French Men of War at Pagoda Anchorage, Foochow, 1884

In this, the first of a series of posts by undergraduate finalists in history at the University of Bristol, Nicholas Barker reflects on a tense moment caught in a seemingly quiet image.

French Men of War at Pagoda Anchorage, Foochow, 1884 Oswald Collection Os01-116 © 2008 SOAS

French Men of War at Pagoda Anchorage, Foochow, 1884 Oswald Collection Os01-116 © 2008 SOAS

The stillness of this photograph masks a brutal reality. The anchored vessel in calm water suggests an inquisitive innocence. Yet, on closer inspection the photograph reveals a more striking image: an iron hull pierces the waterline and a French flag limps from the rear mast. This closer image is a more telling one. At 2pm on 23rd August 1884, Admiral Courbet opened fire on the Chinese Fujian fleet at Pagoda Anchorage, Foochow, marking the first engagement of the Sino-French War (August 1884 – April 1885). This relatively unknown conflict was the culmination of increasing French intervention in Indo-China driven by economic fantasies and amour propre.[1] The battle at Foochow was practically over in seven minutes as the modern French navy obliterated the Chinese. The Times correspondent called it ‘a sickening business’ and ‘a massacre’.[2] The French lost 6 men, whilst the Chinese dead numbered over 1,500.[3] The confrontation was even watched for professional reasons by British and American seamen: it was the first time that torpedo ships were used in combat.[4] Warfare had thus become a site for the display of technological innovation.

This photograph of the Duguay-Trouin epitomises the shift towards mechanized, technological destruction, with the marriage of military, industry and science. The vessel was a first-class iron cruiser, built in Cherbourg in 1879. It weighed 3,478 tons, was 294 ft long and carried five guns. This photograph was part of the collection of John Oswald, a tea trader and race horse owner based in Foochow. The positioning of the ship in the centre of the photograph emphasizes its magnitude and suggests a novelty to the vessel that was worthy of the viewers’ full attention. It was truly a symbol of European difference.

Yet, this was not simply a battle between unmatched fleets. It is not right to bracket all the Chinese vessels as ‘mere toy transports’, but instead important to appreciated that the Chinese did have some technologically advanced ships, including the corvette Yang-Wu.[5] Indeed, nine of the eleven Chinese vessels were of the ‘Foochow’ class, built by Prosper Giquel at the shipyard at Fuzhou and armed with Krupp guns.[6] Thus, whilst their armour was inferior, their artillery was supposed to be equal to the French. Technological difference was therefore not the only reason for the Chinese defeat. The disparity between the navies was also apparent in the proficiency of the seamen. Admiral Courbet received a note of congratulations from the international spectators on the bravery and professionalism of his men. It was claimed that whilst the French commander was embroiled in the thick of the fighting, his Chinese counterpart, Zhang Peilun, was seated in a sedan chair on his way to Kushan, a celebrated monastery overlooking the river.[7] Furthermore, the lack of co-ordination between the northern and southern navies disadvantaged the Qing. Li Hongzhang refused to send the Beiyang fleet to support the Fujian flotilla at Pagoda Anchorage. Thus, as Benjamin Elman has rightfully argued, the inadequacy of the late Qing Chinese navy was due to a multitude of factors, including poor armament, insufficient training, lack of leadership, vested interests and lack of funding, and low morale.[8]

This Chinese defeat has come to symbolise the failures of the ‘self-strengthening’ movement undertaken in China after the Taiping Rebellion. The ‘self-strengthening, movement’ (1865-94), backed by the statesman Li Hongzhang, was an attempt to develop China’s economic and military strength through the adoption of Western technology. An October 1884 article in The Times argued that the battle represented an ‘admirable example of the complete defencelessness of the coast of China, and this after the yearly expenditure of the fabulous sums of money for many years past’.[9] The correspondent went further, stating that ‘the country is rotten’, lacking ‘national feeling’ and steeped in ‘corruption’. Thus, the progressive reform attempts had failed to produce a military strong enough to repel Western encroachments. Indeed, the navy faced further budget cuts between 1885 and 1894, and further military defeats would ensue during the Sino-Japanese War (1895-96).

The Duguay-Trouin represents the aggressive European militarism which had come to epitomise Western interactions with the Chinese, especially in the Treaty Ports. These modern warships, efficiently crewed with good leadership, were symbols of difference and vehicles of power and influence. The warship, as both a symbol and instrument, was constantly used as a lever for trade and diplomatic prestige. Yet, the guns mounted on such vessels were not without purpose: they posed a real threat to China and were repeatedly used to inflict violence on her populace.


[1] Hans Van de Ven, Breaking with the Past (New York, 2014), 112.

[2] ‘France and China’, The Times, 25 Aug 1884.

[3] ‘France and China’, The Times, 25 Aug 1884.

[4] ‘The Bombardment of Pagoda Anchorage’, North China Herald, 29 Aug 1884.

[5] ‘Hostilities at Foochow’, The Times, 23 Oct 1884.

[6] ‘The Bombardment of Pagoda Anchorage’, North China Herald, 29 Aug 1884.

[7] ‘Hostilities at Foochow’, The Times, 23 Oct 1884.

[8] Benjamin Elman, ‘Naval warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895’, Modern Asian Studies, 38, (2004), 283-326.

[9] ‘Hostilities at Foochow’, The Times, 23 Oct 1884.

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