In the nineteenth century, the East India Company (EIC) was the world’s biggest drug smuggler. The company was generating immense revenues by smuggling opium to China, and was controlling the opium trade to Europe, Africa, and the Americas. In 1839, Chinese Commissioner of Canton Lin Zexu wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, asking her to explain why her British subjects were pushing opium into China. He implored 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… foreign countries cannot get along for a single day without them.”
Lin Zexu wrote 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, when 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 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. British opium continued to pour into China and millions of young Chinese became addicted to opium.
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