The Story of Philo Norton McGiffin

Photographs of McGiffinHong Kong Maritime Museum

Captain Philo Norton McGiffin

With this special collection, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum was able to shine a light on the tragic career of US naval officer Philo Norton McGiffin (1860 – 1897), who was recruited to serve in China’s modernizing navy and fought in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895).

Photo of McGiffin at 17, US Naval Academy, The Strand Magazine (1896)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Early Life

McGiffin was born in 1860 in Washington to Colonel Norton McGiffin and Sarah Quail. McGiffin had four siblings. He inherited the love for military matters from his father who served in the Mexican War and the American Civil War. After graduating from the Washington Jefferson Academy, he was admitted to the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis in 1877. He stayed in Annapolis for around eight years but unfortunately failed to receive a commission following sea service after graduation.  

Philo McGiffin's pocket watch (1871) by Elgin National Watch CompanyHong Kong Maritime Museum

This Elgin working pocket watch has an 18k gold case embossed with Classical floral
designs and a scroll. The interior is inscribed “Philo N. McGiffin, U.S.N.”. The watch has
a gold hallmarked link chain (Albert) with a compass.

McGiffin's buttonsHong Kong Maritime Museum

Chinese naval officer's button and U.S. Infantry officer's button, were both personal belongings of McGiffin. The button on the right, with its shield of arms and iconic eagle, designed by D. L. Evans, is adapted from the design of the Great Seal of the United States.

Captain McGiffin in Mandarin robesHong Kong Maritime Museum

McGiffin in China

McGiffin went to China and was awarded a commission in the Imperial Chinese Navy. He was appointed by Li Hongzhang, Viceroy of Zhili and Beiyang Trade Minister of the Qing dynasty, as a professor at China’s naval college in Tianjin in 1885. He also worked as a hydrographic surveyor on the Korean coast, helped oversee the construction of four warships being built in Britain for China and was appointed to build and head a new naval college in Weihaiwei, Shandong.

Photographs of Captain McGiffin, in Chinese Navy uniform. (1890)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Photographs of Captain McGiffin, in Chinese Navy uniform. 1890

Philo McGiffin's sword, late 19th centuryHong Kong Maritime Museum

McGiffin's Imperial Chinese naval
officer’s dress sword

Naval officer coat wore by Philo McGiffinHong Kong Maritime Museum

A Chinese naval officer's dress coat, of fine black wool piped in black braid and black velvet.

Carriage clock of McGiffinHong Kong Maritime Museum

Carriage clock, engraved ‘Philo N. McGiffin, Impl Naval College, Tientsin - China’

Photograph of Captain McGiffin in Weihaiwei (1891)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

A photograph of McGiffin in Wei Hai Wei

Letter to Mrs. McGiffin with an envelope (1885-05-02)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

A 12-page letter to Mrs. McGiffin with an envelope marked Imperial Naval College, Wei Hai Wai . It is a letter to his mother and mostly containing personal details of his life in China.

Letter written by McGiffin to his mother (1890-03-13)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

A letter written by McGiffin to his mother. There is a logo of "H.I.M.S CHIH YUEN" on the letter paper.

Photo of Battle of Yalu, The Strand Magazine (1896)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

First Sino-Japanese War

During the outbreak of the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895), McGiffin was made co-captain of the Zhenyuan in Admiral Ding Ruchang’s Beiyang Fleet and fought in the Battle of the Yalu River.

Photo of Zhenyuan, The Strand Magazine (1896), From the collection of: Hong Kong Maritime Museum
Show lessRead more

Letter of invitation to Captain McGiffin from Adminral Ding RuchangHong Kong Maritime Museum

Letter of invitation to Captain McGiffin from Admiral Ding Ruchang

Kutani ware milk jug with handleHong Kong Maritime Museum

Kutani ware milk jug with handle, decorated with floral pattern. It was believed that a thirteen-piece Kutani tea service, was given to McGiffin by Chinese Admiral Ding Ruchang according to family tradition.

McGiffin in Hospital after the Battle of the Yalu River (1894)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Late Career

McGiffin served creditably in the Battle of Yalu River, but was severely wounded in action and finally returned to the United States.  

Letter to McGiffin from his friend (1895-07-09)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Letter dated 9 Jul 1895 to McGiffin from his friend

The Battle of The Yalu (1895)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Having stayed in China for around 11 years, McGiffin returned to the US in 1895 where he received medical treatment and published a fascinating record of his experiences. However, tormented by his wounds and fearful of a slow painful death, he committed suicide at the Post Graduate Hospital in New York City in 1897.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps