Continued from Foreign Mud – Part 3

Suffice it that all sides knew a major crisis was inevitable, but the British were not worried because they despised China’s weakness, while on their part the Chinese were not worried because they believed themselves invincible. The Opium War, when it finally came in 1840, dispelled Chinese illusions. In London, it never even made headlines, which were taken up with the First Afghan War on the border of the Raj. DeQuincey, author of “Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” who was living in Edinburgh and making spasmodic efforts to cut his daily dose from eight thousand drops to two or three hundred, never gave China’s numberless addicts a thought. The Duke of Wellington, past seventy and recovering from a recent stroke, told Parliament that in all his years he had not seen insults and injuries to equal those heaped on the English at Canton – China must be punished!

The war was speedily concluded with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, dictated at the point of a few thousand British bayonets. China was forced to accept “free trade,” dismantling forever the cumbersome co-hung system, recognizing foreign consuls, and setting a single low tariff on all imports whatsoever. Four more Chinese ports were opened up to foreigners and Hong Kong, across Canton Bay from Macao, was ceded to the British by way of reparations, along with the huge sum of US$6 million. Other Western powers soon exacted similar privileges for themselves. If European imperialism prevailed against the loudly decried “Yellow Peril,” it awakened Asians to a cruel sense of the “White Disaster.” British troops were to invade repeatedly, burning the Summer Palace in Peking and forcing imperial legalization of opium in 1857.

The demand for opium, which is to say the number of Chinese addicts, increased almost 100 percent in the decade following legalization, just as the Honorable Company expected. If India was acquired in a British “fir of absence of mind,” as Sir Winston Churchill would have it, it was cynically premeditated British policy that made ever more millions upon millions of Chinese opium addicts, creating a corrupt and demoralized society and hyperinflation in China’s economy. Just as the United States has been seen to trade drugs for arms today, the British saw to it that Indian opium remained a legitimate article of commerce in China until 1908.

The commerce in tea and the opium that paid for it continued without interruptions even during the hostilities. And by 1844 Britain was importing fifty-three million pounds annually, well over twice as much tea as she had at the beginning of the century, including significant tonnage of black teas for the first time.