Where is this England?

Bernard Porter

  • The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China by Julia Lovell
    Picador, 458 pp, £25.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 330 45747 7

In China the Opium War is taken to mark the beginning of the country’s modern history, seen as one of continuous national humiliation under the heel of Western imperialism, bravely but hopelessly resisted by the peasantry, until Chairman Mao came along. It takes pride of place in school history courses; monuments, museums, books, films and TV documentaries are devoted to it; and there is even a computer game in which you can play at bashing the British at Canton. Wasn’t David Cameron aware of all this when he arrived in Beijing in November 2010 wearing a Remembrance Day poppy in his buttonhole? Or the right-wing press, when it heaped praise on him for allegedly refusing to remove it when the Chinese asked him? That will have stirred up historical memories, too. Much of the diplomatic row over the opium issue in 1839-42 (the period of the First Opium War, which Julia Lovell’s book focuses on) revolved around who should ‘kowtow’ to whom.

It hardly seems surprising that the event has slipped British historical memory. I don’t imagine the topic will make it into Michael Gove’s ‘patriotic’ school history syllabus, and even at the time it was seen as something of an embarrassment. A war ‘undertaken against a nation so puerile in that art’, one military official wrote, ‘would better deserve the name of murder, and could certainly add no laurels to British valour’. Murder seems an apt word: tens of thousands of Chinese were killed (some killed themselves, out of shame), but the British (and Indian auxiliaries) suffered only minor casualties. Julia Lovell describes it from eyewitness accounts: the ‘brain-spattered walls’ of the forts the British stormed; ‘bent, blackened, smouldering, stinking’ human remains; ‘the bodies of the slain … found literally three and four deep’; the sea ‘quite blackened with corpses’ and so on; as well as the excesses of the rampaging British troops afterwards, pillaging, desecrating holy sites, shooting prisoners and raping women. It was too easy. And all in the interests of a bunch of drug-pushers. Hardly any of the British participants felt proud of their victory; which I suppose was to their credit.

The other thing that may have banished it from our memories is that in the broader context of imperial history it seems so marginal – especially if you don’t know about those blackened corpses. It didn’t expand the area of the empire by very much: just the tiny island of Hong Kong (80 km2, before it was enlarged with the lease of the New Territories), which was virtually uninhabited when Britain took it over, incredible as that now seems, plus a few semi-autonomous ‘treaty ports’. Britain didn’t gain – because it didn’t demand – any exclusive trading rights with China; only free trade for everyone, including in Indian-grown opium. The main instigators of the quarrel were not the British government, but those same opium traders, especially the Scottish firms of Jardine and Matheson, whose (merged) company is still engaged in Eastern trade, though it now keeps the drug-smuggling on which its fortunes were founded very quiet. The underlying rationale was a very specific commercial one: Britain wanted Chinese goods, especially tea and chinoiserie; the Chinese didn’t want anything in return except opium, which meant there would have been a huge trade deficit without it, paid for in silver. The government got involved because of perceived insults and trumped-up treaty violations. Palmerston, the foreign secretary, was at the height of his civis Britannicus sum braggadocio: British citizens, like the Romans, should be able to count on the state to get them out of foreign fixes. In this case the fix seemed trivial, and the imperial responsibilities minor. The huge bulk of the Celestial Empire remained as independent as, say, Britain is now. When ‘imperialism’ was taken to mean ‘painting the map red’, it was difficult to see where the Opium Wars fitted in.

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