Was Mesny a Liar?

David Leffman Mesny Leave a Comment

Reading the Miscellany, with all its action, great claims and grandstanding, you have to wonder – how much of it is true? After all, there’s no doubt that the Miscellany was written as a piece of propaganda, designed to restore Mesny’s reputation at a time that his life was unravelling. Could anyone have led such an adventurous life, and yet …

The Battle for Changshu, 1863

David Leffman General Hou, Mesny, Taipings Leave a Comment

During one of his smuggling operations along the Yangzi river in November 1862, Mesny was captured by Taiping rebels off Fushan, a small village notorious for its pirates and gun-runners. First threatening him with execution, then planning to ransom him for $100,000, the rebels eventually decided to keep Mesny alive as a bargaining chip. Mesny was escorted 16km south along …

Mesny’s Famine Report, 1889

David Leffman Anhui, Famine Relief, Hefei, Mesny Leave a Comment

In 1889, Mesny made a brief survey of the countryside around Hefei, the modern capital of Anhui province, for the Shanghai Famine Relief Committee. This had been set up to raise and distribute funds during a prolonged drought in eastern China, which had hit central and northern Anhui particularly hard. Mesny’s task – undertaken voluntarily – was to see that …

Mercenary Mandarin Sources

David Leffman Mesny, Uncategorized Leave a Comment

Mesny on Mesny The biggest single source of information for Mesny’s life are his own writings, especially the four-volume, 2000-page Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany, published between 1895 and 1906. Aside from thousands of random articles on Chinese subjects, the Miscellany sketches in Mesny’s childhood and time at sea (1842–1860), before focusing in-depth on selected episodes from his first fifteen years in …

Mesny 1862: A Prisoner on the Yangzi

David Leffman General Hou, Mesny, Taipings, Travel writing Leave a Comment

During the Taiping Uprising, Mesny found work as a “Blockade Runner”, ferrying contraband arms and salt upstream along the war-ravaged lower Yangzi between Shanghai and the inland metropolis of Wuhan. The work was profitable but extremely dangerous, and it wasn’t long before Mesny was fighting off pirates and getting himself badly battered during a near-fatal assault by the Qing navy. …

Baoding 1882: Mesny meets Li Hongzhang

David Leffman Baoding, Li Hongzhang, Mesny Leave a Comment

In late January 1882 Mesny arrived at Baoding, the capital of Zhili province. Wrapped protectively around Beijing, Zhili was heavily militarised and only absolutely trusted ministers were put in charge; its viceroy was Li Hongzhang, a scholar-turned-general who had fought his way to Imperial recognition during the Taiping Rebellion. Li had since become one of the most powerful men in …

On Mesny’s Trail: Hami

David Leffman Mesny Leave a Comment

On 12 April, 1881, Mesny passed “the Royal tomb where the King of the Chao-to nation is buried, this of a green colour and shaped like a round tower with a dome” and arrived at China’s northwestern military headquarters, Hami (aka Qumul). He had spent two years on the journey here from Hong Kong, though he would by now have …

On Mesny’s Trail: The Road to Xinjiang

David Leffman Mesny 2 Comments

With Jiayuguan’s western gate behind him, Mensy left China for Xinjiang, the “New Territories” of Chinese Turkestan, whose desolate, sand-blurred vistas stretched thousands of kilometres west across two vast desert basins to the borders with Russia and Central Asia. His party marched onto the almost featureless plain, where bitter winds cut through everyone’s clothing (except for the carters, who had …