Captain Charles Barker

Persona Naval Press is pleased to welcome the second two articles from Marjorie Rear, MA (Oxon) who has edited the letters of her husband's ancestor, Captain Charles Barker RN, 1811-1860.

Free Trade in the Far East

A number of letters written home by Captain Charles Barker, RN (1811-1860) are preserved in Sheffield Archives with other family papers.[1] There are frustratingly long gaps in the sequence as they were obviously handed around the extended family and not all returned to the care of his mother, Sarah. They do, of course, contain a great deal of personal material, but there is, however, enough to make interesting reading for students of naval - and imperial - history during this period when the Royal Navy has been described as “in transition”.[2]

In the final stages of his career Charles Barker found himself involved in the latest hostilities with China and with diplomatic negotiations with Japan.

The fundamental reason for the various hostilities which broke out between Britain and China in the period 1838-60 was economic, and the Royal Navy played a considerable part in pressurising China, Japan and Burma to open up their lucrative markets to Europeans. The Treaty of Nanking, signed in 1842, should have dealt with the problem in respect of China, but the Imperial government continued to block the agreed opening of the specified ports. This resulted in two distinct British operations to put pressure on the Imperial government, the first at Canton in the south, provoked by the Arrow incident, and then the attacks on the forts guarding the River Peiho, which led via Tientsin to Peking itself. The Canton operation was more or less over by the time Charles Barker and Retribution, then off the coast of Peru, had orders in March 1858 to proceed to Hong Kong. He sailed via Honolulu and the Bashi islands north of Formosa (“grand total in a straight line 10098 miles”), arriving at his destination on June 12th. He seemed generally pessimistic about his new posting, reporting the situation thus:

Here we found only “Nankin” [Commander Keith Stewart] and a gun boat, the Admiral having taken to the north all the ships which could be spared from the Canton River. Of the action and taking of the forts at the entrance of the Peiho you will have seen accounts. It appears to have been a gallant affair, and the Chinamen stuck to their guns well for nine hours, but aimed them badly. By our last accounts two high mandarins had been sent from Peking by the Emperor to treat for peace and sincerely do I hope such may be the result, though I cannot but feel great doubts on the subject. If so, all will have been right judging by the result. If not, we shall, I fear, find we have attempted too much with an inadequate force in attacking the two extremities of so large an empire. At Canton affairs go on badly. Instead of matters settling down quietly and life becoming more secure as we have had possession of the place a longer time, the reverse is the case and now people have to go in parties of at least four, otherwise they run great risk of being kidnapped for the sake of the high reward offered for heads. Several have thus lost their lives . . . The troops are much overworked and becoming very sickly and I fear the mortality at Canton will be fearful before the hot weather is over.

At least there was some relief from the heat. Barker comments ironically that:

The Admiral allows the dress most applicable to the climate, light jackets, pith hats, etc. Indeed he seems to think a live officer out of uniform more valuable than a dead one in.

It was a further relief to be summoned to the north, even if it was hard work embarking 100 men of the Marine Artillery and 70 Chinese coolies with all their supplies, although there was a short period of worry when one of the marines was found to have cholera. Retribution sailed in convoy with Nemesis, Fury and Assistance (a troop ship), anchoring in the Gulf of Pechili on the 30th July.[3] Barker found already there a large force of English and French ships which were later joined by two American ships and one Russian. Again Barker found he had missed the action: the successful attack on the Taku forts which guarded the Peiho river mouth. The squadron had progressed upriver to Tientsin and a peace treaty was signed there on June 27th. The day after he had arrived Barker took the opportunity of travelling by a gunboat up to Tientsin, which he found was “a miserable dirty place with narrow streets and poor houses, but

. . . a most important position, cutting off all water communication with Peking, which, I believe, is suffering much in consequence . . . It was most interesting to see the site of the late gallant and successful attack and to hear the various operations described by those who had been engaged in them. The position was strong and the forts, if manned by skilful gunners ought to have defied our gallant squadron of small craft. The bar effectually prevents the entrance of any vessel of above thirteen feet water. The river is about the width of the Thames at Oxford, but winds very much, the water a brownish yellow and very thick. I called immediately on the Admiral [Sir Michael Seymour] and was most cordially received; indeed he seems just the kind good man I had expected to find him. I also found an old mess mate in the Flag Captain [William King Hall in “Calcutta”], and a shipmate in the Commander of the “Coromandel” whose gallant behaviour in the late attack is the general theme of admiration. He was a supernumerary Mid. in “Firebird”, his name [Thomas] Saumarez.

The squadron eventually withdrew from the Gulf of Pechili and Lord Elgin decided to take the opportunity of a treaty having been agreed with the Chinese to embark on a diplomatic mission to Japan. He would travel in Furious, which would be followed by a sizeable squadron including Retribution: “I suppose the presence of so large a force is to be considered in the light of a persuasive argument, not a hostile demonstration,” commented Barker who was to be Senior Officer.

Retribution had to sail via Shanghai in order to take on coals, towing two gunboats: “One has no coal and a defective engine, the other coal but a boiler she cannot depend upon for more than 12 hours at a time in salt water, so they are a pair of cripples.” Since Retribution herself was short of coal and what little she had needed to be conserved for the journey upriver, it was altogether a tedious and slow journey by sail only. The ship must have been crowded, since she still carried not only the group of Marine Artillery (later transferred to Pique) but also now about a hundred coolies “who live on deck and eat rice from morning to night”.

Matters on board during the voyage from Shanghai were not improved by the number of sick on board (given on August 17th as 44 and on the 25th as 50). The day previously the ship’s surgeon, John Sole, had been put under arrest for “unbecoming conduct at his mess and disobedience to the orders of Lt. Jones”, but had then had to be released “so far as to allow of his duty as surgeon of the ship.”

By August 18th, Retribution, towing the gun-boat Lee, had arrived off Yedo, having called at Nagasaki and Simoda..

Here we are lying off a port never as far as I am aware before visited by any foreign vessel and of which little is known. But the “Furious”, having less water than ourselves, led us up in perfect safety and we anchored last Thursday, the Ambassador having determined on coming at once to headquarters instead of anchoring at a port about ten miles off where the Russians are lying.

Barker gave his relatives a full account of his visit to Yedo, which he found most pleasant and interesting, as well as of his presentation of an official letter from Lord Clarendon to the Emperor’s ministers and the reception which followed. He also, on August 26th - the day the Treaty of Amity & Commerce with the Japanese was signed - presented the Emperor screw steam schooner to the Japanese (a gift from Queen Victoria to the Emperor[4]), which they re-christened “The Dragon of the Air”. That day the ship’s log reported that Barker received Lord Elgin and the Japanese Commissioner on board. When they left an hour later, Lord Elgin received a 19-gun salute and the Commissioner a nicely-calculated 17 guns.

By the end of September Retribution had anchored at Shanghai and remained at the disposal of Lord Elgin. The sick list continued to grow and this time Barker himself fell ill, recovering after some time ashore. Lord Elgin, it seemed, was “anxious to go many hundred miles, say seven, up the Yang-tze-kiang . . . it will be a very interesting trip, but as no ship has ever been there, I do not know if we can get so far.” It might sound as if this were almost to be a pleasure cruise, but the purpose was ostensibly to investigate suitable trading ports and trading conditions in anticipation of more detailed terms of the treaty which had just been signed in general form at Tientsin, while showing that the Chinese had, in principle, conceded the free opening of the river. The squadron was to consist of Furious (Captain Sherard Osborn), carrying Lord Elgin, Retribution, Cruizer (Commander John Bythesea[5]) and the gun boats, Lee (Lt. William Jones) and Dove (Lt. Charles Bullock). At the personal invitation of Lord Elgin, Commander John Ward of the surveying ship, Acteon, also joined the enterprise. While waiting to set off, the naval vessels took the opportunity for gun exercise. Barker was not sanguine that peace with China had been achieved and had ordered that all the ships were to be at action stations at night.

It was known that the Taiping rebels[6] controlled Nanking and its neighbourhood, but Barker, at least, did not expect them to attack the squadron which set sail on November 8th, 1858. Lord Elgin (writing after the events) declared:

I, of course, resolved that no human power and no physical obstacle which could be surmounted should arrest my progress. It was obviously essential to the prestige of England that a measure of this description, if undertaken at all, should be carried out: I could not therefore recognize in the rebels a right to stop me, nor could I take any step which they might construe into such an admission. Subject to this limitation, I was ready to give them every assurance that our movement was of a peaceful character, and that we did not intend to take part, one way or another, in the civil war to which they were parties. . . . The naval officers by whom I was accompanied were fully cognisant of these views.[7]

What occurred as the squadron approached the rebel positions at Nanking seems to have been the result of a misunderstanding on both sides. Just before 2 p.m. on November 20th Barker sent the Lee ahead. She had on board her the Chinese scholar, Thomas Wade, and the intention was to make contact with the rebels and emphasise the squadron’s neutrality. The shore batteries, however, having no idea of the ships’ nationality or what their intentions were, fired on her. At 3.30 p.m. Retribution cleared for action. At 4 p.m. Furious and Cruizer hoisted flags of truce (a meaningless gesture to the rebel gunners) and moved up towards Lee, but all were fired on at once and, at 4.45, all four forts on both sides of the river opened fire. This fire was heavily returned while the squadron passed. By 5.15 the rebel guns had been silenced and the squadron ceased firing. Retribution’s log records that Midshipman G.A. Birch lost his right arm, Thomas Paull, Yeoman of Signals, lost his right leg, and one of the marines was severely wounded in the exchange. The ships had sustained considerable structural damage. At 5.50 p.m. the squadron anchored one mile above Nankin, presumably to consider their situation.

Lord Elgin reported[8] that “the naval officers accompanying me held the opinion, which I entirely shared, that it would not do to leave this matter where it then stood.” At dawn the following morning, therefore, the squadron returned to the forts. As Barker reported home:

The “Cruizer” took the small fort on the North bank and soon silenced the small opposition made. The other ships attacked in succession the forts and guns on the south bank and much to our surprise received no return from the first and very little from the second fort or line of guns. Having reduced the forts to a mass of ruins and silenced all opposition – not even a musket being fired in return - I was on the point of ordering the marines and small arms men to land and destroy the guns, when I received a message from Lord E, requesting I would not proceed to such extremities as would leave the place at the mercy of the Imperialists as we had nothing to do with their quarrels and he did not wish to have the responsibility of the massacre which would follow the re-capture of the City. Feeling, therefore, that we had done enough to punish them for their audacity and folly in firing on us and to teach them better than to do it again, I made the signal to cease firing and to proceed up the river.

It would seem that the “punishment” attack, for which Barker has been blamed in some quarters as exceeding his authority,[9] came about from a general misapprehension on the part of Lord Elgin and his advisers, both political and naval, about the rebels. There certainly might have been more effort made to make contact with the leaders before the squadron attempted to pass Nanking. The rebel soldiers in the forts, who were daily expecting attack from a fleet of Imperial Chinese ships also known to be in the area, can be blamed rather less for their confusion, but certainly suffered a severe penalty for it. While Retribution was left at anchor at Kieu-hien, being unable to proceed further because of her draught, leaving the rest of the squadron to proceed upstream, Barker received a delegation from Nankin who “expressed great regret for what had happened which was ‘through the mistake of those in charge of the guns, who had been decapitated by order of the Prince’”. The delegation presented a letter from the “Celestial Emperor” to his “foreign brethren from the west” (a copy of the translation of this[10] by Alexander Wylie is among the Barker papers) which was described by Lord Elgin as “a sort of theological rhapsody in hephthemimeral verse, and altogether a very strange production.” It might have been thought civil, not to mention helpful, to reply, but no acknowledgement of the letter was made. Fortunately, the apology and an opening of communication with the rebels at Nanking via Mr. Wade apparently ended this particular incident.[11] Disputes and difficulties continued with the Chinese imperial government, but Charles Barker would not be involved. On Tuesday, February 1st, 1859 the ship’s log noted “Invalided C. Barker, Captain. Discharged him to the Supernumerary List.” The symptoms Barker mentioned make it clear that he had suffered a stroke. He died on May 28, 1860, at the home of his brother in London.

It is difficult to know whether Charles Barker’s career was a typical one. One suspects that for every famous nineteenth-century naval officer who made his name in the heat of battle or amongst the dangers of exploration and survey, there were several whose names have no special significance to historians, but who, nevertheless, made an important and solid contribution to the work of the Royal Navy all over the world. I hope that making more widely known the existence of Charles Barker’s letters will contribute to our knowledge of that work.


  1. The letters and papers of Charles Barker, Sheffield Archives, Bar D 801/69-110. The quotations in this article come from Bar D 801/100-110 and 801/54, 57, 58.
  2. Michael Lewis, The Navy in Transition: a Social History 1814-1864, Hodder & Stoughton, 1965.
  3. The date given in the letter does not seem to coincide with dates in the ship's log [PRO ref. ADM 53/6611].
  4. Barker states that he heard later that the Emperor had died on the day of their arrival, but fortunately the death had not been announced, since public mourning would have curtailed the ceremonies, etc.
  5. According to A.L. Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to 1900, Vol. VI, and other sources. However Barker identifies her captain as "William Hammond's brother", i.e. Andrew Snape Hammond.
  6. For full details of this remarkable movement, see e.g. Lee Johnson (ed.), The Taiping Rebellion 1851-66, Osprey Publishing, 1994.
  7. Elgin to Malmesbury, no. 228, Shanghai, January 5, 1859, "Papers Respecting Lord Elgin's Special Mission to China and Japan, 1857-1859", 1859, Parliamentary Papers or Blue Book, IX, 444. Quoted in D. Bonner-Smith & E.W.R. Lumby, The Second China War 1856-1860, Royal Naval Records Society, Vol. XCV, 1954.
  8. Op.cit.
  9. In e.g. Stephen Uhalley, Jr., "Lord Elgin & the Taipings", Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 10 (1970).
  10. Alexander Wylie, of the London Missionary Society, was living aboard Retribution at this point.
  11. In a letter to Barker dated 23 December 1858 Captain Sherard Osborn, explaining that Furious would be marooned in the upper reaches of the Yang-tse until the following May owing to the unexpected fall of the river, mentions being fired on by other rebel-held positions and responding in kind.

Marjorie Rear MA (Oxon) May 2008