Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A.F. Lindley: The Englishman who Became a Taiping Rebel

One of the longest and bloodiest civil wars ever waged in history was China's Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). The Taiping rebellion was launched by the "Heavenly King" (天王) Hong Xiuquan and his followers. Hong claimed to be a brother to Jesus Christ who aimed to end Qing rule and establish a "Heavenly Kingdom" in China with Christianity as its official religion. The rebellion claimed at least thirty million lives and caused massive destruction across the country in a war of attrition waged by both sides. Throughout the course of the conflict, a number of Westerners came to the aid of the Qing (or Manchu) Dynasty as it attempted to crush the rebellion. Many of these were mercenaries or officers dispatched by Western countries such as the US and UK. The most famous of the pro-Qing mercenaries were the Shanghai Foreign Arms Corps, later rechristened the Ever Victorious Army, which was created and organized in 1860 by the American Frederick Townsend Ward. However, there were a smaller number of Western mercenaries who joined the Taiping rebels as well.

Bust of Li Xiucheng (1823-1864). (John Smith/Wikimedia Commons)

The most prominent Western Taiping rebel was the Englishman Augustus F. Lindley. Lindley was a British soldier who was dispatched to Hong Kong in 1859 to serve aboard a steamer. The following year, while delivering a load of silk into Taiping territory in and around Suzhou (which had been the scene of fighting and had just fallen to the rebels) for a private company, Lindley got to see the Taipings up close. He had heard much about their "savagery" from others who supported the Qing, but he was shocked at the beauty and humility of the people and countryside of the Heavenly Kingdom that he personally saw. In Lindley's autobiography Ti-ping Tien-kwoh (Taiping Tianguo, or "Taiping Heavenly Kingdom"), he discusses how mesmerized he was by the "kindness, hospitality, and earnest friendship" he received from the people living in the Taiping-controlled areas. Also during his trek, he met and interviewed the Chung Wang (忠王, or 'devoted king') Li Xiucheng. Li was one of Hong Xiuquan's military commanders. During this interview, Lindley learned more about the Taiping Rebellion and how the West was aiding and arming a corrupt and highly unpopular Qing government while claiming to be Christian nations.

Lindley grew so enamored with the Taiping cause that he decided to join the rebels. Like many other Westerners who joined their ranks, the rebels' cause appealed to his Christian beliefs and his love of the Chinese people and culture. He resigned from his commission and was granted a commission as a Taiping officer from the Chung Wang. After departing his steamer at Hangzhou, Lindley and two pro-Taiping European friends proceeded to the Heavenly Capital Nanjing, where they became artillery instructors to the rebels. Lindley also became an English "voice of the rebels" who regularly courted the Westerners in Taiping territory for the Taiping cause, as well as weaponry and supplies for the rebels. He also wrote a number of letters to English-language newspapers in China criticizing the Western stance toward the rebels.

An illustration of Qing forces occupying Suzhou in 1863. (Wikimedia Commons)

Over time, Lindley grew increasingly involved in the armed conflict. He grew very close to Hong's inner circle during his time in the Heavenly Kingdom. He served in combat and was wounded on more than one occasion (including one ambush in which his wife Maria was killed). In response to the creation and success of the Ever Victorious Army, Lindley and his friends attempted to set up the Loyal and Faithful Auxillary Legion, which served very much the same purposes as the Ever Victorious Army, which was now under the command of the British officer Charles "Chinese" Gordon. This legion would be under the command of his fellow European officers and all the soldiers in it would be trained in Western weaponry and combat tactics. Unfortunately for Lindley (and for Hong Xiuquan), the vast majority of European officers - including Lindley's two friends - were killed in action when the Qing retook Suzhou in 1863.

Also during this time, Lindley and a group of mercenaries carried out a secret mission: To steal the Imperial steamship 'Firefly'. Their mission was accomplished and they were paid $20,000 - a princely sum at the time. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of rebel fighters and mercenaries were paid nothing! The 'Firefly' would be used in action against regular Qing forces - as well as Gordon and his Ever Victorious Army.

Lindley remained in the Heavenly Kingdom and stayed close to his comrades and the Taiping leadership until the death of Hong Xiuquan and the fall of the Kingdom in 1864. After the end of the rebellion, A.F. Lindley returned to Britiain and continued to act as the rebels' "spokesman." In 1866, he published his two-volume autobiography, in which he details his experiences in the rebellion and offers a scathing criticism of the Qings and the British government in its support for the Qing Dynasty. To this day this autobiography is the only detailed look the West has had at the Taiping Rebellion from the rebels' point of view. For the British public, there was plenty of food for thought about British foreign policy in the pages of these books as the government of the time was growing increasingly involved in China. Unfortunately, just three decades later, Britain and the West would find themselves at war with the Qing Dynasty itself during the Boxer Rebellion.

It's hard to say what A.F. Lindley saw - or believed he saw - during that first trip into the Heavenly Kingdom. He may have wandered into one of history's greatest bloodbaths, but one thing is for sure: Lindley gained much greater insight into the Chinese people and culture that many other Westerners living in the time could ever have hoped to gain.

For more about A.F. Lindley and the Taiping Rebellion, please see:
- (Ti-ping Tien-kwoh, Vol. I. This is the first book of A.F. Lindley's autobigraphy.)
- (Ti-ping Tien-kwoh, Vol. II. This includes not only his account of the rebellion, but Taiping documents, texts, and prayers as well. If you're studying the Taiping Rebellion, you might want to give this a look.)
- (A paper about the usage of foreign mercenaries and soldiers in the Taiping Rebellion.)


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