Remembering The Arrow

October marks the 160th anniversary of the Arrow Incident which decisively led to the Second Opium War and the sacking of Guangzhou.


The Arrow was a lorcha, a ship with a European hull with Chinese rigging. Manned by a Chinese crew, it had been registered in Hong Kong as an anti-piracy vessel and flew a tattered Union Jack from its mast.

On the morning of October 8, 1856, four Qing Imperial officers and 60 soldiers stormed The Arrow looking for members of the crew whom, ironically, Qing authorities suspected of piracy.

In the ensuing melee, 12 Chinese crew were arrested and the British flag was hauled down. Within two weeks, this relatively minor incident would place The Arrow and her crew at the center of a diplomatic and military storm.

Ever since the end of the First Opium War in 1842, tensions had been growing between the Chinese and foreign residents of Guangzhou. The Treaty of Nanjing signed at the conclusion of hostilities, had granted foreign merchants the right to reside in five cities along the Chinese coast, including Guangzhou. While foreign settlements had been established in Shanghai in 1843 and Fuzhou and Xiamen in 1844, the interior of Guangzhou remained off limits.

In 1846, the governor-general at Guangzhou, a Manchu official named Qiying ordered the city to be opened for foreigners. The city responded with a series of anti-foreign riots and stoning of British merchants.

“You have turned a counsel into a diplomatist, and that metamorphosed diplomat is forsooth to be at liberty to direct the whole might of England against the lives of a defenseless people.”

Qiying asked the court to retire and was replaced by Ye Mingchen. Ye was implacably anti-foreign and determined to protect the city from foreign intrusion at all costs.

In 1850, the new emperor, Xianfeng, took the throne and was determined not to repeat the mistakes his father made.

At the same time, the foreign powers were pressuring Ye Mingchen and the court to reopen negotiations on international treaty rights in China. British and American merchants wanted to open all of the Chinese coast to trade, legalize opium and authorize embassies to set up in the capital at Beijing.

The new emperor was in no mood to parley. Throughout the years leading up to the Arrow Incident, Ye Mingchen and other officials in Guangdong actively supported violent resistance to foreigners in the Pearl River Delta region.

Ironically, part of the hostility toward the British was the decline of foreign commerce. With the opening of Shanghai to trade and the refusal of Ye Mingchen to allow the expansion of the foreign commercial presence in Guangzhou, business naturally flowed northward. Tea exports in Guangzhou fell from 69 million pounds of tea to 27 million in 1860, meanwhile tea exports in Shanghai grew from a measly 1.1 million to over 53 million.

The seizing of The Arrow was the spark that ignited long-simmering tensions in Guangzhou. The British Consul in Guangzhou, Harry Parkes, immediately protested to Ye Mingchen for the insult done to the British flag and requested that the 12 crew members be released. Parkes argued that The Arrow was sailing under British registration and subject to extraterritoriality. This was one provision in the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which effectively prohibited Qing imperial authorities from arresting or seizing any foreign person or property, placing all foreigners under the jurisdiction of their foreign powers.

Like later governments, he argued that despite the vessel’s place of origin or official registration, Chinese nationals were subject to Chinese law.


Parkes then upped the ante by ordering the seizure of a Chinese ship and when Ye Mingchen still refused to cooperate, he ordered British forces to bombard Guangzhou.

Back in London, Prime Minister Palmerston denounced Ye in Parliament as an “inhuman monster.” Not all were supportive of Parke’s bellicosity, however. Gladstone, then in opposition, was especially opposed to the idea of war. On the floor of parliament, Gladstone railed against Parke’s rashness, shouting: “You have turned a counsel into a diplomatist, and that metamorphosed diplomat is forsooth to be at liberty to direct the whole might of England against the lives of a defenseless people.”

Nevertheless, as was the case in the First Opium War, the China merchant lobby was well-funded and placed extraordinary pressure on parliament to declare war. England was soon joined by France, who saw the endeavor as an opportunity to expand Catholicism in China.

Amid the commotion, in 1857, British troops dragged Ye Mingchen from his office in Guangzhou and shipped him off to a prison in India where he died a year later. It ended in 1860 with the Xianfeng Emperor dead. He had fled Beijing in advance of British and French troops and died drunk at the Imperial Villas in Chengde. Beijing was subsequently sacked by foreign.

Harry Parkes was part of the British expeditionary force, which fought the war. In 1860, Parkes, along with a group of soldiers and diplomats advancing under a flag of truce, was captured outside of Beijing. Much of the group was tortured to death by Qing troops, although Parkes was spared.