Nerbudda incident

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Nerbudda incident
Part of the First Opium War
Parade Ground, Taiwanfoo.jpg
Parade Ground in Tainan where the British subjects were publicly executed
Location Taiwanfoo, Taiwan Prefecture, Qing China (now Tainan, Taiwan)
Coordinates 25°09′04″N 121°45′22″E / 25.1511°N 121.7561°E / 25.1511; 121.7561Coordinates: 25°09′04″N 121°45′22″E / 25.1511°N 121.7561°E / 25.1511; 121.7561
Date 10 August 1842
Target Survivors of the Nerbudda and Ann shipwrecks
Attack type
Mass beheading
Deaths 197 prisoners executed
87 dead from ill-treatment
Perpetrators Ta-hung-a
Yao Ying

The Nerbudda incident was the execution of 197 personnel of the British transport ship Nerbudda and brig Ann in southern Taiwan, on 10 August 1842 during the First Opium War. An additional 87 prisoners died from ill-treatment in captivity. In September 1841, the Nerbudda became shipwrecked off northern Taiwan near Keelung. In March 1842, the Ann also became shipwrecked in central Taiwan near Tai An Harbour. Survivors from both ships were captured and marched south to the capital of Taiwan Prefecture, where they were imprisoned before being beheaded on 10 August. Out of the nearly 300 who landed in Taiwan, 11 survived captivity and execution. The Daoguang Emperor ordered the execution on 14 May 1842, after the Chinese defeat in Zhejiang.


In expanding their trading activities in East Asia, the British East India Company viewed Taiwan (Formosa) as a viable trading post with rich resource potential. The Company lobbied the British government to grant a trade monopoly by first occupying the island. In 1840, British national William Huttmann wrote to Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston that given the strategic and commercial value of the island and the Qing dynasty's benign rule over it, a British warship with less than 1,500 troops could occupy its eastern coast while also developing trade. During the First Opium War, British men-of-war patrolled the Taiwan Strait and the Pescadores.[1]



In early September 1841, the transport ship Nerbudda set sail from Hong Kong to northern China.[2] It had 274 personnel consisting of 243 Indians, 29 Europeans, and two men from Manila. After the ship struck rocks, all the Europeans, accompanied by three Indians and the two Manila men, left the Nerbudda in the row boats, leaving behind 240 Indians (170 camp followers and 70 seamen). The ship, which was supplied with provisions, lay in smooth water in Keelung bay for five days, during which they prepared rafts. In attempting to land, some drowned in the surf, others were killed by plunderers on shore, and the rest were captured by local authorities who separated them into small parties and marched them to the capital Tainan.[3][4] The Chinese commanders, the Manchu Brigade General Ta-hung-a (達洪阿) and the Han taotai (intendant) Yao Ying (姚瑩), filed a disingenuous report to the Daoguang Emperor, claiming to have sunk the ship from the shore batteries and killed dozens of enemies. In response, the emperor sent rewards to both commanders, but the people he claimed to have slaughtered were the shipwrecked survivors.[1] Only two ended up surviving and being sent to Amoy (Xiamen) after the executions the following year.[3]


In March 1842, the brig Ann set sail from Chusan (Zhoushan) to Macao,[3] and became shipwrecked near central Taiwan at Tai An Harbour (大安港). It had 57 personnel consisting of 34 Indian natives, 14 European or American natives, five Chinese, and four Portuguese or Malays.[3] Most were seacunnies and lascars and became captives. Again, Yao and Hung filed a false victory report to the emperor. In 1843, a list of the names of the 57 crew members and passengers, and their fate, was published in The Chinese Repository:[5]

  • 43 beheaded
  • 2 died in prison
  • 2 died in the wreck
  • 1 escaped
  • 8 set free to Amoy (six were European or American natives, one an India native, and one from China[6])
  • 1 prisoner (a Chinese, said to have stayed of his own choice[6])

Rescue attempts

Between 19–27 October 1841, the British sloop Nimrod sailed to Keelung and offered 100 dollars for every Nerbudda survivor. But after learning that they were sent south for imprisonment, Captain Joseph Pearse ordered the bombardment of the harbour and destroyed 27 sets of cannon before returning to Hong Kong.[1] On 8 October 1842, Commander William Nevill of the Serpent left Amoy for Taiwan.[7] Captain Henry Ducie Chads of the Cambrian ordered him to inquire about the survivors of both ships "under a Flag of Truce".[8] By that time, the British were aware that the captives were already executed. Nevill brought a letter from Chads addressed to the Taiwan governor, requesting the release of the survivors, but reported that his reception was uncourteous and his letter not accepted.[8] They were told that the last survivors were being sent to Fuzhou.[9] On 12 October, they returned to Amoy.[10]

When the Serpent arrived in Anping she found also the 25 survivors of the 26 crew of the transport Herculaneum, Captain Stroyan, which had left Singapore on 6 September 1842, carrying coals from Calcutta to the British steamers in Chusan, and been thought lost. Unlike the survivors of the Ann and Nerbudda, Captain Stroyan and his crew had been well-treated, albeit because they knew the fate of so many of the other wreck victims, in constant fear of their lives. It is possible, depending on the credibility of contemporary newspaper reports, that the Taiwan authorities largely spared the European survivors, focusing their executions on the Indian (lascar) crew. The contemporary reports of the rescue of the Herculaneum crew refer to a total of 197 survivors of the Ann and Nerbudda, 30 having died, 157 having been executed, including eight Britons, one of whom was Robert Gully, the son of the ex-prize fighter and MP John Gully, and the 10 survivors who were sent to Amoy. The Serpent arrived in Amoy with the Herculaneum's survivors on 12 October, the survivors of the Ann and Nerbudda not arriving until 25 October, almost two weeks later.[11]


Granary where the prisoners were held captive

On 14 May 1842, the Daoguang Emperor released an edict after British forces repulsed the Chinese attempt to recapture Ningbo in Zhejiang province. With regards to the Ann prisoners, he ordered: "after acquiring their confessions, only the leaders of the rebellious yi [barbarians] should be imprisoned. The remaining rebellious yi and the 130-odd[a] that were captured last year shall all be immediately executed in order to release our anger and enliven our hearts."[13] On 10 August,[a] the captives were taken two or three miles outside the city walls. Their execution was reported in The Chinese Repository:

All the rest—one hundred and ninety-seven [prisoners]—were placed at small distances from each other on their knees, their feet in irons and hands manacled behind their backs, thus waiting for the executioners, who went round, and with a kind of two-handed sword cut off their heads without being laid on a block. Afterwards their bodies were all thrown into one grave, and their heads stuck up in cages on the seashore.[14]

The other prisoners, approximately 87, died from ill-treatment while in captivity.[15] Details of the events were recorded in a journal by merchant Robert Gully who was executed and another by Captain Frank Denham who survived. On 25 October, one of the freed survivors Mr. Newman received a "leaf" of Gully's log from a Chinese soldier who said it was obtained from Gully's shirt, which was stripped off him at the hour of execution. It contained his last known diary entry, dated August 10.[14] The journals of Gully and Denham were published in London in 1844.


Yiliang (怡良), governor of the two provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, was dispatched as commissioner to Taiwan after protest by British Plenipotentiary Henry Pottinger. After investigation, Yiliang reported that Ta-hung-a and Yao Ying confessed to forwarding false reports.[16][17][18] In April 1843, they were recalled to the capital Beijing.[19] After being interrogated, they were imprisoned but released by the emperor on 18 October,[13] having served only 12 days.[1] The emperor used his subordinates as scapegoats for his own ordering of the execution.[13] Pottinger did not became aware of this deceit. On 16 December, Ta-hung-a was assigned to a post at Hami, Xinjiang province, while Yao Ying received an appointment in Sichuan province. The British government were not aware of their release and postings until Hong Kong Governor John Francis Davis informed Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen on 11 March 1845.[1]

In 1867, 25 years after the executions, an interview was published in which British physician William Maxwell asked an old Chinese clerk in a Tainan hong if he remembered the beheadings. He responded in the affirmative and claimed that on the same day, a heavy thunderstorm formed and lasted for three days, drowning an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 people: "I remember that day well, and a black day it was for Formosa ... that was a judgment from Heaven for beheading the Foreigners; but it was done in revenge for your soldiers taking Amoy".[20][21]


  1. ^ a b In Chinese documents, 139 captives (3 red foreigners, 10 white foreigners, and 126 black foreigners) were executed in Tainan as reported in Yao Ying's memorial to the emperor. A Taiwanese scholar, after researching English and Chinese historical documents, concluded that the executions were conducted from 9 to 13 August 1842.[12]
  1. ^ a b c d e Tsai 2009, pp. 66–67
  2. ^ Ouchterlony 1844, p. 203
  3. ^ a b c d The Chinese Repository, vol. 11, p. 684
  4. ^ Ouchterlony 1844, p. 204
  5. ^ The Chinese Repository, vol. 12, p. 114
  6. ^ a b The Chinese Repository, vol. 11, p. 685
  7. ^ The Chinese Repository, vol. 11, p. 627
  8. ^ a b Gordon 2007, p. 11
  9. ^ The Chinese Repository, vol. 11, p. 628
  10. ^ The Chinese Repository, vol. 11, p. 629
  11. ^ Bell's Weekly Messenger, 6 September 1843, p. 144
  12. ^ Chang Hsüan Wên (2006). "Truth and Fabrication: A Research into the Execution of Captives during the Opium War". Master Thesis. Institute of History, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan. p. 136. (Chinese publication only)
    章瑄文,〈紀實與虛構:鴉片戰爭期間臺灣殺俘事件研究〉,清華大學歷史研究所碩士論文,2006年; 136頁.
  13. ^ a b c Mao 2016, p. 442
  14. ^ a b The Chinese Repository, vol. 12, p. 248
  15. ^ Bate 1952, p. 174
  16. ^ The Chinese Repository, vol. 12, pp. 501–503
  17. ^ Davis 1852, p. 10
  18. ^ Polachek 1992, p. 190
  19. ^ Fairbank & Teng 1943, pp. 389–390
  20. ^ Mayers et al. 1867, p. 313
  21. ^ Thomson 1873, no. 13


  • The Chinese Repository. Volume 11. Canton. 1842.
  • The Chinese Repository. Volume 12. Canton. 1843.
  • Bate, H. Maclear (1952). Reports from Formosa New York: E. P. Dutton.
  • Davis, John Francis (1852). China, During the War and Since the Peace. Volume 2. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.
  • Fairbank, J. K.; Teng, Ssu-Yu (1943). "I-liang". In Hummel, Arthur William. Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644-1912). Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Gordon, Leonard H. D. (2007). Confrontation over Taiwan: Nineteenth-Century China and the Powers. Plymouth: Lexington Books. ISBN 0739118684.
  • Mao, Haijian (2016). The Qing Empire and the Opium War. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107069879.
  • Mayers, William; Dennys, N. B.; King, Charles (1867). The Treaty Ports of China and Japan. London: Trubner and Co.
  • Ouchterlony, John (1844). The Chinese War. London: Saunders and Otley.
  • Polachek, James M. (1992). The Inner Opium War. Council of East Asian Studies.
  • Thomson, John (1873). Illustrations of China and Its People. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle.
  • Tsai, Shih-shan Henry (2009). Maritime Taiwan: Historical Encounters with the East and the West. Armonk, New York. ISBN 9780765623287.

Further reading

  • Journals Kept by Mr. Gully and Capt. Denham During a Captivity in China in the Year 1842. London: Chapman and Hall. 1844.
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