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Posts Tagged ‘colonialism

“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

“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”*…

The image above captures the received wisdom about extreme poverty and the way that it has declined over the last couple of centuries. But Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel would have us take a longer view, suggesting that the story is neither so simple nor so laudatory as we might assume…


• The common notion that extreme poverty is the “natural” condition of humanity and only declined with the rise of capitalism rests on income data that do not adequately capture access to essential goods.

•Data on real wages suggests that, historically, extreme poverty was uncommon and arose primarily during periods of severe social and economic dislocation, particularly under colonialism.

• The rise of capitalism from the long 16th century onward is associated with a decline in wages to below subsistence, a deterioration in human stature, and an upturn in premature mortality.

• In parts of South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, wages and/or height have still not recovered.

• Where progress has occurred, significant improvements in human welfare began only around the 20th century. These gains coincide with the rise of anti-colonial and socialist political movements.

Capitalism and extreme poverty: A global analysis of real wages, human height, and mortality since the long 16th century.” By way of context, Hickel is a “degrowthadvocate. In any case, the data is arresting– and surely worth pondering.

* Confucius


As we dig deeper, and lest we think pre-capitalist life was Edenic, we might recall that it was on this date in 1381 that “boy-King” Richard II met with the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt (AKA Wat Tyler‘s Rebellion or the Great Rising), which had arisen for a variety of reasons, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340s and the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years’ War.

At the meeting, Richard acceded to some of their demands– most notably, the abolition of serfdom. But after he had the opportunity to gather his forces, he put the rebellion down, rounded up the leaders (some of whom were executed; others imprisoned)… and re-instituted serfdom.

Richard II meets the rebels on 14 June 1381, in a miniature from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart‘s Chronicles (source)

“Inequality is as dear to the American heart as liberty itself”*…

And indeed, what was true a century ago seem still to hold. Everyone seems to hate/fear inflation, but it has radically different impacts on different groups within our society…

Inflation is widening America’s wealth gap.

• Prices have risen across the nation, and so have wages across all income levels.

• The lowest-earning households gained an average of $500 in earnings last year. But their expenses grew by almost $2,000.

• Meanwhile, the upper half of earners pulled further ahead as their incomes outgrew expenses significantly.

Whom does inflation hurt the most?” from Scott Galloway (@profgalloway)

William Dean Howells


As we ferret out unfairness, we might cautious birthday greetings to James Mill; he was born (James Milne) on this date in 1773. A historian, economist, political theorist, and philosopher (a close ally of Utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham), he is counted among the founders of the Ricardian school of economics (and so, among other things, a father of monetarism, the theory that excess currency leads to inflation).

His son, John Stuart Mill, studied with both Bentham and his father, then became one of most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism (perhaps especially his definition of liberty as justifying the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control). JSM also followed his father in justifying colonialism on Utilitarian lines, and served as a colonial administrator at the East India Company.

James Mill


“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”*…

Detail from the Constitution of India, 1949

Bulwer-Lytton had nothing on Indian jurists…

The English language arrived in India with the British colonists of the 17th century, giving rise to unique genres and variants, including some that characterize formal communications on the subcontinent to this day. Among these, the derogatory term “Babu English” was originally used by the British to describe the overwrought officialese of “babus” or Indian bureaucratsa style described at the British Library as “aspiring to poetic heights in vocabulary and learning, despite being full of errors.” 

“Babu English is the much caricatured flowery language of… moderately educated clerks and others who are less proficient in formal English than they realise,” wrote Rajend Mesthrie in English in Language Shift (1993). His examples include the clerk who asked his employers for leave because ‘the hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket’; the job applicant “bubbling with zeal and enthusiasm to serve as a research assistant”; and a baroque acknowledgement from a PhD thesis: “I consider it to be my primordial obligation to humbly offer my deepest sense of gratitude to my most revered Garuji and untiring and illustrious guide professor . . . for the magnitude of his benevolence and eternal guidance.”

The modern form of Babu English turns up most frequently in the language of India’s legal system. 

Take for example the 2008 case of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar, who was killed, together with a housekeeper, Hemraj, in the Talwar family home in Delhi; the murder rocked the nation. In 2013, a trial court ruled that the victims had been murdered by the girl’s parents:

The cynosure of judicial determination is the fluctuating fortunes of the dentist couple who have been arraigned for committing and secreting as also deracinating the evidence of commission of the murder of their own adolescent daughter—a beaut damsel and sole heiress Ms Aarushi and hapless domestic aide Hemraj who had migrated to India from neighbouring Nepal to eke out living and attended routinely to the chores of domestic drudgery at the house of their masters.” 

Had the judge accidentally inhaled a thesaurus? With its tormented syntax and glut of polysyllabic words, the judgment is a clear descendant and example of today’s Babu prose. In May 2016, a landmark judgment on criminal defamation written by a future Chief Justice pushed into new stylistic directions with phrases such as “proponements in oppugnation” and “made paraplegic on the mercurial stance.”

“It seems that some judges have unrealised literary dreams,” one former judge told me. “Maybe it’s a colonial hangover, or the feeling that obfuscation is a sign of merit… It can then become a 300-page judgment, just pontificating.”

Judges also retain a tendency to also quote scripture, allude to legends and myths, and throw in a dash of Plato, Shakespeare or Dickens. Some trace the legacy of flowery judgments to Justice Krishna Iyer, a pioneering and influential Supreme Court judge who served a seven-year term in the seventies. (“You had to perhaps sit with a dictionary to understand some [of his] judgments,” one lawyer remarked.)

But the former judge pointed out that this isn’t just a problem bedevilling judgments written in English. Even lower court judgments written in Hindi, he said, often deploy “words that were in vogue in Mughal times… It’s a problem of formalism.”


Wherefore, qua, bonum: decrypting Indian legalese“: a colonial hangover, or unrealized literary dreams? Mumbai-based @BhavyaDore explores.

* George Orwell, Politics and the English Language


As we choose our words carefully, we might send passionate birthday greetings to Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland; she was born on this date in 1901. A paragon of prolixity, Barbara Cartland wrote biographies, plays, music, verse, drama, and operetta, as well as several health and cook books, and many magazine articles; but she is best remembered as a romance novelist, one of the most commercially successful authors worldwide of the 20th century.

Her 723 novels were translated into 38 languages. and she continues to be referenced in the Guinness World Records for the most novels published in a single year (1977). Estimates of her sales range from 750 million copies to over 2 billion.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 9, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Maps codify the miracle of existence”*…

… and almost always, something more…

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps”, says the seafaring raconteur Charles Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). “At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.'” Of course, these “blank spaces” were anything but. The no-man’s-lands that colonial explorers like Marlow found most inviting (the Congo River basin, Tasmania, the Andaman Islands) were, in fact, richly populated, and faced devastating consequences in the name of imperial expansion.

In the same troublesome vein as Marlow, Edward Quin’s Historical Atlas painted cartographic knowledge as a candle coruscating against the void of ignorance, represented in his unique vision by a broiling mass of black cloud. Each map represents the bounds of geographical learning at a particular point in history, from a specific civilizational perspective, beginning with Eden, circa “B.C. 2348”. In the next map titled “B.C. 1491. The Exodus of the Israelites”, Armenia, Assyria, Arabia, Aram, and Egypt form an island of light, pushing back the black clouds of unknowing. As history progresses — through various Roman dynasties, the reign of Charlemagne, and the Crusades — the foul weather retreats further. In the map titled “A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America”, the transatlantic exploits of the so-called Age of Discovery force Quin to employ a shift in scale — the luminescence of his globe now extends to include Africa and most of Asia, but North America hides behind cumulus clouds, with its “unnamed” eastern shores peeking out from beneath a storm of oblivion. In the Atlas‘ last map, we find a world without darkness, not a trace of cloud. Instead, unexplored territories stretch out in the pale brown of vellum parchment, demarcating “barbarous and uncivilized countries”, as if the hinterlands of Africa and Canada are awaiting colonial inscription. 

Looking back from a contemporary vantage, the Historical Atlas remains memorable for what is not shown. Quin’s cartography inadvertently visualizes the ideology of empire: a geographic chauvinism that had little respect for the knowledge of those beyond imperial borders. And aside from depicting the reach of Kublai Khan, his focus remains narrowly European and Judeo-Christian. While Quin strives for accuracy, he admits to programmatic omission. “The colours we have used being generally meant to point out and distinguish one state or empire from another. . . were obviously inapplicable to deserts peopled by tribes having no settled form of government, or political existence, or known territorial limits”. Instead of representing these groups, Quin, like his clouds, has erased them from view.

Clouds of Unknowing: Edward Quin’s (1830) Historical Atlas. From the David Rumsey Map Collection (via the Internet Archive), where you can view it all. Via the invaluable Public Domain Review (@PublicDomainRev).

* Nicholas Crane, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet


As we find our place, we might recall that it was on this date in 1971 that an epic mapping expedition began: NASA launched the Mariner 9 space probe, the first space craft to orbit Mars (or any other planet). Mariner 9 was designed to continue the atmospheric studies begun by Mariner 6 and 7, and to map over 70% of the Martian surface from the lowest altitude (930 mi) and at the highest resolutions (from 1,100 to 110 yards per pixel) of any Mars mission up to that point. After a spate of dust storms on the planet for several months following its arrival, the orbiter managed to send back clear pictures of the surface. Mariner 9 successfully returned 7,329 images over the course of its mission, which concluded in October 1972.


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