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6 The Opium Wars PDF Print E-mail
Written by Brian Ingliss   
Wednesday, 09 February 2011 00:00

6 The Opium Wars

THE GIN PLAGUE OF LONDON HAD SHOWN HOW A GOVERNMENT, and a governing class, could encourage the spread of drug-taking in its own financial interest, with destructive consequences; but at least it had been possible for them to reverse the policy when those consequences became apparent. A plant drug which grew in Britain's new colonial territory in India was to prove even more profitable; and as the bulk of it was sold away from British territory, there was no need to worry what the consequences might be.

Opium had long been manufactured from the sap of the poppies grown in the Middle East and in India; and traveller after traveller in those regions had reported that unlike in Europe, where it was employed mainly as a sedative, it was taken as a stimulant, particularly when Dutch courage was required. 'There is no Turk who would not buy opium with his last penny', the French naturalist Belon noted in the sixteenth century, 'because they think that they become more daring, and have less fear of the dangers of war.' In India, John Fryer observed in the 1670s, wrestlers took it to help them to perform feats ordinarily beyond their strength, and warriors, 'to run up on any enterprise with a raging resolution to die or be victorious'.

Had the British arrived in India as colonists, they would probably have felt bound to try to suppress opium consumption as a danger to law and order — and to health; it could create a powerful craving, as Robert Clive, who became addicted to it, was to find. But apart from the risk of addiction, opium represented no threat to the East India Company, so long as it remained primarily a mercantile body. The Moguls possessed a monopoly of opium production in Bengal, and they were disposed to restrict consumption, as far as possible, to themselves and their circle. They were willing, though, to sell it to the Company; and the Company's ships began to take it to the East Indies and to China.

Warren Hastings

Opium had long been used in China medicinally; and in the seventeenth century people had begun to burn small quantities of it in the flame of a candle, to inhale the fumes — the idea presumably deriving from seeing tobacco smoked. Disturbed by reports of the spread of the new fad, the Emperor decreed in 1729 that opium must no longer be imported, except under licence. But by this time it had won too many adherents. The flow continued in defiance of the ban, just as with tobacco in those countries which had tried to enforce prohibition a century before.

Most of the opium was brought in from the Middle East by the Portuguese, through Macao; but when the East India Company inherited the Mogul empire after Clive's victory at Plassey, they also inherited the Mogul's opium monopoly, and the prospect of selling more of it in China, with her estimated 300,000,000 population, was attractive. There was a snag, however: foreigners were permitted to trade with China only through Canton. The Company enjoyed a monopoly of British trade there — including opium brought in under licence. Its rights might be forfeited if it were caught smuggling. The Company therefore began to sell its opium in India to the owners of merchant ships who were prepared to smuggle it into China; and these 'country ships', as they came to be called, took it to Macao.

For a while, the operations were on a very small scale; but when Warren Hastings took over the management of the Company in 1772, becoming Governor-General of British India, he soon grasped the tremendous potential of the traffic and set about expanding it for the benefit of the Company's finances. Hastings had no illusions about what he was doing. He described opium as a 'pernicious' commodity, 'which the wisdom of the Government should carefully restrain from internal consumption' — that is, from consumption in British India. Foreign commerce was a different matter. When war with the Dutch temporarily closed the opium market in their colonies in the East Indies, Hastings switched a consignment to Canton, in a privateer armed at the expense of the Company. The venture was not a success. Blackmailed by the Canton merchants' guild with the threat of disclosure, the Company's Canton agents had to sell the opium to them for a derisory price. But the 'country ships' continued to provide a safe and increasingly lucrative method of distribution.

Shortly before the end of the century another imperial edict against opium was promulgated; and it was to be followed by many more, pleading, warning, threatening. Far from paying any attention, the 'country ships' began to extend their activities; 'some ill-disposed individuals', the Emperor was informed in 1807, had even begun to carry the opium they brought over the mountain passes into the interior. Soon, it reached Pekin. In 1813 he discovered to his horror that members of his bodyguard, and some of the court eunuchs, had become enslaved by the habit. Stiffer penalties were decreed, flogging and the wearing of the cangue — a kind of portable pillory; but without success. The lower classes, it was found, were taking to the habit; 'vagabonds clandestinel\y purchase and eat it' a further edict complained in 1815, 'an4 eventually become sunk into the most stupid and besotted state so as to cut down the powers of nature and destroy life.'

The situation was unprecedented. Doubtless the French Government had been very willing, a century earlier, that French wine and brandy should continue to be smuggled into Britain, the proceeds going to help the French wine industry, and at the same time depriving the British Government of needed revenue. But the French Government had not itself acted as a principal; whereas the Government of British India — as the Company had virtually become — were by this time purchasing the entire poppy harvest in their territories, with the deliberate intention of processing the opium and sending the bulk of it to China. To avoid jeopardising their legal commercial undertakings — in particular, the tea trade, which had reached massive proportions — they still had to pretend that they were not engaged in smuggling. Nor, technically, were they, as the 'country ships' did not sail under the Company's flag. But they were licensed by the Company — no ship could take opium out of India without such a licence. Their operations, too, were financed by the Company, whose Canton agents received the price for the opium from the Chinese merchants who purchased it. The Company's money was also laid out, where necessary, in bribes. When a new Governor from Pekin arrested some of the Cantonese who were involved in the traffic, and compelled them under torture to confess, the Company's Canton agents warned that sales might be subject to some delay; but they made it clear that this would be only until a new bribery scale had been agreed with the 'officers and police people employed to prevent the sales', to compensate them for the additional risk they had run.

If criticised for this involvement in drug smuggling, the Company's line was that it was up to the Chinese, if they wanted, to enforce their own laws; and in this the Company was doing its best to help by restricting production, and keeping up the price, so that most people would not be able to afford it. 'Were it possible to prevent the use of the drug altogether', the Governor-General virtuously claimed in 1817, 'except strictly for the purpose of medicine, we would gladly do it in compassion to mankind'. The Company's directors in London expressed their approval, but added that restriction of the supply was a policy which would be acceptable only so long as it meant higher profits; otherwise, 'the expediency of proportionately increasing the annual provision will naturally engage your attention'.

Very soon, the Indian Government's attention was duly engaged. Attracted by the rising price of opium, Princes in the Indian Native States were beginning to encourage production; and in quantity and quality `Malwa', as it was known, began to rival the Company's opium from Bengal. The Company hastily abandoned its policy of restricting consumption, reduced its prices, and in 1827 resorted to what was described as a policy of 'voluntary persuasion' of the Princes to sell their opium only through the Company, in Calcutta or Bombay. The voluntary persuasion took the form of telling the Princes that they had to make a choice between keeping the friendship, or incurring the enmity, of the British Government. Past experience had shown that an Indian ruler who incurred the enmity of the British Government was liable to lose his throne, and sometimes his life. Friendship, on the other hand, meant a subsidy to compensate for the loss of revenue from opium. It was not long before the great bulk of the Malwa opium produced in the Native States was under the Company's control.

The Napier incident

At the Canton end the Company had also had a setback; but it, too, had turned out in the end to be an advantage. By 1820 the system of bribery had become so well-established that the 'country ships' were actually sailing up the Canton estuary to Whampoa, the port of Canton, confident that officials would look the other way when the consignments were unloaded. Once again, however, a new Governor, determined to carry out Pekin's instructions — or at least appear to be carrying them out — arrested a number of the Chinese involved. He also ordered that all ships coming up the Canton river must be searched; any ship found carrying any opium would have not merely the opium, but its entire cargo confiscated, and would thereafter be banned from the China trade.

The smugglers departed — but only as far as Lintin island, at the mouth of the estuary. There, they set up what was in all but name, a British base. The opium clippers were fast and well-armed, more than a match for Chinese junks which were sent to intercept them. They brought their cargoes to Lintin, packed in chests-of-drawers, containing about 140 lbs of opium made up into balls about the size of a small grapefruit; discharged the chests in depot ships; and returned to India for more. From Lintin, the opium was either taken by country ships farther along the coast, or transferred locally to 'fast crabs', or 'scrambling dragons' — the names by which the Chinese authorities denounced them, in a proclamation in 1826— shallow-beamed boats manned by thirty or forty oarsmen, designed so that they could skim over bars and shallows, and along remote creeks. The penalty for being caught was death; but this actually helped the traffic, because the smugglers had no hesitation in fighting it out if, owing to some breakdown in the bribery chain, they were intercepted. Lintin was ideally suited to 'fast crab' activities. It also saved port dues for the larger ships; and it was free from Chinese interference. During the 1820s, as a result, the amount of Indian opium imported into China quadrupled.

There was no question, as yet, of the Company's trying to justify the opium traffic on any other ground than caveat emptor. The taking of opium for pleasure was still regarded as a destructive vice — and not just in India; Stamford Raffles denounced it as a malign influence on the people of Java, 'degrading their character and enervating their energies'. De Quincey's Confessions, too, when they were published in 1821, alerted public opinion at home to the agonies of addiction. So when the House of Commons Committee was set up to investigate the affairs of the East India Company in 1830, the Company's line was that it must be allowed to retain its opium monopoly, because only in that way could production be restricted, and consumption kept down by 'making the price as high as possible'. It would have required little research by the Committee to find that so far from trying to keep the price up and consumption down, the Company was selling four times as much opium to the Chinese at a considerably lower price than it had ten years before; but the Company had another argument in reserve, which was to prove decisive. The value of the opium sold in China amounted to well over two million pounds — getting on for half the amount then annually devoted to paying for the Crown and the Civil Service in Britain. If the Government of India was deprived of the revenue from opium, it would have to be raised from other sources, and the British taxpayer might have to be called upon. It would not be desirable, the Committee recommended, 'to abandon so important a source of revenue as the opium trade, the duty upon opium being one which falls principally on the foreign consumer'. The Government gratefully accepted the recommendation; and although the Company was stripped of its other privileges, the opium monopoly was retained.

This meant, in effect, that the British Government was now directly responsible for the opium traffic, through the Government of India, 'the Company' being hardly distinguishable from the Indian civil service. Even the pretence that production was being kept down to keep prices high and consumption low was abandoned. The Company's agents were instructed to put pressure on the Bengal peasants to sow more poppies; as the agents were paid on a commission basis, they needed no inducement, using various forms of blackmail to bring recalcitrant peasants into line.

Largely due to the pioneer efforts of Jardine Matheson's 'opium clippers', too, new areas were opened up to the smuggling traffic along the Chinese coast to the north of Canton. Language was a difficulty; William Jardine shrewdly solved it by employing a missionary, Charles Gutzlaff, as interpreter. 'We look up to the ever-blessed Redeemer, to whom China with all its millions is given', Gutzlaff wrote; 'in the faithfulness of His promise we anticipate the glorious day of a general conversion, and are willing to do our utmost to promote the good work'; the good work being the introduction of the Chinese to the bibles, tracts, and ointments, which he distributed wherever his duties as interpreter, in the haggling over opium prices — which brought much satisfaction and profit to Jardine Matheson — permitted.

Some members of the Whig Government, though, were uneasy about the traffic. It did not pass unnoticed abroad that the Government which, in 1833, had paraded its devotion to the cause of humanity by abolishing the slave trade, had now taken over the role of principal in the most massive smuggling operation the world had ever known, designed to keep the Chinese people supplied with a notoriously dangerous drug, consumption of which was generally restricted, and in some places prohibited, on British territory. The remedy, Lord Palmerston decided, was to persuade the Chinese Government to end the Canton monopoly, and to open up other ports to foreign trade — which would be accompanied, the expectation was, by the legalisation of opium. In 1834 he despatched Lord Napier to China, to negotiate the deal.

A naval officer turned sheep farmer, Napier knew nothing of China or the Chinese, and succeeded only in irritating the Canton authorities. Recriminations followed; and the viceroy put a ban on trade of any kind by British ships. Napier's reply was a show of force: two British frigates managed to fight their way up the river to Canton. The Chinese blocked their way back, with stakes and fireships. Napier realised he was trapped. Harassed, and suffering from fever, he had to accept the offer of a Chinese boat for his return journey from Canton down to the sea. It deposited him at Macao where, a few days later, he died.

The prohibition debate

Up to this point, information about the effects of the opium on the Chinese had been scanty; and it was never to be wholly reliable. But in 1832 two American missionaries founded the Chinese Repository, a monthly magazine which, amongst other things, provided translations of Chinese documents ranging from imperial decrees to fly-posters; and the evidence pointed to growing alarm about the drug. The army, in particular, had succumbed. Of a thousand soldiers sent as reinforcements to help put down a rising in the province of Canton, the commanding officer had had to reject two hundred as unfit for service; and opium was blamed when the rebels defeated the imperial force. The son of the Governor of Canton, it also transpired, had been smuggling it through to his friends in Pekin in the equivalent of the diplomatic bag. Chinese historians have suggested that this attraction opium smoking had for the sons of men of wealth and position may have been decisive, in what was to follow: for the Emperor himself — Tao-Kwang, who had succeeded to the throne in 1820 —was a victim; his three eldest sons all died of opium addiction.

The difficulty which confronted the Emperor was how to suppress the opium traffic, now that it had obtained such a hold. The story of the opium in the diplomatic bag had come out only because it turned out to be of such poor quality that the merchant concerned was to be proceeded against, just as if it were legal merchandise; and how deeply both merchants and civil authorities were involved was revealed again in 1834. The Repository reported that the new Governor of Canton (the old one having been sacked for his failure to suppress the traffic), angry at finding that he had been overcharged for his opium supply, had attempted to arrest the suppliers, only to find they had already absconded. When the authorities did take action against smugglers — the Repository explained — it was not to stop smuggling, but to ensure that it was kept in existing channels: 'it would seem that the smuggling trade is becoming a monopoly of the Government.'

The fact, too, that so many respectable citizens — or their sons — were opium smokers encouraged extortion and blackmail. Since the beginning of the century, the American merchant Charles W. King — one of the very few merchants of any nationality in Canton who had refused to have anything to do with the traffic — complained in a letter to the British Superintendent of Trade: the British merchants, led on by the East India Company, have been driving a trade in violation of the highest laws and the best interests of the Chinese empire. This cause has been pushed so far as to derange its currency, to corrupt its officers, and ruin multitudes of its people. The traffic has become associated, in the politics of the country, with the axe and the dungeon; in the breasts of men in private life, with the wreck of property, virtue, honour and happiness. All ranks, from the Emperor on the throne to the people of the humblest hamlets, have felt its sting. To the fact of its descent to the lowest classes of society, we are frequent witnesses; and the Court gazettes are evidence that it has marked out victims for disgrace and ruin even among the imperial kindred.

Law-abiding citizens were not necessarily safe as Gutzlaff was to lament, when he came to write the life of the Emperor. The great bane of China, Gutzlaff — of all people — argued, had been the introduction of opium by foreigners. The rewards offered to informers in the attempt to suppress it made them 'both numerous and unscrupulous; whoever had a grudge against his neighbour, denounced him as a transgressor of the laws against the drug'; and the excuse 'searching for the drug', had been used by officials to commit thefts, and other outrages. Thousands of innocent people, Gutzlaff lamented, had been the victims

The failure of the prohibition policy, and the disastrous consequences arising out of the effort to enforce it, had attracted the attention of some of the teachers at an academy which had been founded in 1820 in Canton. Perhaps because it had not settled into the traditional academic grooves, the possibility of legalising opium imports, subject to a duty, had been discussed; and among those influenced by the arguments in favour of that course was Hsii Nai-chi, who had later become an imperial official in the province of Kwantung, and seen for himself the effects of the failure of prohibition. In May 1836 he addressed a memorial to the Emperor, putting the case for admitting opium legally, on payment of duty.

Hsii did not dispute that 'so vile a practice', and the evils arising out of it, should if possible be stopped. His argument was that prohibition not merely had failed to stop the evils, but had created many more; and the severer the interdicts against it became, 'the more widely do the evils arising therefrom spread'. When it had first been found that prohibition was not working, flogging and the cangue had been introduced; then, exile, imprisonment, and even death. Yet 'the smokers of the drug have increased in number, and the practice has spread almost through the whole empire'. Supporters of the prohibition policy had been forced back on the argument that it was not the regulations, but how they were carried out, that was the trouble; 'it is said, the daily increase is owing to the negligence of officers in enforcing the interdicts!' But this negligence, HMI insisted, was the fault of the interdicts. The more severe they became, the greater the incentive to criminals to employ violence, or corruption, or both.

In its general approach, the memorial was remarkably similar in its line of argument to Bathurst's in the House of Lords nearly a century before. But Has analysis went a little deeper in its recognition of why the severity of a penal code, so far from helping in the effort to suppress a drug, must make it easier for the importer. As he was not himself at risk, the penalties did not matter to him. At worst, all that he had to worry about was having to pay out more in bribes. But even that could be, in the end, to his advantage. The higher the payment offered, the easier it became to find officials who would succumb.

The Emperor was sufficiently impressed by Hsii's memorandum to refer it, in June, to the Governor of Canton, Teng T'ing-chen, who had taken office earlier that year. Teng had already been converted to the legalisation policy: his recommendations followed the line Hsti had laid down. But other advisers expressed horror at the proposal — in much the same terms as Hervey and Chesterfield had used about the Spirits Licensing Bill. 'When have not prostitution, gambling, treason, robbery, and suchlike infractions of the laws afforded occasion for extortionate underlings and worthless vagrants to benefit themselves, and by falsehood and bribery to amass wealth?', Chu T'sun, Sub-Chancellor of the Grand Secretariat, asked. 'But none, surely, would contend that the law, because in such instances rendered ineffectual, should therefore be abrogated!' The consequences of such a step would be disastrous:

The laws that forbid the people to do wrong may be likened to the dykes which prevent the overflowing of water. If any one, then, urging that the dykes are very old, and therefore useless, should have them thrown down, what words could express the consequences of the impetuous rush and all-destroying overflow!

The damage, Chu feared, might already have been done, simply by the knowledge that there was a move in favour of legalisation: 'the instant effect has been, that crafty thieves and villains have on all sides begun to raise their heads and open their eyes, gazing about and pointing the finger, under the notion that when once these prohibitions are repealed, thenceforth, and forever, they may regard themselves as free from every restraint'.

Another memorialist added a recommendation which may well have been decisive. The opium sellers, he pointed out, were actually living in Canton: even Jardine himself. Why? Why not arrest them, for breaking the imperial law? Why not send all their ships back, and allow no resumption of trade of any kind until all opium smuggling activities had ceased? 'If commands be issued of this plain and energetic character, in language strong, and in sense becoming, though their nature be the most abject — that of a dog, or a sheep — yet, having a care for their own lives, they will not fail to seek the gain, and to flee the danger.'

This was the policy that the Emperor elected to follow. For having raised the hopes of the opium smokers that the drug might be legalised, Hsti Nai-chi was removed from his post. An official who had sent in detailed plans showing how prohibition could be enforced, Lin Tse-hsu, was despatched early in 1839 to Canton as Imperial Commissioner, charged with the suppression of the opium traffic.

The first Opium War

The story of Lin's commissionership, which provoked the first Opium War, has often been told; in recent years by, among others, Maurice Collis, in Foreign Mud; Arthur Waley, in The Opium War through Chinese Eyes; and Hsin-Pao Chang in Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. It represents the classic example of the limitations of honesty, integrity and assiduity in carrying out a campaign to suppress the traffic in a drug. Yet Lin felt he was well-placed to achieve his aim. He had a half-Nelson on the British merchants, because he knew they could not afford to risk the loss of the tea trade, through Canton; and he determined to exploit the hold this gave him. The British merchants, he announced after his arrival, must surrender all their opium stocks. When, thinking to placate him, they offered to surrender a thousand chests, he took the opportunity to show that he knew exactly how much more opium they had, and to inform them that until they handed it over, all trade with British vessels, and all movement of British shipping up and down the Canton river, would cease.

At this point the Chief Superintendent of Trade, Captain Charles Elliot, managed to get up to Canton. As Chief Superintendent, he was a kind of unofficial British Consul in China; and he had written time after time to Palmerston to warn him that if the opium traffic was allowed to develop unchecked, a crisis must develop. It now had; and, though he had no official powers, he decided there was no help for it but to hand over all the opium: more than 20,000 chests. Lin put an end to the blockade, took delivery of the opium, and personally supervised its destruction. It was mixed with salt and lime, dissolved in water, and flushed away into the sea.

Lin had achieved his first objective; but it availed him nothing. Elliot ordered all British subjects and all British ships out of the Canton river, so that they could no longer be held virtually as hostages — the American merchants, most of whom had been involved in the opium traffic, staying in Canton to act as agents for the British, so that the tea trade would not be disrupted. The opium arriving from India was simply switched to points along the coast, as an Imperial Censor, Pu Chi-t'ung, had warned would happen, in a memorial to the Emperor. And Lin found himself unable to check the smuggling. After the destruction of the opium, he intended to have a purge of the customs officials; but too many of them, he found, were implicated in the traffic. Even where he managed to stir them to action, this only — as he explained to the Emperor in the spring of 1840 — led to the smugglers adopting more ingenious ruses to circumvent them. Sometimes opium would be hidden in the rear apartments of houses, where the women lived, their presence embarrassing the searchers. Sometimes it was buried in forests, or in the precincts of temples. It had even been put into chests disguised as coffins, and laid to rest, until required, in tombs.

And Lin was finding it hard to get informers, because they were no use to him unless they knew the traffic — in which case they would work for the smugglers, who could afford to pay them more.

What was being demonstrated, for the first time on such a large scale, was the impracticability of prohibition as a way to suppress the traffic in a drug, particularly in a drug as addictive as opium. Addicts, who felt they had to have it, would pay whatever the smugglers charged. If supplies dwindled owing to more effective customs work, the price rose, allowing a bigger margin of profit out of which to bribe the customs officials into connivance. And as smuggling was so extensive, many thousands of people, from the rowers of the fast crabs to the opium smokers, had a common interest in breaking the law, and protecting others who broke it. Where respectable citizens or officials were involved, there were opportunities for extortion and for blackmail; and the higher the legal penalties for opium offences, the greater the risk that those involved would commit acts of violence and even murder, rather than allow themselves to be caught.

All this, Lin was to learn in the months which elapsed between the departure of the British from Canton, and the arrival of the expeditionary force which Elliot had asked for, to punish the Commissioner for his presumption. Elliot had not altered his views about opium. 'No man entertains a deeper detestation of the disgrace and sin of this forced traffic', he wrote to Palmerston, in November 1839 'than the humble individual who signs this despatch. I see little to choose between it and piracy.' But British property had been extorted by compulsion, and destroyed; that, he felt, was 'the most shameless violence which one nation has ever yet dared to perpetrate against another'. While awaiting Palmerston's instructions, he used the small naval force he had at his disposal to protect the British merchant fleet, which lay at anchor off Hong Kong, and to inflict some punishment on presumptuous Chinese naval junks.

The British force arrived in June 1840; including what Lin described as 'cartwheel ships, that can put the axles in motion by means of fire, and can Move rather fast'. Still more important, the new steamships could move in a flat calm, or directly up wind. They did not, however, waste any time trying to move up the river to Canton. They went north, to put more direct pressure on Pekin. Lin, who had been basking in the Imperial favour, was abruptly removed from his post, and sent into exile. His mistake — as the Censor, Pu, had realised — lay in imagining that the threat of closure of the legitimate British trade would suffice to bring the opium traffic to an end. It mattered little to the British merchants that instead of picking up their tea at Canton, they had to leave the Americans to collect it there, and receive it from them at Hong Kong. What was vital was that the flow of their imports of opium should continue; and Lin had been unable to stop it.

It was not seriously impeded even by the hostilities which followed, as militarily the resistance was insignificant. By some judicious diplomatic manoeuvres and some injudicious attempts at deception, the Chinese managed to avoid capitulation until the summer of 1842, when they were finally compelled to accept the British terms. By then, the opium traffic was back to normal.

The treaty of Nanking

The war had not, admittedly, been fought exclusively to legitimise the opium traffic. Palmerston could claim that he was mainly concerned with compelling the Chinese to accept free trade. But opium happened to be by far the most profitable commodity involved. 'Had there been an alternative', Commissioner Lin's biographer Hsin-pao Chang commented, — say, molasses, or rice — the conflict might have been called the Molasses War, or the Rice War'. But there was no alternative. Not merely was opium the only British import for which there was any substantial demand in China: the demand had grown enormously. In the late 1820s the Company exported an average of less than 10,000 chests annually to China; that figure had increased, in the year before Lin was appointed, to 40,000 Palmerston was fully aware of the situation; Jardine, who had returned to England just before Lin arrived at Canton, had been called in to brief him, 'I have to instruct you' — Palmerston accordingly informed Captain Elliot — 'to make some arrangement with the Chinese Government for the admission of opium to China as an article of lawful commerce.'

Palmerston knew, though, that it would be unwise to make this instruction public. The Chinese plenipotentiaries, he went on, must not be given the idea that it was 'the intention of H.M. Government to use any compulsion'. Had H.M. Government been seen to be forcing the Chinese to legalise opium, its enemies abroad and at home would have been handed a serviceable weapon; and its shaky majority, which had narrowly survived a debate on its China policy in the Commons in 1840, would have been again imperilled. The line to take to the Chinese, Palmertson suggested, was that they should offer to legalise opium in their own interest. They should be reminded that they could not stop it coming in, for even if the supply of opium from India could be checked, 'plenty of it would be produced in other countries, and would thence be sent to China'; and they should allow themselves to be gently persuaded to profit out of necessity by taxing it.

When Elliot was sacked in 1841, similar instructions were given to his successor, Sir George Pottinger. The British Government, the Chinese plenipotentiaries were to be told, did not insist; but it must be impressed on the Chinese how very much in their own interest the legalisation of opium would be. Pottinger duly presented Palmerston's view, only to be met with a blank refusal even to discuss the possibility of legalisation. Opium, they told him, was an evil, growing daily worse. They could not, even if they wanted to, countenance the proposal, as the Emperor would repudiate them. Pottinger's instructions left him no room to manoeuvre; and the change of Government in Britain in 1841 promised to make his task still more difficult — the Tories in Opposition having come out strongly against the opium traffic in a debate in the Commons the year before.

In the event, though, the Tories' principles underwent a rapid change when they crossed the floor of the House. They did not care to put any further pressure on the Chinese to admit opium; Pottinger was told he could accept the continuance of the ban. But he was instructed to warn the Chinese that, so far as British shipping was concerned, they 'need not trouble themselves whether our vessels bring opium or not'. In other words, British ships suspected of smuggling must not be searched. As the Chinese would presumably ask the British Government, in these circumstances, not to allow British ships to be used for smuggling, Pottinger was told he should instruct their owners to conform — leaving the traffic to 'Chinese fast boats and other craft', as before. And it was this system — 'mutual connivance', as Pottinger's successor Sir John Davis tetchily described it — that came into operation after the peace settlement.

The Arrow War

Mutual connivance was an unsatisfactory basis for peace. It survived only because in the immediate post-war period, the Chinese were in no mood to risk a resumption of hostilities. In 1850 the new Emperor, Hsien-feng, issued a fresh edict against opium smoking, giving offenders a brief period of grace in which to break the habit, after which anybody caught would be beheaded, and his family sent into slavery. But a few months later the Taiping — the long-haired ones' — rose in rebellion; and although they were opposed to the use of drugs of any kind — tobacco smoking, even, was punishable by death — their victories benefited the opium traffic. The leaders of the Taiping were too preoccupied with the struggle against the imperial troops; and at the same time, it became difficult for the Emperor to enforce prohibition, even in those regions which still nominally adhered to his cause.

The traffic, too, was greatly facilitated by the fact that under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking the British had taken Hong Kong. Pottinger had assured the Chinese plenipotentiaries that the exportation of opium from Hong Kong to China would be forbidden; and it was. But the ban was never enforced. There was nothing to prevent opium from being smuggled out to the mainland. As soon as the smugglers realised that the Canton authorities, rather than risk precipitating another war, were not searching British vessels, they began to register the smuggling craft as British, and sail them openly up the Canton estuary, with the Union Jack as their flag of convenience.

Opium also poured into Northern China through Shanghai which, as the northernmost of the ports opened to foreigners by the Pottinger treaty, served a hitherto largely inaccessible region. In the ten years following the treaty, the opium traffic to China doubled. This roused British hopes that the Emperor, realising his ban had failed and needing funds to mount more effective operations against the Taiping, might be converted to the policy of legalisation, as some of his courtiers desired. But he remained determined to stamp out opium smuggling. To this end, he had sent Yeh Ming-Chen, a disciple and friend of Commissioner Lin's, to Canton to resume Lin's policies. Caution, and the need to deal with the Taiping, meant that there was no immediate confrontation of the kind Lin had precipitated; but Yeh cleverly fanned the anti-British feeling which had arisen since the war among the Cantonese. There were ugly incidents, and the British merchants began to realise that they and their commerce were in growing danger.

An excuse would be needed, though, for a new campaign. Yeh provided it in the autumn of 1856, when Mandarins arrested the crew of the lorcha Arrow, lying off Canton. Lorchas were a hybrid species, with a Western-style hull and eastern-style sails; they had been found convenient for smuggling, and the Arrow was one of many which, though Chinese-owned, had been registered as British for that purpose in Hong Kong. For form's sake, the master was British; but the crew were Chinese, some of them being criminals known to the Chinese authorities. So far as the British authorities were concerned, this made no difference. Criminals or not, they were under the protection of the British flag. (The discovery that the Arrow's registration had expired, so that it was no longer a British vessel, caused only momentary embarrassment; it could legally have re-registered, the explanation was, the next time it arrived in Hong Kong.) When Yeh refused to apologise, the navy was called in, and proceeded to shell his official residence in Canton.

The Tory Opposition were outraged. The Arrow affair, they complained, was a shoddy excuse for the war which Palmerston now clearly proposed to wage; and in an impassioned debate in the Commons, they did what they had failed to do in 1840, winning the Radicals to their side and defeating the Government in a vote. It was just the opportunity Palmerston had needed. He held a general election, taking care to ensure it was fought on the issue of the insult to the British Crown. 'An insolent barbarian wielding authority at Canton,' he told the electors of Tiverton, 'has violated the British flag, broken the engagement of treaties, offered rewards for the heads of British subjects in that part of China, and planned their destruction by murder, assassinations and poisons.' The electorate, their patriotic passions aroused, enthusiastically voted him and his supporters back into office.

The Emperor managed to delay the final capitulation, as his predecessor had, by some judicious stalling, and some injudicious deception. Lord Elgin, leading the British expeditionary force, had to occupy Pekin and burn down the Emperor's Summer Palace, to convince him that when terms were accepted, even under duress, they must be kept. And one of the terms imposed, on this occasion, was that in future imports of opium would be legally permitted, on payment of a duty. As before, it was possible to maintain that this was not what the war had been fought about — a view which suited Elgin, who personally thought the flimsy Arrow pretext scandalous, and was so digusted with what he saw of the effects of opium in China that he declined to treat it as a significant item on the negotiation agenda. It had, in fact, by this time become part of a much wider set of objectives: shared by the French, who had commercial designs on China, and had joined in the fighting, and the Americans, who had helped in spite of their neutrality. The common aim was to compel the Chinese to conform to the ways of the West in diplomacy and in trade. Nevertheless opium was still, for the British, the main consideration. The returns of the years between the wars had shown no great improvement in legal exports to China; the East India Company and the opium merchants, not British manufacturers, had been the chief beneficiaries of the opening of Shanghai to foreigners. How much importance the British delegation attached to opium was demonstrated when they persuaded the American plenipotentiary, William B. Reed, who had been formally instructed to accept the right of the Chinese to maintain prohibition, to repudiate his brief.

As expected, legalisation produced a rapid increase in the demand, which the manufacturers in India were ready to meet. From fewer than 60,000 chests in 1859-60, the figure rose almost to 90,000 ten years later, and to over 105,000 in 1879-80. And as it was no longer possible to hope that opium could be kept out, the Chinese had a powerful incentive to cultivate poppies, from which to manufacture their own. There had been occasional reports since the early 1830s of illicit poppy cultivation, but not on a scale sufficient to cause the Imperial government much alarm. Now, farmers who grew poppies could feel they were performing a patriotic duty, helping to reduce the drain of currency out of the country. For a while, though, the home product did not pose any threat to imports. In the Treaty negotiations the Chinese plenipotentiaries, anxious to demonstrate that there had been no change of view — that the drug was still objectionable on moral grounds — had argued for a high import duty, to reduce consumption. The British, determined to keep the price of their product competitive, demanded the right to decide what rate of duty should be levied, and reduced by half the rate the Chinese had proposed, so that when the cost of smuggling operations was taken into account, the new selling price need not be substantially higher than the old. As the Indian product was considered greatly superior, there need be no immediate fear of any abatement of demand.

For form's sake, the Government's argument was that the Chinese had voluntarily abandoned prohibition; but few who were in a position to know their attitude were deceived. 'Nothing that has been gained was received from the free will of the Chinese', Sir Thomas Wade, one of the British negotiators, was to write ten years later; 'the concessions made to us have been from the first to the last extorted against the conscience of the nation — in defiance, that is to say, of the moral convictions of its educated men.' And Wade was in no doubt that the consequences for the Chinese had been terrible. In all the cases in his experience, opium had led to 'the steady descent, moral and physical, of the smoker'.

Opium: bane or benefit?

Up to this point, the assumption that opium was injurious to the health and morals of the Chinese had hardly been questioned. The most commonly cited authority on the subject was the missionary W. H. Medhurst, who had gone out in 1816, and whose book China was published in 1840. By his reckoning, the amount of opium smuggled in at that time was enough to demoralise nearly three million people

When the habit is once formed, it becomes inveterate; discontinuance is more and more difficult, until at length, the sudden deprivation of the accustomed indulgence produces certain death. In proportion as the wretched victim comes under the power of the infatuating drug, so is his ability to resist temptation less strong; and debilitated in body as well as mind, he is unable to earn his usual pittance, and not infrequently sinks under the cravings of an appetite which he is unable to gratify.

Thus they may be seen, hanging their heads by the doors of the opium shops, which the hard-hearted keepers, having fleeced them of their all, will not permit them to enter; and shut out from their own dwellings, either by angry relatives or ruthless creditors, they die in the streets unpitied and despised. 4kilitc4,0r

The opium habit, Medhurst estimated, reduced life expectation by about ten years, destroyed health while life lasted, and at the same time ruined countless families because of the drain on the smoker's resources.

In the 1840 Commons debate, a few voices had been raised in opium's defence, but the contention had been simply that its evils had been greatly exaggerated, and that its effects were no worse than those of over-indulgence in ardent spirits, all too familiar in the West. Between the opium wars, however, there were occasional intimations that opium need not have dire effects. The comments from Chinese sources remained implacably hostile, and so did the bulk of the reports from missionaries; but Dr Benjamin Hobson, who had worked for years as a doctor among the poor in Canton, was one of those who realised that there was not necessarily any inevitability about the process of degeneration, even for addicts. 'I have found' he wrote,

the habitual use of opium even compatible with longevity . . . though its tendency is to undermine the constitution, and only support the system by a false and dangerous stimulus, yet, if it can be taken regularly and of good quality, it does not abridge the duration of life to the extent that might reasonably be expected that it should do.

The opium merchants took their cue. The ending of prohibition after the second Opium War relieved them of their worries in China; but they still had to watch public opinion in Britain. The Palmerston era was ending; the Conservatives had always been hostile to his China policy; and the anti-opium campaign, led by Lord Shaftesbury, was gaining influential non-party support. It was time, the merchants realised, to present their wares in a more positively favourable light; and on November 28th, 1867, Jardine Matheson put them in a letter to the Governor of Hong Kong.

The ugly picture formerly drawn of the effects of opium on the Chinese, they claimed, had been forgotten; 'since 1860 it has been rendered abundantly clear that the use of opium is not a curse, but a comfort and a benefit to the hard-working Chinese'.

Had it been only Jardine Matheson who took this line, it could safely have been ignored. And when similar views were expressed by British consuls in the Treaty Ports in China, and transmitted to the Foreign Office, it was possible to suspect that they might be more concerned with British trade than with British moral prestige. But the cause was eventually supported by men who had no direct interest in opium, and who were unlikely to have been deluded or suborned; including Sir George Birdwood, a former Professor of Materia Medica in Bombay. Opium smoking, he told the readers of The Times in a letter published on December 26th, 1881, was 'almost as harmless an indulgence as twiddling the thumbs, and other silly-looking methods of concentrating the jaded mind'. The following year a book by William Bretherton, a retired Hong Kong solicitor, cited a number of testimonials to opium from men of standing on the island; and in 1892, an even more impressive array of its supporters was paraded by G. H. M. Batten, a former Indian civil servant, in a paper read in London to the Society of Arts.

The opportunity to solve the mystery came in 1893, when the pressure of public opinion in England, and a motion in the House of Commons, pushed the Government into setting up a Royal Commission to investigate the subject. Their verdict was that opium in general was used in moderation, and led 'to no evident ill-effects'. One member of the Commission, admittedly, dissented in a scathing minority report; and later, Joseph Rowntree was able to produce quite a damning critique of the report itself— showing, for example, that although forty-nine out of the fifty-two missionaries from China who had given evidence had condemned opium, the report had quoted only the opinions of two of the three who had been less critical. Nevertheless the minutes of evidence showed that as well as merchants and colonial civil servants, many doctors and some missionaries believed that the opium habit was on balance harmless, and could even be regarded as socially desirable.

How was it possible that two such mutually contradictory sets of evidence could each be supported by so much knowledgeable and trustworthy testimony? There was one obvious clue. Most of the witnesses who condemned opium had worked in China. In India, where the Commission had held most of its sittings, most witnesses were in opium's favour. Could it not be — some of them had suggested — that the explanation was simple; the Chinese smoked opium, whereas the Indians ate it, or drank it?

But evidence from other colonies failed to support this proposition. In the Malay peninsula, the colonial authorities agreed, the reverse was the case; 'Opium eating in all its forms', the Auditor-General of the Straits Settlements claimed, 'when once established as a habit, produces an invariable bodily and mental condition which imperatively calls for a constant, if graduated, increase of the drug. Now, this is not the case with opium smoking.' And evidence from the same region upset another hypothesis; that the Chinese might be in some way hereditarily susceptible to addiction. In the Straits Settlements, Major McCullum informed the Commission, only the 'indolent Malays' suffered ill-effects from the drug. For the Chinese it was 'a harmless, even a beneficial stimulant'.

Reading between the lines it is clear that the Royal Commission, baffled, came to assume that the explanation must be looked for in the circumstances in which opium addiction was observed. The 'anti-opiumists', as they were described, must have seen the effects of the abuse of opium; they must have seen, or heard about, only the addicts, and been thereby misled into thinking that addiction was inevitable. Again and again, in the reports from China, the emphasis was on the inescapable nature of the perdition awaiting the opium smoker. As the Rev. A. Elwin, a missionary in China for over twenty years, put it, there was no such thing as a moderate smoker; 'the dose is always, I believe, increased by degrees'. But there were scores of witnesses in India to demonstrate this was nonsense — including missionaries; Dr H. Martyn Clark testified that he knew of no 'hardier, thriftier or more careful people' than the peasants of the Punjab, where he had worked; yet most of them regularly took opium, a habit which 'seems to interfere neither with their longevity nor with their health'. The most reasonable explanation, therefore, was that the missionary, an alien in China, had been dealing with the cast-offs, the derelicts; whereas in India, he was familiar with all levels of the community.

Although there was a measure of truth in this, it would not account for the whole range of different reactions to opium described over the course of the century, in different regions — or in the same region, in different periods. When opium had been introduced into Assam, along with cheap labour for the new tea plantations, an official had protested in 1839 that in the course of a few years the opium plague had 'depopulated this beautiful country, turned it into a land of wild beasts'; and in the process, it had 'degenerated the Assamese from a fine race of people to the most abject, crafty and demoralised race in India'. Yet fifty years later, though the consumption of opium there was higher per head than in any other part of India, it was giving no trouble. 'They take their opium', Commissioner Driberg reported, 'just as a good Englishman would take his "peg".'

Again, R. L. Stevenson's surmise — that it was the rapidity of the social changes which was disruptive, leading as it did to the abuse of drink or drugs — seems the most likely explanation. Opium had come suddenly into Assam, along with an influx of cheap labour, disrupting the community's old way of life. It did the same in Burma, the only British colony where it gave serious trouble. And it was a menace in China, in those regions which the smugglers could reach to 'push' the Indian produce. But in India itself, it posed no problem, being used mainly not as a narcotic, but, like coca in Peru, as a way of 'enabling the taker to undergo severe and continuous physical exercise' — Dr Francis Anstie noted in his treatise on drugs in the 1860s — 'without the assistance of ordinary food'. It was for this purpose, Dr W. Myers told the Royal Commission, that the chair-bearers, couriers and coolies of Formosa took opium. He had been forced to alter his 'preconceived prejudices with reference to the universally baneful effects of the drug', when he found that they used it every day, as a
34    matter of course, rarely needing to increase the amount.

Significantly, where the Chinese were allowed to smoke opium, outside their own country's jurisdiction, they did nothing to disturb the authorities. The opium smoker learned to discriminate, choosing his own brand, and savouring it with the relish of a connoisseur. In a book describing his experiences as an attaché in Pekin, published in 1900, A. B. Freeman Mitford — the future Lord Redesdale — could seriously claim that to deprive the Chinaman of his Indian opium, and to condemn him to the 'miserable substitute' grown in China, 'would be like forbidding the importation of champagne and Chateau Lafitte into England, and driving our epicures and invalids to the necessity of falling back on cheap and nasty stimulants'.

Mitford, though, had lived in a region where the inhabitants had come to terms with opium. He had never seen, as missionaries had seen, the destruction and misery that the drug could cause before it was domesticated. In any case, the British Government could not claim that it had only been trying to keep the Chinese supplied with an agreeable pastime, because it had not made that its excuse. Throughout the century, its aim had been to make the maximum profit from the drug, regardless of its effect on the Chinese. For a brief period at the beginning production had been restricted, but this was to increase profits; the pretence that it was to keep down Consumption was abandoned the moment profits began to fall. Two campaigns — three, if Napier's is included — had been undertaken mainly to compel the Chinese to take the drug, preferably legally. The reasons given, that they were designed to punish the Chinese for seizing British property, and for insulting the British flag, were transparently spurious; the property was a smuggled drug, in the first instance, and the flag was flown by a drug smuggler in the second. It was the most protractedly sordid episode in British Imperial history; and it was also an intimation that where revenue was involved, a government could be just as grasping, and just as unscrupulous, as any entrepreneur. Governments have since often thundered out denunciations of the men who manufacture and sell opium and heroin. It was a Government which taught them how.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 February 2011 12:26
 

Our valuable member Brian Ingliss has been with us since Monday, 07 February 2011.

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