Guangzhou, China (1841 AD, 1856 AD & 1857 AD)
The Battles of Canton were a series of four military engagements that took place in and around the city of Canton during the two Opium Wars. Canton, the largest port in China at the time, was also the principal city for European trade in the Orient. During some periods it was the only port permitted for European use in China. Not surprisingly it was the primary strategic prize for European traders in the mid-19th century when the Opium War broke out. All four engagements were victories, or at least partial victories, for the westerners. The final battle in 1857 was decisive and resulted in the annexation of Canton and other territories by the Europeans, notably the British.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, China came into increasing contact with European traders, who pushed ever harder to open Chinese ports and markets to foreign wares. China, one of the last Asian powers to remain independent of European colonialism, pushed back, especially when it came to the trade in opium. In 1839, hostilities came to a head, particularly between the Chinese and the British.
Canton, the only port open to British trade at the time, became the focal point of British military strategy. The two sides clashed in Canton in March 1841. Although the British fielded only a small force, the Chinese were overwhelmed by superior firepower. This allowed the British to keep a foothold in Canton, and set the stage for a larger battle several months later.
In May, a large Chinese army assaulted the British in Canton. The battle, while technically a British victory, was more of a strategic draw. British casualties were very light, while the Chinese lost thousands. On an interesting side note, a smaller, non-professional militia unrelated to the troops of the Qing dynasty assaulted the retreating British column. Although they failed to defeat the British, they gave a good accounting of themselves. News of this event spread through China and weakened the public opinion of the imperium.
After 14 years of peace, war broke out again in 1856. Twice more the Chinese and Europeans fought for control of Canton, in 1856 and 1857. The last battle was the largest and most decisive fought. The Chinese, then in possession of the city with a garrison of thirty thousand, faced a joint Anglo-French force of six thousand backed up by the royal navy. Again the superior firepower of the westerners proved decisive, and the city was quickly retaken. The second fall of Canton ultimately led to the end of the Second Opium War and the permanent weakening of the fading Qing dynasty.
Because the Battles of Canton are associated with a dark chapter of Chinese history, there has been little effort made in preserving the battle sites which were located in the city and are now long since built over. A few places are marked. The most popular destination related to the battle is the Guangdong Provincial Museum which preserves some artifacts from the conflict and the colonial occupation.
Canton and its battle sites are located approximately eighty miles north of Hong Kong. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.cnto.org (official tourism website for China).