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The American punitive expedition against Malolo, Fiji in 1840 by Alfred Agate.

A punitive expedition is a military journey undertaken to punish a state or any group of persons outside the borders of the punishing state. It is usually undertaken in response to perceived disobedient or morally wrong behavior, but may also be a covered[vague]

revenge. More commonly in the 19th century, punitive expeditions were used as pretexts to colonial adventures that resulted in annexations, regime changes or changes in policies of the affected state to favour one or more colonial powers.

Stowell (1921) provides the following definition:

"When the territorial sovereign is too weak or is unwilling to enforce respect for international law, a state which is wronged may find it necessary to invade the territory and to chastise the individuals who violate its rights and threaten its security".[1]

Notable punitive expeditions

The French Navy raids San Juan de Ulua (Mexico) during the Pastry War (1838).

  • In the 13th century Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, sent emissaries demanding tribute from the Singhasari kingdom of Java. The ruler of the Singhasari kingdom, Kertanagara, refused to pay tribute and tattooed a Chinese messenger, Meng Qi, on his face. A punitive expedition sent by Kublai Khan arrived off the coast of Java in 1293. Jayakatwang, a rebel from Kediri, had killed Kertanagara by that time. The Mongols allied with Raden Wijaya of Majapahit against Jayakatwang and, once the Singhasari kingdom was destroyed, Wijaya turned against the Mongols and forced them to withdraw in confusion.
  • In 1599 the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate ordered his nephew Vincente de Zaldivar to engage in a punitive expedition against the Keres natives of Acoma Pueblo. When the Spanish arrived, they fought a three-day battle with the Keres leaving about 800 men, women and children dead.
  • During the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1610–1614), Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr (1577–1618), an English nobleman was appointed Virginia's first royal governor and ordered to defend the colony against the Powhatan. Lord de la Warr waged a punitive campaign to subdue the Powhatan after they had killed the colony’s council president, John Ratcliffe. His tactics against the Indians proved effective and included raiding their villages, burning their homes, torching their cornfields and crops, and plundering their provisions.
  • From 1838 to 1842 ships of the United States Exploring Expedition engaged in three punitive expeditions against Pacific islanders.
  • The First Opium War, in retaliation of the burning of opiate products by Commissioner Lin Zexu, which resulted in the opening of a number of ports, the cession of Hong Kong to Great Britain, and the Treaty of Nanjing.
  • The 1842 Ivory Coast Expedition was led by Matthew C. Perry against the Bereby people of West Africa after two attacks on American merchant ships.
  • The French Campaign against Korea in 1866, a response to the earlier execution by Korea of French priests proselytizing in Korea.
  • The 1867 Formosa Expedition, a failed punitive operation of the United States.
  • The United States expedition to Korea in 1871, in retaliation to the General Sherman incident, where a U.S. merchant ship was burned as it entered Pyongyang.
  • The 1874 Japanese expedition against Formosa.[2]
  • Benin Expedition of 1897 British punitive action that led to the annexation of the Kingdom of Benin. The New York Times reported on January 13, 1897 that a "punitive expedition" would be formed to "punish the murderers of the Benin City expedition."[3]
  • The Pancho Villa Expedition from 1916 to 1917, led by General John J. Pershing, was an operation in retaliation against Pancho Villa's incursion into United States.[4]
  • Suppression of the 1920 Iraqi Revolt against the British Mandate of Mesopotamia,[5]
  • The 1979 invasion of Vietnam by China was characterised by Deng Xiaoping as an act of punishment necessitated by Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, saying that "Children who don't listen have to be spanked.".[6]


  1. Stowell 1921, pp. 41–42.
  2. "A Victory for the Chinese; Japanese Driven with Heavy Loss from Ping-yang". The New York Times. August 22, 1894. p. 5. 
  3. "To Punish the Murderers; Great Britain Will Send Another Expedition to Benin City". The New York Times. January 13, 1897. Retrieved 2008-08-24. "The Daily News will to-morrow say that the Government has ordered that an expedition be formed to punish the murderers of the Benin City expedition. The punitive expedition, which will be prepared at Old Calaber, will be made up of men from the forces of the Niger Coast Protectorate and a contingent of sailors from the British West African squadron." 
  4. Elser, Frank B. (April 14, 1916). "Assure Pershing of Co-operation; Gen. Herrera and Staff Greet Villa's Pursuers After 100-Mile Ride in Desert". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-25. "The first Carranza General to exchange formal courtesies with General John J. Pershing, leader of the punitive expedition after Pancho Villa, came riding into camp this afternoon on a pacing gray horse and, seated on an empty hardtack tin, paid his respects, and inquired after the health of the American forces" 
  5. Ferguson, Niall (May 24, 2005). "Cowboys and Indians". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-25. "The United States also faces two other problems that the United Kingdom did not 85 years ago. The British were able to be ruthless: they used air raids and punitive expeditions to inflict harsh collective punishments on villages that supported the insurgents." 
  6. Swami, Praveen (24 November 2010). "China is treading on dangerous ground". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2010-12-16. "Children who don't listen have to be spanked." 

See also

  • Letter of marque and reprisal


  • Gordon, Leonard (1965). "Japan's Abortive Colonial Venture in Taiwan, 1874". pp. 171–185. Digital object identifier:10.1086/239635. JSTOR 1878308. 

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