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An example of the "nice" behaviour of France & England towards China

China collateral victim of the annexation of Savoy by France, in 1860?


1860 is a very sad year for Savoy. In that year, the Savoyards lost their independence and became French against their will. Through a series of occult maneuvers (secret negotiations of Plombieres* between Napoleon III and Cavour in 1858 to set the terms of the annexation), and dirty tricks (shamelessly rigged plebiscites in April 1860 validating the annexation of Savoy to France).  1860 was also a disastrous year for China.  In that year China was the victim of unspeakable abuse, perpetrated by the governments of two of the great powers of the time: France and Great Britain. 1860 ended with the sack and destruction of the Imperial Summer Palace near Beijing, one of the great jewels of humanity.  What is the relationship between the two events, except the year? I'll make an assumption that seems justified, but that needs to be researched and confirmed. If among the readers of this article, there are people who have information about these events, please do not hesitate to contact me.


Preparations for the Franco-British expedition of 1860.
An expeditionary force of 20,000 men was sent to China (12 000 Anglo-Indians and 8000 French).  To send its 8,000 men to China, France had to put together up a huge and costly logistics (13 warships, 100 transports). Men and ships left France in December 1859. On the British side, the expedition was much simpler and less costly as almost the entire expeditionary force came from the British colonies in India.


Why did the British mount this operation?
China represented a captive market, very important and very profitable for the British, where they could sell huge quantities of opium grown in India. England was then a narco-trafficking state, and intended to defend its economic interests regardless of the havoc that opium wrecked on the Chinese population.

How did this happen? Why did Britain use all means available to force China to buy her poison? We must look back a few decades. Great-Britain, had been the dominant sea power since the 17th century, using this dominance to impose the British products wherever it could. China was different and could not be swayed.

The many trade delegations sent to the Emperor by the British to try to persuade or intimidate him to buy their products, were rejected every time. This stubbornness irritated the British as they imported a lot of products from China (particularly tea, silk, pearls, porcelain ...) and the Chinese government required payment in silver money.

The only commodity that the British managed to sell in China was opium. Opium was  grown in India (a British colony at the time). Opium was sold by a private company, the East Indian Company, protected by the British government. Initially, in the 1800s, opium returned in fraud, in relatively modest quantity. Then, little by little, the demand increased, the volumes grew and the business became very profitable. The British wanted to export freely (without restriction or limit) their poison. The Emperor of China was opposed to this trade, at first timidly and then more and more actively as the trade began to empty his coffers and make a growing number of his subjects dependent.


* Small spa town in the Eastern part of France, where Napoleon III used to go to treat his gout attacks

Finally the Emperor decided to ban all imports of opium into China and destroyed a shipment of opium in the port of Canton. That was enough for the British. They attacked China in 1830: the first Opium War.

China was not prepared to resist the British invasion. She was quickly defeated and forced to negotiate with the British narco-traffickers. China lost Hong Kong which became a British colony, had to open many Chinese ports to British ships, accept the free importation of opium, and pay very heavy war reparations to Great Britain.
This peace treaty imposed by Great Britain was resented by the Emperor of China, who tried not to apply it in all ways possible. This is what caused the second Opium War. The British blamed the Chinese for not respecting the agreements signed previously and, in 1860, decided to mount a punitive expedition. This time the British wanted to give a serious lesson to the Emperor of China and bring him to strictly enforce the confiscatory treaties previously signed.

We understand that for the British, China represented extremely important business and financial interests. It was not the case for France, which at the time had virtually no presence in this region.


Why did Napoleon III sent troops to participate in this distant expedition decided by the British?
The official argument was that he had to avenge the murder of two French Catholic missionaries, committed two years before. This was a very thin pretext to justify an operation of this magnitude: expensive, risky and far-away! We will see later what the real reasons which led Napoleon III to cozy up to the British for this shameful operation were.

Once again we quickly need to go back in history.
Following the disasters of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (Napoleon the First) which drenched Europe in blood for nearly 25 years, the victors (mainly the British, Austrians, Prussians, Russians) redrew the borders of Europe with the treaties of Paris [1814] and the Treaty of Vienna [1815].
Savoy, with the very active support of the British and Russians regained the autonomy it had before the French invasion of 1792: re-entering a greater Savoy “federation" which also included Piedmont, Nice, Sardinia, and newly Liguria, former Republic of Genoa.

The new configuration of Europe was designed and intended primarily to safeguard British interests. Britain made sure that no power was too strong and sought to minimize the nuisance power of France. This was to avoid any repetition of an attempted military hegemony of France over Europe. To do this, Britain set up new frontiers of France, using Britain’s friends: creation of the state of the Netherlands, then Belgium, overhaul of Switzerland (with new cantons such as Geneva , Neuchatel, Valais, Jura bishoprics being entrusted to the canton of Bern), State of Savoy. Thus France, on its northern borders, east and south, was surrounded by friendly countries and allies of the British, a kind of cordon sanitaire.

When Napoleon III came to power, he never stopped wanting to get rid of the Treaties of Paris and Vienna. To achieve his ends, he sought to break the power of the victors of 1815. Surely this was one of the reasons which led Napoleon III to be allied with the British and the Ottoman Empire against the Russians at the time of the Crimean War of 1856.


In doing so Napoleon III fuelled the rivalry between Russia and Britain, attracted the sympathy of the British and again became a power of his own. This rapprochement with the British was paid dearly by the blood of countless French, British, Russian and Ottoman soldiers who fell during the Crimean campaign (known from 200 to 300 000 deaths) particularly during the siege of Sevastopol and Malakoff.

As a price for his participation to the dirty Crimean war, Napoleon III thought he could now count on a benevolent neutrality from the British, which would enable him to act more as he pleased in Europe and regain some lost territory in 1815.


Napoleon III started implementing this strategy with Savoy and Nice: in 1858 he seeked to appropriate himself, without consulting the victors of Waterloo (Russia, Great Britain, Prussia, Austria) in violation of existing treaties. To achieve his ends, Napoleon III proposed to the Duke of Savoy (Victor Emmanuel II), in exchange for the cession of Savoy and Nice, to help militarily to create a Kingdom of Northern Italy (Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Veneto), expelling the Austrians from Lombardy and Veneto, territory that had been entrusted by the Treaty of Vienna in compensation for Austrian territories in Germany and ceded to Prussia. But things did not go as planned. The French military campaign against the Austrians in Lombardy turned to slaughter (battles of Solferino and Magenta). Napoleon III had to stop his offensive at the border of the Veneto region, because of very negative and hostile reactions of Prussia and England. Napoleon III tried to calm the British as he wanted to avoid at all costs another military alliance of Austria, Prussia and Great Britain against  him.

This is where I introduce an hypothesis which needs to be confirmed. I have read in an American or English book for which I unfortunately have lost the reference that Napoleon III would have found a way to mollify the British: making a large contingent of soldiers available for the operation that Britain was preparing against China. Indeed the British were desperately short of ground troops. Just while preparing this new war against China, a serious revolt had broken out in India, the first rebellion of Indian soldiers against the British masters: the Indian Mutiny, which was to be put down quickly to avoid a full Indian uprising. The proposal of Napoleon III arrived at the right time and was accepted by the British. Coincidentally, from that moment on, the British were much more accommodating and left the annexation of Savoy and Nice to be, without formally approving it ...


Conduct of the Anglo-French military campaign of 1860 in China.

The operation was to use military force to bend the Emperor of China’ will and oblige him to open his country to the opium trade under British monopoly. The Chinese army, although valiant, was poorly equipped compared to the Anglo-French. The Anglo-French quickly reached Beijing and to bend the Emperor’s will, they decided to strike a decisive blow by attacking the Summer Palace, one of the symbols of the power of the Emperor of China. The Summer Palace was looted and ransacked thoroughly for four days (October 6 to October 9, 1860).

The Anglo-French troops behaved like true barbarians of yesteryore: they scooped up the all treasures they could find, gold, precious stones, pearls, jade, silk, carvings, paintings, rare books, porcelain ... and what could not be stolen was smashed and destroyed. To complete this deed, the British decided (the French did not associate with this decision) to burn all that was still standing. The fire lasted for one week (October 18 to October 24, 1860) and necessitated the involvement of 2000 incendiaries, Anglo-Indian soldiers.


For the Chinese, the wound is still open, they consider this crime as inalienable. One can understand why: if a horde of barbarians had from afar and looted, ransacked and burned the castle of Versailles or the palace of Westminster before quietly returning home the French or the British would certainly remember it. Many stolen items are still in British and French museums and private collections. In Paris and Beijing in early 2009, much was made of the auction of two magnificent bronzes stolen from one of the pavilions of the Summer Palace: these pieces were part of the YSL-Berge collection up for auction at Christie's ...


The old Summer Palace was never rebuilt. It has become a place of pilgrimage, meditation and remembrance for the Chinese people. For them, the ruins illustrate the double standards of many Western governments, who claimed to be the defenders of civilization, while in fact destroying, ruining other civilizations without a moment’s hesitation.


What was the Summer Palace *?

Rather than the Summer Palace, it would be more accurate to speak of an Imperial city for the summer. Indeed it was a real city which stretched in a huge park of 25 to 30 square kilometers, about 3000 hectares. In this park were scattered over 200 houses and palaces, where the court and its guests lived for nearly nine months a year. The park is a huge garden, with rivers, ponds, hills, forests, created by the best architects and gardeners of the time.
This huge, beautiful complex had cost a fortune to the Empire, even more than Versailles to France. It was built over a period of 150 years which ended around 1760. All that was most beautiful and valuable in China could be found in the 200 houses. There were statues in gold and silver, decorations with jade beads. There were several pagodas, porcelain floors. There were beautiful fabrics, tapestries, silk carpets, porcelain vases of inestimable value. There was a library of over 10,000 works all more valuable than each other all were destroyed in the fire.

In conclusion:

The dictator Napoleon III trying to persuade the British to accept the annexation of Savoy to France, had not hesitation in participating to an ugly military campaign against one of the world’s most ancient and brilliant civilizations. I hope that this article (with others) will have shown the harm done by the unscrupulous and imperialist policies of France's Second Empire which claimed Savoy and China amongst other nations as their victims.

* called 'Yuanming Yuan' in Chinese, which means 'Garden of Perfect Brightness'.

This article is courtesy of my good friend, Bernard Fauvelais, whom I met in Hong Kong and who now lives in Annecy.

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