Imperialism today is emerging, freshly refurbished, as the progressive answer to problems of planetary disorder. Discarding conventional euphemisms, official ideologues and establishment media—from Blair’s former factotum for international security in Prospect, to opinion-makers in the Financial Times and Foreign Affairs—now openly celebrate the return of Western empire across the world.footnote1 Devoted in the service of human rights and free markets, military operations proceed without compunction for their consequences. As bombs rain down on the civilian populations of Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, or Palestinians are buried in their homes, the drawl is at best of ‘collateral damage’—which, indeed, one enthusiast has complained was ‘almost pedantically avoided’ in Operation Enduring Freedom.footnote2 By comparison with such contemporary sensibility, the frankly colonial warfare of the nineteenth century could at times hold a more honourable record. If its agents were equally certain in the moral superiority of their mission, a few, at least, were troubled by the misery they caused.

No tale is more instructive in this regard than the career of James Bruce, eighth Earl of Elgin and Kincardine. As British Plenipotentiary with the Anglo-French expeditionary force to China in the late 1850s—the man sent to bring the Qing dynasty to heel—Elgin found much of what he was called upon to do distasteful. If a combination of self-interest and imperial advantage nevertheless kept him up to the mark, his letters and diaries offer a commentary of unrivalled candour on the psychology of empire—and useful insight into one of the most important, but least known, British conflicts of the nineteenth century: the wars with China of 1857–58 and 1860.

‘A line of English men-of-war are now anchored there in front of the town’, Elgin wrote, on 22 December 1857, before the city of Canton:

I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life, and Elliot [the ship’s captain] remarked that the trip seemed to have made me sad. There we were, accumulating the means of destruction under the very eyes, and within the reach of a population of about 1,000,000 people, against whom these means of destruction were to be employed! ‘Yes’, I said to Elliot, ‘I am sad because when I look at that town, I feel that I am earning for myself a place in the litany immediately after “plague, pestilence and famine”. I believe however that, as far as I am concerned, it was impossible for me to do otherwise than as I have done.footnote3

The bombardment of the city finally began at 6am on Monday, 28 December 1857; which, as Elgin pointedly observed, was ‘the Massacre of the Innocents’ in the Christian calendar. The shelling, he noted, continued ‘without almost any reply from the town. I hate the whole thing so much that I cannot trust myself to write about it’.footnote4 Others were not so scrupulous. The Times special correspondent with the expedition George Wingrove Cooke wrote enthusiastically of how the bombardment of the city’s walls continued throughout the day: ‘Then came the night—and such a night! . . . the city soon became like our own Shropshire iron counties at night—a plain of fire’. Shells and rockets from thirty-two warships battered the city walls without a break for twenty-seven hours, providing a spectacular display. ‘By constant showers of rockets’, Cooke continued, ‘the flame was led up and down the city wall, and in an incredibly short time the long, thin line of fire shot high into the heavens’. Vengeful rockets ‘came hurtling through the moonlight along the line of the eastern wall . . . They seemed to lead the fire about as a tame element.’footnote5