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Sino-French War Off the Coast of Keelung Recounted by Letters

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depictions of the Sino-French war

The Sino-French war

This document consists of correspondence between a young cabin boy in the French navy during the Sino-French War between August 1884 and June 1885. The letters are mainly addressed to his mother and occasionally to one of his friends. The cabin boy recounts the life on the ship, the battles, the waiting, and his relationship with his surroundings. He explains what he sees, what he experiences, his feelings, fears, and hopes.

The Importance of this Kind of Document

Since this correspondence is normally intended for private use, the cabin boy has no reason to lie, exaggerate, or falsify his writings. The language used and the way the events are narrated differ significantly from official works. These letters, therefore, constitute an excellent source of information. What stands out most upon reading is the sense of reality and sincerity in the author’s testimony.

This idea is precisely expressed by Voltaire’s quote at the beginning of the narrative: ” The testimony of servants often has more value than that of kings.

Here is what was written by those who published the text: ” We have had the good fortune to receive communication of a most curious correspondence, the letters of a cabin boy to his mother during Admiral Courbet’s campaign, from the battles of the Min River to the death of the French hero. These letters, in their picturesque naivety, form a complete history of these heroic exploits, with a truthfulness of details that one would seek in vain in official accounts .”

War-time Descriptions of Taiwan and Keelung

In his letters, the cabin boy talks about Taiwan, explaining that it is a country “ with a very nice name, the island of Formosa ”. He explains that according to the information he has access to, it is in Keelung where the Chinese have their mines and their coal warehouses. He writes that those who already knew the island had described the island to him as “ a superb country ”. He also talks about the arms and ammunition depots on Hoping Island and particularly at the forts.

As the French set foot on Keelung, he described the place where they arrived as “ a pretty beach, dominated by hills” with “ahead, a little to the right, an island which looks exactly like a hippopotamus’ back ”.

He also talks about the difference between what he sees and the collective imagination that the French have for oriental countries: “ A first impression: when we talk to you people about oriental countries, China or Japan, you are convinced that we always walk between trees with more or less elegant shapes, with little red women like we see on the screens, but you must understand that here as elsewhere, there is everything .”

The young cabin boy is also quite surprised by the climate and in particular the bad weather at sea, with in particular the incessant wind which does not make life easy on the boats: “ I don’t know if it will last, but he has started to have a dog time. Two nights ago the sea was so heavy that we broke three chains. ” / “We have no idea of ​​​​this sea, even in the provinces. It’s like she’s paid by the piece to dance furiously from morning to night, not to mention all night long.” / Definitely, our cruise is not a pleasure: on land, the dangers that you know, on sea a dog weather always persistent: whether at anchor or in the open sea, we dance that it is one blessing. A wind to dehorn the oxen.

Fight scenes between French and Chinese
Fight scenes between French and Chinese

Interaction with Locals, Especially in Keelung

As explained earlier, this testimony is essential in its veracity. It also shows us the dark side which reflects the time and the environment in which its author operates. Indeed, these letters show, among other things, the racism and denigration towards the population that the young boy displays.

Even if he fortunately grants qualities to the Chinese such as their tenacity, their astuteness (” we are strong but they are clever and tenacious “), he recognizes the respect ” for those who fight for their country ” and their combativeness (” Everyone loves their country. Among the Chinese, it’s a kind of rage. When we set foot there, it seems to them that it’s sacrilege. They may run away at the first discharge, but a hundred meters further on they will reform .”) , the remarks towards the population are very hard to read but they have the merit of enlightening us on the real thoughts of this young cabin boy, which were probably shared by the other soldiers and sailors of this expedition.

The passages showing this state of mind are very hard to read but here, for example, are the type of thoughts and sentences that emerge throughout the text: “ Dirty people, indeed, and it is high time that we demolish this famous wall Chinese culture which hides so many infamies. “, ” those beggars “, ” the Chinese, more liars than anyone “, ” We French, who are as good as good bread, we wish no harm to these yellowish monkeys whose small slanted eyes give them macaque faces.

The young shoot also gives the description of the people he got and in which we note in particular a difference between the Chinese on the continent and the Chinese on the island of Formosa: “ A superb country, I am told, where there are Chinese, Hakkas, Pepo-Houans and Song-Fan. Here are some names. The Chinese always look the same. Yet these would be clean, which would be a harsh change. As for the Hakkas, they are said to be former inhabitants of the country who hardly like the Chinese. As for the Pepos, they are real savages, but not evil: they fish all the time. I’m told they have a bunch of curious superstitions: they can walk on saber blades without cutting themselves. They have a good God who has deer horns. Everyone has their own taste. Finally the Song-Fan, even wilder, as naughty as monkeys, skinny and lazy. It is said that they go two or three days without eating, rather than working. They ‘re not men. They paint their bodies blue and smoke from morning to evening. As for clothing, as economical as possible. They wrap themselves in a string, as I heard from Sarah Bernhardt. A trait that completes them: they love rats and go hunting to make a meal of them.

He criticizes the Chinese for unfair techniques and savagery, notably cutting off the heads of enemy soldiers who fall and not taking them prisoner: “ we are not evil, but there are cruel cowardices which enrage us ” / “ These bandits are so stupidly ferocious that they stop to cut off the heads of those who are on the ground, it is done in the blink of an eye, but yet it delays them.
He also discovers that this custom is also applied among the Chinese themselves because he describes a situation in Keelung where a local thief had his head cut off. We note that it is still quite funny and daring that the young boy does not consider the French soldiers as “bad” and the Chinese as savages when we know that they are in the process of colonizing Indochina and attack populations on their own soil by attacking them if they do not submit and dare to defend themselves. Does he not consider that doing so is also savagery?

He tells how in this context of war, a price was put on the head of the French: the Chinese received money if they brought back the head of an opposing soldier. They discovered that some were going to loot the cemeteries of French soldiers and cut off the heads of those buried to receive the sum of money.

The population, particularly in Keelung, was ordered not to trade with the French despite their irremediable desire to do so: “ there were inhabitants who had remained in Keelung and who asked nothing better than to trade with We. Almost honest ones, I mean. The Chinese love money, and they don’t spit on profits. But first, they didn’t have much when we arrived and I ask you if it was eaten quickly; what’s more, the mandarins don’t pull any punches. They have forbidden their subjects from selling anything to us, and those caught have their heads cut off, or are knocked unconscious by caning, or are hung from a fang that penetrates the chest or entrails .”

Furthermore, the young cabin boy recounts how the Chinese used Keelung’s women to trap and harm the soldiers: ” You know that the sailor is not virtue itself and that, lady! There are times when he lets himself trained like anyone else by a pretty face . The Chinese know this, and they have thought of using this penchant for gallantry for their ignoble revenge. They go looking for women who are rotten to the core in the hospitals and they turn them loose on the streets. of Keelung. Woe to those who allow themselves to be taken in by their glances! We are poisoned and we die in atrocious suffering! At least, if we allow ourselves to follow them, it is the same thing as for the chickens, we is lured into a hole and you don’t come out alive.

Atrocities of War and Soldier’s Duty

Among the other aspects covered in this text, there is the description of what is at the heart of a war, namely the fighting.

There are in particular descriptions of combat scenes, with very significant human damage and immense distress with the mention of the wounded and the killed and in particular the bodies floating in the water and the torn bodies.

We also note a great carelessness on the part of the young cabin boy and an irremediable desire to go into battle despite the fear: ” When you go there yourself, your stomach feels hot, when you don’t move, you feel gives me shivers “. We feel a real love of combat, a boredom if there is no confrontation and the importance of doing one’s duty as a soldier without thinking about one’s life.

A very important element is also respect for hierarchy and orders despite the disagreements they may have with them. We can read in particular the respect for Admiral Courbet, the trust placed in him by the soldiers in particular thanks to his exemplary attitude, the victories he brings and the fact that he wishes to protect his soldiers as much as possible despite very tough battles. The admiral even calls the sailors “ his children ”.

Other Significant Aspects of the War

Among the other significant and instructive aspects of this war described by the young boy, we understand that he complains about the fact that people in France do not consider their fight, do not know what they are doing and that they feel abandoned and betrayed by public opinion.

The help of the English and Prussians to the Chinese was judged to be disloyal. We therefore understand well the relations between the different European countries of the time and their competition on aspects of colonization.

Finally, we also have the mention of the cholera epidemic, a disease which strikes the French and whose name they do not even dare to pronounce because this disease terrifies and devastates them.


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