Mr. Williams to Mr. Seward

No. 33.]

Sir: I have the honor to send you a correspondence with Mr. Knight at Niuchwang, consisting of his letter to Hao, the district magistrate (enclosure A,) demanding redress for attacks made upon him by armed ruffians, his report to the legation, (enclosure B,) requesting that arms he sent to him, with my reply, (enclosure C,) and respectfully commend them to your perusal.

The part of China where Niuchwang lies has long been infested with bands of mounted robbers, whose depredations have become so serious as to render nugatory all law, and cause the imperial family and Manchu nobility some anxiety as to their sway over their paternal inheritance. The population has become more assimilated to other parts of northern China by the immigration of Chinese during many years past, whose superior industry and thrift over the native Manchus give it much of its prosperity. Their influence is shown, too, in the fact that their language has almost supplanted the Manchu language as the common speech. The government of this wide region is still administered on a military basis, but the Chinese have little part in it, and hold few offices. This would cause them little regret if they could be protected; but, on the contrary, life and property are both of light account, and many of the immigrants are almost forced to join the robbers.

The cabinet minister, Wansiang, went to the capital, Mukten, last autumn to examine the state of affairs. Three or four thousand foreign-drilled troops have been sent to aid him, and it is now reported that they have at last obtained a victory, killing seven hundred or more of the banditti. The “sword-racks” are of the same class, and the plan referred to by Mr. Knight—of employing such brigands to aid in keeping the peace—is a common device with craven officials all over China, and does much to exasperate, impoverish, and demoralize their subjects, and egg them on to rebellion. The check on this policy is found in the literati and landed gentry, whose united influence countenances and aids the industrious classes to join in plans to resist violence; but the evil is often beyond their powers, and anarchy overrides the whole region until stronger force can be brought from abroad, as in this instance, to suppress the lawless.

It is not surprising that foreigners should be sometimes involved in these internal troubles; and if we expect that the Chinese authorities at such times will always wish or dare to protect us, it is likely that we should be disappointed. They readily assent that the treaties require them to afford us all the protection in their power; but as individuals they may have their own opinion about the expediency or possibility of doing much for us against their countrymen, or, as at Niuchwang, sometimes may have no reliable or adequate force to help them.

During the past winter the community in that port have drilled themselves [Page 515] under the guidance of the British consul, and the knowledge that they were preparing for an emergency has prevented, it is not unlikely, an attack; but the temptation of treasure and property of various kinds, guarded by only a few persons, may some day prove too strong, and the whole foreign settlement he swept away. The probability of such a catastrophe at present is not imminent; but the fact that the local authorities are not always able to protect our citizens, and our men-of-war may not be at hand at the time, forms my present argument for making the inquiry of the department, whether drafts made upon it for arms and ammunition to defend them in such cases would be honored. If the legation has control of the outlay it will not be excessive, and if the weapons afterwards should not be needed they can be sold. Americans have heretofore been more indebted for their safety in China to the measures taken by the English for their defence than is good policy.

It should be borne in mind, too, that while the treaties place us beyond the jurisdiction of Chinese laws, and we do nothing for the support of the government, their stipulations require that government to afford us full protection against injury, both from seditious natives and unprincipled officials. The first treaties were extorted at the cannon’s mouth, and may be distasteful not only to the officers who negotiated them, but what is more important, so far beyond the ideas of the people at large that their rulers become discouraged in trying to carry them out. The treaties thus become like great charters of civilization and Christianity, and we have need to exercise forbearance and patience while educating a pagan and ignorant people up to their requirements. Yet the principle of exterritoriality contained in them, like the egg of the ichneumon fly in a caterpillar, is likely to destroy the autonomy of this government unless its development is sedulously watched. Meanwhile the strongest party often interprets treaty stipulations in its own favor when a doubt arises, and natives are always too ready to side with the strongest when advantageous to themselves.

It is the earnest desire of all foreign powers, I do not doubt, and of their representatives in China, to strengthen the Emperor’s government in its authority, and encourage the people to look to their own rulers for their safety; but the latter have had too long experience of wrong and oppression, or are too ready to cheat and oppose them, to look to their rulers if foreigners can help them. Neither can the inertness and ignorance of the rulers be removed until a new set arises—a new generation—which shall have learned new ideas. It is well for the Chinese people, and indeed all Asiatics, that they have models before them in western lands of the workings of free governments, and have not to work out the problems that Europeans have solved since 1500. However, if the workings of the treaties bring benefits with them, which on the whole is the case, the future of China is still one of promise, though the urgency of foreigners to hasten the adoption of railroads, telegraphs, and other improvements before the people can appreciate their uses or the rulers provide for the details, may overdo the power of native institutions.

I have been led into these remarks in order to explain at length the position of Mr. Knight in asking for aid to defend himself and American interests at Niuchwang, as there is a propriety in it which will, I hope, appear to you, and the same exigency may at any time occur at Chifu, Taiwan, or elsewhere. I have reason for believing that the Wachusett is at Niuchwang (or Yingtsz, the port) by this time, so that there is no present danger.

The services of Mr. Davenport in aiding Mr. Knight in his interviews with the authorities are acknowledged in my note to Sir R. Alcock, (enclosure D.)

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,

S. WELLS WILLIAMS, Chargé d’Affaires.

Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.

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Mr. Knight to Mr. Williams

Sir: I have the honor to hand you herewith copies in English and Chinese of my despatch to Hao, the district magistrate of Hai-ching, dated the 8th instant.

The facts therein disclosed are nearly sufficient to give you a complete idea of two assaults, as muderous in character as any I remember, made upon myself and a number of Americans who were with me, by a band of armed men called “sword-racks.” I doubt not you will observe that my despatch to Hao is of the most temperate character, giving a truer statement of the occurrences than he could otherwise receive, and calling upon him to arrest and punish my assailants, as is customary the world over, but particularly in this country, where the law is very plain. Such a course, I hoped, would be sufficient to satisfy all concerned that the notorious bandit Chin, his two brothers and others, of the band, would be arrested, and that I might have the pleasure of advising you of the facts with a satisfactory conclusion. I regret to say now that such is not the case, but on the contrary I have not received any reply to my despatch, or learned the arrest of the ruffians.

On referring to my despatch of the 5th of June, 1862, you will see mention made of the existence of bands of armed rowdies, and that I thought it scarcely probable that they would attack foreigners or those in their employ. A longer residence here, however, has given me further information, which confirms much that has been written by Mr. Meadows, her Britannic Majesty’s consul, the main facts of which are that these organizations not only do permanently exist, but from the imbecility of the officials have so increased in numbers and power that the latter not only conciliate them with buttons and bribes, but to this day depend upon them for the defence of the port.

I have very little to add to the facts given Hao. Reflection and a better acquaintance with the spot where the first assault took place seem to render the escape of myself and companions with life exceedingly providential. Since then, I have been often besought by leading Chinese merchants to have the man Chin and his associates caught and punished; otherwise, they say, living here will be unbearable. It is now the custom of the ruffians to walk into the hongs, inquire how much business has been done, and then exact a certain percentage. They also endeavor to control and extort from all the coolies of the place.

One way to remedy this state of things and avoid incalculable trouble would be the appointment of an intendant of circuit, with 300 or 500 drilled troops under him, so as to place him beyond the necessity of relying on these sword-racks, either for his personal protection, or for the defence of the port. Although this province has long been infested with banditti, who have plundered towns and robbed trains of carts, until their numbers and audacity have called for troops from Peking to guard the capital, Mukten, I cannot attach any political character to these sword-racks.

I learn to-day that Hao has gone to Hai-ching, about 25 miles distant, and sent back word that his grandmother having suddenly died, he will be obliged to resign office for a time. This seems to be an attempt to shirk his duties, and I trust, sir, that you will agree with me, that an official who neglects to arrest persons guilty of so gross an attack on a consul deserves to be degraded and punished. Under such circumstances, I must confess that my position is rather an unsatisfactory one. Four of the persons who accompanied me are yet suffering from wounds and unable to pursue their business as pilots.

In all my interviews with the authorities, my colleagues being present on two occasions, I have carefully abstained from threats, but assured them of my confidence that the matter would receive the serious attention of their government at Peking, if they did not give the redress they so readily promised. I shall again address the local magistrates and demand the arrest and punishment of my assailants, the brothers Chin and their confederates; also, urging that an indemnity of 2,000 taels be paid to my wounded countrymen, who are under surgical expenses, and losing their time at the most important period to them of the whole year. I am glad to say that my own wounds in the left leg are quite healed: but my personal suffering is of less importance, compared with the insult offered me, while pursuing my official duties.

My own interpreter not having returned from the south, I am very much indebted, with the kind permission of Mr. Meadows, to Mr. Arthur Davenport, assistant to her Britannic Majesty’s consulate, for his invaluable aid as interpreter and translator, and shall feel grateful, if you think proper, to render him an acknowledgment.

I beg that you will use your influence towards inducing Admiral Bell to send the Wachusett or Wyoming to this port at the earliest moment. Moreover, as this port is so isolated, the province much disturbed, and American residents entirely without ordinary protection, I would suggest that twenty rifles with revolvers and ammunition be provided me for the protection of American lives and interests.

Rumors are to-day current that a portion of the banditti, six hundred in number, who confronted Wansiang, at Mukten, are roaming over the country and menacing the walled [Page 517] city of Kai-chow. It is said that they intend to come here, and hundreds of frightened country people are flocking into the place; while the native and southern Chinese are hurriedly sending sycee silver, opium, general valuable cargo, &c., on board ship. I shall act in concert with my colleagues towards our mutual defence; and even if the robbers approach the place, I hope that they will not attack the foreign settlement.

Hoping to receive your immediate reply and advice on this matter, I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,

FRANCIS P. KNIGHT, United States Vice-Consul.

S. Wells Williams, Esq., United States Charge d’Affaires.


Mr. Knight to Hao

Sir: Eight days having elapsed since the two murderous assaults were made upon myself and countrymen by a band of armed rowdies living in this town, without arresting any of the parties implicated, I am compelled to state to you the full particulars, and hope to convince you of the gravity of the case, and prompt you to a course of justice which would have prevented the escape of the notorious Chin and his confederates.

On the morning of the 31st of March, on inquiring for my house-coolie, who has been in my employ over four years, I was told by the other servants that he had been carried off by some sword-racks to their house in the town. As none of them could explain this act, I determined to visit the house of these men and ascertain why they were interested in so insignificant a member of my household, at the same time strongly doubting the reason given for his absence. I thought it best, under the novel circumstances, to be accompanied by three of my countrymen, one of whom could interpret, and two servants to show the house.

After walking some distance in the direction of a temple called Lao-ye-miao, I met my coolie coming towards me. On inquiring the reason of his absence his replies were so restrained and unsatisfactory that I compelled him to go on before and show the house where he said he had been forcibly carried. As we walked on, still unsuspicious of danger, and had scarcely turned a corner, out rushed a body of men from two gateways fronting us, armed with swords, knives, and matchlocks, and in an instant several guns were fired in our faces at a distance of about sixty feet. There had not been the slightest provocation for this cowardly, murderous act; and the fire wounded two of my countrymen—(one so severely that his life was for a time despaired of)—one of my servants and myself. Under these circumstances I at once turned with my companions towards my house, intending to lay the matter before the authorities, but we were pursued by the sword-racks to the river side, even while dragging along one of my wounded countrymen.

On reaching my house I addressed Ching, the collector of customs, who I understood had received extra-judicial powers, relating the assault and demanding the immediate arrest of all implicated. But his reply, viewing the exigencies of the case, was deemed so unsatisfactory that I decided to visit you, sir, and in person explain all the circumstances that would facilitate your expected action. After the occurrences of the morning, and amid rumors that the sword-racks were gathering in the town, it was deemed unadvisable for me to go alone, or to take my servants; and I was therefore accompanied by some of my countrymen who were armed, but instructed to proceed in the most quiet manner. At my request the British consul permitted his interpreter, Mr. Davenport, to accompany and interpret for me. On reaching your office I found you and E., commandant of the volunteers of the town, awaiting me; but I must confess that my interview was far from satisfactory. You professed to be ignorant of the name of the leader of this gang of sword-racks, and of the location of their house, whereas the assault in the morning had been known to thousands in the town for hours, as well as the perpetrators and their houses. However, on leaving you repeatedly assured me that I might let the matter rest a space, as you would at once seize the men and deal with them. I little thought that one in your responsible position would deceive me, and instead of acting promptly and honestly, allow these would-be assassins to quietly escape with impunity.

On my return, seeing my way down had been so peaceful, I decided to go by a different street, hoping to meet with a favorite dog that was wounded in the morning. After proceeding some distance we noticed a man armed with a matchlock following us on horseback, whom I recognized as one of the band who had pursued me in the morning; but perceiving himself watched he disappeared down a lane. Fearing some treachery, I determined to retrace my steps and continued homewards on a parallel street, in the direction this man had taken.

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We had not gone far when we saw a man on the top of a house aiming a matchlock at us, and recognized the locality of the morning assault. We could not retreat, and on attempting to go on were met with a volley from several matchlocks pointed down a cross street, and hemming us in, unless we ran through the fire. This we did, two only of our party being wounded in the legs. Having promised you, sir, not to take matters into my own hands, but rather to restrain my countrymen, my course I regarded as simply one of self-defence. The sword-racks were now in the same street with us, and again fired; we returned their fire, and its results enabled us to continue our course without further molestation.

On the next day, April 1st, you called on me, and met the British and Prussian consuls. It was with some difficulty then that I learned you had really allowed the entire gang of sword-racks to escape. You, however, finally consented to the destruction of their houses, arranging that I should meet you for such a purpose on the following noon. I met you there, and the houses were destroyed, although I feel that I was very lenient in not insisting on the destruction of a third one, connected in some way with the gang.

The above is a faithful and exhaustive narrative of the outrageous assaults, and of what transpired since; and I hope the destruction of the buildings will have great moral effect on these lawless men, and the thousands of bystanders. You and Ching both admitted in the presence of my colleagues that there was not the slightest provocation offered these sword-racks. You are aware, too, that the eleventh article of the American treaty provides that “arrests in order to trial may be made by either the Chinese or the United States authorities;” so that if I had gone with the intention of arresting these men who had carried off one of my people, it would have been lawful. The second assault was made when exercising my official functions in my official dress.

I therefore now call upon you to arrest the three brothers Chin and the other assailants at once; and request that you will inform me, that I may take steps to identify them. It is my duty, also, to write to Peking complaining in the strongest manner of the inefficiency of E., whose duty as commandant of volunteers requires him to preserve the peace of the place. It is everywhere known that the sword racks belong to the volunteers whom he commands; that he was conversant with the particulars of the assault, and could have directed the arrest of the offenders. His inertness and inefficiency in this, the first affair where his services have been required by foreigners, notwithstanding his repeated promises and assurances of success, seem to point him out as the last man to fill a position of so much trust.

I have the honor to be your obedient servant,

FRANCIS P. KNIGHT, United States Vice-Consul.

To Hao, District Magistrate of Kai-chow.


Mr. Williams to Mr. Knight

Sir: I have to acknowledge your despatch of the 13th ultimo, with its enclosures, giving the details of the attack made upon you on the 31st of March, by parties of lawless men; and I am happy to join with you in giving thanks to God for the preservation of the lives of yourself and all your company.

Admiral Bell had already informed me that he had sent the steamer Wachusett to Niuchwang, where I suppose she has already arrived, and I hope that Captain Townsend will be able to aid you, and the local authorities if need be, in securing better protection in future. It will be well to urge upon the latter the immediate settlement of this affair, rather than to effect much from their superiors here until they have more details. I have made known your version of the affair, which corrected theirs in several particulars. The destruction of the houses whence the sword-racks made their attack, under the eye of the magistrates, was a right step and will serve as a warning.

In regard to your request for twenty revolvers and rifles to protect American lives and interests, all that I can do is to lay it before the State Department. I am in hopes that Captain Townsend will be able to furnish you immediately with a few weapons and ammunition for the present need, and to stay till there is a prospect of permanent security.

The officials here have intimated that a large quantity of fire-arms have been brought to Yingtsi by foreigners, who, they hint, are somewhat responsible for the evils now complained of. Can you give me any authentic information on this point?

I am, sir, your obedient servant,


Francis P. Knight, Esq., U. S. Vice-Consul, New Chwang.

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Mr. Williams to Sir R. Alcock

Sir: I have been informed by Mr. F. P. Knight, the United States vice-consul at the port of Niuchwang, of the important aid given to him by Mr. Arthur Davenport, of her Britannic Majesty’s consulate there, in interpreting and translating while conducting the official intercourse growing out of the late disturbances in that town.

I fully concur in Mr. Knight’s view of the value of these services, and shall be obliged to your excellency to convey to Mr. Davenport my sincere thanks for his valuable assistance so generously rendered to Mr. Knight.

I avail myself of this opportunity, sir, to express the sentiments of high respect with which I am your obedient servant,


His Excellency Sir R. Alcock, K. C. B., Her Britannic Majesty’s Minister to China, Peking.