Lords of Opium
(Adapted from Amoy Magic--Guide to Xiamen)
He who sacrifices his conscience to ambition burns a picture to obtain the ashes. Chinese Proverb
For over a century, Western nations trafficked in opium on a scale that dwarfs any modern Colombian multi billion dollar drug empire, yet today we Westerners know little about it. We don't learn about it in high school history--or even college, for that matter. I had an American professor in Xiamen tell me that he thought the war was fought to keep China from exporting opium.
Most Westerners by far opposed the trade. Even the British opposed it. The entire British parliament opposed the 2nd Opium War--and was dissolved. In the 1880s, when the U.S. made it illegal for Americans to engage in the opium trade, a Chinese leader said, "This is the first time that I've seen a Christian nation act like a Christian country." But the trafficking continued until, by the 1920s, fully half of Europe's Asian profits derived from opium. While only a small minority benefited from the trade, that minority controlled the fate of half the world's population in China and India, and dictated Western policy as well.
Just Say No? China, not America, started the first "Just Say No!" anti-drug program. Chinese leaders appealed to our sense of morality and justice, and the "Way of Heaven." The West responded with a "Just Say Yes!" campaign and two wars to implement it, and America's ex-President Adams made our first complaint against China's human rights by declaring that her refusal to import opium was a violation of 'the rights of men and nations.'
Before my quick overview of the Opium Wars, lets read "The Opium Den," from Reverend John Macgowan's "The Story of the Amoy Mission" (1889, p.180).
"The shops today are all busy, for customers crowd into them during the busiest hours of the fair. But how is it that, interspersed amongst them, there are so many houses with bamboo screens hanging in front of the open doors? Let us enter one, for it is not a private house. It is an opium den. We put the screen aside, and come into a dimly lighted room, with a broad bench running round the sides of it. Little lamps are placed at various intervals, and men are reclining beside them. Some are asleep, and most ghastly do they look with their haggard, opium-hued faces. They are stretched on their backs, and they seem as if they were corpses. They don't appear like men whose spirits are wandering in fairy land, and are entranced with gorgeous scenes of beauty, such as the opium smoker is said to enjoy… One man smiles at me [and says], "This comes from your country, doesn't it?" I feel distressed, for I know he does but express the common opinion that all opium comes from England. But this opium den is an unsavoury place to be in. The close, horrid smell, the ghastly figures ranged along the benches, and the sense of being in the midst of some of the very lowest of the population, are oppressive. We hear the sounds of voices outside, and we see the rays of the bright sun shining upon the bamboo mat, and we rush out of the dim, fetid place, with a sense of deliverance, into the open air."
But there was no deliverance for those inside.
My goal is always the same: to invoke the past as a shield for the future, to show the invisible world of yesterday and through it, perhaps on it, erect a moral world where men are not victims and children never starve and never run in fear." Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate (in "A Personal Response")
The Birth of the Opium Trade
European opium smugglers flirted with China's death penalty as early as 1729, for opium's immense profits were more addictive than the poppy. The only problem was supply, which Britain solved in 1756 by conquering Calcutta.
After an English census of China revealed 300 million potential "clients," the Crown awarded the Honorable East India Company a monopoly on the 'trade,' carefully avoiding the use of the word 'opium'—a face-saving subterfuge employed right into the 20th century. (For the record, the majority of British merchants and missionaries protested against Britain's foray into drug trafficking, but to little avail).
On Dec. 2, 1799, a distraught emperor penned an anti-opium edict, noting:
"The infirm and weak perish gradually from want and hunger, while the strong and vigorous become thieves and robbers, the ultimate ruin of all being thus equally certain and inevitable."
But Britain saw not ultimate ruin but a 2,000% profit on each 130 pound chest. The Company sold 3,000 chests in 1790 and 30,000 chests in 1836. Between 1820 and 1835 alone, China's addict population grew 50 fold.
Lord Hastings maintained that Britain's opium smuggling was carried out 'in compassion to mankind', but the Emperor wrote that foreigners,
"smuggle in prohibited opium, which flows and poisons the land. When this conduct is referred to the heart, it must be disquieting; when referred to reason, it is contrary to it."
After the Dao Guang emperor's 3 sons, including his heir, died of opium addiction, he ordered the viceroy at Canton to tighten up controls. He lambasted Britain as "a Christian nation devoid of four out of the five Virtues." Indignant opium smugglers demanded that Britain redeem her honor, but parliament urged patience, reasoning that the Emperor would give in when he saw the magnitude of the profits to be made. But the Emperor refused the part of Judas. He wrote,
"It is true that I cannot prevent the introduction of the poison; gainseeking corrupt men will, for profit and sensuality, defeat my wishes; but nothing will induce me to derive a revenue from the vice and misery of my people."
As the stakes grew, so did the smugglers' audacity. In Feb. 1832, Lord Amherst sailed up the coast from Canton to seek opium markets. In a Fujian harbor he assured Chinese officials that his ship was actually on its way to Japan from Calcutta and had been driven ashore by the storm. It was harder for him to explain away his crates of Chinese leaflets advertising for coastal trade outlets.
Lord Amherst's escapade was lauded in London, where the House of Commons sanctioned the production and sale of opium. Lord Shaftsbury later testified that the government not only encouraged the use of the drug but carefully studied the tastes of Chinese addicts to "inflame the temptation so as to ensure an ample demand."
In 1836, the angry Emperor issued yet another edict ending in "Tremble." An indignant Lord Napier ended his reply with, "Therefore tremble, Governor Lu, intensely tremble."
Governor Lu reluctantly dispensed with diplomacy and blockaded the river above and below the foreign merchants' ships, and a humiliated Lord Napier conceded defeat. When Napier fell ill, Governor Lu sent him to Macao, where he died, becoming a martyr to the opium cause.
Furious Westerners demanded revenge for Napier's death. Matheson, the premier opium merchant, lambasted the unwavering Chinese mandarins as "imbecile, avaricious and obstinate," and demanded that Britain force open more ports for free trade. Jardine and Matheson built sleek teak ships, armed them to the teeth, and sailed the coast, plying what Matheson persisted in calling the harmless 'merchandise China needs.'
Even as Britain promoted opium in China, she passed several laws forbidding its use in England. Western medical experts supported such dual standards by arguing that for Chinese, opium was "a harmless social family luxury," on a par with tea. The Deputy-Surgeon-General of Bombay would later claim that Chinese find in opium "a source of enjoyment, of comfort, of necessity, and of even a blessing." He added, "Opium is especially suited to the Chinese constitution, habits, and to the small pecuniary means of the masses."
A Western writer in the "Chinese Repository" (Nov. 1836, vol. V., p. 300) had different views. He accused traffickers of murder and,
"the perpetuating and encouraging and engaging in a trade which promotes idleness, disease, poverty, misery, crime, madness, despair, and death."
An Assam tea plantation superintendent wrote that to obtain opium, addicts "will steal, sell his property, children, the mother of his children; and finally even commit murder." Walter Medhurst, the London Missionary Society's tireless opponent of the opium trade, described the 'harmless' drug's effects:
"In proportion as the wretched victim comes under the power of the infatuating drug, so his ability to resist temptation is less strong; and debilitated in body as well as in mind he is unable to earn his usual pittance. Shut out from his own dwellings, either by angry relatives or ruthless creditors, they die in the streets, unpitied and despised."
Britain was unmoved. In fact, she transformed her sordid traffic into a moral crusade, arguing that opium was China's salvation, for without it the over-populated Chinese would grow poppies instead of food.
The Way of Heaven
In a poignant letter to Queen Victoria, Imperial High Commissioner Lin Zexu wrote:
"I am told that in your own country opium smoking is forbidden under severe penalties. This means that you are aware of how harmful it is. So long as you do not take it yourselves, but continue to make it and tempt the people of China to buy it, such conduct is repugnant to human feeling and at variance with the Way of Heaven."
"The Way of Heaven," Lin argued, was:
"…fairness to all; it does not suffer us to harm others in order to benefit ourselves. Men are alike in this all the world over: that they cherish life and hate what endangers life. Your country lies 20,000 leagues away; but for all that the Way of Heaven holds good for you as for us, and your instincts are not different from ours; for nowhere are there men so blind as not to distinguish what brings profit and what does harm…"
But for Britain, the profit justified the harm. On April 6, 1843, the Times would sum up Prime Minister Robert Peel's position:
"Morality and religion, and the happiness of mankind, and friendly relations with China, and new markets for British manufactures were all very fine things in their way; but that the opium trade was worth to the Indian government £1,200,000…"
Reluctantly, Commissioner Lin gave the British a 3-day ultimatum, and after waiting a full week for a response, he blockaded the harbor. During the foreigners' confinement, Cohong merchants carefully preserved the Westerners' property from harm, and insured that their foreign prisoners wined and dined in comfort. Lin reasoned that if he treated his foreign prisoners with respect and courtesy, they would recognize the error of their ways, abandon the opium trade, and turn to legitimate pursuits. But Western newspapers trumpeted China's barbarous treatment of Europeans, and stoked up the war propaganda machine.
Up in Smoke
A sullen Captain Elliott surrendered 20,283 chests of opium, valued at £2 million. It took Lin six weeks to destroy it, and as gray smoke clouded Canton's sky, he noted of foreign observers, "I should judge from their attitudes that they have the decency to feel heartily ashamed."
But anger, not shame, reddened their faces. In July 1839, the British destroyed and scattered 29 Chinese war junks. Unsuspecting peasants rushed to greet British ships off TingHai on July 5th. In "Six Months with the Chinese Expedition" (1841), Lord Jocelyn described the British greeting:
"The ships opened their broadsides upon the town, and the crashing of timber, falling houses, and groans of men resounded from the shore…We landed on a deserted beach, a few dead bodies, bows and arrows, broken spears and guns remaining the sole occupants of the fields."
If the trade is ever legalized, it will cease to be profitable from that time. The more difficulties that attend it, the better for you and us."
.................................-- Directors of Jardine-Matheson
Rather than submit, city officials committed suicide, for as Waley wrote,
"It had not from the first any chance of withstanding the concentrated fire of fifteen warships; as well might one expect Hiroshima to have hit back at its attackers."
British troops immediately launched a protection racket ("security placards") by which families purchased immunity from plunder if they voluntarily surrendered their livestock. "The Chinese Repository" (1840) recorded:
The soldiers consoled their victims by plastering the town with proclamations encouraging the survivors to flock to Sui-Shan, where "opium is on sale very cheap—an opportunity not to be missed."
Surrender A devastated China surrendered. Under the Nanking Treaty (June 26, 1843), China agreed to pay an indemnity of £6,000,000 for the destroyed opium (three times its value) and cede Hong Kong to Britain. This settlement infuriated Lord Palmerston, who complained that six million did not cover the cost of the destroyed opium or the punitive expedition. The Times ridiculed this claim, arguing that Britain owed China compensation for "pillaging her towns and slaughtering her citizens in a quarrel which would never have arisen if we had not been guilty of an international crime."
The Crown countered critics by arguing that the war was over free trade, not opium. And Sir John Davis, who became governor of Hong Kong in 1844, declared that the Chinese weren't sincere about prohibiting opium, and that Britain had never forced the issue. He protested that ritain "only supplied the poison, which the Chinese were not obliged to take."
When a large vessel has opened a way it is easy for a small one to follow.
. Chinese Proverb
Western nations unanimously applauded Britain's victory. America rushed envoy Caleb Cushing to China, with three gunboats, to conclude a treaty of "everlasting friendship." He told the Chinese,
"The late war with England was caused by the conduct of the authorities at Canton, in disregarding the rights of public officers who represented the English Government."
Cushing added that if China had not learned her lesson, "it can be regarded in no other light than evidence that she invites and desires [war with] the other Western powers...
A French diplomat followed on Cushing's heels with seven French warships in tow and similar demands for everlasting friendship and trading rights.
Though Britain had fought a war to protect her opium trafficking, opium was opposed by most merchants, manufacturers, government leaders and missionaries, on economic as well as moral grounds. One merchant proved statistically that the opium trade had destroyed legal commerce and that in "supplying the Chinese with an intoxicating drug, we are drying up their natural capacity to consume our manufactures."
Pottinger coined a stock answer: "If India does not produce it, other countries will." He added smugly that if the Chinese were truly such a virtuous people, they "would neither use the opium nor permit it to be smuggled."
China continued to resist the opium trade, and in the 1850s, Lord Palmerston warned, 'The time is fast approaching when we shall be obliged to strike another blow in China.' He explained, 'these half-civilized governments such as those of China, Portugal, Spanish America…require a dressing down every eight or ten years to keep them in order."
Dressing Down China – The Arrow War
The excuse for China's 'dressing down' came from Hong Kong, which teemed with Chinese criminals and pirates luxuriating under the protection of the Crown. Commissioner Yeh seized the Chinese ship "Arrow", and convicted twelve of its notorious Chinese pirates. The British furiously demanded the criminals' release, arguing they had been taken from a British ship entitled to British protection. Lord Derby ridiculed the charge:
"Chinese built, Chinese captured, Chinese sold, Chinese bought and manned, and Chinese owned. And that is the British vessel which is said to be entitled to claim the protection of a treaty by which British ships are exempted from the visits of the Chinese authorities."
Commissioner Yeh surrendered the pirates, but refused Sir John Bowring's demand for an apology. Britain now had her excuse for China's "dressing down."
With characteristic hyberbole, Palmerston denounced Commissioner Yeh as "one of the most inhuman monsters that ever disgraced a nation." On Feb. 3, 1857, Britain declared war because of China's "acts of violence, insults to the flag and infraction of treaty rights."
Parliament unanimously opposed the second Opium War, agreeing with Lord Derby's sentiment that the war was "the shedding of the blood of unwarlike and innocent people without warrant of law and without the warrant of moral justification." Lord Palmerston accused the dissidents of disloyalty to the Crown, dissolved Parliament, and went to war anyway.
When the Chinese refused to ratify the Treaty of Tiantsien, British and French forces attacked Beijing and burned the Summer Palace to the ground. Besieged from all sides, China succumbed, ending a full century of resistance. Opium was finally legalized, and imported at a lower duty than England, the proponent of "free trade," levied on Chinese silk and tea.
The English now intensified a two-decade effort to convince Western public opinion that Britain had never forced opium on China. Mr. Gladstone, in the opium debate in Parliament on May 10, 1870, argued that the Chinese government had 'wisely' decided to deal with opium as a commercial commodity. Gladstone praised the opium trade as not only a source of revenue but of great benefit to China and India:
"This is one of the most remarkable cases which the whole fiscal history of the world presents. I do not suppose there is, or ever has been, a country…in which £6,000,000 of its revenue has been derived from a particular article [he still evades the word 'opium'], of which you could say with so close an approximation to the truth, without any violation whatever of political justice, that the 6 million was virtually and substantially paid by the inhabitants of another country who did not complain of the burden."
Born and Bred to the Opium Pipe
Westerners had long held the vast, ancient kingdom of Cathay in awe, but by the end of the Opium Wars, Chinese were beneath contempt, mere creatures born and bred to the opium pipe. It is ever thus, for gross atrocities, whether in China or Auschwitz or South Africa or Nicaragua or the antebellum South, can be sustained only by dehumanizing our prey and by canonizing ourselves. Britain argued that not only did the Chinese want opium but that their physical constitution required it, and that the British opium monopolies throughout Asia were a humanitarian service for the Chinese.
As the dragon sank into opium dreams, Shaftbury's prophecy was fulfilled: easy money killed honest money. In 1877, Mr. Samuel S. Mander wrote that of China's £12 million in imports from India, the 85,000 chests of opium counted for £10.5 million, leaving £1.5 million for legitimate trade."
Britain's mandatory substitution of poppies for traditional food crops ended with Indian mothers feeding their emaciated children opium to ease the gnawing hunger that plagued them from their beleaguered birth to their premature death.
In 1838, 800,000 Indians died in the Agra famine. Over 500,000 starved in 1860 in the Northwest, and in 1865-7, one million perished in the Orissa Famine – 1/3 of that area's population. In 1868-70, 1/3 of the Rajputana population perished of hunger.http://www.amoymagic.com/OpiumWar.htm