Control and Contradictions


The personal bodyguard of Captain Charles Gordon, leader of the mercenary Ever-Victorious Army (1863-64)

The tragic events of the last two weeks in Eastern Ukraine appear to have highlighted again the dangers for a state resorting to propping up proxy militias to achieve its goals.  Ultimately the problem is one of control.  Such a force might be at one remove from deploying the state’s own military power, but the state can still be held responsible for a militia’s actions despite a lack of control over them.  Having spent the last few weeks looking through correspondence on the foreign mercenary presence in the Taiping war, a similar picture emerges.  Britain and France resorted to mercenary forces to support the Qing state because, in the words of one British general, ‘it has the appearance of maintaining our neutral character’.  The downside was that, in supporting mercenaries and withdrawing their own force, they lost most of their control over the unfolding military campaign.  Worse, since the mercenary leaders that Britain, France and America encouraged were foreigners, they were tacitly assumed to have the same right to ‘extraterritoriality’ that all foreigners enjoyed. That is, they were not to be subject to Chinese law.

The foreign mercenaries in the service of the Qing represented another new legal category in the murky world of divided sovereignty that characterized the foreign presence in China.  Having entered the service of the Qing, were these fighters still above Qing law?  The American Henry Burgevine became a Chinese subject in order to serve the Qing and so ought to have abandoned his foreign, and extraterritorial, status.  Burgevine was in charge of the Ever-Victorious Army for less than four months when a dispute with the local Qing authorities led to his to assaulting the local Daotai.  Following his instantaneous dismissal, Burgevine, still sensing there was money to be made from the conflict, went to fight for the Taiping.  When he was captured he was handed over to the American consulate, rather suggesting his pretensions to be a Chinese subject had never carried any weight.  The mercenaries then, independent of Qing and foreign rule, appear to have operated in a space between jurisdictions.

This de facto jurisdictional gap in the mercenaries’ legal status created some interesting contradictions.  By 1863 both French and British nationals were running parallel mercenary armies.  When the Chinese tried to merge the armies into one force, the French Ambassador, M. Berthemy was bitterly hostile. He argued that the loss of ‘their’ force would damage French interests in the country.  At the same time he was also complaining to the government in Paris about his lack of control over the force.  Its leaders saw themselves as independent of both Qing and French authorities.  They even commissioned arms deals and raised loans from French merchants to support them which they claimed were backed by Qing tax revenue.  When the arms arrived from Paris and the Qing refused to pay for them, the French consul was left to pick up the pieces.  Operating with such independence, and in such a legal gap, perhaps the term ‘adventurers’ derogatorily applied to them by representatives of all the powers concerned, was appropriate.

As I continue to work through these sources, as well as use my weekends to explore the Taiwanese countryside, I am going to think more about what ‘adventuring’ through China, and through this jurisdictional gap, really meant.

The Taiwanese countryside...perhaps a little too up close.

The Taiwanese countryside…perhaps a little too up close.