June 21, 2010

Foreign Mud, Maurice Collis

While Imperial China had a tea monopoly, it was also nearly closed to trade, and may (this is never clear to me) may not actually have wanted much that the West could then manufacture at the prices the West would charge. England was powerfully addicted to tea, and didn't have an infinite supply of the silver (and fur) that China did admit to wanting. Therefore England, through, for, or as the East India Company, grew and processed opium in India and ran an illegal pirate trade into China. By the 1830s, opium was even illegal in England, or mostly so, and both opium and unregistered foreign trade were illegal in China.

So two great empires, with very few interpreters, met in Canton in circumstances that embarassed or angered both of them. The official Chinese stance was still that all foreign nations naturally wanted to pay them tribute. This was not the official British stance, but they were working up to the belief that foreign nations didn't really have the right to have their own laws if it inconvenienced or embarassed anyone English. England sent an eminent and ignorant emissary; Canton had, briefly, an honest and active governor who attempted to stop the opium trade; Jardine maneuvers them into offending each other irreparably. The British navy demonstrates British naval superiority, China is dumbfounded and remarkably ineffectual, soon there is the Anglo-Chinese war that opens China to foreign trade and eventually topples the Ch'ing dynasty.

The Parliamentary debate was nearly the Melian Dialog -- among Palmerston, Macaulay, Gladstone (and lots and lots of other speakers). Everyone admitted, more or less, that the opium trade was wrong; but a sixth of the government revenues depended on it, and besides, the honor of the British flag was at stake, and it was probably the fault of the Chinese anyway. The final vote was comfortingly close, but they voted for war. That's rather a lot of the glory of the British Empire, there; a sixth of the government revenue, the fortunes of great commercial houses, based on an opium trade no-one would actually defend.

Collis himself joined the Civil Service in 1911 and mostly worked in Southeast Asia. This history slides easily from a what-it-was-like introduction moving up the river, to accounts of diplomatic records and terrible meetings. Collis does not want to write the story with a villain. Jardine still comes across as a villain; a lot of the rest of the English as merely fat-headed, though. One odd comment, perhaps directly observed; Collis thinks the two sides failed to take each other seriously because even the translators spoke pidgin, which cannot be taken seriously.

Of the many ironies, one is that the very idea of the British Civil Service seems to be descended from early contact with the mandarinate. Samuel Johnson, in 1738, admires the system in which any official could "advocate a reform or deplore an evil", in which that was regarded as their duty; Johnson further praises the Emperors who "scorn'd to exert their Power in defence of that which they could not support by Argument." By the 1830s, it's not clear that the Emperor has a clue what's going on, because bad news is not allowed to travel upwards. Chinese policy is still not cruel to the foreigners, rather tries to rule like stern loving parents, first frightening and then soothing their clients. Bumptious post-Napoleon England got angry and then pushy in reaction: "They would rather fight for a bad reason than bow before the attempted intimidation of a people for whom they had come to have nothing but an amused contempt."

The only beautiful thing that seems to have come out of the opium trade is the design of the opium clippers, smaller faster sleeker and more profitable than even the tea clippers, the last perfection of sail.

Find in a Library: Foreign Mud, Maurice Collins.

So wrote clew in History (19th c.).
And thus wrote others:
TrackBacks turned off...