Thomas William Bowlby, British pioneer of war reportage, died on September 22nd, 1860 in Tongzhou, which is now a district of the vastly expanded Chinese capital, after being tortured by his captors.
Born in Gibraltar on January 7th, 1818 to Thomas Bowlby, a Captain in the Royal Artillery, and Williamina Martha Arnold Balfour, daughter of Major-General William Balfour, while he was young his parents moved to the northeastern English port of Sunderland, where his father started to trade with timber.
After finishing school, Bowlby was trained as a solicitor and then settled in London to work as a salaried clerk at a law firm. In 1846, he became junior partner of Lawrence, Crowdy and Bowlby. However, he soon lost interest in that occupation and wanted to pursue a career in writing.
Although he remained as a member of that office until 1854, in 1848 he went to Berlin as a special correspondent for the daily British newspaper The Times. From Prussia Bowlby wrote about the “March Revolution” in other German States and various countries in Continental Europe.
In the spring of 1860, the last year of the Second Opium War, Bowlby traveled to China to cover those events with Lord Elgin (1811-1863), British colonial administrator and diplomat, as well as French career diplomat Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gros (1793–1870) on the steamship SS Malabar, which sank in the Ceylonese harbor Point de Galle on May 22nd, 1860. The report of the shipwreck was considered one of his best pieces of work.
Bowlby’s coverage of China’s political and military developments, but also his descriptions of local culture, such as gardening, were informative and very popular with readers.
After the capture of the northern port of Tientsin by Anglo-French troops on August 23rd, Bowlby accompanied the British diplomats Henry Loch (1827-1900) and Harry Parkes (1828-1885) and their escorts to peace negotiations with Imperial officials. When the talks broke down, General Sengge Rinchen (1811-1865) arrested all members of the delegation.
Bowlby and the other captives, including colonial Sikh soldiers, were tortured over several days, sometimes to death, with constricting ligatures applied to their bodies, and deprived of water.
The two envoys, although treated less barbarically survived by sheer luck. Emperor Xianfeng (1831-1861) had suddenly ordered their execution, too. They were later able to recover the unfortunates’ remains.
His horrible death and the humiliation that such treatment represented for the Empire were the main reason why Lord Elgin decided to burn down the Old Summer Palace, a vast complex of palaces and gardens outside of Peking, in retaliation.
Without doubt the revengeful destruction and inexcusable looting of priceless art treasures, which on top caused probably hundreds of victim among those trapped inside the buildings, remain a barbaric act.
Though the man who ordered it, not known to have special sensibility, reportedly told a French commander “What would The Times say of me, if I did not avenge its correspondent?”
Bowlby’s mangled body was buried in the Russian Cemetery on October 17th, 1860 outside the Anding Gate, part of Peking’s Ming era city wall, torn down in 1969. His final resting place is now a park and a golf course.
The diary which Bowlby wrote until September 16th described vividly the atrocities he saw during his short stay in the Middle Kingdom, where Chinese civilians were bayoneted to death by French troops and blown apart by British field guns. What a tragic irony that he himself suffered such a terrible fate.
One of his sons was the army officer, royal surgeon and pathologist Anthony Bowlby (1855-1929).