conduct each portion by a different route through the most quiet and obscure parts of the city, to meet only at the legation.

The fourth and final part of this article will follow in a few days.  If you would like to be kept updated when I upload new articles, please click on the follow button on the right of the screen.


About Windows into History

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