Merchant sailor John Lee Scott was a shipwreck survivor of the Kite and endured a subsequent imprisonment by the Chinese during the Opium War. The Kite was a British brig providing supplies to the British fleet when it capsized near the Chusan islands. As survivors of the wreckage washed up near the port of Ningpo, they were captured by the Chinese and held as prisoners for five months. The event and the capture was met with shock and outrage by British citizens, particularly for the imprisonment and treatment of Mrs. Anne Noble. Anne Noble was the wife of the captain and a mother to a young infant boy, both of whom perished during the wreck. Noble, Scott, and the remaining survivors were imprisoned and paraded through the city in small wooden cages. John Lee Scott, upon his release and return to England, wrote an autobiographical account of his capture and imprisonment in 1841.
The preface states:
‘My only apology for launching this unvarnished narrative upon the world is, that, after my return to England, I wrote for the amusement of my friends, a short account of my shipwreck and subsequent imprisonment in the Celestial Empire; and considering that my sufferings and adventures would by this time create an interest with the public at large, they have strongly urged me to publish this narrative. This I have ventured to do, hoping that the faults may be overlooked, and all indulgence shown to a young merchant sailor.’
On being taken out of the boat, a long bamboo was passed between the bars of my cage, and two men, placing the ends on, their shoulders, lifted it off the ground ; and in this manner I was carried through an immense crowd, the bearers sometimes stopping to rest, and placing my cage on the ground, upon which the people gathered round and began to torment me, as they had done in former cases….They told us that Mrs. Noble was in the same kind of cage that we were in. I could scarcely believe them, till the two Lascar boys were brought in, and they confirmed the, statement. They had not only put her in a cage, but had also put irons on her, treating her in the same manner as they did the male prisoners ; and, indeed, in some instances even worse.
Days and weeks passed on, and we gave up all hopes of a speedy release, expecting nothing less than an imprisonment of a year or two; but I cannot say that I was now much troubled with the fear of losing my head. During this time we were sometimes amused with a fight in the yard, between two of the soldiers—a most unpleasant kind of combat, for they seized hold of each other’s tails with one hand, and dragging the head down almost to the’ ground, clawed and scratched with the other hand, till the one with the weakest, tail rolled over and gave in; we always tried to get out and see fair play, but the soldiers mustered too strong at these times. Sometimes, again, a drunken soldier would make his appearance, and coming to the window afford us a little amusement, for, getting hold of his tail, we made it fast to the grating, and then left him to get loose as he could ; generally one of his comrades, attracted by his bellowing, came and released him.
British publications reacted to the event and noted Scott’s publication
“Our readers will not have forgotten the circumstances of the wreck of the Kite, East Indiaman, on the Chinese coast; and the fate of the crew, and the revolting cruelty practised by the natives on Mrs. Noble, the wife of the captain of the Kite, who was confined in a cage and carried about for six weeks. To give some idea of the state of torture to which the English are subjected by the august relatives of the Sun and the Moon [i. e., the “Celestials,” or the Chinese], we give the description of this instrument. It is made of rough fir slabs; and measures only two feet eight inches in length, one foot six inches in breadth, and two feet four inches in depth, with a hole on the top for the unfortunate lady’s head to come through; so that when the head protruded the inmate could neither sit nor stand upright.”—A Chinese Cage.” The Illustrated London News (13 August 1842): 220.
“But circumstances combine to give the unpretending little volume special value at the present time, China being the object of the intensest curiosity, and hardly ever penetrated or seen by Europeans beyond its most extreme boundaries. This narrative, by laying before us an unvarnished tale of what the author observed of life and manners in the celestial empire, will therefore be sought after and greedily perused by every person who admires merit, who loves to hear of adventure, who sympathizes with the afflicted and unfortunate, and who desires to learn aught of strange races and locked countries.” The Monthly Review (1842:v.1:no.1)
survivors holding onto the wreckage
being led into the prison
Scott and crew members encaged
- Scott, John Lee. Narrative of a recent imprisonment in China after the wreck of the Kite.
- Persistent Link:
- Widener Library
- Harvard University