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This favorable review of a book published by the same firm that owned Blackwood’s itself argues that although the matter of importing opium to China sparked the conflicts known as the Opium wars, the real cause lay in the Chinese imperial government’s attitude toward all foreigners and its treatment of them. In making this argument, both the reviewer and the author of the book reviewed make several key points, the first of which is that British merchants always had good relations with “Chinese traders whose probity was proverbial” (67). Second, no one forced opium upon the Chinese. “Officially, it was prohibited; but in practice it was the most effectively protected of all branches of trade” (69). Third, the Imperial government became alarmed at a balance of trade in which large sums of gold left the country. The responsibility for arrogant, undiplomatic treatment of all foreigners and particularly the humiliating treatment of representatives of the British government lay in large part with both the East India Company and the British government itself, for they willingly acquiesced in such treatment as long as doing so led to large profits. In transcribing the following passage from Blackwood’s discussion of early Victorian fiction I have relied on the Hathi Trust’s online version and its invaluable OCR text. — George P. Landow

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t is usual to speak of this conflict as the Opium War, and the opium trade, indeed, was its immediate point of outbreak. But Mr Michie once again dispels the fiction that the principle for which Great Britain fought was her right to force opium upon an unwilling China. That is in no sense true. The root of the quarrel lay somewhere quite else—it was not opium but the foreigner that was being forced upon China; and it is necessary to follow Mr Michie in his luminous interpretation of the situation before the war, for its essential conditions have never disappeared, but remain to this day to govern our relations with the Chinese.

The magnet that drew us to the Asiatic coasts was the pursuit of commerce and the reciprocal desire on the part of the natives which opened for the stranger, be it ever so little, the gates of the Chinese empire. The resulting relations, so far as they were purely commercial, left little to be desired on the side of mutual goodwill. “Old Cantons,” we read, sailed away with regret from the scene of business transactions, conducted in perfect security, with Chinese traders whose probity was proverbial. Such an intercourse, could it have been isolated, would have worked out a law for itself, “both parties having been habituated to a discipline of custom more potent within its sphere than any code, moral, commercial, or penal.” But to confine the international question to a few bald propositions about trade was as impossible then as it was many years afterwards for the Japanese in Korea, as in truth it always must be impossible. Try as we may, we cannot eliminate the historical, the human, and the general political elements from such a problem.

For both good and evil we are the necessary outcome of our own antecedents, as are the Chinese of theirs, and if we had acquired a stock of experience of the Chinese, no less had they of us; indeed, if we fairly consider the matter, theirs was the more comprehensive. For to the Chinese we represented not ourselves alone, nor the East India Company, nor a generation or two of timid traders, but Christendom as a whole —our Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch precursors, the Romish propaganda, and all the abortive missions to Peking.”

The three centuries of earlier European intercourse, the record of which Mr Michie describes as on the whole rather despicable, had been one long lesson to the Chinese in the art of managing men from the West. Consequently the English, as latest comers, were served heirs to the turpitudes of all Europe, and the penalty they paid was the intolerable indignity which the Chinese authorities compelled them to endure at Canton.

The East India Company’s servants, the chief victims of this degradation, which maybe compared to that of the Dutch at Nagasaki, acquiesced in it with but rare expressions of resentment. They could not do other. Against their better judgment they had to obey the instructions of their Board, and the unchanging and avowed policy of the Board was to foster remittances and to leave the vindication of the national honour to the Crown. The insolence of the Chinese, which was fattened by this bartering away of British prestige, was only an aggravation of their innate contempt for all foreigners. “They had no conscience to be shocked by the persecution of foreigners, for in relation to them justice and injustice were meaningless terms. Their arrogance was not so much the result of any formulated belief as of a traditional feeling lying at the bottom of their moral conceptions;” and, it must be confessed, it was largely justified by the permissiveness with whioh it was endured. Nor, when in 1834 the East India Company’s monopoly expired, and the British agents became representatives of the Crown instead of the Company, had the Chinese any intention of changing their policy, or any reason for revising their opinion. Having a true and alarmed presentiment of the nature of the change which the new departure threatened, they put down their foot more firmly than ever upon the opening of international relations, and, with an exaggeration of their old contemptuous manner to the Company’s agents, refused to have any communication with the British envoy. Under this treatment Downing Street was scarce less acquiescent than Leadenhall Street. The protest of the first British agent, Lord Napier, who understood the position, though he may not have been happy in handling it, brought down upon him the snubs of his superiors, and ultimately the worry of an intolerable situation drove him to death. Others who followed him suffered less because with a greater complaisance they endured more; and Captain Charles Elliot, despite his having Lord Palmerston behind him, showed such an extreme humility in his desire “to conform in all things to the imperial pleasure,” that he was forced to strike his flag at Canton and withdraw to the Portuguese settlement at Macao.

This rooted insolent contempt for the foreigner and settled policy of keeping him at arm’s-length (pretensions requiring for their support a power greater than that possessed by any country) were the causes of the Opium War, as they were of all hostilities with the Chinese since. Even in designating opium as the point of friction in 1839 we must carefully distinguish between the opium trouble itself and the handling of it by the Chinese authorities. What it was in the trade in opium that caused it to become so conspicuous a factor in the agony preceding the war is admirably set forth in Mr Michie’s narrative. The balance of trade was against the Chinese, who saw with alarm the heavy annual drain upon the coinage of their country; and, while ordinary merchandise might be bartered againt Chinese produce, opium, being the commodity which the people most imperatively demanded, was always paid for in hard cash. In their failure to legalise the trade, all parties conspired to foster its attendant evils. That is abundantly clear to us now. The importation of the drug affords a perfect illustration of the astonishing make-believe under which Chinese public affairs are carried on. Officially, it was prohibited; but in practice it was the most effectively protected of all branches of trade. The embargo put upon it was an elaborate sham, designed, as was perfectly understood at Peking, to line the pockets of the hoppo, who on that very account was, as he still is, connected with the imperial family, and divided the proceeds with his imperial kinsmen! In the imperial councils, where meanwhile the whole business was being discussed with considerable earnestness, the issue turning on the alternatives of suppressing or legalising the traffic, it was by an accident only that the former policy prevailed, and that Commissioner Lin was sent to Canton to carry out the edict.

In view of this make-believe, and much more of a similarly amusing kind set forth by Mr Michie, to talk, as some have done, of our artillery forcing opium upon an unwilling China is merely foolishness. It is to make the same mistake in the interpretation as Captain Elliot made in the creation of it—to assume the foreigner’s right to take upon himself the function of the Chinese executive. For, from his retreat in Macao, Captain Elliot issued an order stopping, so far as British ships were concerned, the opium traffic within the river. He received for his pains a snub from the Viceroy at Canton. But the keen Chinese were quick to see their advantage, and drove home upon Captain Elliot the tacit responsibility he had thus incurred of stopping the traffic in the estuary as welL A wise adviser of the Emperor like Ilipu, indeed, perceived the risks that lay in making the English a party thus to the question of restricting the consumption of opium among his own subjects. On both sides there was presumption upon the old precedents of intercourse, and we may well believe, even, that Lin was embarrassed by finding the £2,000,000 worth of opium which he demanded thrown upon his hands. But it was fire that was being played with, and a conflagration broke out. The truculence of the implacable Lin placed before the British Government two unclouded alternatives: to abandon British subjects and their interests, or to exact reasonable treatment for them from the Chinese. The former was chosen by us because, indeed, the other was impossible; the war was fought to a foregone conclusion, and the fruits of it were reaped in the commercial treaty of Nanking.

Related Material


“English in China, The.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. 169 (January 1901): 64-84. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 15 September 2020.

Michael, Alexander. The Englishman in China during the Victorian Era: as Illustratedi n the Career of the Sir Rutherford Alcock. William Blackwood & Sons. Edinburgh and London, 1900.

Last modified 5 October 2020