Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Was I planning to come to Mauritius? I was not. I thought I’d go to Mauritania. And no, I didn’t simply confuse the two countries and buy the wrong ticket. But I had seen lovely photos that my friend Haley posted on Facebook a few weeks earlier. And then I realized that it’s “winter” in Mauritius right now, which means that it’s not high season and yet each day is perfect with a high of 25 degrees celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), dry, and sunny day. Coming from a muggy summer in Southeast Asia, that sounded to me like heaven.
Except I didn’t realize that each perfect day often starts with an early morning downpour. And so the other morning when I went outside at 6am to meet the driver, the heavy rain surprised me and convinced me that the tour was surely canceled. He looked at me funny when I asked: of course it wasn’t. He had a dozen French people in the van all going to the same place. He knew, I didn’t, that in an hour’s time there would not be a cloud in the sky.
Captain Francis Austen, Royal Navy, commanding the HMS St. Albans, sailed to Canton at one point in the years leading up to the Opium War. The Chinese government obliquely sought his assistance against the pirate queen of the Pacific, but in the end the British sailed away again without helping. Francis, who would eventually rise to the rank of fleet admiral, had a little sister by the name of Jane. That’s right, Jane Austen. Her novel Persuasion, about a naval captain coming home after years at sea, comes to mind.
Jane Austen’s big brother is just one on a long roster of fascinating figures that populate the portrait that the historian Stephen Platt paints of the Opium War. His new book, Imperial Twilight, is terrific reading for anyone interested in this episode in history.
Platt’s central thesis is that the Opium War was a highly contingent event that didn’t need to happen at all and certainly didn’t need to happen in the way that it did. Had the former prostitute Shi Yang, known to history as Zheng Yi Sao or Cheng I Sau (“wife of elder brother Zheng”), not rise to become a pirate queen commanding 70,000 men, the British might not have been impressed with how weak Chinese naval defenses were. Had Captain Austen understood that it was official policy in Beijing not to seek foreign help in dealing with the pirates, so that the governor in Canton could not openly meet with him, he might not have returned home to report on what he thought was insolent treatment by the Chinese.
I have been very slowly catching up on Homeland. Slowly mostly because of the inconsistency of Netflix: in one country, one set of shows would be available, and in another it would be a different offering. So I would follow Carrie Mathison’s adventures for a third of a season and not be able to find out what happened next for weeks or months.
So I was five years late to the remarkably thinly veiled reference to the British bank HSBC in season 3 episode 2 of the series. “HLBC,” the fictional bank on the show caught laundering money for terrorists (as HSBC was charged with doing in real life), one character says, “has been trafficking in human misery since the Opium Wars.”
The Opium Wars! That’s a turn of phrase enough to prick up any pair of Chinese ears. The history of modern China, as told in textbooks both foreign and domestic, typically begins with the First Opium War or simply “the Opium War,” which ended in 1842 with the first of many “unequal treaties” that would plague China for over a hundred years to come — the so-called “Century of Humiliation.” (The Second Opium War or the Arrow War of 1856-60, though also significant, did not mark the beginning of a new era.)
As a would-be writer, I am often filled with self-loathing. It’s okay; it’s an occupational hazard. But today, a very specific failure weighs on me, the failure so far to keep a promise.
Three years ago, I traveled through Xinjiang, China’s massive northwestern “autonomous region” (of course it’s not actually autonomous) that is the historical homeland of the Uyghur minority, a Muslim Turkic population that prefers to call the area “East Turkestan.”
I traveled there to research the book I was trying to write. While there, in the old center of traditional Uyghur life, Kashgar, a kindly man whom I call “Yusup” in the manuscript asked me to make him a promise. “Tell our story,” he said. “Write about us. Let the outside world know what is happening in Xinjiang.”
And so far, as I have failed as yet to publish the book, I have failed to keep my promise.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."