(Left: A view of Danshui with Mt Ta-Tuen in the background. To the left is Ft San Domingo; to the right, the customs office and the ship docking area.)
The following is from Simon (communicated through our friend Mr Patrick Cowsill), an expert on John Dodd and Jardine Matheson:
"I am not convinced Bentley worked for anyone.
1) The Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs was founded as agency that would collect import duties from international shipping and use them to pay indemnities owed to the great powers by the Chinese government. It was staffed and organized by foreigners to ensure a smooth flow of cash as previous ventures relying on Chinese management were plagued by corruption. There's a book in the NCCU library about foreigners in Shanghai that discusses the organization in depth.
The organization was not using foreigners because of 'Chinese ignorance of navigation'. By this stage the Chinese already had several domestically oriented steamship lines...and besides a failure to organize navigation would have greatly inhibited foreigners from plying their trade inland from the coast. Something that one would assume to be appealing to the Qing.
2) The hiring of foreign experts by the Qing was a very common practice. For example, JM supplied the engineers for the Liu Ming-quan's railroad. The Huwei Fort north of ft. Santo Domingo was built by French or German engineers...etc., etc.
Bentley may well have been used in organizing the defense of Tamshui. He was employed by the Chinese government...through the ICMC...so there is no reason to think he wouldn't be involved.
That said, Bentley - as a British / Italian national - would have been expected to not act in a manner that would conflict with his own nation's interest. In working for the ICMC he would certainly been more than a tradesman, though likely not a member of the aristocracy (or even Gentry). WA Pickering was hugely touchy about the 'honor' thing and did essentially the same job as Bentley.
One would assume that in the Victorian era this would have implied a degree of loyalty to one's employer. This, I suppose, lends credibility to the idea that he was in fact working for someone. But there is more...
3) British commercial interests in Tamshui were seriously threatened by French actions. This is very clear in Dodd's book. There was a high degree of anti-foreign sentiment among locals. They burned all Mackay's churches...and both George and John resisted evacuation to the Cockchafer because of concern for 'property' left unattended. The French actually hit Mackay's schools in the shelling.
Moreover, in the China trade, the great power's were largely divided into two camps...The Russians, Japanese and French were into the idea of carving up China into colonies (or spheres of influence) while the British, Americans and to a lesser degree the Germans consistently advocated for a policy that ensured the stability and survival of Imperial China - coupled with open ports and free trade.
The French attack on Taiwan, then, stands in stark contrast to the prevailing British policy of the period. I believe this makes it highly unlikely he was working for either a British company (like Jardines) or the British Foreign Office.
4) I think it is important here to consider the 'Tidewaiter' role. The dudes who did the job: Pickering, Tait and Bentley...were not white trash (exactly) but nor were they successful financially. They were working for salaries in an environment that saw others make and loose huge fortunes. It was a stepping stone. Pickering went on to some government post in Singapore, Tait eventually founded Tait and company...Bentley...well maybe he decided to make his score selling info to the French...and for a large sum by the looks of it.
My guess is that he was acting of his own accord. There certainly was little reason for him to stay on in the employ fo the ICMC...where he was fair game as an enemy combatant (the french shelled his Tamshui quarters). The only question that really bugs me is why the name change? My guess is that while his abandoning post was certainly not a betrayal of the British national interest...it certainly would not have been something that was viewed favorably socially. Maybe he was just doing the whole pseudonym internet comment thing..."