1776: Neptune, as witnessed by John Gabriel Stedman 2004: Atefah Rajabi Shalaaleh, schoolgirl

1860: John Moyse, the Private of the Buffs

August 14th, 2010 Headsman

“Our readers,” intoned the London Times on Nov. 5 of 1860, “will not have overlooked the behavior and fate of Private Moyse, of the Buffs, whose resolution, indeed, was not proof against the allurements of the grog-cart, but who actually faced death in cold blood rather than demean himself by prostration before ‘any Chinaman alive.'”

It was on this date that said Private Moyse, John to call him by his Christian name, died in captivity — allegedly because he refused to kowtow to a Chinese mandarin. “The Sikhs obeyed” this Asiatic command, goes the account. “But Moyse, the English soldier, declaring that he would not prostrate himself before any Chinaman alive, was immediately knocked upon the head and his body thrown on a dunghill.”

Kowtowing — Chinese insistence upon; British rejection of — was a touchy symbolic issue between the rising European hegemon and the ancient Chinese empire. It’s said (likely with more color than accuracy) that the British envoy Earl Macartney‘s 1790s trade mission to the east failed for want of a kowtow.

For the same reasons this legend became current, the Moyse tale made sensational propaganda during Britain’s Second Opium War intervention in China, valorized in this jingoistic tear-jerker.

The Private of the Buffs
by Sir Francis Doyle

Last night, among his fellow roughs,
He jested, quaffed and swore,
A drunken private of the Buffs,
Who never looked before.
Today, beneath the foeman’s frown
He stands in Elgin‘s place,
Ambassador from Britain’s Crown
And type of all her race.

Poor, reckless, rude, low-born, untaught,
Bewildered and alone.
A heart, with English instinct fraught,
He yet can call his own.
Aye, tear his body limb from limb,
Bring cord, or axe, or flame;
He only knows that not through him
Shall England come to shame.

Far Kentish hop fields round him seem’d
Like dreams, to come and go;
Bright leagues of cherry blossom gleam’d,
One sheet of living snow;
The smoke above his father’s door
In grey soft eddyings hung.
Must he then watch it rise no more,
Doomed by himself so young?

Yes, honour calls! With strength like steel
He puts the vision by.
Let dusky Indians whine and kneel;
An English lad must die.
And thus, with eyes that would not shrink,
With knee to man unbent,
Unfaltering on its dreadful brink
To his red grave he went.

Vain, mightiest fleets of iron framed;
Vain, those all-shattering guns;
Unless proud England keep, untamed
The strong heart of her sons.
So, let his name through England ring –
A man of mean estate,
Who died, as firm as Sparta’s King
Because his soul was great.

Moyse’s defiance and death make an appearance in this Flashman novel.

Aye, Moyse liked to get into the drink and had a discipline problem, but no matter. This fact was easily appropriated further to his bluff and earnest character in national martyrdom.

Getting a bit carried away with itself, the Times editorialized on Nov. 16,

We have no such visions of human perfectibility as to believe that all the young men of this country will be “respectable youth” looking for “honourable service.” … The English are a people endowed with superabundant energy, and energy must sometimes take an irregular and even a criminal form. The best use that can be made of a young man who will settle down to nothing is to get him to enlist as a soldier. He is kept under strict discipline at the same time that his love of activity and adventure is gratified. He becomes a first-rate fighting man, and fulfils splendidly the only duty which society can ever hope to obtain from him. There is no reason to wonder, with Colonel McMurdo, that acts of heroism have been performed by such men, for they have performed them in all ages and all countries. The “obstinate intemperate hero” is of all time, whether in the shape of Alexander or Lord Clive, or Private Moyse of the Buffs. There are two kinds of valour, belonging to two different classes of men, and a citizen-force may very usefully be employed side by side with the wildest lads who ever rioted in Tipperary or gambled in a London pothouse.

Basically forgotten now, this story can be fleetingly encountered among Anglophiles as an arcane indicator that the national character of Britain, or the West, or what have you, is not now what it once was, given all the kowtowing to mandarins going on in these debased times.

(Although this post amusingly juxtaposes the “commonsense prudence and practicality” of Wellington taking an expedient knee so that a military strategem would not be lost on account of bullheaded pride. Maybe it helped that Wellington was kneeling to a European.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions

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5 thoughts on “1860: John Moyse, the Private of the Buffs”

  1. bubbleburster says:

    Making ironic blog postings and “raising awareness” is so much more useful to mankind than dying bravely, after all.

    Doubtless there will be poems dedicated to your interesting and purposeful life being read in 150 years from now…

  2. Meaghan says:

    Better than “Private in the Buff” I guess.

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