No. 135.
Mr. Williams to Mr. Fish.

No. 10.]

Sir: I have the honor to send you a copy of a dispatch from Mr. Knight, United States consul at New Chwang, relating to the inundation in that region, and the consequent disturbed state of the country arising from the distress caused by it and loss of the crops. Mr. Knight addressed the local civil and military authorities in August, setting forth the dangers likely to fall upon all classes, if the brigandage was not stopped; and when his dispatch reached Peking I applied to the government, as did the other foreign ministers, asking what measures would be taken, and urging energetic action before the distress and rapine became desperate, if not remediless. The miseries of anarchy have already been felt in that part of Manchuria, and the subsequent prosperity now made all classes alike desirous to restore quiet, lest they should experience a repetition of their evils; and it is to this that I partly ascribe the measure of success in the efforts of government, as given in Prince Kung’s reply, (see inclosure 2,) to restore quiet. There is, I hear otherwise, a large measure of truth in its statements, but the distress and want must still be very great. The rains of which Mr. Knight speaks, and to which I referred in my dispatch of August 25, have been unusually wide and heavy, extending over an area measuring nearly one hundred thousand square miles, comprising the largest part of this [Page 216] province and the western district of Manchuria. All the bottom-lands in this wide area have been more or less overflowed. The River Liao, which runs by Kew Chwang, is nearly five hundred miles long, and its upper headwaters drain the southeastern slopes of the Great Plateau, west of the basin of the Sougari as far as the border of Chili province, into the Gulf Liaotung. Between it and the Pei-ho are a few smaller streams; but the latter, with its four tributaries, all larger than itself, pours the drainings of the whole southern part of the province into the Gulf of Chili at Taker. The headwaters of these affluents are about six degrees of latitude apart, and all rise in the range of hills which separate this province from Shansi, and converge towards Tien-tsin like the ribs of a fan; the largest, called Sang-kan or Hurm, and also Yang-ting, near its junction with the Pei-ho, rushes down from the uplands like a mill-race, laden with sediment, which is soon deposited along the flat lands, or raises the bed of the stream. The others join it near Tien-tsin from the west and southwest, and their swollen currents have every where burst the banks and spread their waters over the country. The single outlet is insufficient to relieve the excess, but there is no other opening into the sea, and the flood remains until it soaks away or dries up.

As the rain ceases and the rivers contract, only the water near their channels flows out, that which is farther off being shut in by the dikes and banks around the fields it has covered; the narrow roads are also unserviceable, as they are usually from three to eight feet below the general level, and at such times become mere ditches. These disadvantages of this flat plain have been really much increased by the efforts of the people to confine the rivers in their beds by diking up the banks, for the soil brought down has silted up the beds, and the superabundant waters cannot regain the channel. The mountains where the rivers rise are bare of trees, and nothing, of course, there detains the falling showers, so that there seems to be no remedy for the evils and disasters which come in the train of these heavy rains to those who live in the lowlands. One compensation is found, indeed, to the latter in the large crops which their fields produce when the water has dried off. At this time, ten weeks since the rain ceased, it is estimated that more than half of the submerged region has become dry; but I can obtain no reasonable estimate of the area still under water. Happily the spring crop of wheat was large, and the supply of rice from the south is now brought in steamers, and is more and better than when the grain-junks brought it, so that the distress is not likely to imperil life so much as in 1871.

For three successive years have the districts around Tien-tsin been flooded. The authorities and people exerted themselves manfully to preserve the dikes near the city, but their efforts were fruitless just at the highest point of the freshet, and, most sad to add, only a fortnight before the time of the harvest when the crevasse occurred and the waters spread over the fields, destroying the millet, pulse, and sorghum, and sweeping away the mud-houses. The loss of life was not great. This region is still covered and the people are searching its lagoons and deep places for fish, which find abundance of food there. It will not be dry until the warm spring comes.

I have deemed that you would be interested in these details of the calamitous flood in this province, as explanatory of Mr. Knight’s dispatch. It is a great wonder to me that the people are so quiet amid their misery, but they know that their officers sympathize with them somewhat, and large supplies of grain have been distributed near the [Page 217] city, though necessarily quite inadequate to relieve all. The miserable poverty of the great bulk of the population, their ignorance and inertness, with the selfishness which dwells in all classes, and makes it hard to obtain relief, all combine to increase the misery, disease, and sufferings which follow in the train of so widespread a flood in this plain. Nor do I see how the surplus waters can be discharged without a new outlet is dug into the gulf; and this, I fear, would be choked with silt before it had been long in use, even if the resources of the government were sufficient to make it.

I have, &c.,

[Inclosure 1 in No. 10.]

Mr. Knight to Mr. Williams.

Sir: I have the honor to address you on a troublesome subject, and one which, with the exception of the local excitements created by the Tien-tsin massacre, I have been happily free from since the year 1866, namely, the disturbed condition of this province, and the almost utter paralyzation of the traffic to and from this port with the interior, arising from the presence of numerous bands of brigands which occupy the country between this port-town and Moukden.

The district represented by this consulate has ever been infested with lawless roving bands of more or less importance, but the prompt and skillful management of his excellency Wen-siang with a large foreign-drilled or armed force north of Moukden, during the winter of 1865–’66, and the spring following, and the just and retributive action of his excellency Ching-lin and associates, who then held-office at this port, during the summer of 1866, appeared to have scattered them to follow their habits in other parts, or to lead a more honest life. Small companies, it is true, have appeared from time to time at different points during the cold seasons; one band approached so near this place last winter that some of the residents were obliged to give up an arranged excursion to a neighboring spot, but both merchandise and travelers usually escaped plunder by the employment of an armed escort guard, the members of which were under some arrangement with the robbers. But I may add that no one, to my knowledge, has ever disputed the repeated assertion that these selfsame escort guards themselves often resort to robbing when out of escort employment.

However the case may be, the occurrences of the past two months have served to place matters, as regards the safety of life and jeopardy of trade in this province, in a position quite as disastrous and fraught with anxiety as subsequent events proved had been justly apprehended during this month eight years ago. The main and immediate cause of such a state of things may be attributed to the excessive rains with which this quarter has been visited of late. The native whose memory extends back half a century testifies that no such rain-storms within his experience have fallen upon this land. For two months, with but short and infrequent intervals, the country has been drenched with showers only equaled in the tropics, until not only is the country extending from this port-town southward to the hills under water, but the entire district between this and Moukden, and especially along the basin of the Sian, and the most important high-roads are so flooded that large boats may depart from the river-channels, and, in many directions, reach their destination by a straight course. Thus an extent of country not overestimated at 1,000 square miles is inundated, in which I need scarcely mention the crops are entirely ruined. In fact the staple harvests of beans and millet are decayed, and the stalks of the latter having floated down the swollen river may be met with far out in the gulf. These are just the circumstances most certain to tempt those in this country who are at all naturally inclined to predatory habits, and the comparative success of the earlier formed bands attract to their ranks large numbers of those who, through loss of crops, and homes perhaps, soon become demoralized and reckless.

Consequently, the condition of this province compared with former years is, beyond dispute, as I now state. The possibility of transporting merchandise from this port to the north, or of bringing produce hither from Moukden, without an almost certainty of seizure, is about as complete as if war was being carried on between the two points. Trade in imports is thus absolutely checked. In former years the robbers contented themselves with exacting only sycee or opium; now they demand any and everything [Page 218] on which they can raise the smallest amount of cash. Formerly they roved about on horseback, and there was some chance of the trains of carts escaping them; now they occupy the country along the banks of the Liao, which, under the circumstances, is the only course of travel, and a free passage without an encounter is not expected. Until lately the common escort-guard could come to some arrangement with the brigands by which the trains under their convoy were exempt from plunder; but now the brigands are strangers, and too eager for any division of spoils. A few years ago the provincial troops, the escort-guard, and the robbers were armed alike with the matchlocks of the country; now, there can be little question but that the latter have many in their ranks who are well provided with foreign rifles. All trade for the moment is so obstructed that, but for the large stores of produce at this port-town, not a single commercial transaction would take place. And, finally, the imperial maritime revenue has fallen off, and must show a large reduction for this year. Now, the fact is not to be overlooked, that loss of trade alone is a most serious matter to all concerned here, and with such a lawless and ruinous condition as I have related, both foreigners and natives alike believe they are justified in feeling apprehensive that life and property, unless some prompt and extraordinary measures are adopted by the government, will be imperiled the coming winter.

The statement above of my belief that the robbers are now provided with foreign arms may require some explanation. I can sustain it, however, by the knowledge I have long possessed and often reported, that the southern native compradors of this place are in the habit of secretly inquiring of masters of vessels if they would part with their stands of guns or pistols. Although, with every desire, I have been unable to detect with accompanying proofs a single transaction, no one hereabouts doubts for a moment but that large numbers of foreign weapons have been so obtained, and sent to the interior for sale. And my opinion on the subject is now confirmed since Mr. Taintor, the commissioner of customs, was, on the 21st instant, while sailing along the Lian on a surveying trip toward Sin-mun-tim, suddenly attacked by a number of men at a point about twenty miles beyond San-cha-ho, some of whom fired at him with foreign guns.

This band being strongly positioned for attack or retreat on a long island, and having four boats at their command, made several running attempts to capture Mr. Taintor, and his escape was a narrow one. He was forced to fire several return shots in self-defense, some of which one may be permitted to hope taught them a lasting lesson.

This dispatch has already transgressed the limit I looked forward to at the commencement, but I am most anxious to provide all that is necessary and true, in order that you may with ease convince the imperial government officials that it is imperative they should take immediate steps to avert in this quarter what may be worse than already prevails.

It is barely possible, so much do provincial officials dislike of all things to report unfavorably to Peking, that the Tsun-li Yamen may reply that they are not in receipt of corroborative information from their own officials. But I think not, for I know that the Tao-tai of this port and the Tartar general of Moukden are in active correspondence, apparently as to which shall forward troops here or there. And this morning I learn that the large Samshoo-Hongo, of the city of Newchwang, have returned their licenses to the officials with a joint letter saying that they pay their annual tax to Peking, but, since from want of protection they cannot manufacture and export their Samshoo with safety, they can do no business, and their license is without value. Interest is awakened in every quarter as to what steps shall be taken for our security during the ensuing winter, and I should fail in my duty did I not bring forward to your notice the several suggestions. The English residents have petitioned their minister for either a gunboat or a company of marines, to be stationed here until the next spring; while the commissioner of customs intends to inquire of the inspector-general, Mr. Hart, as to the practicability of one of the smaller Chinese gunboats being retained here.

Certainly both ideas are good, and such as are not lightly to be abandoned. For in the event of this port being attacked by a large force, as was indeed the case with the city of Newchwang, (situated but thirty miles distant,) in 1886, it is possible that the resident Tao-tai’s 500 foreign-drilled troops might be required to await his orders for the defense of the native quarter, while the gunboats or marines would especially protect the foreign settlement.

My own suggestions, however, in addition to the above one, are:

  • First, that the imperial government be recommended to instruct the high officials of this province to provide, say, three or four thousand stand of rifles and ammunition, which shall be distributed to the proper officers of the several cities and towns, according to their size and importance, including the cities of Newchwang, Hatching, and Kai-chow, which are within the thirty miles radius of this port.
  • Second, that the Tao-tai of this port be instructed not to move the 500 foreign-drilled troops belonging to and stationed at this port, outside the limits, except for immediate purposes of defense. My proposition, it is true, calls for a certain expenditure [Page 219] on the part of these provincial authorities, hut it will be a comparatively small expenditure if the expense is made to fall pro rata on each city or town thus supplied with such real means of defense; and in fact the outlay will not be greater than that the British government has more than once submitted to, with proverbial liberality and solicitude for its subjects and interests, during past winters at this port.

For my own part I willingly acknowledge that the active steps taken by the imperial government within my experience in 1866, make me feel assured that it has every desire and intention to maintain peace and security and uphold confidence in this part of the empire, but I fear its habitual delays.

I now leave it for you, sir, to deal with the subject, and the government’s best plan is to forward its orders by speedy courier to the Tartar general at Moukden.

Confident that my reputation will acquit me of being charged as an alarmist, I will address you again should events warrant it.

I have, &c.,

  • S. Wells Williams,
    Chargé d’Affaires for the United States, Peking.
[Inclosure 2, in No. 10.—Translation.]

Prince Kung to Mr. Williams.

Prince Kung, chief secretary of state for foreign affairs, herewith makes a reply.

I received your excellency’s dispatch relating to the local bands of marauders about Newchwang, which were robbing and levying black-mail at the stations they had lawlessly established; and, as I have already informed yon, sent orders immediately, in response to your request, to the authorities to adopt measures for suppressing and punishing these men.

On the 2d instant I received a dispatch from the superintendent of the northern ports, covering a report from the intendant at Newchwang, stating as follows:

“Careful examination has been made for many days past, and no unauthorized stations can be found where black-mail has been extorted from wayfarers and traders. Formerly, as it was currently reported here that in Liao-yang, in those parts of the prefecture lying along the river Liao, were found many robbers, who waylaid travelers and stopped the grain on its way to market, letting them go when their demands were complied with, I immediately requested the military authorities to detail some troops to arrest them, and issued my orders to all the local magistrates of every grade at once to exert themselves to take and punish all offenders. I have now heard that the marauders have all dispersed, the roads and rivers are all open, and travelers or traders can everywhere pass as usual. As I report these things I may add that general orders have been given to the various magistrates and the foreign-drilled troops, to really exert themselves to maintain order and arrest evil-doers.”

Having received the above, I can do no better than to send a copy of it for your information.

His Excellency S. Wells Williams,
United States Chargé d’Affaires ad interim.