Rare photographs of second Opium War will go under the Hammer

An album of photographs by Anglo Italian, Felice Beato (1832-1909), recording first hand, the devastation of British action during the  second opium war in China, including the battle of Taku Fort and the destruction by British forces of the old Summer Palaces in 1860 has come to light.

The record of this notorious chapter in British Imperial History, comes through a direct descendant of  Francis Parry a member of Honk Kong’s legislative council in the mid 1860s, and will be sold by Rowley’s on the 5 September 2017.  The album also includes some of the first photographs of Chinese landscapes taken by a European and is expected to sell for £5,000-7,000

The opium wars mark a dark and ruthlessly ambitious period in British history in which the British Government colluded with the powerful East India Trade Company, and the French, to undermine Chinese trade dominance. The photographs date from the end of the second Opium War in 1860.  There are pictures of the key political and military figures in the war, the brutal battle at Taku and Chinese works of art looted after the destruction of the Summer Palaces.

Dramatic images from the third  battle of Taku fort shows defending Imperial forces after they had been killed in the summer of 1860  when the British allied with the French to defeat the Chinese.

The album also includes photographs of the spoils from the destruction of the Summer Palaces which Lord Elgin ordered after a  diplomatic incident which happened in the same year. Part of a group of British envoys were captured and reputedly executed by the tortuous method of ‘slow slicing’ or ‘Lingchi’. When  the remainder of the party were released the British burnt the Summer Palaces to the ground. The photographs show stunning Chinese vases and other works of art that were looted before the destruction.

The two British Commanders , Sir James Hope Grant and Sir Robert Napier, who were held responsible for the Allied victory in the second war are also shown. They helped achieve Britain’s objective of forcing the Chinese to legalise opium and to open the rest of the country to European trade.  Alongside them a photograph of Prince Gong Qinwang, who negotiated the treaty in 1860 after his half- brother the Emperor fled. The treaty opened China to the world and heralded the modernisation of the country, and later Prince Gong was to bring in a series of modernising reforms which changed the face of China forever.

In the early 1830s Britain had become heavily reliant on Chinese exports, such as tea, silk and fine porcelain but the Chinese restricted trade. They would only allow the British to trade through one port, Canton and they also refused to accept anything but silver in exchange for their exports, their market was effectively closed to British and other European goods and silver was proving increasingly difficult to resource. 

The powerful British East India trade company were used to a dominant position elsewhere in the world and wanted to break what they saw as a trade imbalance so they began illegal opium imports from India into Canton. They knew that opium was a very addictive drug, initially providing its users  with a sense of well-being but each time opium was smoked it was with diminishing returns – more had to be taken to recreate the same effect, this meant that opium use had the potential for exponential growth in China.

Both China and Britain were anxious to control and maintain their own silver stocks. The British started the illegal trade of Indian opium using Chinese Smugglers to ferry the drug into Canton but deliberately chose only to accept payment with silver; British reasoning , apart from expanding the market for Indian opium was that legal trade with the China put them at a distinct disadvantage. Because the Chinese were not interested in British imports and only accepted payment for their goods in silver the British subverted  Chinese control through illegal trade – only accepting silver for opium which allowed them to re-build their own silver stocks. The battle for trade control resulted in two wars. China was humiliated on both occasions with the British forcing them in the first war (1839-1842) to re-open their ports to illegal opium imports and in the second war (1856-1860) to legalise the use of opium in China and open the rest of the country to trade.

William Axon , Rowley’s Senior Valuer says ‘this album represents a pretty dark period in our history, smuggling and two wars run on the grounds of the forced legalisation of  opium on another country-  yet it is an undeniably fascinating  story full of political  intrigue and skulduggery and the end of  the second opium war marks the beginning of Chinese Modern History. Some of Felice Beato’s images are quite shocking but he was also one of the first European’s to photograph China – this was the west’s first real insight into what was a very secretive unexplored country and this is what really makes this album so fascinating. ’

The album will be sold by Rowley’s in Newmarket on 5 September 2017.

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