Be sure to read Part I first.
In October 1839, the British ship Thomas Coutts sailed down the Pearl River toward the port of Guangzhou. The Thomas Coutts was owned by Quakers, who like many denominations in England had taken a very public stance against the trade in opium. The ship held no contraband, and her captain had no problem complying with the order given earlier that year by the anti-opium governor-general of the region Lin Zexu that any foreign ship wishing to do business in Guangzhou must sign a bond pledging they would not engage in the opium trade.
The principled stand of the crew and captain of the Thomas Coutts ran afoul of another declaration, this one by British Superintendent of Trade Charles Eliot, forbidding traders from signing the “no opium” bond. Eliot was so incensed at the defiance of the Thomas Coutts, that he ordered a full blockade of the port of Guangzhou. When a second British merchant vessel, the Royal Saxon, tried to run the blockade, British warships fired warning salvos over her bow.
The first shots of the Opium War had been fired by the British Royal Navy…at their countrymen.
Commissioner Lin’s officers ordered shore batteries and war junks to protect the Royal Saxon, but they were little match for the ships of Her Majesty’s navy. The inability of the Qing military to match British technology would be the basso continuo in the sad elegy of a short but brutal conflict.
Future Prime Minister William Gladstone, at the time an idealistic young Tory, lambasted British policy in China and railed against the trade in opium. Gladstone denounced the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston for being unable or unwilling to curtail the avarice of British opium merchants. His passion was personal, Gladstone’s suffered from opium addiction, and in a famous address to parliament in 1840, Gladstone criticized “Lord Palmerston’s War” as a “national iniquity against China.”
Gladstone’s outrage was justified. Britain fought a war, ultimately, to preserve Queen Victoria’s good name as the world’s largest narco-baron. The opium merchants of England and America acted as any cartel would: they used their money to buy influence. They paid journalists to write stories of Chinese arrogance and cruelty. They paid for politicians to give speeches about the beneficial effects of the trade and the importance of preserving universal values of free and fair trade at any cost. They used the proceeds of their racket to all but purchase a declaration of war.
The British public were caught in between. On the one hand, the war was vastly unpopular. Not every journalist could be bought and not every politician was for sale. Moral outrage against the trade in opium even forced several firms out of the business entirely. On the other hand, people had become accustomed to having steady access to Chinese exports like ceramics, silk, and, most importantly, tea. As the Industrial Revolution roared to life, tea not only became a fashionable beverage, it was the true fuel that stoked the fires of British commerce and industry. Sugar from British plantations in the West Indies, when mixed with tea from China bought with the proceeds from the sale of Indian opium, had become a major part of the daily life. From the factory floor to the farmhouse, Britons sustained themselves throughout the day by pouring cup after cup of empire.
In the United States, a country with its own imperial aspirations, clergy lamented the scourge of opium on the Chinese people even as President John Quincy Adams offered his support the war. Adams, like American presidents since, found it easier to sell a war when it was wrapped in abstractions. It wasn’t about opium, he argued, it was about “the kowtow—the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relations between lord and vassal.”
But even in the United States, it was about the drugs. America too was growing dependent on Chinese exports, and the wealth of several prominent families was tied to what was euphemistically called “the China trade.” Lacking Indian “possessions,” the American firms sourced their opium from the Ottoman Empire, but the trade was the same: opium for cash and cash for exports. In 1823, a young American named William Delano sailed to Guangzhou and found a situation with the trading house Russell & Company. Delano returned to the United States three decades later a wealthy man and settled in Newburgh, NY. His daughter Sara fell in love and married one of their neighbors, James Roosevelt. Their son, Franklin, would be elected President of the United States in 1932.
In Britain and America in the 1830s and 1840s, there was a fierce discussion over the moral economy of opium. But while there is little doubt that the trade in opium was the cause of the war, it is clear that there existed a multiplicity of public motivations—some genuine and others dissembling—offered on behalf of those who would ultimately benefit from the conflict.
Cover image from 51scb.com