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Thursday, October 7, 2021

China Versus Britain: The Opium Wars

In the nineteenth century, the British East India Company was the world’s biggest drug smuggler. It was generating massive revenues by smuggling opium to China. It was also controlling the opium trade to Europe, Africa, and the Americas. The East India Company can be seen as the world’s first drug cartel. In 1839, Chinese Commissioner of Canton Lin Zexu wrote a letter to England’s Queen Victoria. He asked her why the British were pushing a poisonous substance like opium into China and he asked her to order her subjects to desist from opium smuggling. Here’s an excerpt from Lin Zexu’s letter:

"There are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians… By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug [opium] to injure the Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries — how much less to China! Of all that China exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing which is not beneficial to people: they are of benefit when eaten, or of benefit when used, or of benefit when resold: all are beneficial. Is there a single article from China which has done any harm to foreign countries? Take tea and rhubarb, for example; the foreign countries cannot get along for a single day without them.”

The list of atrocities that the Europeans powers have committed during the Age of Imperialism is long—it includes plunder of gold, silver, and diamonds from weak communities, enslavement of millions of people, eviction of native populations from their land, annihilation of native populations, destruction of local industries and culture, and the smuggling of opium. It is through such acts that the Europeans became a wealthy civilization. In most periods, before the fourteenth century, Europe was a backwater, and its economy was smaller than the economies of China, India, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Balzac has said, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” This line is relevant for the great fortune that the Europeans made during the Age of Imperialism. 

Lin Zexu had written the letter to Queen Victoria under the direction of the Chinese Emperor Tao-kuang who wanted to stamp out the consumption of opium in China. In 1838, the Chinese confiscated 20,000 cases of British opium which they set on fire. But the East Indian Company continued to smuggle opium into China by bribing Chinese officials. In 1840, the Chinese banned British ships from entering Chinese ports. The East Indian Company lodged a complaint with London and the British government responded with its military might.

British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston led the pro-war camp in Britain. He said that opium sales to China were too profitable to be discontinued. Throughout the middle decades of the nineteenth century, several high ranking members in the British political establishment were getting a share of the profits that the East India Company was generating through opium trade. To protect this evil opium trade, the British went to war. They won the First Opium War and the Chinese were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in August 1842. Under this treaty, Hong Kong became a British naval station. The Chinese opened five new ports for British ships and granted the Royal Navy the permission to patrol Chinese rivers and coasts. 

Between 1850 and 1864, China was rocked by the catastrophic Taiping Rebellion which made the country even more vulnerable to exploitation by the British. Between 1856 and 1858, the British fought a second war with China. In 1860, there was a third war. These two wars enabled the British to impose harsher terms on China. The people of China blamed the British for destroying the lives of millions of their young generation by making them addicted to opium. In the 1840s, the citizens of Canton released a manifesto which gives a good idea of the anger that the Chinese felt for the British. Here’s an excerpt from the manifesto:

“You use opium to injure our people, cheating us of our silver and cash… We note that you English barbarians have formed the habits and developed the nature of wolves, plundering and seizing things by force… Except for your ships being solid, your gunfire fierce, and your rockets powerful, what other abilities have you got? We patriots have received the favor of the Celestial Dynasty in nourishing us for two centuries. Today, if we do not exterminate you English barbarians, we will not be human beings. You have killed and injured our common people in many villages, and seriously hurt the universal harmony. You also completely destroyed the coffins in several places, and you disastrously damaged the Buddhist statues in several monasteries. This is properly a time when Heaven is angered and mankind is resentful: even the ghosts and spirits will not tolerate you beasts…”

The Chinese used to call the British barbarians. In light of the atrocities that the British were committing during the Age of Imperialism, the Chinese were probably using the right terminology.

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