Mercenaries and Mobility


During the transition between my PhD and my postdoc I have been neglecting my blog.  Now I am settled into life and teaching in Shanghai I hope to get back to it on a regular basis.  Over the summer I have been working on a short postdoctoral research project on the effects of opium prohibition in twentieth-century China.  In a circular way this took me back to a piece of research that has been shouting at me to be looked at for some time.  One of the striking effects of the prohibition of opium in China was that trade in the illegal drug provided a revenue stream for tairiku ronin (continental adventurers) and their handlers, militant young officials in the Japanese army with expansionist ambitions in China.  Drug money meant army officers could fund black ops by these adventurers such as the assassination of the Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin in 1928.  The officers planned to blame the attacks on Chinese nationalists and use them as a pretext for expanding Japan’s territorial concessions in China against the wishes of the government in Tokyo.

I began to wonder how these men ended up as guns for hire on the Chinese mainland.  This made me think more about my own set of adventurers: the European and American soldiers who fought as mercenaries for both the Qing government and the Taiping rebels during the Taiping civil war.  Among them was John Kirkham, a veteran of the Crimea and the Indian Rebellion of 1857.  These men were often dismissed by other classes of foreigner in the country, particularly diplomats and administrators.  Robert Hart, Inspector General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, said of Kirkham ‘brave as he is, he has neither education nor knowledge’.   Yet what strikes me about these men is not their status with respect to their peers, but their mobility.  Kirkham not only fought in the Crimea, India and China, but went on, eleven years later, to die in a cage meant for lions in Egypt.  He was serving as the advisor to King Yohannes IV of Ethiopia during the war between the Ethiopian Empire and the Egyptian Khedive of 1874-76 and had been captured trying to cross enemy lines.  In the past it would have been much harder to track the lives of these men but, were it possible, it would tell us a lot about networks of mobility in the British Empire and beyond in the nineteenth century.

Thankfully, armed with the British Library’s officer records for the Ever-Victorious Army, the main foreign mercenary force in China, and digital humanities methodologies, tracking the paths of these fighters is now possible.  In July I attended a summer school in Chinese Digital Humanities at Leiden University.  It gave me the skills to start work on a relational database which will allow me to create visualisations of the movements of mercenaries across the world.  I am further aided by the mass digitisation of nineteenth-century books, ships’ records and other sources which will allow me to search for officer names.  I want to know if there are any patterns in movement among these fighters.  Did they move together?  Did they follow patterns established and enabled by the British empire or by foreign trade?  Are those networks even distinguishable themselves?  Ultimately I hope to examine how global connections in the nineteenth century provided career opportunities for men who, if not socially mobile, could certainly be geographically so.


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