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Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money: Part III

A closer look at how Britain's naval might brought the Qing Empire to its knees


Catch up on Part I and Part II first.

The Opium War of 1840-1842 was a stunning defeat for the Qing Empire. Their forces were little match for the recent technology deployed by the British Navy. New kinds of ships and guns irrevocably changed the balance of power in East Asia and opened a new era of colonialism and imperialism in the Pacific.

The HMS Nemesis was 56 meters long and 29 meters wide. She sailed for the China coast in 1839 carrying two guns that fired 32-pound rounds and four that fired six-pound rounds, plus a launcher for rockets and torpedoes. She could operate by either sail or steam, and her shallow draft meant that she could move as effectively on inland rivers as she could in open ocean. Her hull was protected by iron and designed with watertight compartments to keep the ship afloat even if the outer hull was breached. She was a devastating weapon of war.

To find an approximate parallel for the terror the Nemesis struck in the hearts of Chinese defenders, we might need to turn to the realm of science fiction. The 1990s semi-classic Independence Day featured large hovering spacecraft, impervious to human weapons, and which could obliterate a city. The Nemesis could not fly and was not powered by a race of telepathic space insects…but from the perspective of Qing troops and officers trying to pierce her defenses using square-rigged wooden war junks and antiquated cannons, she might as well have been.

Commissioner Lin Zexu, whose bold actions in the summer of 1839 to stamp out the trade in opium at Guangzhou had lit the fuse of war, was by the fall of 1840 on his way into exile. The Qing court, needing somebody to blame for a war that was going very badly indeed, replaced the capable Lin with the Manchu functionary Qishan. On his way into exile, Lin wrote a series of letters urging his fellow officials to study the technological capabilities of the British and use that knowledge to build stronger and better defenses for the empire.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is tempting to blame Lin and the Qing Court for not taking more seriously the possibility of a strong military response or for being better informed about the technology gap between Qing forces and the British Royal Navy.  But this gap was, in the 1840s, a relatively recent development and as late as 1793 the Qing government felt that it had little to fear from the British.

1793 was the year that Lord George Macartney famously traveled to China to meet the Qianlong Emperor and pressure the elderly monarch into granting concessions of trade and diplomatic residence to the British. The mission started badly when Lord Macartney, at first, refused to perform the ritual prostration customary at the Qing court, declaring that he would get “on one knee before my king and two before my God, but the notion of a gentleman prostrating himself before an Asiatic barbarian is preposterous.”

In the end, the Qianlong Emperor, being Manchu, was used to dealing with several different and diverse constituencies of subjects and cultures within the boundaries of his empire. He was fine with Macartney not doing the full prostration, but had little patience for relaxation of trade policies, and the idea of British diplomatic representation in the capital of Beijing was a non-starter.  The Qing Empire, at the time, was a continent-sized trading entity, there were few things—in the years before opium became a staple of trade—that required import from outside the system. Moreover, any idea that the British in 1793 might try to use force to compel the Qianlong Emperor into accepting their demands was risible. In 1793, the British military couldn’t hold on to Massachusetts, tangling with a creaky but still formidable Qing regime would have been a costly fight.

But there was one thing the British did bring with them which the Qing court could not resist. The emperor was fascinated by European-style mechanical clocks. What the emperor could not have known, and what even the British officials probably couldn’t see, was that the clocks were harbingers of doom for the Qing court.

Historian Kenneth Pomeranz, and others have argued that a “Great Divergence” occurred between East and West around 1800. Pomeranz argues that at the turn of the 19th-century, the divide between the most prosperous sections of China and those of Europe by any measure—technological development, industrial development, quality of life, the sophistication of institutions—was small. In fact, both ends of the Eurasian landmass were suffering from the same problems as they ran up against the limits of development and economic growth in a pre-industrial economy.

In Europe, beginning about the time of Macartney’s doomed mission, tinkers, and engineers financed with capital from investors, began building the machines and engines which would power the industrial revolution.

There were many reasons why an industrial revolution was more likely to succeed in Europe—Pomeranz points out two important ones being more easily accessible deposits of coal and overseas colonies—but perhaps the real secret lay inside the clocks ticking away in the halls and palaces of the Forbidden City.

These are not just cuckoo clocks or simple alarm clocks. Some of the timepieces brought to China by European missions were sophisticated machines capable of, say, having a ballerina appear at a certain point each day and dance a pattern on the clock face appropriate to the time and chime.  The emperors, and maybe even the Europeans as well, thought of these as toys. Elaborate and complex for sure, but toys and amusements nonetheless.

As Commissioner Lin would learn in 1840, the precision and complex mechanics of making an animatronic ballerina dance on a clock when harnessed to the power of the steam age could also produce factories and machine shops which could, in turn, manufacture new and deadlier guns and better, faster, stronger ships like the Nemesis.

In the end, the British Royal Navy pressed home their technological advantage on the ocean. When they came ashore, they were often less successful and vulnerable to counter attacks by official troops and local militias. But their ships were floating platforms of destruction, capable of racing in close to city walls and coastal defense and deliver terrible damage. Throughout 1840 and 1841, British vessels ranged from Guangdong in the South to Ningbo and the Yangtze River in Central China, imposing their will and setting a precedent for future military conflicts between the Qing Empire and the foreign powers.

Next week: The conclusion of our series on the opium war. We’ve followed the money and talked about the guns, now it’s time to send in the lawyers.


Cover image from wikicommons

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