Trading Tea for Opium

By James Norwood Pratt

Language was not the major obstacle to doing business with the Chinese-currency was. The goods the British had to offer in trade were mainly English broadcloth, not much wanted in semitropical Canton and not allowed for sale in bitterly cold north China, where woolen cloth might have been welcome. For the difference between what they bought and what they sold, the Chinese required payment in silver. At first, of course, the amounts were not very large, but toward 1750, with the British buying millions of pounds of tea a year, they were having to pay for two-thirds of it with silver coin or bullion. Yet despite what would appear to be a rerun of the old Roman gold story, the company managed to thrive. The secret of its success was opium.

It is Instructive to reflect that the beverage John Wesley, the Methodist evangelist, was urging on his flock in the name of temperance in England was purchased at the price of drug addiction on the other side of the world. Having addicted the greater part of the English-speaking world to tea, the Honorable Company proceeded to addict its Chinese tea suppliers to another of its commodities-opium grown in India. This drug was all but unknown in China, until in the 1600s the Dutch mediated one of the most evil cultural exchanges in history-opium from the Middle East met the native American tobacco pipe in China. China was soon growing tobacco but it was only a matter of time before the Chinese demanded more and more opium and that, eventually, at any cost. And thanks to its control of India, John Company had a monopoly on it.

The Company sold the opium crop yearly at auction in Calcutta, and there, they were careful to point out, their responsibility ended. It was bought by what were called the "country firms," British and Persian outfits that traded Indian goods with China by arrangement with the East India Company. The Company's only proviso was that the country firms sell their opium for silver. This being before the days of electronic banking, these firms were happy to let the Company apply against their bills in London as much of their silver in Canton as it liked, thereby sparing themselves the perilous necessity of transporting bullion. Thus the Company was able to collect silver in payment for its opium in China, only to turn around and pay for its tea with the same silver. The silver circulated, to be sure, but it also stayed where it was. Sluggishly, the emperor responded to the debauching of his people and in 1800 forbade the importing of opium under the severest penalties. The only result was that the emperor was henceforth defrauded of his rightful duty on it. Opium was no longer brought to the Canton anchorage but to an island in the middle of Canton Bay. There it was stored on hulks lying at anchor for collection by the many-oared Chinese galleys-called centipedes or scrambling dragons-which smuggled it ashore. The Chinese called it "foreign mud."

Any fair-minded student of imperialism is compelled to admit that the British constantly sought to open up a more regular form of commerce with China. Their diplomatic efforts were unflagging, but the Chinese viewed them only as outside "barbarians" bearing tribute. In 1792, for instance, the Lord Macartney was carried up river on a boat with the inscription " Tribute- bearer to the Emperor." Once having reached the imperial court, he was refused an audience unless he would "kowtow," a bitter pill for a proud British peer. He was finally allowed to compromise by merely bending his knee, but came away with no trade concessions. Lord Amherst a few years later was not even granted an audience. China's ruling elite clung to the faith she was entirely self-sufficient and despised trade in general, most especially with inferiors from abroad. Though by now omnipresent in the West, China remained completely foreign to it. Communication was illusory.

The concession the British wanted most was for the emperor to legalize opium and this one emperor after another steadfastly refused to do. The British response was to corrupt the Imperial Customs by cutting its officials in on their constantly more profitable drug traffic. By the late 1820s, the Company was conniving at the export of fewer than ten thousand cases of opium annually to China; by 1870 this rose to over one hundred thousand.

Occasionally there were "fiery discharges," about as dangerous as ritual Chinese firecrackers. Once an opium ship had finished her business and set sail on the return voyage, mandarin Junks would sometimes set out in hot pursuit. Your more mischievous "country firm" captain would slow down at once, compelling the junks to shorten sail as well, for the last thing they wanted was to come up with the "enemy." But out of sight of land-though not out of hearing-a furious bombardment would begin and in due course Peking received a report of a barbarian smuggler sunk or driven off. Thus the Chinese perfected the arts of self-deception, while every one of their officials was in on the racket, from the meanest mandarin to the hoppo and the emperor's viceroy. Tens of thousands of chests of opium passed through their hands each season. "But," to quote J.M. Scott again, "the point here is this: of the tea being drunk in the West-at Methodist and antislavery meetings, in fine drawing rooms and poor cottages-nearly all of it was bought with opium.

Westerners seemed convinced that inside every Chinese was a Protestant Christian trying to get out and that the opium trade was the miraculous method of releasing him. Missionaries were even employed by opium traders, though the founder of Jardine, Matheson, forced to fire one for refusing to offload opium chests on the Sabbath, observed, "We have every respect for persons entertaining strict religious principles, but we fear that very godly people are not suited for the drug trade."

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 cohong 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 then 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 cruet 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, lust as the Honorable Company expected. If India was acquired in a British "fit 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.