Lord Elgin and the Burning of the Summer Palace

In October 1860, writes E.W.R. Lumby, a humane and liberal-minded British emissary felt obliged to order an act of vandalism in Peking.

The letters and journals of James, Eighth Earl of Elgin, show a man constantly preoccupied with the harm that, in his eyes, the western nations, and the British in particular, were doing to the ancient civilizations of the East; a man highly sensitive to the injustices of his country’s policy and to the arrogance and inhumanity that he thought he saw in his compatriots.

Yet Elgin’s two missions to China are chiefly remembered for the event in which they culminated—the burning of the Summer Palace at Peking in October 1860. How did it come about that a man of his temperament and opinions should have been responsible for an act so often quoted as an example of vandalism, of Victorian arrogance and insensitivity at their worst?

To Elgin the East was “abominable, not so much in itself, as because it is strewed all over with the records of our violence and fraud, and disregard of right.”

On his way to China in 1857, he wrote of Egypt: “I suppose that France and England, by their mutual jealousies, will be the means of perpetuating the abominations of the system under which that magnificent country is ruled.”

Later the same year, during a visit to Calcutta while the Indian Mutiny was at its height, he recorded that:

“I have seldom from man or woman since I came to the East heard a sentence which was reconcilable with the hypothesis that Christianity had ever come into the world. Detestation, contempt, ferocity, vengeance, whether Chinamen or Indians be the object.”

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