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West Meets East: The Story of Philo McGiffin

A chance discovery by CSSC Resource Centre Historian Stephen Davies at a San Francisco auction allowed the Hong Kong Maritime Museum to shine a light on the tragic career of US naval officer Philo McGiffin (1860 – 1897), who was recruited to China’s modernizing navy by leading Qing Dynasty Official Li Hongzhang.

Graduating in 1882 from Annapolis Naval College, McGiffin served for two years aboard the USS Hartford and USS Pensacola, qualifying as a midshipman. Budgetary constraints meant McGiffin failed to receive a commission following sea service after graduation from the US Naval College.

Aiming to fight on China’s side in the Sino-French War, he arrived in China just as it ended. Undeterred, he gained an interview with Li Hongzhang and was recruited as a professor at China’s naval college in Tianjin.McGiffin worked as a hydrographic surveyor on the Korean coast, helped oversee construction of four warships being built in the United Kingdom. He was finally tasked with building and heading a new naval college in Weihaiwei, Shandong.

When the Sino-Japanese (1894 - 95) war broke out McGiffin was made co-captain of the Zhenyuan in Admiral Ding Ruchang’s Northern Fleet. During the Battle of the Yalu River his skill in maneuvering the Zhenyuan protected its badly damaged sister ship Dingyuan, but McGiffin was severely wounded. He returned to the United States 1894 but, tormented by his wounds, committed suicide in hospital in 1897.

The Hong Kong Maritime Museum purchased a dress sword, jacket and numerous personal effects belonging to Philo McGiffin.