Stephen Platt, Professor of Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts, has in “Imperial Twilight” written an excellent book on the origins of the first Opium War, and perhaps even more importantly, at this time of US-China tensions, he has shown how wars may occur not just because the two sides do not agree, not even because of miscalculations and misperceptions, but even when key decision-makers whose behavior led to war….agree on the main points.
Platt, as one of the commentators wrote, has an eye of a novelist, and the book often reads like a combination of history and historical novel. A number of picturesque characters that have populated China trade in the early 19th century add to that impression. This is not the most important part of the book though. It makes the book readable and fun—but the quality of writing improves as we go further away from these personal episodes and closer to the War. Perhaps it was Platt’s editor who tried to make the book more attractive to the general public by insisting on introducing human stories in the beginning (the stories that indeed are interesting, but from historical point add very little), and preferred a straightforward narrative that seems ideal for an audiobook. But that straight narrative in the beginning mutes Platt, the historian, whose voice becomes strong only in the latter part of the book when he discusses historical contingencies, provides different versions of the same events, passes judgment on the main characters, and even engages in some counterfactuals. All elements the we expect from a first-rate historian are then there.
The book covers British, and more broadly international, trade with China from the end of the 18th century to the first Opium war (1839-42). It deals with the so-called “Canton period” where all foreign trade with China was localized in one small place, a depot (”factory”) outside the city-gates of Canton, an area the size of several football fields. The trade in opium makes a rather late appearance in the book, but it was going on throughout the entire period, in smaller quantities at first. The East India company was originally ambivalent about it, not because of moral scruples but because it tried, in order to preserve the valuable legal China trade in cotton and tea (on which it had a monopoly) to rather scrupulously observe Chinese laws, including the ban on opium trade, and the ban on missionary activity. But in time, independent traders, not mindful of either of these two concerns, became significant opium providers, and then the lure of profit made Company join in, in a rather big way.
The starting point of the war (which happened after the Company was stripped of its monopoly power) had much to do with two individuals who were both.…against the war. British superintendent of trade George Elliot, only the second such person appointed by the British government, replaced William Napier, a belligerent and arrogant individual who tried his best “to teach China a lesson.” But there was no support for the war Napier wanted; neither among the British public, nor British government. Palmerston, who would later prosecute the war with gusto, was against it. Earl Grey, the Prime Minister who appointed Napier, told him that “persuasion and conciliations should be the means employed—rather than anything approaching the tone of hostile and menacing language” (p. 286). Thus Elliot, an abolitionist with the previous career in the West Indies, foreswore to change the policies of his predecessors, to fully observe Chinese sovereignty, and to fight against the scourge of opium which he likened to the scourge of slavery.
The Chinese side, which after many vacillations between the idea of full legalization of opium to the energetic ban on its use, including capital punishment for the most stubborn users, decided to go with the latter option. Lin Zexu, the governor-general of Hubei and Hunan who distinguished himself by reducing opium consumption in his provinces as well as his personal incorruptibility, was appointed imperial commissioner in Canton with the brief of “obliterating opium trade”. What united Elliot and Lin was their loathing of opium traders, their appreciation of the aboveboard legitimate trade, and their agreement that China’s laws should be respected. But then things went awry.
How did then the two countries get into a war? Lin, in order to send a message that he is serious, decided, as it was done several times before, to temporarily shut down all trade in and out of Canton and to establish an effective blockade of the “factory” area until opium trade cease and accumulated opium is surrendered to the Chinese authorities. Although the blockade was implemented half-heartedly (the food and drinks being brought in by the Chinese Hong merchants who were the dealers on the Chinese side), it continued without a clear end-date. Lin’s objective was that the blockade force British traders to deliver opium which would be then publicly destroyed. He succeeded beyond expectations. Elliot, who, as we have seen, loathed opium trading asked that all opium, including that which was not near Canton, be brought to one place, and delivered to the Chinese. It led to the delivery of 20,000 chests of opium (1,000 tons), an enormous quantity, for which Elliot, on his own, issued to British traders, IOUs for the full market value. To understand the enormity of that quantity, it is worth noting that it was equal to total annual exports of opium from India to China, and had the market value of ₤2 million which was one-tenth of the entire compensation paid by the British parliament to slave owners (when the slavery was abolished). The quantity of collected opium surprised Lin (who, according to the Hong merchants, expected at most 4,000 chests) but did not lead him immediately to lift the blockade. In the end, the blockade lasted six weeks and ended in May 1839. Elliot who panicked first when he “over-delivered” opium, was now enraged at the continuation of the blockade and panicked again, and in one of his fits asked for British naval support from India, effectively calling for war.
From that point onward, the forces of war take over: there was always a small bellicose faction in London that now found additional reasons to advocate for war. Palmerston was shocked by the idea that, after government had to raise huge funds to pay slave-owners, it now had to pay opium traders too. The slide into war continued despite the preponderance of the public opinion which was against it. The war was voted by the House of Commons by the slimmest of the margins (with 9 votes of majority out of more than 500 MPs). It was declared eleven months after the blockade of foreign merchants in Canton had ended.
Like in similar circumstances elsewhere, neither the casus belli, nor the objective of the war were clear. The less clear the reasons, the more of them were piled up: some thought the war was fought for British honor, others referred to the Chinese demands that the British envoys kow-tow to the Emperor (the demand more than 40 years old by the time the war was declared); yet, others thought it was the war for civilizations, Chinese being “barbarians”; another faction however saw the war as the revenge for Chinese calling the British “barbarians”; some (perhaps more clearly than others) saw it as the war on behalf of opium traders, which –to add to irony—were generally reviled in Britain. For some, it was fought so that China, rather than Britain, pay the indemnity to traders so rashly promised by George Elliot.
Nobody’s war then lumbered on for almost three years, its objectives unclear, involving mostly unprovoked attacks on Chinese civilians by British ships. Terrorizing civilians (which had nothing to do with the war, nor with Canton, nor with opium) was a means a sending a message to the Emperor that he was no longer in control, and had to acquiesce to British demands—which lengthened as the war went on. Eventually, the Chinese capitulated, but as some people at the time warned, the war made China realize that if wanted to remain independent it had to possess an equally strong military deterrent. It took a “century of humiliation” to come to that, but eventually it did.
This silly war, fought for the objectives that were either unacceptable to openly acknowledge or difficult to formulate, is now the only 19th century event mentioned by Xi Jinping in his recent 100th CPC anniversary speech. It has acquired its place in history and nothing seems likely to dislodge it. The more time passes, the more important it becomes. And it should have never happened.
PS. It is somewhat strange that Platt does not discuss the diplomatic implications of Britain deciding, after the East India Company lost the monopoly of trade and representation in Canton, to send an official representative to represent the traders. As Platt explains, the Canton system was for more than a century based on the rules where foreign traders deal with their “equals”, the Chinese traders. Only through the latter could they convey whatever requests or problems they had to the Chinese (Cantonese) government. The Cantonese government therefore dealt only with its own citizens, not with foreigners. The appointment of an official British representative upends this system in two ways. First, the British government representative understandably wants to interact with Chinese officials which is unacceptable to the latter. Elliott was never able to deliver his letters of introduction. Second., as long as British traders dealt with Chinese traders and the latter with the Canton government, the question of sovereignty could never arise. But now that the British have an official representative for “the factory”, the position of the piece of land on which the factory is located, becomes less clear. The Chinese rightly saw it as a potential affront to their sovereignty.