(Roughly) Daily

“Her Majesty’s government should do nothing to place in peril our opium revenues. As for preventing the manufacturing of opium, and the sale of it in China, that is far beyond your power.”*

The East India Company steamship Nemesis (right background) destroying war junks during the Second Battle of Chuenpi, 7 January 1841

An excerpt from Linda Jaivin‘s The Shortest History of China

European traders had been trying to get a foothold in China for centuries. As eager as the Europeans were for Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain, the Chinese remained indifferent to European goods. The Qing restricted access to ports, confining foreign merchants to Guangzhou (Canton), from October to March. Foreign traders resented this, as well as having to work with licensed Chinese intermediaries and abide by local law. In 1793, the British sent an experienced diplomat, Lord George Macartney, to Qianlong’s court carrying a letter arguing for greater access to the empire’s markets, including a reduction in tariffs, the ability of merchants to live in China year-round, and the stationing of an ambassador in Beijing.

The eighty-year-old Qianlong agreed to receive the English­man at his imperial hunting lodge at Chéngdé, northeast of Bei­jing. The protocol of an imperial audience demanded a kowtow. Macartney refused, instead bowing on one knee before Qian­long, just as he did with his own sovereign, King George III. Qianlong received him courteously anyway, but once Macart­ney left and his letter was translated, Qianlong instructed his ministers to bolster the Qing’s coastal defenses, predicting that England, ‘fiercer and stronger than other countries in the Western Ocean,’ might ‘stir up trouble.’ To Macartney he pref­aced his reply by saying that the Qing had everything it needed in abundance: ‘I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.’ 

The British East India Company, which enjoyed a British monopoly on East Asian trade, had something for which at least some Chinese had use: opium, grown in British-controlled India. Opium was already cultivated in China, but in small quantities — soldiers and manual laborers relied on it for pain relief, and some of the idle rich smoked it for pleasure. In 1729, the British sold two hundred chests of opium into China, each containing almost sixty kilograms of the drug. In 1790, three years before Macartney’s visit, they sold 4,054 chests. That number increased steadily.

Qianlong retired in 1796 in a gesture of filial piety, not wanting his reign to outlast that of his revered grandfather, Kangxi. This left the problem of opium to his successor, Jiāqìng (r. 1796-1820).

In 1815, the British sent another envoy, Lord Amherst, to Bei­jing. Jiāqìng expelled him after another tussle over the kowtow.

Opium addiction began to damage the fabric of Chinese society. The illegal trade fostered corruption, and silver drained from the imperial coffers. Debate raged in the court of Jiāqìng and his successor, Dàoguāng (r. 1821-1850), over whether to legalize opium — encouraging domestic production and lim­iting trade-related corruption — or ban it. In 1838, Daoguang decided on prohibition. In March 1839, the emperor sent the official Lín Zéxú (1785-1850) to Guangzhou, the hub of the opium trade, to implement the ban. By July, Lin had arrested thousands of addicts and confiscated almost twenty-three thousand kilos of opium, as well as seventy thousand pipes.

Lín Zéxú demanded that the 350 or so foreign traders in Guangzhou surrender their opium. As tensions rose, he locked them in their warehouses. Chinese soldiers blew horns and banged gongs to increase the pressure on them. It took six weeks, but the foreigners handed over twenty thousand chests. Now in possession of almost 1.4 million kilos of opium, Lín Zéxú had it mixed with water, salt, and lime and flushed out to sea.

In response, British warships blockaded the entrance to Guangzhou’s harbor, smashed through Chinese defenses, and captured ports including Shanghai and Ningbo, blocking mari­time traffic on the Grand Canal and lower Yangtze. This became known as the First Opium War.

Under duress, the Qing signed the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, which granted the British access to Guangzhou, Shanghai, and three other ‘treaty ports.’ It also ceded the island of Hong Kong — ‘fragrant port,’ named for the spice trade — to the British in perpetuity. (The British foreign secretary at the time, Lord Palm­erston, questioned the wisdom of acquiring ‘a barren island with hardly a House upon it’ that would never become a great ‘Mart of Trade.’) It imposed indemnities on the Qing totaling twenty-one million silver dollars. The United States, France, and other nations piled on with their own demands, including ‘extraterritoriality’ exemption from local justice for foreigners who committed crimes in China. Chinese law would not apply within ‘concessions’ those parts of the treaty ports controlled by foreign powers. These agreements were the first of what are called the Unequal Treaties, beginning a century of China’s humiliation at the hands of various imperialist powers. They heralded the beginning of the end, not just of the Qing, but of the dynastic system by which China had been ruled for thousands of years…

Via the invaluable Delancyplace (@delanceyplace): “The Opium Wars.”

* Lord Ellenborough, 1843


As we contemplate colonialism, we might recall that it was on this date in 1812 that President James Madison signed the declaration of war against Great Britain that formally launched the War of 1812.

Three U.S. incursions into Canada launched in 1812 and 1813 had been handily turned back by the British despite the fact that the bulk of British force was tied up in an unpleasantness with the Emperor of France and his troops.  But the decline of Napoleon’s strength freed the English to devote more resources to the West… leading to the 1814 burning of the White House, the Capital, and much of the rest of official Washington by British soldiers (retaliating for the U.S. burning of some official buildings in Canada).  Still, by the end of 1814 a combination of naval and ground victories by the Americans had driven the British back to Canada, and on December 14, 1814 the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, was signed…  sadly for the British, word of the accord did not reach troops on the Gulf Coast in time to head off an attack (on January 8, 1815) on New Orleans– which was turned back by American forces led by Andrew Jackson.  Jackson became a national hero, who rode his fame to the (rebuilt) White House; Johnny Horton got a Number One record out of it (Billboard Hot 100, 1959)…  and the English had to console themselves with their victory at Waterloo later that year– on this date in 1815…

James Madison (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 18, 2023 at 1:00 am

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