15 days out from Canton, China on the homeward voyage to Philadelphia, the ship "Lehigh" heard news of war. From the log of that voyage, kept by my ancestor Henry Morse Olmsted who appears in this blog from time to time, comes the record of their exchange:
"February 19th, 1840 First part moderate breeze from westward. Ship in sight ahead at 3:30 p.m. Spoke the ship Dumfries of Greenock from Singapore bound for London. Reported that the British India Government has declared war with China and that the dispatches has gone forward from Singapore to Canton on 4th February and also that the fleet consisting of several ships of the line and 2 or 3 steam vessels were expected every hour to arrive at Singapore on their way to China and also that Admiral Maitland is dead."
This was the 1st Opium War, fought between the British East India Company and the Qing Empire between 1839 and 1842 and which established British dominance in the China Trade and forced the resumption of the opium trade. One might assume from the log entry that the war itself was news to my ancestor, but in fact he had been in Canton (Ghangzhou) since the previous August and hardly could have missed the escalation in hostilities that lead to the seizure of Hong Kong by the British on August 23, 1839. Nor would he have been ignorant of the fact that the British community had withdrawn from Canton and their Chief Superintendent Charles Elliot was enforcing a trade embargo on the Chinese that lead to the sinking of 29 Chinese ships.
What was news was the flotilla of reinforcements expected at Singapore. In June, 1840, 16 British Warships sailed to Hong Kong and the following year attacked Canton, and presumably those reported by the ship "Dumfries" were among them. As for Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Lewis Maitland KCB St FMRG, he famously accepted the surrender of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 after Waterloo:
"After escaping from the field of Waterloo on 18 June Napoleon arrived in Rochefort on 3 July hoping to find a passport for the United States. At that time Bellerophon was blockading Rochefort and on 10 July messengers from Napoleon arrived on board her to enquire about passports. Maitland informed them that there were none and that no French ships would be permitted to sail. While the emissaries were still on board orders arrived saying that Napoleon should be brought to Torquay. On 15 July Maitland sent his barge to bring Napoleon on board. Bellerophon reached Torbay on 24 July and two days later was ordered round to Plymouth where Admiral Keith came on board to inform Napoleon that he would now be addressed as General Bonaparte and that no communication would be permitted with the shore. Bellerophon anchored off the breakwater and was surrounded by small craft packed with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the prisoner. On 6 August Bellerophon anchored off Berry Head. The following day Napoleon removed to the Northumberland and thence to St Helena and Bellerophon took those of his staff who did not wish to follow him round to Spithead."
Maitland was Commander in Chief in India at the time of his death at sea off Bombay, November 30th, 1839.
When Olmsted returned to China in 1843, British dominance had been asserted and the war was over. The Chinese were forced to pay war reparations as well as accept British Opium (grown in India). European hegemony toward the Celestial Empire intensified throughout the 19th century - through a Second Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Open Door Policy - but its harbinger was the British Fleet en route from India, and ships like "Dumfries" speaking news of war and retribution across the water.