The Opium War Of Britain
In 1840, Britain went to war with China over questions of trade, diplomacy, national dignity and most importantly, drug trafficking. While British officials tried to downplay the conflict’s illegal origins, opponents gave it a name that made the link quite clear: the Opium War.
The war agreement forced the opening of Chinese ports and the giving of Hong Kong to Britain. It began what China calls the “Century of Humiliation”, when foreign powers forced weak Chinese governments to leave the region and sign unequal treaties. Britain and France waged the Second Opium War against China from 1856 to 1860. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, alludes to the era in his call for the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation.
War is often seen as inevitable. But viewed through the lens of its own era, the conflict is deeply counterintuitive, Stephen R. Platt writes in “Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age”. Platt, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, explores how war was triggered by the influence of unscrupulous merchants.
In an email interview, Platt discussed the origins of the Opium War and its impact on China’s relationship with the world today.
Yes, the war was incredibly controversial in its time, much more than I expected when I began my research. For supporters it was a matter of framing. He denied any connection to opium and argued that the war was purely to protect Britain’s national honor and to protect his countrymen from alleged atrocities in China.
But opium involvement was inevitable – thus the name “Opium War”, as the London Times and other papers called it. For many in Britain the notion of going to war to advance the interests of drug dealers, against a country that has always been friendly to Britain, was abhorrent. As William Gladstone wrote in his diary at the time, “I fear God’s judgments on England for our national iniquity towards China.”
The confrontation between those two sides came to a head in the spring of 1840, with a major debate in the House of Commons forcing the resignation of ministers over a proposal to stop the war. After three all-night debates, accompanied by passionate speeches that in some cases lasted for hours, the motion failed by a razor margin.
Sadly, in some ways it worked out better the less they knew about in other. When China was still a mystery, it was seen as unified and impregnable. As the British began to learn the reality of the conditions of the empire, it became clear that it was weaker than imagined and that there were severe divisions within its society.
On its face, the Opium War was almost absurd in its concept: the British sent a small fleet and a few thousand soldiers to wage war on an empire of over three hundred million people. But they were enthused by travellers’ reports that Chinese merchants wanted free trade with the British and that only their government was coming in the way—essentially, that the British would be welcomed with open arms by the common people. It was a gamble that could not have been imagined a generation ago.
He did not always use his knowledge for good purposes. For example, Gutzlaf was one of the most talented linguists of his era and stopped interpreting for opium smugglers. But in a broader sense, the events of this era are a reminder that so-called experts do not always appreciate the limits of their own knowledge. They can become especially hostile critics when a country they claim to understand so well behaves in ways they think it shouldn’t. It’s almost as if they feel personally betrayed.
In Staunton’s case, he was a vocal opponent of the opium trade and had in the past served as Britain’s conscience towards China. Had it been a film, he would have stood in the House of Commons in 1840 and condemned the war and all those who supported it. But he did the exact opposite. It was heartbreaking to see him do this as a historian, but it is one of the things that makes history so fascinating. Sometimes people don’t do what you expect, and when it does it opens up a whole new dimension of their character.
As the British saw it, Couto was a national disgrace – basically, their ambassador was being asked to humiliate himself in front of the Emperor of China. It became for them the ultimate symbol of Chinese arrogance and inflexibility. Couto also became an argument of sorts for the Opium War: Britain had to fight that war, the argument went, because the Chinese refused to treat Westerners equally.
The irony of this is that in fact none of Britain’s ambassadors to China before the war forbade spectators to attend. The King’s Court showed itself to be more flexible in this matter than the British. That is to say, the frenzy about Kovto actually says more about Great Britain than it does about China. In any case, some Western observers of the time wondered why the British should expect China to tailor their court ceremonies to theirs. As Napoleon put it, if it was the custom of the British to kiss their king on their buttocks, would they go to China and demand that the emperor drop his trousers?
In the early nineteenth century, trade was a common language between China and Britain despite great differences in their national cultures. Chinese and British officials alike believed that legal, upward trade was a strong stabilizing factor in international affairs. It was when governments intruded too directly, and especially when issues of national prestige entered the mix, that problems would arise.
Left to its own devices, however, the canton was a largely peaceful and profitable meeting of trade civilizations. So perhaps the lesson to be remembered today is that economic engagement provides the ballast for our relationship with China, and we must be very careful how we let politics interfere with it.