Tag Archives: opium war

China wakes

I first visited China in late December 1994 when a colleague invited me to join him at a history conference in Guangzhou.  The language of the conference was Cantonese, so I was pretty marginal to the event, but even through the language barrier, I found it a fascinating experience.

Apart from the papers themselves, some of them very good even in translation, more general images stick:

The crowds everywhere, but particularly at the railway station, where hundreds of people were bedded down on mats on the floor.  It was a horrifying sight, as I assumed – quite wrongly – that they were homeless.  Later I realised they were travellers, heading for home villages to celebrate the summer solstice.

A visit to the Huangpu Military Academy, where Sun Yat-sent began his revolutionary movement to unite China – and my belated realisation that Huangpu was ‘Whampoa’, the island in the Pearl River where the tea clippers anchored in the early 19th century.

A handbag factory that was little more than a hut in a field, full of people working at heavy-duty sewing machines.

What I mainly took away from my visit was the evidence everywhere of venture capitalism on the rise.  Amongst the middle class, speculation was rife.  On one trip, we stopped at another university to have tea and snacks in the history department tearoom.  Some of the teachers were there, all sitting around a television in the corner showing (I assume) the local stock market prices.

While most of the visitors were heading back to Hong Kong after the conference, I went on to Macao, the Portuguese enclave at the eastern tip of the Pearl River, and I made the last part of my trip to the frontier by taxi.  We swept along vast highways, masterpieces of civil engineering, but with almost no traffic.  Beside the roads were brand new houses, Chinese McMansions large enough for servants quarters and, no doubt, more children than the statutory single child.

‘Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will astonish the world’.

So said Napoleon, two centuries ago.  Well, we all know now that China has woken – and the evidence was there in the early 1990s.  Just last week, China and Pakistan announced that China plans to build a new port in Baluchistan, part of a ‘necklace of pearls’, a series of ports to funnel goods into western China without the need to go through the choke points of South East Asia.

I was involved, however marginally, with the conference in Guangzhou because I’m interested in Australian trade with China – not the recent, vast trade in raw materials, but the early trade, which began during the first years of the 19th century.

In Napoleon’s day, China’s main export was tea.  In early Australia, tea and sugar usually formed part of a convict’s rations – the discretionary part that could be given for good behaviour, or taken away as a punishment – so anyone who employed convicts wanted access to tea, which was the main form of bribery for good work.

The whole tea trade took place through Canton [now Guangzhou] in the south, on the Pearl River.  It was a tightly controlled trade.  The foreign merchants had to live in ‘factories’.  They couldn’t bring their wives and children into Canton, couldn’t move outside these compounds and had to leave after the trading season was over.  Outside these summer months, they and their families lived in Macao.

European Factories, Canton
William Daniell, The European Factories, Canton, in Wikimedia Commons

The problem for the traders – British, American, French, Dutch and others – was that China didn’t need any of the trade goods they had to offer.  In 1792 the Emperor Ch’ien Lungtold George III complacently:

our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.

Then the traders discovered opium.  Like all addictive drugs (including tea?) opium was an ideal trading product.  Demand is constantly renewed because people use it up and want more.  The Chinese tried to control the trade, but British and American traders continued to bring it in illegally.  Within a generation the balance of trade – and power – had shifted.

In 1838 the Emperor sent Commissionar Lin Zexu to Canton to put a stop to the opium trade once and for all.  He seized the foreigners’ stocks of opium and burnt this ‘foreign mud’ publically.  Outraged, the traders – with the backing of the British navy – imposed a blockade on Canton.  The First Opium War followed, and China was forced to concede the island of Hong Kong on a 150-year lease, as well as opening up 5 new ‘treaty ports’ to foreign traders.

So where did Australian traders fit in all this?  Colonial merchants sent ships every year from Sydney and Hobart for tea.  They never carried opium, because the sources of opium (India and Turkey) were not on their route.  Instead, the Australian tea ships sailed north, gathering exotic Pacific products en route – tortoiseshell, pearl shell, sandalwood, sharks fin – that found a ready market in Canton.

advertisement for sharks fin

Advertisement for Shark's fin, Sydney Gazette, 5 February 1804

So when the standoff between Lin and the British merchants began, the Australian traders were out on a limb.  They might be British by birth and sympathy, but they wanted to go on with their lucrative – and perfectly legal – trade with China.  When the boycott began, one of the Sydney traders, Robert Towns, sailed his ship right through the naval blockade against the orders of the British navy.

As far as I know, this is the first recorded occasion in which Australian foreign and economic interests have diverged from those of whatever ‘great and powerful friend’ happens to be in the ascendant.  In 1839, that ‘friend’ was Britain.  Today, it is still – just – the United States.

But today, as then, Australia’s balance of trade with China is both healthy and legitimate, while that of our American ally is not.  One day soon, I fear we may have to make a choice between a profitable trading relationship, and our position within a declining American empire.  One day, perhaps, Robert Towns might be viewed as an exemplar of independence from foreign control – just as Commissioner Lim is in China today.