The Private of the Buffs

The Private of the Buffs

"The Private of the Buffs" (or "The British Soldier In China") is a ballad by Sir Francis Hastings Doyle describing the execution of a British infantryman by Chinese soldiers in 1860.


During the Second Opium War, an Anglo-French expedition landed in China and marched towards Peking in order to force the compliance of the Treaty of Tientsin. On 13 August, 1860, during the attack on the Taku Forts -- 大沽炮台, in Chinese, or "dàgū pàotá" -- Chinese troops captured two British soldiers and a group of coolies. (Some contemporary accounts record the latter as Sikh soldiers from India, and indeed the poem refers to "dusky Indians")

The details of the subsequent events are not well-recorded, but according to reports in "The Times", one Private John Moyse, of the 3rd (East Kent) Regiment (commonly known as "the Buffs") refused to kowtow to his captors. [“Whatever May Be the Diplomatic Results ...,” The Times, November 5, 1860, Issue 23769 edition, sec. Editorial.] Apparently he had "declared he would not prostrate himself before any Chinaman alive," and as a result, he was summarily executed. The poem refers to Moyse as a young Kentish farmboy; it is quite possible that he was, in fact, a middle-aged Irishman. However, the poem was written on the strength of newspaper reports, and it is likely that Doyle was unaware of the discrepancies.

The Historical Sources

Despite the report in "The Times", there is some question as to whether the incident took place as was popularly supposed. Garnet Wolseley, who was present at the taking of the Taku forts, insists that "The man belonging to the Buffs was either killed, or 'died of drink,' as the Chinese say." The source of the information -- a soldier in the 44th Regiment -- was, according to Wolseley, not reliable. "His mind, indeed, seemed to be unbalanced, as in addition to the untruths he told, he talked utter nonsense about what he pretended he had overheard his captors say." [Garnet Wolseley Wolseley, "Narrative of the War with China in 1860; to Which Is Added the Account of a Short Residence with the Tai-Ping Rebels at Nankin and a Voyage from Thence to Hankow" (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1862) p. 112.]

D.F. Rennie, a doctor with the British troops, also denies that the incident took place. [D.F. Rennie, "Peking and the Pekinese during the First Year of the Chinese Embassy at Peking" (London: John Murray, 1865).] "The Manchester Times" reprinted Rennie's account on December 2, 1865, with the conclusion

Thus, it would seem that this unfortunate man, who, through the romancing propensities of his comrade of the 44th, and the ready ear for 'sensationalism of the "Times" correspondent, was believed by the deluded British public to have been decapitated because he would not kow-tow to Sang-ko-lin-sin, died without ever seeing that personage at all." [1. “Miscellaneous Extracts, &c,” Manchester Times, December 2, 1865.]

See also


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