William Mesny was born on the English Channel Island of Jersey and ran off to sea as a boy. In 1860, at the age of 18, he jumped ship in Shanghai, beginning an adventure that would see him become a smuggler, a gun-runner, a fixer for European expeditions and a general in the imperial Chinese military.

He travelled the length and breadth of China at a time when the interior was something of a mystery to foreigners, along the way picking up the language, marrying a 16-year-old concubine, writing opinionated newspaper articles, getting fat, collecting plants and trying to convince sceptical government officials of the sense in developing railways, steamship travel and other foreign innovations.

Drawing on a range of sources – not least Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany: A Text Book of Notes on China and the Chinese, a weekly magazine the adventurer began publishing in 1895 – author David Leffman has created a lively account of an unusual man: The Mercenary Mandarin.

In 1862, towards the end of the bloody Taiping rebellion, which pitted Christian movement the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace against the Qing dynasty, Mesny found himself in Hankou, Hubei province. He had recently sailed the Hai-lung Wang, a cargo junk, up from Shanghai along the pirate-infested Yangtze river, had been employed for a brief time as a construction-site manager in the town’s expanding foreign concession and was considering availing himself of a newly inaugurated steamboat passenger service to return to the coast. Below, an edited excerpt from The Mercenary Mandarin explains what happened next. 

MESNY DIDN’T CATCH the new ferry downstream. Instead, he accepted a lucrative position captaining three locally built cargo ships down to Shanghai, where they could be sold for a decent profit. He would also be carrying a consignment of munitions for General Zuo Zongtang, then busy fighting the Taipings in coastal Zhejiang province. Zuo was another up-and-coming official, whose early failure in the civil service exams had been followed, relatively late in life, by an unexpectedly successful military career. Mesny greatly admired Zuo and made much mileage in the Miscellany about this early connection with him, however tenuous it might have been.

There were some concerns about the loyalties of the largely Cantonese crew so a sizeable bond was asked of the shipping agents to ensure that the valuable cargo wouldn’t “accidentally” end up in Taiping hands.

Mesny’s companion this time was an invalid passenger named “Portuguese Joe”, who proved to be fine company, with a talent for spinning amusing yarns and being a crack shot with a pistol.

There seem to have been apprehensions about the journey even before it began in early October, just after Mesny’s birthday. This was his fourth blockade run, and the number four – which in Chinese sounds similar to the word for “death” – was considered unlucky. The stretch of river between Shanghai and Zhenjiang was, as Mesny already knew, swarming with buccaneers, and friends warned him not to set off without mounting a light cannon on each ship, which would at least make any raiders think twice about attacking. For some reason Mesny ignored their advice, despite carrying only his useless musket and even after four Cantonese members of his crew asked pointedly if the vessels were armed – a likely sign that they were in league with pirates along the way.

Zhenjiang was reached without mishap, but a day upstream from there, on November 2, Mesny found his little flotilla uncomfortably isolated far out on the wide river. The crew also seemed unusually subdued, as if sensing approaching trouble. Sure enough, a heavily armed Taiping fleet hove into view and rapidly intercepted them.

Mesny tried to bluff the rebels away with his decrepit gun, but in the end had to surrender without a fight. They were all taken ashore to the tiny south-bank port of Fushan and chained up in a makeshift cell.

After sword-sharpening theatrics and threats of violence designed to terrify their captives, the Taipings set Mesny’s ransom at a princely $100,000, and brought him before the local commander where he refused to bow down, proclaiming pompously that “Englishmen kneel only to God”. Impressed with his gall, the commander unchained Mesny and Joe and offered them dinner, at which Mesny further charmed his host by playing Chinese tunes on an accordion. The evening ended in uproar, with Mesny’s captors trying to outdo each other in promising him wives and military commands.

The next morning, however, all goodwill seemed to have evaporated. First, Joe was almost cut down by a guard he had startled, then Mesny’s cook was dragged in trembling, having been caught trying to escape. Some quick talking saved him from execution – though not a sound flogging – but Mesny learned that the Cantonese, whom everyone had mistrusted so much, had all been beheaded overnight (although, if they were in league with the Taipings, this could have been a lie to explain why they weren’t being held prisoner too).

Mesny further irked his captors by refusing to write a ransom demand, at which the commander exploded, threatening him with decapitation as well if the money wasn’t paid within 10 days. Then he relented, introduced Mesny to his wives and daughter, and again brought up the subject of marriage.

These mood swings give the impression that the Taipings were beginning to feel that they might just have bitten off more than they could chew; they didn’t want to release their foreign prisoners in case they turned out to be valuable, but were unsure of how to treat them.

The following day, Mesny, Joe and their entourage were escorted south of the Yangtze to Changshu, an elegant canal town strategically sited on a waterway between the Yangtze and the Grand Canal and within striking distance of both Suzhou and Shanghai. Changshu was ringed by an eight-metre-high stone wall running right up along the wooded slopes of Yu Shan, a ridge to the west; the defences had been built during the Ming dynasty as protection against Japanese pirates who had been sailing up the Yangtze and raiding inland. Rising over everything was Fang Ta, a tall pagoda which balanced the town’s defective feng shui. Ideally, cities should be protected from the “unlucky” north direction by high hills, with water to the south to bring along good fortune. Changshu’s hills were to the west and there was a lake to the southeast, but the off-centre placement of this pagoda restored the perfect balance.

Some quick talking saved him from execution – though not a sound flogging – but Mesny learned that the Cantonese, whom everyone had mistrusted so much, had all been beheaded overnight 
The Mercenary Mandarin

 

At Changshu, Mesny was handed over to General Hou Guansheng, a young Taiping commander from Guangxi known as the “Forest King”. Hou’s whitewashed, stone and timber mansion still stands in a narrow, mildewed back lane just southwest of Changshu’s city centre.

There, Mesny was provided with a handsome suite of rooms, had his cook’s injuries treated by a doctor and was generally welcomed warmly as the prospective son-in-law of a Taiping officer. The background to his capture was revealed, too: the Taipings had been ordered by their leaders in Nanjing not to touch foreign vessels, fearing reprisals from modern gunboats, but a few rogue commanders – mostly urged on by Cantonese pirates – couldn’t resist the temptation.

Though the marriage offer was soon withdrawn, Mesny made himself useful fixing clocks and music boxes for the ladies of Hou’s household, and was taken on as an English teacher for the general’s three children.

He also set to work on improving his Chinese, picking up the principles of writing characters fairly quickly, though the language’s tones proved difficult to master. For a native English speaker, trying to separate emotion from tone is one of the toughest aspects of learning Chinese; presumably it’s made even more difficult if you’re being held hostage under threat of execution.

Mesny spent his spare time repairing and cleaning weapons for soldiers and various Taiping bigwigs, and after a fortnight had made himself so amenable that he was formally inducted as a yang xiongdi, or foreign brother, and presented with the scarlet sash and turban of the Taiping outfit.

Meanwhile, Changshu’s magistrate summoned the foreigners for an interview. Mesny was ordered by Hou to feign sickness and stay behind, but Joe went along and found two more Western prisoners – presumably other captured sailors – living in the courthouse as “guests”. The magistrate admitted that the British Consul in Shanghai was asking anxiously after Mesny and now wanted to send him back, worried about the consequences if he was found at Changshu. In fact, British gunboats were already on their way to shell Fushan and demand Mesny’s release, but the Taipings spread a rumour, reported in China’s English-language press, that he had been hacked to death and his remains fed to dogs. The story was believed and the gunboats went home, but Hou wasn’t taking any chances: the next day Mesny, Joe and their servants found themselves accompanying the general on a trip southeast to Suzhou.

Suzhou was a cultured city: beautiful women, whitewashed mansions backing onto a grid of narrow canals, elegant humpbacked bridges and exquisitely designed gardens with poetic names such as “Blue Wave Pavilion” and “Lion Forest”. Coming ashore here in early December, Mesny recognised two foreign arms dealers outside the gates (one, Frank Philip de La Cour, was also from Jersey), but was prevented from talking to them.

The city had become the headquarters for the Taipings’ eastern campaigns and seat of its commander-in-chief, the “Loyal Prince” Li Xiucheng, who had captured Suzhou from the Imperialists two years earlier. Li had since been campaigning around Shanghai and in Anhui, so wasn’t there to meet them in person, but resident Taiping forces turned out in Hou’s honour, lining the city walls and cramming the canals with war craft. A succession of grizzled, battle-scarred veterans, who had followed the rebellion since its earliest days in Guangxi province, came to Hou’s mansion to pay their respects.

Mesny was treated well, cocooned in luxurious apartments and attended by a bevy of “bewitchingly beautiful” maids; predictably, he found his heart melting and eyes swimming with joy in their company. Once again he occupied his time by repairing mechanical trinkets for the women, who he found well-bred and unusually chatty, and all with unbound feet.

After another fortnight of this comfortable but dull captivity, Joe grew despondent and went to seed, letting his hair grow untrimmed and becoming disagreeable; he also smoked tobacco, in defiance of a Taiping ban on the practice. Hou had left Suzhou to continue the war elsewhere and Mesny never saw him again, but his younger brother – also, confusingly, called General Hou – proved equally friendly. He quizzed Mesny mercilessly about foreign politics and berated him for the actions of his countrymen, saying that, as fellow Christians, the foreigners should aid the Taipings’ struggle against the Imperial forces instead of siding with the government. Surely the British must have been beaten by the Manchus? If not, why were they now fighting their battles for them?

In retrospect, it seems likely that Mesny and Joe were being kept in Suzhou as a bargaining chip in case the Taiping cause failed, from where it would be easy to negotiate with British authorities at Shanghai about releasing them. Mesny, however, was worried that the Taipings would take him to war against British or French forces, in which case he decided to escape at the earliest opportunity. Others were more loyal to the rebel cause; the Englishman George Smith fought on the Taiping side when Suzhou fell a year later, and left behind diaries describing the siege.

As the Taipings began to lose their grip on eastern China, Hou Guansheng wrote to his younger brother with instructions to move the prisoners to his base at Baoying.

Displaying a sometimes shaky notion of distance – though to be fair, he was writing decades after the event – Mesny located Baoying “not far from” Zhenjiang, though it lies more than 100km north of the Yangtze along the Grand Canal.

Under normal circumstances, this would have been a pleasant enough journey through a gentle rural landscape of flat fields glowing in the sunshine, and dappled, treelined roads raised above the flood levels on embankments.

Here the canal was some 100 metres wide, an impressive work, plied by low-lying barges, with awnings stretched tight over their cargoes.

Unfortunately, Mesny, Joe and the cook made the trip to Baoying in mid-December, a bitterly cold prospect, passing through what by now must have been familiar scenes of devastation and war. At Changzhou, their vessels were fired on by Imperial forces; at Tanyang, the city walls had been destroyed and human skeletons littered the landscape, remnants of a battle won years earlier by the Taipings. Approaching Baoying they were met by Hou’s forces and taken to his camp, where they learned that the Imperials were expected to launch an all-out attack within the next few days.

Mesny witnessed a sham battle enacted by Taiping veterans and was surprised to see that fewer than half were armed with modern firearms, most making do with swords, spears and tridents. These tough old soldiers, mostly from the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi where the Taiping rebellion had begun, were devout Christians after their own fashion, but locally recruited troops weren’t in the least interested in the foreign religion and followed the Taipings for their own reasons. After the performance, eight captured Imperial soldiers were beheaded.

Mesny spent two months at Baoying being entertained by military bigwigs and fowling off on his own in the desolate countryside, though it was grim work: corpses were tumbled everywhere, some torn apart by animals, others with neat pieces of flesh cut out of their arms and thighs by starving peasants.

The expected assault on Baoying never eventuated, but then came news that Changshu, Mesny’s first place of captivity, had been handed over to the Imperialists by the same magistrate who had interviewed Joe, and the town had become a military base for threatening Taiping-held Suzhou. Mesny was soon forbidden to leave Baoying without an escort, had his notebooks confiscated and was banned from keeping a journal.

As Imperial victories began to mount, supplies of fresh food dried up and soon the Taipings were reduced to sending out scavenging parties to prise whatever they could away from the already destitute villagers. One group returned with just the skin and hooves of an old donkey, which they boiled down into jelly.

By now it was mid-February 1863, Chinese New Year.

Conditions inside Baoying were worsening; food was still scarce, and instead of the usual festive fare, the Taipings baked a cake made from wheat or barley flour mixed with earth, which they called guanyin fan, Goddess of Mercy meal.

Reviewing his troops, the younger General Hou at first encouraged them by recalling the Taiping’s old plan to capture Shanghai and befriend the foreigners living there, but then ended his speech by ordering everyone to prepare for a march in the opposite direction, southwest to Nanjing. It was, in fact, a retreat.

Joe decided to remain behind at Baoying – once General Hou had gone, he felt sure he could slip safely away to Zhenjiang – but Mesny wanted to see a battle and was determined to accompany the army, despite the onset of a bad fever. As the troops were marching out of the city, he stole an unattended mule and followed along in the rear of the van.

The next few days were the hardest of Mesny’s captivity. The Taiping soldiers travelled in an undisciplined disorder, their baggage carried by villagers who were press-ganged into service along the way; any caught attempting to escape were cut to pieces on the spot, leaving the roadside strewn with fresh corpses.

Mesny’s fever worsened to the point where he was barely able to hang on to his saddle or even eat a bowl of rice gruel pressed on him by his worried companions. When his faithful cook became sick too, Mesny insisted on setting him astride the mule while he stumbled along behind, hanging on to the animal’s tail, and so entered under Nanjing’s enormous walls on foot.

The Mercenary Mandarin (Blacksmith Books), by David Leffman, is available in bookshops now.