The Rise and Fall of The Black Flag Army
In 1857, Liu Yongfu (Vietnamese: Lưu Vĩnh Phúc), a Hakka soldier of fortune was heading a group of about 200 men within a larger bandit group of Guangxi province headed by Huang Sihong (黃思宏). He defected with his men to the band of Wu Yuanqing (Wu Yuan-ch'ing, 吳元清) under his own - black - flag. Liu organized a ceremony reminiscent of the tiandihui rituals and what will be known as the Black Flag Army was born. The "army" was operating as an independent unit under Wu Yuanqing and his son and successor, Wu Yazhong (Wu Ya-chung, 吳亞终) or Wu Hezhong. Wu Yuanqing and Wu Yazhong pretended to be Taiping "princes", but there was no basis for this claim.
After the Taiping rebellion was crushed in 1864 in Nanking, the Qing army proceeded to destroy systematically the many armed bands of south-eastern provinces, particularly the band of Wu Yazhong in Guangxi. In 1865, the situation of Wu Yazhong was desperate and Liu and his Black Flag Army crossed into Upper Tonkin.
The Black Flags demonstrated their usefulness to the Vietnamese government in helping to suppress the indigenous tribes that populated the hills between the Red and Black Rivers, and Liu was rewarded with official military rank.
Secure in the backing of the Vietnamese government, Liu Yongfu established a profitable extortion racket along the course of the Red River, taxing river commerce between Son Tay and Lao Cai at a rate of 10%. The profits that accrued from this venture were so great that Liu's army swelled in numbers during the 1870s, attracting to its ranks adventurers from all over the world. Although most of the Black Flag soldiers were Chinese, many of the army's junior officers were Americans or European soldiers of fortune, some of whom had seen action in the Taiping Rebellion, and Liu used their expertise to transform the Black Flag Army into a formidable fighting force. Liu commanded 7,000 black flag soldiers from Guangdong and Guangxi around Tonkin.
The harassment of European vessels trading on the Red River led to the dispatch of a French expeditionary force to Tonkin under Commandant Henri Rivière in 1882. The resulting clash between the French and the Black Flag Army (the latter abetted by the governments of Vietnam and China) gradually escalated, resulting eventually in the Sino-French War (August 1884-April 1885). The Black Flags cooperated with Chinese forces during this war, most famously besieging a battalion of the French Foreign Legion in the Siege of Tuyen Quang. The Black Flag Army was formally disbanded at the end of the Sino-French War, though many of its members continued to harass the French for years afterward as freelance bandits.
Remarkably, the Black Flag Army was called into being again in 1895 by Liu Yongfu in response to the Japanese invasion of Taiwan (1895). Liu Yongfu crossed to Taiwan in answer to the appeal of his old friend Tang Ching-sung, previously the island's governor-general and now president of the short-lived Republic of Formosa, to command the Formosan resistance forces against the Japanese. Liu took a number of aging Black Flag veterans back into service to join the fight against the Japanese, but the reconstituted Black Flag Army was swept aside with ease by the Japanese Imperial Guards Division. Liu himself was obliged to disguise himself as an old woman to escape capture.
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