Mr. Williams to Mr. Fish.
Peking , November 18, 1873. (Received January 27, 1874.)
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.,