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.
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.
The immediate causes of the war were no less contingent. When the British House of Commons voted on the war, the motion was for political reasons phrased as a motion to censure foreign secretary (and future prime minister) Lord Palmerston and his fellow ministers for their handling of the China question. The great opium dealer William Jardine, having returned to Scotland from Canton, now often whispered in Palmerston’s ear, pushing him toward war. In the end Palmerston prevailed with a margin of just nine votes — 271 to 262 — with ten of the votes on his side coming from himself and his fellow ministers whose conduct was being questioned. British public opinion was generally opposed to the war, and even its supporters openly acknowledged that there would be no glory in a war fought for the sake of drug smugglers.
Before the final vote, George Staunton, the one man in British government truly qualified to speak on China but also a man terrified of public speaking, entered the chamber to give a rare speech. For years he had argued against the opium trade and in favor of establishing friendly relations with China. But now, to everyone’s surprise, when he had the chance to stop the war, he sided with Palmerston. Platt paints a vivid portrait of a cripplingly shy man, Staunton, a man who never had a single romantic relationship in his life, clinging to his friendship with the dashing and charismatic Palmerston like it was the greatest honor of his life.
Over in Canton, events that led to the war were no less historically contingent. Policy debates within the imperial court in the 1830s resembled contemporary political debates over drug policy, with as many mandarins arguing for legalization of opium as there were arguing for a crackdown. The Daoguang Emperor seemed so receptive to the idea of legalization that the British superintendent was convinced that it was only a matter of time before the new policy was announced. But then Daoguang changed his mind and sent imperial commissioner Lin Zexu to go to Canton to take care of the drug problem.
Lin Zexu has long since been canonized in Chinese historical memory as a national hero. Indeed, even before the war, he was reputedly a perfectly incorruptible man in a bureaucracy riddled with corruption. Lin the Untouchable — that alone would have been enough to make him a hero. Today there’s a statue of him in New York’s Chinatown. But in the judgments of contemporaries in the years immediately after the war, he was thought to have taken an unnecessarily confrontational approach to the British, confining them to the so-called “factory” (actually a residence) of the East India Company in Canton as he tracked down all the opium that he would famously destroy. This “threat” to the lives and liberty of British citizens was a rallying cry in London that no doubt won Palmerston a few votes that he might have lost.
On the other side, the British superintendent Charles Elliot behaved inexplicably. When Lin demanded that the British hand over the opium, the merchants did not understand him to have meant ALL the opium. Prior crackdown efforts had at most netted a few hundred chests of opium, and so the merchants figured that if they could agree to hand over a thousand chests, that would satisfy the commissioner. Instead, Elliot believed that Lin wanted all of the opium, all 20,000 chests of them, some of them having already been shipped away. Elliot made an offer that the merchants at first couldn’t believe and then couldn’t refuse: he would, in the name of the Crown, buy all the opium himself and then hand it over to Lin. The British government was now suddenly on the hook for an astronomical sum at a time when the country was still in debt from the Napoleonic Wars. Britain now had reason to fight so as to shift the financial burden onto China. There’s evidence that Elliot was, during this time, growing mentally unstable.
One doesn’t have to agree with all of Platt’s arguments, for example his submission that the Opium War was little more than a minor skirmish from the Chinese point of view. It didn’t lead to immediate legalization of opium, which ultimately was what led to truly widespread usage that became a public health crisis. According to Platt, it was only in the early 20th century that “republican propagandists” retroactively decided that the Opium War was the beginning of all of China’s woes. I would suggest that it simply took a bit of time and distance, and several more wars and unequal treaties with foreign powers, for the Chinese to retrospectively recognize the significance of the Opium War. In the 1840s, the full ramifications were simply too early to tell.
Next time I’ll write about Charle Elliot’s cousin, George Eden, Lord Auckland, the governor of British India, and how the war in China related to Britain’s other war at the time, in Afghanistan. Lord Auckland, as in Auckland, New Zealand, the country where I grew up. Eden, as in Eden Park, one of the city’s landmarks.
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."