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Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money: Part IV

When the guns fell silent, the lawyers took over


Catch up on Part IPart II, and Part III first.

175 years ago this week, the forces of Great Britain and the Qing Empire fought a fierce battle in the Mouth of the Tiger, the narrow strait where the Pearl River reaches the South China Sea. The Bocca Tigris had already been the site of several major confrontations. This one was particularly costly for the Qing cause.

On January 7, 1841, British Royal Marines and Artillery, as well as Indian and Bengali troops, landed on Chuanbi Island at the mouth of the Pearl River. 2,000 defenders tried to hold the line against the foreign invaders, but they faced a fierce barrage of howitzer fire and steady bombardment from the HMS Nemesis and the British fleet. By noontime on January 7, the British were firmly in control of the island and the Nemesis and her sister ships roamed freely, destroying the junks and wooden warships of the Qing fleet. The Nemesis was particularly fearsome in battle, firing congreve rockets, propelled artillery shells, which could destroy an entire junk with a single hit.

Despite heavy casualties, the majority of the Qing commanders wanted to carry on the fight. All they needed were reinforcements. But the new governor of Guangdong Province disagreed. Kišan was the middle-aged scion of a Manchu noble family. He was an experienced official and had served as the governor-general in the region nearly two decades earlier. It was his unhappy task to replace the exiled Commissioner Lin Zexu, whose principled stand against drug trafficking had lit the fuse of war. The court had sent Lin to Guangdong for the sole purpose of stamping out the trade in opium, but his bold actions gave the British opium lobby the ammunition they needed to force war upon the Qing Empire. Lin became an easy scapegoat for the failures of the Qing administration in adequately responding to the new threat.

On January 20, at the Shajiao Fort (today part of Dongguan), Kišan met the British Superintendent of British Trade, Charles Elliot. Elliot had watched the January 7 battle from the deck of the Nemesis and knew that the Qing military was little match for British guns and iron, but he was sympathetic to the interests of commerce: needless bellicosity was bad for trade and bad for British profits.

In the afternoon of January 20, Elliott issued a circular with a preliminary list of conditions agreed to by Kišan and the Qing delegation.

Several of these concessions addressed long-standing grievances by the British trading at Guangzhou. British officials would be able to meet on equal footing with their Qing counterparts rather than going through merchant intermediaries. Guangzhou would be open to British trade without seasonal restrictions as had been the case in the past.

Of equal importance, the British gained their colonial foothold on the China coast. Sort of. Kišan ceded Hong Kong to the British crown but, and this would later prove to be a major point of contention between Elliott and his superiors in London, the Qing government reserved the right to collect tax and duties for trade on the island. Moreover, Elliot agreed to give back the island of Chuanbi, occupied just a week earlier, and the island of Zhousan, which had been held by the British since the previous summer. Chuanbi was not a particularly important chip, but trading Zhousan, a developed port close to the major production centers for tea, silk, and porcelain, made Elliot a target for politicians and opium merchants concerned that the Superintendent of Trade had not done enough to secure hard won gains.

Compared with Zhousan, Hong Kong was a barren rock with a few fishing villages. Although British traders and the the English newspaper The Canton Free Press agreed that Hong Kong had great potential as a trading port, Elliott received a stern rebuke, and, ultimately, a notice of recall from the Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston.

Kišan fared little better with his boss. While the Manchu official had negotiated a return of Qing territory lost in the conflict, the handover of Hong Kong as well as the other concessions to British demands, were too much for the court to stomach. Kišan likely knew this at the time, he never signed the treaty worked out that day with Elliott, but in a wrath, the emperor still sentenced Kišan to death for his incompetence, a sentence later commuted to banishment. By comparison, Elliott got off easy. The next year he was named British chargé d’affaires and consul general to the new Republic of Texas, and later served as Governor in Bermuda and Trinidad.

The collapse of the negotiations in January, 1841, led to renewed hostilities and the war waged on for another 18 months. In the summer of 1842, British troops occupied Shanghai securing control of the Yangtze River. Their warships sailed upriver and quickly seized the stronghold of Zhenjiang, near the confluence of the Grand Canal and the Yangtze, severing the vital link between the resources of the prosperous south and the imperial capital in Beijing. When British ships then threatened the major city of Nanjing, the Qing government sued for peace.

The Treaty of Nanking, or as it is officially known, the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Commerce between Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and the Emperor of China, was signed on August 29, 1842.

The treaty was negotiated by the replacements for Kišan and Elliott. Sir Henry Pottinger, a soldier and explorer who would become the first colonial governor of Hong Kong, represented the interests of the British crown. The lead negotiator for the Qing court was the Manchu official Kiyeng. Like his predecessor, Kiyeng was from a respected Manchu family, and while he lacked Kišan’s administrative experience, he was a born salesman, and a glib operator comfortable with dealing with the foreign barbarians. Nevertheless, the British had a long list of demands and the final treaty was signed practically at gunpoint. Warships stayed anchored outside the walls of Nanjing, ready to open fire and continue the war if negotiations failed to yield an acceptable result.

The concessions in the treaty were considerable and ushered in a new age of unequal treaties and foreign encroachment on the sovereignty of the Qing Empire.

The treaty ended the hated restrictions on foreign trade at the port of Guangzhou and opened up four additional ports to trade including Fuzhou, Ningbo, Xiamen, and Shanghai. British officials could engage with their counterparts on an equal basis. The Qing government also owed the British taxpayer an indemnity of 21 million dollars, six million for the opium Commissioner Lin had destroyed, three million for other debts owed to British merchants, and 12 million dollars for the cost of all of the bullets, shells, and other implements of destruction used by the British in prosecuting the war. And, of course, Hong Kong.

Pottinger was part of the original mission to survey Hong Kong to gauge the island’s suitability as a port. He was convinced that the island was key to protecting British interests on the China coast. The final wording of the treaty ceded the island to the British “in perpetuity.”

Subsequent treaties, all negotiated by Kiyeng, piled on the concessions gained in the Treaty of Nanking. The Treaty of the Bogue in 1843, granted the right of extraterritorial privileges to British subjects and most Favored Nation status to Great Britain. These became two of the most disastrous conditions agreed to by the Qing government, Keying and the other negotiators initially thought it expedient to let barbarians handle barbarian crimes and the most Favored Nation clause would hopefully limit the bother of negotiating with each piddling barbarian nation in turn. Ultimately, extraterritorial privileges were used to undermine the authority of Qing officials to administer justice and law in their own jurisdictions. Most Favored Nation clauses reduced the ability of the Qing to play one foreign country off against the other. Within a few years, the Qing would sign similar treaties with the United States (1843), France (1844), and Sweden-Norway (1847).

In one of the great ironies of history, none of the treaties directly deals with the cause of the war: opium. It would take another conflict, the Arrow War of 1856-1860, which resulted in the occupation of Beijing and the looting and burning of the imperial summer palaces, to finally legalize the trade in the narcotic.


Cover image from wiki commons

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