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‘I SHALL BECOME QUITE AU FAIT AT PROBING BULLET WOUNDS’: A Scottish Surgeon on the Yangtse during the Taiping Rebellion

Robert Grieve (Assistant Surgeon to Admiral James Hope)
Letters home from a second generation Glaswegian surgeon describing the ‘horrors of war’ he experienced in China as a Naval Surgeon during the Ta… Read more
Published in 1861 by Unpublished.
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‘I SHALL BECOME QUITE AU FAIT AT PROBING BULLET WOUNDS’: A Scottish Surgeon on the Yangtse during the Taiping Rebellion by Robert Grieve (Assistant Surgeon to Admiral James Hope)

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Letters home from a second generation Glaswegian surgeon describing the ‘horrors of war’ he experienced in China as a Naval Surgeon during the Taiping Uprising of 1861-2. The Rebellion - actually a pan-Chinese civil war - was the most bloodthirsty conflict of the 19th century, estimated to have cost between 20 and 30 million lives and Grieve’s remarkable manuscript brings those stark figures to life.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION Black notebook (12x19cm) bound in textured paper over boards, spine recently renewed. R Grieve’s name is stamped on the first flyleaf with ‘Letter Book 1861’ written in pencil below. The book comprises copies made by Grieve’s parents of their son’s letters which he sent between 24 June 1861 ‘Off the Coast of Portugal’ via Hong Kong then Shanghai and the Chinese interior and finally back to Hong Kong where the manuscript ends abruptly, 22 April 1862. The letters are written on lined paper in two hands, most a forward-sloping cursive hand (probably Grieve’s surgeon father, James Grieve) and a more italic style (plausibly Grieve’s mother Elizabeth -who is also mentioned in the correspondence). Each of the letters has a note at the head dating its arrival back in Glasgow. ‘Finis’ is written opposite the final page but the text breaks off in media res. The letters are paginated to p191, c45,000 words. The final endpapers offer a set of calculations in pencil and ink that don’t appear related to the text.

NARRATIVE The first third of the manuscript concerns the thrill of a young man’s voyage east on board the S S Pera, stopping at Malta to buy ‘white shoes, umbrella veil and other necessities’, crossing ‘the Nile broad as the Clyde at Erskine Ferry’, viewing the ‘Mosque of Mehmet Ali’ (Muhammad Ali Mosque) and climbing the Great Pyramid, ‘hoisted up by two Arabs in front pulling and one behind pushing’ (p56) to arrive in Hong Kong in August 1861 and swiftly transferring to Shanghai where Grieve was delighted to be is called to the side of the Commander in Chief of the China Station on his flagship, HMS Coromandel: ‘so there I am regularly installed.. As his Medical Attendant, fancy! To Sir James Hope K.C.B.!! Rear Admiral!!!’

Things take a darker turn when Hope explained his mission to the young Scottish Surgeon as ‘suppressing the abomination of the Taipeng Rebellion’, something Grieve witnessed in the streets of ‘Ningpo’ (Ningbo) after ransacking by Rebels in December 1861: ‘It was a melancholy sight to see the empty streets and the houses deserted and plundered of all their contents… to add to the unpleasantness of the scene every now and then we came upon some head hung up to the shutter of their house by the [pig]Tail or perhaps a body with the head nearly severed from it.’ Newly allied to the Chinese ‘Ever Victorious Army’ Grieve accompanied British and allied raids up the Yangtse River in January and February 1862, describing en route ‘a party of rebel scoundrels setting fire to a village close to the [river] banks while a large number of Imperialist soldiers and all the Country people stood about 200 yards off witnessing their houses burned to the ground.’ The turning point in the narrative is Grieve’s encounter with an extraordinary soldier of fortune, ‘a certain Colonel Ward an American who was formerly with Walker the Filibuster [who] has been employed by the Chinese Government to embody and drill a Number of Chinamen on the European fashion. And he has already upwards of 900 men…’ (p164) This was the adventurer Frederick Townsend Ward, recently promoted to command the Ever Victorious Army, who achieved great success by training his men with Western-style weaponry. Alongside Admiral Hope’s British troops and Ward’s army, Grieve was present for the first assault on ‘Kow-chiaue’ (How-ch'iao) on the 21st Feb, experiencing ‘the firing of the rifle, the duller sound of the musket… [which] made one very naturally duck his head when any of them came nearer than usual’ and after victory was secured confronting again the ‘horrors of war’ in the liberated town. Four days later at the Battle of ‘Sun keong’ (Songijang) Grieve offers his most detailed description of the surgery in the field as he treated ‘One of Ward’s officers an American [who] was severely wounded... In fact I think I had the most to do any body in the Surgical way… The Ball entered in at the Middle of the Right hip passed underneath the pelvis and emerged in the left groin… it has evidently cut the neck of the bladder… if this kind of work continues I shall become quite au fait at probing bullet wounds and extracting missiles’ (pp179-180). Despite this hard won expertise, shortly afterwards Ward found himself transferred to HMS Snake, taking him back to Hong Kong and ending the MS.

BIOGRAPHY Born in Lilliesleaf in the Scottish Borders Robert Grieve (1839-1906) graduated in 1861 from Glasgow Royal Infirmary and took his surgeon’s licence from the RSCS in the same year, serving as Assistant Surgeon from 1861-1862 in the Far East before leaving the Navy around the time that this MS ends, later serving during the Franco-Prussian war before entering psychiatric medicine and rising to be Surgeon General in British Guiana.


Full details

Publisher Unpublished
Date published 1861
Product code 8432


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