This Day In History: The British and French Burn The Summer Palace in Peking (1860)

On this date in history, the British burned and looted the Imperial Summer Palace. The British troops occupying Peking, China destroyed  the Yuanmingyuan, the fabulous summer Palace built by the Manchu emperors in the 1700s.  The British and the French burned the Palace in retaliation for the murder of some their envoys by the Chinese. The British had occupied with France, the capital of the Manchu or Ching Empire, Peking, after a series of victories in the Second Opium War. The Opium Wars were an effort by the British and other western powers to end China’s isolation from the world and especially they sought to open up their ports to western ships for trade, especially for opium. The Chinese distrusted the westerners and wanted to prohibit opium imports into their Empire, which was devastating their society’s social fabric. The led to the First Opium War which was a victory for the British. A treaty was signed between the Chinese and the British that allowed the later to trade freely in China. However, the Chinese hated the treaty and as western influence increased in their country they broke the treaty. This led to the Second Opium War, where Britain and France fought with the Imperial Chinese army and navy. The western forces with their superior military technology overcame the Chinese.

French troops during the Second Opium War

The British and French force under Lord Elgin was able to march to the outskirts of Peking. A group of British and French negotiators, escorted by some Indian cavalry sought to persuade the Chinese to surrender without further conflict, however, the group were seized by the Chinese who tortured and killed the negotiators and their guards.  In total, some twenty Britons and French officers  and Indians troopers were killed by the Chinese in a particularly barbaric way. The men had been seized despite them meeting  the Chinese negotiators led by a member of the Chinese Royal Family, under a flag of truce. The Anglo-French force was outraged and the British commander Elgin ordered that the Old Summer Palace be burned. The Emperor was not in the Palace at this time.  The Anglo-French expeditionary force also appeared, to have burned the Palace to deter the Chinese from further resistance.  Soon after the war ended and China was forced to sign a new treaty that granted western nations some Chinese ports and more trading concessions. This was seen as a national humiliation by the Chinese and is still a very sensitive issue to this day.

In the 1870s, a Chinese Dowager Empress rebuilt the palace and its stunning gardens, renaming it “Garden of Good Health and Harmony.” In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, the palace was burned again by Western troops, and it remained in ruins until the Chinese Communists rebuilt it. It is now a popular tourist attraction in China.