Jersey-born William Mesny ran off to sea as a boy and jumped ship at Shanghai in 1860 when he was just 18. Amid the chaos of foreign intrigue and civil war in 19th-century China, he became a smuggler, a prisoner of the Taiping rebels, a gun-runner and finally enlisted in the Chinese military.

After five years of fierce campaigning against the Miao in remote Guizhou province, Mesny rose to the rank of general and used this privileged position to travel around China – to the borders with Burma, Tibet and Vietnam – writing opinionated newspaper articles, collecting plants and advising government officials on the development of railways, telegraphs and other modern reforms.