Mercenaries, East Asia and the Pacific

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Mercenaries, East Asia and the Pacific

The most renowned mercenaries (soldiers hired into foreign service) in colonial Asia were those hired by both sides of the momentous military campaigns during China's Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864). As the most devastating civil war in human history, in which at least 25 million lives were lost, the Taiping Rebellion took place in the aftermaths of the Opium War, which ended with China's agreement to open its door to Westerners who subsequently flocked to China's coastal regions in search of adventure, profit, and Christian converts. Unsatisfied with their gains, the Western governments took advantage of the crisis faced by the ruling Qing dynasty and in the midst of the Taiping Rebellion dispatched a significant number of troops, military and naval, to force new, more conciliatory treaties upon the Qing court. Consequently, there was a large community of foreign nationals, both military and civilian, in China to be hired as mercenaries in the epic campaigns.

The Taiping rebels had 104 Western mercenaries in their service. The American J. I. Roberts for a while was the Taiping rebels' top adviser in charge of foreign affairs. On the Qing side, the desperate court in 1861 formed an Ever-Victorious Army, a bona fide mercenary military unit, to be recruited, trained, and led by an American adventurer from Salem, Massachusetts, Frederick T. Ward. Motivated primarily by lucrative financial reward, Ward vigorously worked to expand the Ever-Victorious Army, openly luring British and French expeditionary force soldiers to desert their units and join his mercenary army. Many answered his call, which displeased the British and French military officials.

Ward was killed in battle in 1862, at a time when his mercenary army had grown to 3,000 strong. The Qing court chose Henry Andrea Burgevine as Ward's successor. But the opportunistic Burgevine soon switched sides to the Taiping rebels for higher service fees. Eventually, a deeply religious Charles George Gordon, who came to China in 1860 to invade Beijing for more favorable treaties from the Chinese government, resigned his commission as an artillery major from the British Army and became the last commander of the Ever-Victorious Army until its successful ending in late May 1864. It was Gordon who made the mercenary unit a meaningful modern fighting force. Other well-known mercenaries during the late Qing period include the Frenchman Prosper Giquel, and two Brits, Sir Samuel Halliday McCartney and Horatio Nelson Lay.

The most legendary mercenary adventure in Asia in the twentieth century is the American Voluntary Group, popularly known as the Flying Tigers, that Claire Lee Chennault commanded for the Chinese cause against the Japanese aggression in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

see also Taiping Rebellion.


Hu, Guangbiao. 100 Foreigners Who Influenced China's Modernization [yingxiang zhongguo xiandaihua de yibai yangke]. Taipei: Zhuanji Wenxue Press, 1984.

Spence, Jonathan. To Change China: Western Advisers in China, 1620–1960. New York: Little, Brown, 1969.

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Mercenaries, East Asia and the Pacific

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