Historians are often guilty of painting individuals in black and white. Because we have a specific research agenda we ignore the contradictions inherent in human personalities. I am as guilty of this as anyone. My thesis explored the American mercenary Henry Burgevine in his role as a disorderly mercenary, a violent drunk and, eventually, a useful corpse. He is interesting as the exemplar of the disobedient foreigner who proved impossible to control in an era when Europeans and Americans were immune from prosecution by the Qing state. But no human being is ever so one dimensional. On one occasion Burgevine stayed with Anson Burlingame, the American minister in Beijing, as he attempted to sort out a diplomatic spat Burgevine had provoked when he had drunkenly thumped a Chinese official. During his visit, Burgevine ingratiated himself with Burlingame’s family. Burlingame’s wife, Jane, wrote home to her father that he got on well with their young daughter.
Gertie has had a bad cold and cough, but is now well, and full of fun and mischief. She takes a great fancy to General Burgevine, and is now sitting with him in the court while he is making a dress for her doll.
However rapacious, violent and unpleasant Burgevine may have been after a few too many bottles of grog, he was also a complex character capable of a sensitivity which is hidden from most historical accounts of his life. The struggle for historians is capturing this without meandering too far away from the principle focus of their research.