The Empire Strikes Back: The Battle of Sanyuanli

It was 175 years ago this month: 60 soldiers from Great Britain and India were wallowing in the muck of a rice paddy just north of the old city walls of Guangzhou.

The 60 soldiers were part of a much larger army, 5000 troops under the command of Major-general Hugh Gough (namesake of Gough Street and Gough Hill Road in Hong Kong). They were in South China to fight for Queen, country, and the continuation of the lucrative trade in opium. Now they found themselves in a desperate situation, cut off from the main British force, and surrounded by thousands of angry Cantonese braying for blood.

The British troops frantically tried to dispel the crowds with their flintlock muskets only to find that the rain made it impossible to light a spark. The crowd around them were armed with short swords and long knives, spears and farm tools. A bloody death seemed almost certain. At the last moment, Gough sent reinforcements in the form of two units of marines armed with waterproof rifles, but the rescuers soon found themselves in need of rescue.