In 1868 Mesny landed a job of arms instructor with the Sichuan Army, and went off to Guizhou province to fight against ethnic Miao rebels. He spent much of the next two years around the town of Chong’an in southeastern Guizhou, teaching the Chinese soldiers how to use modern firearms and field guns, fighting in several battles, and watching the spats between his immediate superior, Liu Heling, and campaign commander Tang Jiong.
Mesny sent letters about his adventures to his younger brother John, who served in the Imperial Maritime Customs at the Yangzi port city of Hankou, and at some point in 1870 John began forwarding them to the Shanghai Evening Courier. Although Mesny later wrote up the Chong’an campaign in far greater detail for Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany, his on-the-spot accounts in the Courier are fresh and unclouded by thirty years of petty frustrations and resentment. There are some minor but significant extra details too: for instance, the Courier articles are far more scathing about Liu Heling’s attempts to prolong the war – and with it his opportunities for self-enrichment through plunder, graft and corruption.
By 1872 Mesny’s first-hand accounts of the fighting in Guizhou had attracted so much interest from Shanghai’s foreign community that he began writing articles specifically for the Courier, which he continued for the next three years. These covered a whole range of events that he never got around to including in the Miscellany.
I had a tough time getting hold of Mesny’s Shanghai Evening Courier articles. The British Library has one full year (1874) on microfilm, but the only other surviving copies are in the Shanghai Municipal Archives, who refused me access. I ended up having to reconstruct Mesny’s reports from versions which other contemporary newspapers had cut-and-pasted from the Courier.
However, the SMA have now digitised their collection and made it available online to participating academic institutions via cnbksy.com. A friend recently got in and copied the Shanghai Evening Courier articles for me, so – four years after my biography of Mesny was published – I finally got to read them in full. Fortunately, there was nothing entirely new here, and my reconstructed versions had at least covered all of Mesny’s main topics.
After the Chong’an campaign was abandoned in late 1870, Mesny was recalled to the provincial capital, Guiyang. The Hunan Army commander Zhou Dawu put him in charge of the provincial armoury, and then sent him off to Xianglu Tun near the westerly town of Guanling, where he directed an artillery bombardment against Miao rebels hiding out on an isolated, fortress-like hill. Disgusted with the behaviour of the Chinese generals, who favoured slaughtering the Miao instead of accepting their surrender, he eventually quit the field and returned to Guiyang.
By this time it was early 1872, and the Miao War was drawing to a close. Official accounts describe major battles between the Chinese and Miao forces in the Leishan district, where the Miao were decisively beaten, but Mesny paints a far more messy situation of scrappy, often inconclusive skirmishes with scattered bands of rebels. These confrontations were, however, reported as major victories by the Chinese commanders, who claimed thousands of the enemy were slaughtered on each occasion. The body counts became so ridiculous that the higher authorities investigated and demoted several prominent generals, who restored their reputations by persuading five Miao warlords to give themselves up under an amnesty, and then had them executed. But whether by treachery or in battle, the rebel leaders eventually fell – Mesny mentions the deaths of Li Zaifu, a former Taiping, and the Miao chieftain Bao Dadu.
The final Miao stronghold was at Xianglu Shan – not the similarly-named Xianglu Tun near Guanling, but a separate mountain north of Kaili town. Mesny decided against taking part in the siege, but one of his understudies went and reported to him. The Chinese encircled the base of the mountain with palisades which they gradually moved uphill, driving the rebels up onto the heights. Despite heavy shelling, the Miao refused to surrender – the last survivors hid out in a remote cave and starved to death.
Meanwhile, a long-running Muslim uprising in neighbouring Yunnan province had spilled over the border into Guizhou. Mesny’s third and final military assignment was a six-month-long campaign against Muslim rebels at Xincheng, in the far southwest of the province. Though his shelling soon had the city wall breached, the Chinese were reluctant to press home their advantage and recapture the city, despite the fact that the Muslims were only armed with spears and pitchforks. Mesny felt this was partly due to the enemy’s fearsome fighting reputation, but also because the Chinese generals didn’t want the war to end – and with it their chances of further enrichment and promotion. Xincheng eventually fell after the rebels negotiated a peaceful surrender in late October 1872 – only to have the Chinese renege on their promise and slaughter the Muslim leaders.
Mesny spent all of 1873 at Guiyang, reporting on final mopping-up operations against pockets of resistance. But with the war over, Chinese soldiers were being demobbed in huge numbers, which meant that Guizhou was suddenly awash with unemployed men whose only resources were their military training and their weapons. Many were extremely angry too, as they hadn’t been paid wages owed for years of service: the cash-strapped provincial treasury claimed that they couldn’t afford the expense; while what little money was made available was pocketed by Chinese generals, rather than handed out to the men.
Former soldiers now turned bandit, even teaming up with Miao to launch uprisings along the border with Guangxi province. Dissent was fanned by the Gelao Hui, a secret society of military veterans dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. Mesny’s commander, Zhou Dawu, wrote increasingly angry letters to the provincial treasury demanding the missing money be paid before the whole of Guizhou rose in rebellion, but was stonewalled.
1874 began with Mesny planning to build a chain-link suspension bridge over the river outside Chong’an, where he had campaigned for two years. But by mid-May he had left Guizhou and travelled north to Chengdu in Sichuan province with his wife and Zhou Dawu (Mesny’s bridge was eventually built by Zhou, and is still standing). Zhou was chasing his men’s wages, and prepared to go on to Beijing and petition the emperor if his demands weren’t met. Mesny was leaving Guizhou for the first time in six years, looking for new opportunities wherever they might arise and also aiming for Beijing, in order to have his military rank and various battlefield awards confirmed. He liked Chengdu and reported on a general jumble of local news and gossip, before heading east down the Yangzi to Hankou that October – travels that he sketched out in another paper, the North China Herald.
With thanks to Robert Bickers