The Taiping Rebellion
Thomas was born in 1818 and by 1860 he was married with seven children. He visited his sister Helen James and her family at Clargill, arriving by the morning train on Wednesday 9th November 1859 and in the afternoon, as a good uncle, he took his nieces and nephews for a visit to Alston. He stayed overnight and the next day, then departed by train in the evening.
A few months later, on Saturday 14th April 1860, Helen heard that Thomas had been appointed special correspondent in China for ‘The Times’ newspaper. The posting was a dangerous one and Thomas must have known it, for China was a country in the throes of a rebellion. His last letter to the James family arrived on Saturday 21st April to say a last farewell then he sailed for China on Thursday 26th.
In his book, ‘China’, the author Arthur Cotterell wrote of the Taiping Rebellion that it was, “a long and bitter struggle, which was ended only by an alliance between the British and Qing governments. Foreign vessels and foreign troops sealed the fate of this unexpected Christian movement, the price of this aid being the further concessions wrung from the empire in the Treaty of Tianjin, 1858, and the Convention of Beijing (Pekin), 1860”.
Thomas Bowlby, in his position as a newspaper correspondent, was part of the British delegation in Pekin (Beijing). His last report to the ‘Times’, dated September 9th in Tien-tsin, was published on November 14th.
The Taiping Rebellion had been going on since 1851. The strength of the movement was in the densely populated southern provinces and the main demands of the revolutionaries were the overthrow the Qing dynasty, land reform, fairer treatment of women, and conversion of the nation to Christianity. However, despite a spiritual faith in common with the revolutionaries, the European economic trade agreements were with the Qing emperor, Xian Feng (a Confucian), so these interests prevailed and determined their alliance. Anglo-French forces had been in operation against the rebels since 1857, however the emperor eventually came to resent the demands of the Europeans and in 1860 he attempted to assert himself against the foreign devils.
On the morning of the 18th September 1860 Chinese troops led by General San-ko-lin-sin arrested twenty-six men of the European delegation and imprisoned them at Tung Chow, eight miles from Pekin. The list of prisoners included Mr. Lock, Mr. Parkes, Mr. De Norman, Lieutenant Anderson, Captain Brabazon and Mr. Thomas Bowlby. Helen James did not receive word of her brother’s detention until 27th November, then two weeks later on 10th December she received a telegram from Pekin dated October 13th to say that Lock and Parkes had been returned, but that De Norman and Anderson were dead and Brabazon and her brother Thomas were missing.
The first group of seven prisoners had been taken to Hill Fort; from that group, three had died, including Lieutenant Anderson on September 27th and Mr. De Norman on October 5th, and four were returned to the British on October 12th. Of the second group of eight men, three died and five were returned on October 12th. Captain Brabazon and Abbe Dulne were reported missing but were supposed to have been beheaded on September 21st. Of a third group of seven men, five died and two were returned on October 14th. A fourth group, consisting of one French officer, two French soldiers and four ‘Sowars’, or Sikhs, all died during their captivity. Of another group of eight men taken to Pekin, comprising Mr. Parkes, Mr. Lock, one Sowar, one French officer and four French soldiers, all were returned on October 8th.
Thomas Bowlby was in the third group of captives and by the telegram from Pekin on October 13th he was reported to be missing. In fact Thomas had been one of those who died through the brutal maltreatment by his captors only a few days after his capture on September 25th. A Mr. Phipps from the same group died a week later on October 2nd.
The action by the Chinese government lasted only a matter of days. The emperor’s summer palace in Pekin was taken by the British on the 6th October 1860 and, following instructions to implement ‘gunboat diplomacy’ as a reprisal for the deaths of the British envoys, Lord Elgin, commander of British forces, ordered the destruction of the palace. The emperor gave in. Peace was signed on October 24th and the news by telegram was reported in ‘The Times’ of the December 24th. The status quo between Britain and China had been restored.
Of thirty-nine individuals captured on September 18th, seventeen were returned, two were officially ‘missing’ and twenty had died at the hands of their captors. Thomas Bowlby, Lieutenant Anderson and Mr. De Norman were buried together on October 17th in the Russian Cemetery in Pekin.
Poignantly, a last letter from Thomas dated July 10th 1860 arrived for Helen James on Tuesday 8th January 1861; it was brought to her at Clargill by his fellow captive Mr. Lock.