Canton War

From Roses, Tulips, & Liberty
Canton War
Part of Wars of Dutch Humiliation (1850-1857)

Map of the parties involved
DateMarch 1st 1850 - April 17th 1857
Southern China
  • Independence of the Kingdom of Canton
  • Loss of Dutch monopoly over Europe-China commerce
  • Eventual collapse of the Qing in 1936
Commanders and leaders
  • Liu Chenhung
  • Dan Vedelaar
  • Lennerdt Middendorp
  • Sir Dennis Houghton
  • Fabien Garreau
  • Yang Kenghsin
250,000 400,000
Casualties and losses
125,600 101,000

The Canton War (1850-1857; Chinese: 瓜分中國), also known as the Partition of China, was a destructive proxy war that took place in East Asia. The Qing-Dutch alliance was provoked by the Franco-British coalition, resulting in the division of China. The war lasted seven years and is considered to be one of the bloodiest wars of the 19th century. The level of destruction wasn't matched until the East Indies Crisis that occurred a hundred years later. The conflict is also seen as a second iteration of the Revolt of the Three Feudatories that took place almost two centuries prior to the Canton War.

The war led to a dramatic power shift in East Asia which allowed for the rise of Canton, Corea and Tauland as major Asian powers. The Dutch empire consequentially lost much influence in Asia and in the Americas, enduring much loss in the Second Dutch-Spanish War.


Origin of European Connivance

The Dutch established a base on Tauland in the 1620s, stabilizing their rule in the 1660s. Although not universally welcomed, they fostered a good but informal relationship with the Ming on the mainland. With the Qing conquest of southern China, the Dutch of Formosa cut their ties with the Ming and established a strong relationship with the Qing and Corea. By the 18th century, the Dutch almost monopolized European trade in southern China.

Britain and France had long desired to break the Dutch monopoly on Asian trade. In the early 1800s, Britain had started to establish trading posts in southern China, particularly targeting Canton. The Qing, however, were not receptive to this. They started to enact more restrictive trade policies in Canton, leading to the disgruntlement of British and Chinese merchants alike. The influx of Christian missionaries in Canton did not help the situation either, only further alienating the populace from the ruling Qing. An insurrection was brewing in Canton, and this was exactly the opportunity the British and French had longed for.

The insurgents

The Ming claimant

In the late 1790s in the Viceroyalty of Liangguang, economic and social discontent was brewing across China. Several rebellions were occurring across the country led by underground Chinese sects, peasant leaders, and rebel politicians. It was reported to Chankiang Prefecture in 1797 that a merchant named Wong Cinfan (王千帆) claimed direct descent from the Zhu dynasty. This drew attention from the Viceroy, the Dutch, the Christian community, and the local rebels. Whilst involved in subversive activities, Wong eventually gained recognition of his ancestry from the Archdiocese of Canton in 1803 and revealed documentation proving his descent from Crown Prince Constantine, who died in 1720.

Affiliation with traditional Chinese sects

An ancient religious and political movement founded during the Six Dynasties period, the White Lotus sect participated in major upheavals and revolutions - often stemming from economic hardship - since the Mongol era. It is the spiritual ancestor of many Ming restorationist sects (反清復明, lit. oppose Qing, restore Ming) since the dynasty's downfall.

The Hongmen, a secret society and descendant of the White Lotus, was founded in the mid-to-late 18th century as a mutual aid society. It quickly gained traction as a pro-Ming organization across China and in the Chinese diaspora.

Factoring in Christianity

Progression of the War

Impacted regions

The regions of Leunggwong, Kiangnan, and Minzhe sustained the majority of the damage throughout the war. Cities such as Canton, Shanghai, Foochow, and Kunming suffered extensive destruction as well.

Initial Revolt

The unrest in southern China grew into an open revolt by 1847. The Qing were slow to respond and faced multiple defeats at the hands of the rebels. The rebels were well-equipped with British and French arms.

Key Battles

  • Battles of Kweilin and Moichu (1847)
  • Capture of Canton and Independence Declaration (1848)
  • Dutch attacks on Amoy and Canton (1849)
  • Poyang Lake Incident (1849)
  • Sieges of Puerh and Changsha (1850)
  • Disaster at Yangchow (1851)
  • Assault on Taichow (1853)
  • Tungjen Uprising (1853)
  • Conquests of Shanghai and Yencheng (1854-1855)
  • Fall of Nanking (1856)

Damage to the Grand Canal

In Yangchow in 1851, rebel and Qing forces destroyed a part of the Grand Canal during battle. This was as the Yellow River Floods began and as the Chinese commercial economy nosedived. Trade and transportation between northern and southern China was severely disrupted, with imports and exports heavily affected. Most notably, rice shortages took hold in the north while grain shortages plagued the south. Several towns were flooded, incurring over 10,000 deaths. Irrigation systems in the North China Plain reached a miserable level of disrepair, disrupting everyday life and agricultural activities in the region.

This event was crucial to the success of the rebels as it also stemmed the flow of Banner soldiers from the north and violently divided the economies of the northern and southern regions of China.

Economic and social conditions

Yellow River Floods

The 1850s Yellow River floods caused immense destruction in northern China, displacing millions of people and destroying vital infrastructure. Northern Chinese salvationist religions, initially hesitant to support a full-blown rebellion against the Qing dynasty, changed their mind. Sects like the Luoists began to rally their followers and substantial numbers of the Chinese public.

Currency destabilization

The Spanish - and later Mexican - silver coin was popular in southern China since the 1720s. Silver (coins and ingots) were imported from Mexico, Tussenland, and Peru for over a century, often through Taulander merchants who dominated the intermediate trade. The continuous exportation of Chinese goods such as silk and tea via Tauland to several Western colonies prevented any silver shortfalls.

Starting in 1847, as soon as major unrest began, the demand for American silver coins skyrocketed. One dollar could buy 3,600 of the cheapest copper cash - a 50% premium. This led to massive copper inflation in China, leading to a revival in the traditional barter system and the worsening of the psychological state of the Chinese people in the 1850s. This allowed the British to sell abundant amounts of opium from colonial India, which assisted them greatly in capturing several Chinese ports during the war.

Concurrent events

Inter-European conflict

Britain and France nervously watched as the Dutch crushed the rebels marching towards the north. Although not officially in the war, they continued to provide logistical support to Canton. However, they are still looking for an opportunity to intervene in the war and turn the tides. An opportunity came on the first of March 1850, when a Dutch admiral had sunk a British ship carrying gunpowder to Canton - an open act of aggression.

As soon as Europe got word of the incident, Britain hastily declared war on the Dutch empire. France soon joined on the side of Canton and the British. This quickly developed into a global conflict, with British and Dutch colonies being pitted against each other in the Americas, and multiple naval battles being fought in the English Channel. In China, the Anglo-Cantonese alliance was slowly dominating. Things started to look tragic for the Dutch, especially when the Spanish declared war against the distracted Dutch empire in late 1850, hoping to annex territory from Dutch Tussenland. Tauland was also attacked on all sides.

Chinese emigration to Mexico and Tussenland

The Mexican Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, coinciding with the Canton War, caused the emigration of no less than 50,000 Chinese to New Spain. In Tussenland, conflict caused disruption in silver exports to China, leading to a few thousand Chinese to establish themselves in Westerzee province. Eventually, this created large trans-Pacific Chinese commercial networks.

Anti-Chinese sentiment and political conflict over the Mexican gold industry would lead 10,000 or so Chinese workers to migrate further inland to the Misuri provinces, South Tussenland, and the future Opdamsland.


Treaty of Tchangtcheou (1857)

  1. The Kingdom of Canton was formally recognized by the United Kingdom, France, and several other nations as a sovereign state.
  2. Canton cedes to the United Kingdom Foochow, Taichow, Ningpo, and Shanghai - all of which had a British military presence by 1855 - together with all fortifications, arsenals, and public property.
  3. Canton cedes to France Tchangtcheou - which had a French military presence by 1855 - together with all fortifications, arsenals, and public property.
  4. French and British citizens have extraterritorial rights in the Kingdom of Canton.
  5. The Kingdom of Canton will grant most favored nation status, in respect to foreign trade, to the United Kingdom and France.
  6. Dutch consuls and trading posts in the Kingdom of Canton will be disestablished.

Consequences for the Dutch

For the Dutch, the war is one of many Wars of Dutch Humiliation that took place throughout the 19th century.

See also