Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/The fate of Tan-King-Chin, a British subject

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IV
The fate of Tan-King-Chin, a British subject
by Miss E. Piper


The following narrative of a tragedy which occurred at Amoy, in 1851, will not be uninteresting to the English reader, now that so much attention is directed to Chinese cruelties. It is one of many acts of barbarity and insolence perpetrated by the mandarins, known only to the few concerned in them, and passed over almost unnoticed by the home government; yet to the encouragement which such mistaken forbearance or supine neglect has given to the Chinese, may we in great measure justly attribute the present war.

I went up to Amoy early in December, 1850, to keep house for my brother at the British Consulate. Several Englishmen of distinction returned to Hong Kong, just before my departure northwards, after sojourning some time at Amoy. They had experienced much courtesy, had freely visited the objects of interest in the city, and met with every consideration from the Chinese authorities, so that I little dreamt that the peaceful and friendly relations, which seemed to exist between natives and foreigners, were likely to be broken during my proposed stay at Amoy. The first fortnight passed happily enough, and I found never-failing interest and amusement in rambling through the populous and picturesque city. Amoy is built upon an island, and is said to contain nearly a million of inhabitants. Like all Chinese cities it is surrounded by a wall, which in this instance is so massive and broad, that four or five men can walk abreast upon it. There are numerous gates, not only in the walls, but also in the streets; these are shut at six o’clock in the evening, and strictly guarded, though not so rigidly, I believe, as at Foo-chow, where, when once closed, they are not opened even for the Viceroy.

The British Consulate is placed outside the walls of Amoy, upon a spot chosen with a view (though a mistaken one) to health. No position could well have been more unfortunate, for it is two miles from the European Hongs, which are situated upon the sea-shore, and the city lying between the two, communication might at any moment be cut off.

One day, towards the end of December, my brother and I went to call upon Captain ——, who was confined to his house by illness. As we passed through the corridor which led to his room, we heard a low monotonous voice reading aloud, and, listening, caught some sentences from one of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. The reader was evidently a foreigner, from his peculiar accent, but his command of the English language was remarkably good, the only slip in pronunciation which we heard being once when the word “chess” occurred, and was transformed, somewhat to our amusement, into “cheese.” When we entered the room we saw a grave-looking young man in a Chinese dress, sitting, with an open book in his hand, by the sofa upon which lay the invalid. Upon seeing us he rose, and with a low bow left the room. Interested by his intelligent countenance, I inquired from Captain —— whom he had found capable of reading English so well, and was informed that the person in question was a Straitsman, born at Singapore, a registered British subject, and employed by Captain McMurdo, Messrs. Jardine’s agent, as an English clerk.

“Moreover,” added Captain ——, “he is a Christian, a quiet, well-behaved fellow, a distant relation of the military mandarin in command at Amoy; his name is Tan-King-Chin.”

On the third of January, 1851, we were all electrified about nine o’clock, a.m., by a message sent from Captain McMurdo to the consulate, claiming the protection of Mr. Sullivan, the consul, for his servant Tan-King-Chin, who at four o’clock that morning had been carried off by an armed force under the command of the Chinese Colonel-commandant. At least eighty soldiers surrounded the house of their victim, and forcing an entrance through the roof, captured the man, and carried him off to the yamun of the Taoutae, the newly arrived Intendant of Amoy. Mr. Morrison, the interpreter, and the vice-consul, proceeded at once to this official, to demand the prisoner as a British subject. On arriving in the presence of the Taoutae, they presented the proofs of registration, but the mandarin flatly denied the truth of their statements, and said that Tan-King-Chin had confessed himself a Chinaman. In vain the English officials urged the fact of registration, and promised that, were the prisoner guilty of any proved crime, the consul would cause him to be punished. Their efforts were without success, and they returned to the consulate.

Upon this, Mr. Sullivan and the rest of his staff donned their uniforms, buckled on their swords, and proceeded in state to the yamun of the Taoutae. We watched that little band depart with beating hearts, for though brave was their bearing, their numbers were few, and we could not tell what might be the issue of this interview. When they entered the presence of the Intendant, the consul at once demanded the surrender of the prisoner. He met with a blank refusal. Nothing daunted, he persisted in his demand, brought forward the Register Book of the consulate, wherein was the entry. He proved that the Straitsman had been registered twice, once in July, 1849, again in March, 1850; he urged that he was in the employment of an Englishman at the time of his capture, and promised, first in words, then in an official letter which he wrote and sealed in the presence of the Taoutae, that were Tan-King-Chin really guilty of any conspiracy against the Chinese government (which was the alleged excuse for his arrest), he should be tried and punished by the British representatives.

When the conference had lasted about three hours, the commandant, Colonel Tan, made his appearance. He was a smooth-faced, oily mandarin, who had always affected intimacy with foreigners, and to him Mr. Sullivan appealed, requesting him, as a friend, to try and persuade the Taoutae to deliver up the unfortunate man. Colonel Tan appeared to yield to his entreaties, and conversed for some minutes in a low voice with the Intendant. He then told Mr. Sullivan that both he and the Taoutae would lose caste and influence with their people if they gave up the prisoner in that yamun, but if he and his companions would return home, Tan-King-Chin should be sent to the consulate about an hour after their departure. For some time Mr. Sullivan hesitated, fearing lest this offer should prove a mere ruse to gain time to send the man away from Amoy; but when at last the Intendant agreed to give a written guarantee, sealed in due form, that the prisoner should be sent to him at half-past six that evening, he gave way. There was nothing in the manner of the mandarins to excite suspicion, and the English officials, considering their point gained, returned to the consulate about five o’clock in high spirits at their success, which they laughingly attributed to their swords and cocked hats. When my brother related this scene to me, I exclaimed, “Why did you not bring him with you? I feel certain the man will never come back alive?”

“Nonsense,” replied he, laughing; “why we have the written promise of the Taoutae, so let us have dinner at once, that we may be ready to welcome him when he arrives. He certainly has caused us some trouble to-day.”

We sat down to dinner, but a sad foreboding filled my mind, and though my brother did his best to appear careless, I saw that my words had roused his suspicions; that he was anxious, and listened for every sound. The windows were wide open upon the court-yard of the consulate, and I kept glancing out into the darkness. About twenty-five minutes to seven I saw some torches pass, and exclaiming, “There he is!” I started up and went to the window, where my brother joined me. A chair was borne into the yard, accompanied by an officer and torch-bearers. The officer delivered the card of the Taoutae to one of the servants who was standing by, and when his men had set down their burden, they all fled from the consulate, as if the Angel of Death had pursued them.

My brother rushed into the yard, and, going up to the chair, said, “Well, Tan, you are a lucky fellow, and may be very thankful that you are safely back in English custody.”

No answer.

Startled and alarmed, Mr. T—— put his hand into the chair. Alas! my mournful forebodings had been too true. The Taoutae had indeed sent back Tan-King-Chin, but he was dead!

The English consul, who had some friends dining with him, came hastily down stairs, and, calling for lights, had the roof of the chair torn off, for it was one of the small common ones, and only thus could the body be got out. A little warmth still lingered near the region of the heart, and two medical men who examined the corpse agreed that he must have been dead about an hour. Hideous marks over the legs, ancles, and spine, and other parts of his frame, told too well the sufferings which had destroyed the life of this strong and healthy young man.

I cannot describe the horror and excitement which this foul deed caused at the consulate. Here was a British subject, acknowledged to be such by the Taoutae and Colonel-Commandant, taken from his home, and deliberately murdered in cold blood; whilst, to crown the insult, his dead body had been sent into the yard of the consulate (which every Chinaman would consider pollution), and the deed was stamped as the act of the Government by the official card of the Taoutae.

We all felt that the sword of death was suspended over our heads. No help was at hand. Even with the merchants, whom Mr. Sullivan summoned to a council, the English scarcely mustered twenty-five men. The brig-of-war stationed between Amoy and Foo-chow was on a cruise to the latter place, and it seemed as if the opportunity of her absence had been chosen for the perpetration of this outrage. The gates of the consulate were shut, arms were looked up, cleaned, and loaded, and then a long and anxious consultation was held as to the steps to be taken in this emergency. Mr. Sullivan dared not send an official letter to recall the “Serpent,” for fear of exciting the attention of the Chinese, so one of the merchants wrote a business letter, and under cover of “some opium pigeon,” the news of our peril was sent off express to Foo-chow.

At last, when every precaution was taken, my brother came to my room, and we talked over the dreadful occurrence, and our own danger. I asked him whether he thought it probable that the Chinese would fall upon us that night. He looked very grave and sad as he answered,

“We are in the hands of God. He alone can take care of us.”

The great dread of death, death so horrible as a Chinese massacre, overwhelmed me, and I trembled as I laid my head upon his shoulder.

“Never mind,” whispered he, “I will shoot you before the wretches shall touch a hair of your head.”

Oh! my countrymen and countrywomen who live at home in comfort and security, whose quiet stream of existence is scarcely ever ruffled by a single breath of fear, think what the life of those must be who go to distant lands to serve their country, and face danger in such dreadful forms, that such an assurance as this should be consolation!

That night passed heavily indeed. My brother dragged a mattrass into the ante-room which led to my chamber, and lay down there with his sword and pistols beside him; but sleep seldom visits those to whom forgetfulness would be a boon.

The next day an inquest was held upon the body of the murdered man, and evidence was taken as to the cause of his death. The following facts came out during the inquiry. Tan-King-Chin was beaten cruelly in the presence of the Taoutae twice before nine o’clock. Upon being questioned after the first application of the torture, he asserted that he was a British subject, but after the bamboo had been used a second time, his agony drew from him the confession that he was a Chinaman, and a member of one of the secret societies which plot against the mandarins. About noon the poor man was seen by his cook, who had also been made prisoner; he then appeared life-like, and not much the worse for the torture he had undergone. Between one and two in the day, the cook heard him taken from the cell, which adjoined his own, and after that knew no more about him. The day following that upon which the inquest was held, some valuable information was given by a Chinese watchmaker who had been mending a clock at the Colonel-Commandant’s on the day of the murder. He saw Tan-King-Chin brought there from the Taoutae’s at 2 p.m. alive and well. The colonel was dressing to go to the Intendant’s, when a messenger came to say that the English consul and his staff were already there demanding the surrender of the prisoner. The unhappy Straitsman was at once taken into the yard and continuously beaten with bamboo rods. In vain, in his agony, he appealed to the Colonel-Commandant, first as a British subject, then as a relative of his own, their surnames “Tan” being the same. The mandarin mocked the dying man, and caused the torture to be repeated till death ensued. Now from this it was evident that the Taoutae sent orders for his murder whilst he was holding a conference with the consul, and only appeared to yield to the demands of the latter when assured by the Colonel-Commandant, who had come from the fearful scene, that life was almost extinct. No suspicion of such treachery crossed the minds of the English; the demeanour of the Chinese authorities forbade it. Had such an idea presented itself to the consul’s mind, there is no doubt that he and his companions would have gone to the prison, and at all risks endeavoured to save the poor man. Well, indeed, it was that no such attempt was made, for it was afterwards ascertained that during the interview the Taoutae’s yamun was surrounded by soldiers, and an idol carried round and round. There can be no doubt of the fate of that little band had they tried by force to rescue the victim from the hands of his murderers.

Oh, how wearily the time passed during the following seven days and nights! Gongs sounded in the city, muskets were fired, the “tiger” soldiers were paraded daily; additional Chinese troops, to the amount of three thousand men, marched into Amoy. Everything was evidently disturbed and warlike. The whole of the consulate was commanded by the city walls, and we might have been shelled at any moment. But it is in hours of danger like these that Englishmen display those attributes which have won for our race the respect of the world. Not a symptom of fear did the members of the consulate show. Much against my wish my brother went freely into the city, and when in my terror I wanted him, at least, to leave off his laced cap, which marked him as an official, he laughed, and said our only chance of safety lay in preserving a firm and fearless attitude.

Minutes lengthened into hours of anxiety when he was absent from my sight, and when he returned unscathed I almost felt as if I received him from the dead. We watched the flagstaff which would signal the approach of the “Serpent” till our eyes were sore with looking, and our hearts were sick with hope deferred. The vessel came near before we knew of her arrival, for she grounded in trying to cross the bar of the Consular creek, but her intrepid commander, Captain Luard, though uncertain as to what might have befallen his countrymen, rowed on shore, and, being well acquainted with the locality, came by a short cut across the hills to the consulate. When he strode into the court-yard in his heavy boots, armed to the teeth, the herald of our succour and safety, some of us wept for joy,

It was little likely that the Chinese, though so numerous, would provoke the shot and shell of the brig, for they are as cowardly as they are cruel; and after the painful suspense which we had undergone, we were thankful indeed for the sense of security we enjoyed in the presence of that small vessel of war.

A full account of this tragedy was sent to the home government, and we indulged in confident speculations as to the result. We felt that though we were few and far away from our native land, her powerful arm would reach even the ruthless authorities of Amoy, and demand ample atonement for the insult offered to her, in the cruel murder of one who had a just claim to her protection.

Vain hopes! Of this vile deed, committed with a full knowledge that the victim was a registered British subject, done in daylight under the authority of the Chinese Intendant, no notice was taken, no satisfaction or apology ever demanded. Something, I believe, was said about the impropriety of the man wearing a Chinese dress, but as even missionaries often adopt it as more convenient, this could form no excuse.

And now, when blood and treasure are being freely poured forth in the far East, in our endeavour to establish lasting and satisfactory relations with the Court of Pekin, may we not justly attribute some portion of the difficulties which meet us at every step, some of the sufferings of our lately captured countrymen, to the impression of our supine forbearance given to the mandarins by the unavenged fate of Tan-King-Chin?