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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Old China Trade

Foster Rhea Dulles

published by
The Riverside Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p139  Chapter X
Opium and Equality

While relations between the Americans and the Chinese were on the whole satisfactory enough to reconcile the former to the conditions of their life at Canton, this was not altogether true in the case of the English. They resented far more than did the merchants of Boston and New York the restrictions on their trade, and because of their position in other countries of the East, felt more keenly China's cool assumption of superiority. Furthermore, a question on which we have not yet touched, that of the trade in opium, was slowly coming to a head. It was to prove, as an editorial in the 'Chinese Repository' stated, the 'great proximate cause of first Anglo-Chinese war.

England traded with China under conditions exactly paralleling those of the American trade. It had, however, in 1793 and again in 1816, sought to win from the Chinese an extension of its privileges and some form of political recognition.

The first British embassy to China was sent out under Lord Macartney and had proceeded to Peking amid much pomp and circumstance. There was only one disturbing note in the impressive spectacle of the ambassador making his ceremonious way to the court of the Son of Heaven. The barges and carts which carried to the Emperor Ch'ien Lung the presents of George the Third bore streaming pennants with the inscription, 'Ambassador bearing tribute from the country of England.' It was a slight to British dignity of which Lord Macartney was compelled to pretend ignorance, for a protest would have meant the end of his embassy.

 p140  At Jehol, a city just beyond the Great Wall where the English were forced to follow the Emperor to his country seat, the ambassador was met with the demand that he comply with the ceremony of the kowtow. This Lord Macartney refused to do unless a Chinese official of equal rank performed a similar obeisance before a picture of George the Third. The tribute-bearing flags had been enough. The ambassador could not afford any further sacrifice of the dignity and prestige of his country through an act which in the minds of the Chinese would have been regarded as a full acknowledgment of British vassalage.

Finally the Emperor consented to receive him if he paid the same homage before the imperial throne as he was accustomed to pay before that of his own sovereign, and with this question settled, the interview which Lord Macartney had come so far to seek at last took place. But with that inconsequential triumph to his credit, the work of Lord Macartney came to an end. Despite the cordiality of the Chinese, it was soon evident that not only would the Emperor refuse to consider any such thing as a treaty with Great Britain, but that he had no intention of concerning himself in any way with the relations between the two countries or with the trade at Canton. The latter was far beneath his notice.

When the Emperor returned to Peking, the British mission followed him, but it was soon politely hinted that it might as well continue on its journey to the coast and return to England. Lord Macartney was reluctantly forced to abandon all hope of accomplishing anything. He returned overland to Canton, again conducted with pomp and circumstance, but with empty hands.

'Never was an embassy deserving of better success,' wrote the French missionary Grammont, 'whether it be  p141 considered on account of the experience, wisdom, and amiable qualities of Lord Macartney and Sir George Staunton; or of the talents, the knowledge, and the circumspect behaviour of the gentlemen who composed their suite; or of the valuable and curious presents intended for the Emperor — and yet, strange to tell, never was an embassy that succeeded so ill!'

One important thing it accomplished, however. Through the fascinating journals kept by members of the party, especially that of Sir George Staunton — 'An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China' — a new understanding of China, its civilization, and its attitude toward the West was spread throughout both England and the United States. Staunton's book was brought out in America in 1799, while the curious account of the embassy by Aeneas Anderson, Lord Macartney's valet, had an American edition as early as 1795.

The next attempt of the English to reach some understanding with China was inspired by the friction over the activities of H. M. S. Doris, general impatience with the restrictions in force at Canton, and a desire to assure Peking that England had no hostile intentions toward China. Lord Amherst headed this embassy and his experiences were even more discouraging than had been those of Lord Macartney. The journey to Peking was marked by eternal haggling over the kowtow. Lord Amherst refused to consider it, and consequently he was told upon his arrival at the capital that the Emperor Chia Ch'ing, who had succeeded Ch'ien Lung, would not receive him and that the embassy might as well turn back. So after a fruitless journey of sixteen thousand miles the ambassador left Peking without even a sight of the imperious ruler who permitted  p142 no other king or Emperor in the world to address him on terms of equality.

At Canton commerce proceeded as best it could despite these rebuffs, and it was not until 1834, when the monopoly of the East India Company was abolished, that any further attempt was made to establish any sort of political relation­ship between England and China. In that year Lord Napier was sent out to Canton as Chief Superintendent of Trade to represent those British interests which had formerly been protected by the President of the East India Company's Select Committee.

The unfortunate controversy and personal tragedy which were the result of this move were due to a mixture of pride and ignorance on the part of both the Superintendent of Trade and the Viceroy at Canton. The instructions laid down by Palmerston to guide Lord Napier's policy had been on the whole highly conciliatory, but they included one brief sentence: 'Your lordship will announce your arrival at Canton by letter to the Viceroy.' This was completely at variance with the Chinese rule that all official communications should be made through the hong merchants and that they should be petitions, not letters, while it also gave to Lord Napier an official status which the viceroy was not prepared to acknowledge. Consequently, he refused to accept Lord Napier's letter when it was presented to his officers and sent orders to Macao, where the British official had stopped, that he would not be allowed to come to Canton until the Emperor had been memorialized.

In a communication to the hong merchants expostulating on the effrontery of the British in sending him a letter in which 'there was absurdly written the character Great English Nation, the Viceroy was carried away by his outraged feelings. 'To sum up the whole matter, the nation  p143 has its laws,' he exclaimed. 'Even England has its laws. How much more the Celestial Empire! How flaming bright are its great laws and ordinances! More terrible than the awful thunderbolts! Under this whole bright heaven, none dares to disobey them.'

That is, except the British official. For Lord Napier had already left for Canton without waiting to secure permission. Whereupon after a futile conference in which some minor Chinese officials condescended to meet the British Superintendent, a conference known as the 'Battle of the Chairs,' for it largely resolved itself into a contest over precedence, all British trade was stopped and the Viceroy issued a proclamation savagely attacking Lord Napier's 'stupidity and obstinacy.' The Chinese servants were withdrawn from the British factory, the people of Canton were ordered on pain of death not to sell provisions to the British, and the other foreigners were warned not to offer them any assistance if they did not wish to call down upon themselves the same penalties.

Lord Napier's answer was to order the British frigates Imogene and Andromache, then at Macao, to force the passage of the Bogue. They made their way under fire to Whampoa and sent a guard of marines on to the British factory. In an open manifesto the Superintendent of Trade combated all the charges which the Chinese had made against him and charged the Viceroy with opening the preliminaries of war.

A counter-proclamation was promptly issued. The Viceroy declared that although a 'headman' had been substituted for a 'taipan,' the English were still obligated to communicate with the Canton authorities through the hong merchants, that no official intimation of Lord Napier's coming had been received, that the Superintendent of  p144 Trade had broken the laws of the Empire by bringing armed forces to the foreign settlement, and finally warned the English that he could easily overwhelm them with the thousands of troops at his disposal.

'Considering that said nation's King has hitherto been in the highest degree reverently obedient,' the manifesto declared, 'he cannot in sending Lord Napier at this time have desired him thus obstinately to resist.' The question of trade was disposed of with typical Chinese arrogance. Characterizing tea and rhubarb in the familiar fashion as 'sources by which the said nation's people live and maintain life,' the Viceroy said China's imports from abroad were unimportant and the duties on the British trade 'concern not the Celestial Empire the extent of a hair or a feather's down.'

The situation was now more critical than it had been at any time in the course of British trade with China, and neither side showed any signs of surrendering. But on September 14, after he had been in Canton less than two months, Lord Napier gave in. He was seriously ill and also convinced that his quarrel with the Viceroy should not be allowed to ruin the season's trade, so he left Canton with a convoy of eight armed boats and returned to Macao. During the trip down-river, he was subjected to so many delays and annoyances by the Chinese authorities that his illness was greatly aggravated. His return to Macao meant for the English merchants the removal of the embargo on their trade; for Lord Napier it resulted in his death.

In this incident the English had a legitimate excuse for forcing to an issue a question which it was perhaps inevitable should some day have to be settled by either force or the threat of force. Lord Napier had blundered in offending  p145 against Chinese prejudices, and in seeking political recognition had attempted something for which he had no real warrant from the Chinese point of view. Nevertheless, the Canton authorities had deliberately affronted the political power of Great Britain. Ignorant as they might be of international law and the customs of the West, they unquestionably knew just what they were doing. In addition, their treatment of Lord Napier undoubtedly hastened his death.

Throughout his stay in Canton the British official had continually urged Palmerston to give him the backing which might enable him to win his case against the Chinese. 'I can only once more implore your lordship,' he wrote in one of his dispatches, 'to force them to acknowledge my authority and the King's commission.' The British merchants also besought their Government to make at least that show of force which they were convinced would effectively persuade China to accept political relations and open up the trade more widely. But the Government chose to take no action whatsoever. It was to wait until a far more ignoble cause goaded it into war.

This was of course opium, and the history of British trade in this pernicious drug goes back as far as 1767 when about a thousand chests were first imported from Bengal by a Chinese merchant. It was used then solely as medicine and entered under this heading in the Chinese tariff. So slight was the demand for it that when the East India Company, thirteen years later, made its first official entrance into the trade with a shipment of twenty-eight hundred chests on behalf of the Bengal Government, the market was overstocked and the opium could not be sold. Nevertheless, the Chinese were quick to see its possible effect upon the populace if its use became general, and as  p146 early as 1800 an imperial edict forbade any further importation of the 'vile dirt.'

It continued to be brought to Canton in increasing quantities, however, and even when the original edict was strengthened in 1809 by requiring the hong merchants to give a bond not to import it, vessels loaded with opium continued to anchor at Whampoa with impunity. At last, in 1821, stricter enforcement of the laws drove the opium ships out of the Pearl River, but, far from stopping the trade, this development simply changed the tactics of the traders. There grew up off the island of Lintin, at the mouth of the Pearl River, a floating dépôt, where the opium ships anchored without molestation and transferred their precious charges to store ships which in turn sold the drug to Chinese traders.

[image ALT: An engraving of an interior scene, in a largish room with bamboo walls and ceiling and a wooden floor, in which eleven Oriental men can be seen engaging in various activities. Prominently in the foreground — the only man to be standing — one holds a long thin pipe (looking rather like a flute) in his right hand, and raises his left theatrically as if declaiming. A man half-squats at his feet, and another at a nearby table appears to be half-listening as he smokes a similar pipe; dimly, behind him, another appears to be sleeping. In the background, in the center, a man is sprawled out on a sofa, possibly about to fall off it, declaiming with a wild gesture of his right arm, while another listens to him from behind a low partition. On the viewer's right, a man, seated in an armchair, methodically fills a pipe; in the background behind him, one man sits by himself smoking, and two men carry off a third on a litter, who appears to be passed out. It is a Chinese opium den in the 19c.]

From now on the trade increased by leaps and bounds. The importation of a thousand chests had swollen to more than nine thousand by the season of 1826‑27, and in another ten years it was thirty-four thousand. In 1834‑35, a year when the value of the opium imports was placed at $11,758,779, it was reported that there were thirty-five ships anchored at Lintin and their trade was greater than the legitimate trade at Whampoa. Opium was slowly but surely becoming the most important phase of British commerce with China.

In its official capacity the East India Company had abandoned the carrying trade as early as 1800, and it was the 'country ships,' operating under the Company's license, which brought the drug in its behalf to Canton. But in India the sale of the drug was a Government monopoly, representing an annual income of from one to two million pounds sterling, or some ten per cent of Bengal's total revenues. Moreover, every chest imported in China by the  p147 country ships, according to R. B. Forbes, had a certificate of the East India Company.

The opium trade provided for British commerce a product which always commanded a market at Canton. While the Americans were searching the seas for anything which might be carried to Canton in place of specie, the English could always fall back upon this drug. Not only did it provide a medium of exchange for tea, but it allowed them to export from Canton the silver which the Americans brought there. With their complete monopoly of all the opium grown in India, their commerce naturally had a tremendous advantage over that of the United States.

This does not mean that the Americans either held aloof from the opium trade or were not concerned in it. They did what they could to compete with the British monopoly and moral compunctions governed their attitude no more than they did that of the English traders. This question concerned almost no one except the Chinese. The merchants of the United States imported what they could, but because the sources open to their exploitation were so limited, the opium trade never became for them the vital question which it became for the English.

Smyrna was the source for what little opium the Americans brought to China. Their first venture was some one hundred and twenty-four cases and fifty‑one boxes imported in 1805, and two years later the Select Committee of the East India Company was as usual complaining about the new competition and reminding London that if it were not checked, it might seriously injure British trade. But it never grew to large proportions. Statistics are incomplete and conflicting, but the Americans' average importation does not seem to have amounted to more than about five per cent of their total imports, as compared with British  p148 importation of thirty-four per cent of their total. In the period from 1818 to 1833, British opium imports were valued at $104,302,948, an average of $6,518,934, while the American total was reported to have been $4,925,997, or an average of $307,875. The East India Company itself declared that the American share in the opium trade was little more than three per cent.1

Almost all the merchants at Canton were concerned in it to a greater or less degree — the Perkinses, the Peabodys, the Russells, the Lows, and the Forbeses — but one firm held carefully aloof. That was Olyphant and Company, whose moral attitude upon opium and friendliness toward missionaries won for the company's factory the name of 'Zion's Corner.'

It was unfortunate that this firm alone looked on the opium question from any other than a purely commercial point of view. For from 1821, when the opium ships first began the practice of anchoring at Lintin, to the crisis of 1839, this inglorious trade became an increasingly serious point of friction between foreigners and Chinese. It was strictly forbidden by China law, but with the connivance of the Chinese officials it could be carried on openly. It gave rise to a system of bribery and corruption almost without parallel, though one cannot escape the feeling that Prohibition in the United States has created conditions somewhat reminiscent of those in China almost a century ago.​a With the important difference, however, that the chief offenders against the Chinese laws were foreigners.

The opium trade in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century was, in fact, more easily handled than the legitimate trade. It was subject to no taxation except  p149 the charges of unscrupulous officials, and as the opium was always paid for in advance, it promised a definite and high profit. Referring to the happy lot of the opium importer until 1839, William C. Hunter wrote: 'His sales were pleasantness and his remittances were peace. Transactions seemed to partake of the nature of the drug; they imparted a soothing frame of mine with three per cent commission on sales, one per cent on returns, and no bad debts!'

Imperial edicts against the trade were issued again and again, and occasionally a flurry would be caused by the appointment of some new official at Canton who would make an attempt to break up the smuggling, but the sole effect of such measures would be a temporary rise in prices. The mandarins were more likely to make a bluff of driving the ships away than actually to intervene in a business which meant illegal profits for them as well as for the trader. One favorite device was to make a vigorous foray upon Lintin just as the opium ships were sailing for India, and then complacently report to the higher authorities that the foreign vessels had been forced to flee the coast and that the whole trade had been abandoned.

One Chinese admiral had an even more efficient scheme. He made an arrangement with the foreign traders to handle their opium himself. After disposing of the bulk of it at a tremendous profit, he would then hand over a small share to his superiors with the proud boast that he had captured it after a fierce struggle with the smugglers. 'For these eminent services,' wrote the Chinese historian from whom the story is taken, 'he received a peacock's feather and was made a rear-admiral; in consequence of which the yearly imports gradually reached a figure of forty or fifty thousand chests.'

Opium was also sold along the coast. No foreign vessel  p150 was allowed to trade at any Chinese port other than Canton, but there was no reason why the smuggling at Lintin could not also be practiced farther south. Both British and American ships made this experiment and made it successfully. A fleet of fast and well-armed clipper schooners — the Sylph, the Angola, the Zephyr, the Mazeppa, and the Ariel — was specially built for this traffic. They were able to deliver chests of the forbidden drug with perfect impunity to consignees along the coast, specially designated by the Canton dealers, who had already paid in advance for the opium clipper's whole cargo.

Again it is William C. Hunter, of the firm of Russell and Company, who gives an illuminating story of the foreigners' relations with the Chinese authorities at the forbidden ports.

In 1837 he sailed as a passenger on the clipper schooner Rose, which carried a cargo of three hundred thousand dollars. Its first stop was at the island of Namoa,º near the border between the provinces of Kwangtung and Fukien. No sooner had the Rose anchored than it was visited by a Chinese commodore, who dutifully showed to the captain a copy of the imperial edict which declared that a foreign vessel could anchor in the harbor only for necessary supplies and, having received them, 'must no longer loiter, but depart at once.'

This was a formality. Once it had been complied with, the obliging official entered the Rose's cabin and with no further beating about the bush asked how much opium the schooner carried. Being told, the question then arose as to 'cumsha,' and it was quickly settled, Hunter writes, on the 'good old Chinese principle of "all same custom." '

His Excellency then consented to drink a glass of wine  p151 and smoke a cheroot. Thereafter he was escorted to the vessel's side and took his place in his gig, where he 'sat majestically in an armchair smoking quietly.' A large embroidered silk umbrella was held over his head and his servants, dressed in grass cloth with conical rattan hats bound with flowing red silk cord, fanned away the flies and mosquitoes while he was rowed back to his junk.

Not another Chinese vessel dared approach the Rose until the Commodore had completed his visit, but then the barges of the Chinese opium-buyers immediately surrounded the schooner. The opium, already sold at Canton for delivery at Namao,º was handed over and a transaction involving $150,000 completed with no further formalities.

So generally was this nefarious traffic — for it can be justified neither by law nor ethics — condoned throughout this period that even the famous German missionary, the Reverend Charles Gutzlaff, had consented in 1832 to act as an interpreter on a voyage made by the Sylph. He wrote that he undertook this strange mission only after 'a conflict in my own mind,' but the point was that it gave him an exceptional opportunity to distribute tracts along the coast. A few years later the brig Huron made a northward voyage, in the course of which twenty thousand volumes of Christian propaganda were given away. It is not altogether surprising that Peking should object to this strange union of opium and religion.

It was about 1836 that the opium question really began to arouse the Chinese. Then a veritable deluge of memorials descended upon Peking, penned by anxious officials advising the Son of Heaven how he should deal with the problem. The first of these, written by Hsü Nai‑tsi, vice-president of the sacrificial court, urged the Emperor to legalize the traffic on economic grounds. As a contraband trade it  p152 caused a tremendous drain in specie, but, he argued, if it was within the law an exchange of opium for goods might be enforced. But this suggestion was quickly answered by memorialists who pointed out that opium was debauching the people and corrupting the officials, and that it was because of its enfeebling effect on the Chinese that the English were importing it. They strenuously urged that the most drastic steps be taken to prevent all smuggling and that both Chinese and foreigners at Canton be warned that unless they complied with the laws all trade would be stopped and the merchants resident at Canton condemned to death.

For a time, while this controversy was raging among the Chinese, the English professed to believe that the opium trade might after all be legalized. But there was little justification for them so much to make the wish father to the thought. One memorial no more meant legalization than one swallow means summer. They were really shutting their eyes to the obvious. The opium question was coming to a crisis.

Only two years after Hsü Nai‑tsi's memorial, when there were some thirty opium shops at Lintin and twenty more along the coast, with their sales totaling twenty million dollars, the Chinese gave the foreigners their first taste of how they intended to deal with smugglers. In the square in front of the foreign factories, almost at the foot of the American flagpole, the Canton officials set up the apparatus for the execution of a Chinese trader who had been convicted of dealing in the forbidden drug and prepared in full view of the foreigners for his strangulation.

In immediate and bitter resentment of what they considered an affront aimed directly at them — as it undoubtedly was — a number of English and Americans thereupon attacked the execution officials. After a strenuous  p153 mêlée, of which the condemned Chinese was an interested but passive spectator, the officials were forced to withdraw from the square, taking their prisoner with them. But a mob had been formed during this struggle, and when it invaded the square the foreigners had to fall back before a volley of stones and brickbats to the comparative security of their factories. What might then have happened if the Canton authorities had not intervened is a matter of conjecture. Feeling was running high on both sides. Fortunately, word of the riot had been carried to Houqua, and at his instigation a detachment of Chinese troops was sent to the rescue of the beleaguered foreigners. The rioters, whose numbers had by then swelled to some eight or ten thousand, were driven from the square with whips.

It had been an exciting day. Consul Peter W. Snow later reported to his Government that the mob was raised by 'the imprudence and folly of a small number of English and American young men,' and this interpretation of the incident is backed up by Hunter's lament that the Chinese had been driven off. The ground in front of the factories, he wrote, was strewn with broken bottles, and the English and Americans were waiting with keen anticipation the effect of this precaution upon the bare feet of their assailants. Others among the foreigners took the affair more seriously and judged the attempted execution as a wanton interference with their right to consider the foreign settlement private property. We find, for instance, that Charles W. King, of Olyphant and Company, took part in the attack upon the executioners despite his firm's strong opposition to the opium traffic.

To the protests which were filed by the foreigners with the Canton officials, the Viceroy replied bitterly, 'What have you, Foreigners, to do with this question, whether  p154 convicted persons shall be executed there or not?' Apparently as far as he was concerned it was a purely rhetorical question. For a few months later another Chinese opium trader was successfully strangled on the very spot where the riot had started. The foreigners' answer this time was simply to strike their national flags, a gesture which it may be doubted was of serious concern to the Canton authorities.

These were but rumblings of the storm which was to break when in March, 1839, the famous Lin Tsê‑hsü, specially named by the Emperor as High Commissioner for the suppression of the opium trade, reached Canton. He came armed with full powers and determined to enforce the laws, not only against the Chinese dealers, but against the foreigners. Less than a week after his arrival, he issued a fair, logical, and vigorous edict demanding the immediate surrender of all opium in the possession of the foreign traders and the signature within three days of a bond guaranteeing that there would be no further importation of the forbidden drug.

The opium trade had grown to such an extent, Lin declared, that the foreigners were 'steeped to the lips in gain,' while in his celestial retreat at Peking the Emperor 'actually quivers with indignation.' The significance of the execution of the Chinese dealers was carefully pointed out, 'not bearing to slay you within previous instructive warning,' but it was impressed upon the foreigners that violation of the required bond 'never to all eternity to dare to bring any opium,' would be punished by confiscation of the offending vessel and the death of its crew. If his orders were met, all would be forgiven; otherwise the trade would be cut off altogether and the foreigners driven away.

This was a different type of proclamation from those which the foreigners had been in the custom of disregarding  p155 so carelessly. Lin meant business. And this the residents at Canton were soon to discover when, making common cause, although the issue was one which almost wholly concerned the British, they refused to comply with the Commissioner's demands.

At once trade was stopped, the Chinese servants were withdrawn from the factories, troops concentrated in the suburbs, and warships drawn up along the water-front. The foreign settlement was in a virtual state of siege with guards with drawn swords posted at every entrance. Lin loaded the hong merchants with chains and threatened to execute them if they did not persuade the barbarian traders to surrender.

As for the foreigners, they seem to have accepted their dangerous situation with considerable equanimity. They had become so convinced of the security accorded them by the Chinese Government that even Lin's display of force could not persuade them that any violent measures would be taken against them.

There was never a merrier community than that at Canton during the period of imprisonment, wrote R. B. Forbes. Apparently the Americans thoroughly enjoyed working out the domestic problem presented by the sudden disappearance of all their servants, and since the hong merchants surreptitiously sent them in supplies, despite Lin's strict orders, they did not want for plenty to eat. The chief trouble at their hong seems to have been the problem of finding some one skilled enough to act as cook. Forbes himself started out in this capacity, but sadly writes that he was soon deposed. The other jobs in Chinese housekeeping were successfully filled, with certain of the dignified Chinese merchants ably acting as dishwashers, bedmakers, or house-cleaners, while the members of their staffs, as Hunter  p156 wrote, 'from a feeling of modesty or a feeling of sheer incapacity, did no more than was absolutely necessary.'

This state of affairs lasted for about a week, with Lin still holding the whole community in close confinement and the foreigners cut off from all communications with the outside world, when the British Superintendent of Trade, Captain Charles Elliot, who had vainly attempted to secure his countrymen's liberty, found himself forced to take action. The great bulk of the opium which the Chinese demanded was British property, and he did not feel himself justified on its account in jeopardizing not only the foreign trade but the lives and property of all foreigners in Canton. Therefore he surrendered. He agreed to hand over to the Chinese authorities 20,280 chests of opium, of which 1540 were held, but on account of the English, by Americans.

When this opium was delivered and taken in charge by the Chinese, the siege of the foreign settlement was raised, but only one of Lin's demands had been met. The Chinese Commissioner had won a dramatic victory by forcing the surrender of the opium; he intended to insist just as strenuously on the signature of the bond against any further importation.

On this point the English attitude was just as determined as his own. Captain Elliot had given up the opium only as a matter of expediency because he felt foreign lives were endangered, but as an official representative of Great Britain, he had no intention of admitting that the Chinese were right in principle in this confiscation of personal property, or that they could in such summary fashion enforce their laws upon British subjects. He ordered all the English merchants to withdraw from Canton and give up their trade, while he reserved the right for his Government to demand an indemnity for the surrendered opium.

 p157  With the Americans the situation was quite different. They had not been forced to give up any opium of their own — Hunter declares that they had only fifty chests which the Chinese might have demanded — and they were not vitally interested in the opium trade. In fact, its abolition would have been greatly to their advantage, for it would have increased the market at Canton for other goods and aided their trade at the expense of that of the British. They had no reason to make an issue of the present controversy, and, as in every previous crisis with the Chinese authorities, all that they sought was the restoration of peaceful relations and the opportunity to continue their normal and lawful commerce.

The bond which Commissioner Lin presented to the American Consul for signature in behalf of his nationals did, however, present difficulties. It stipulated that should any opium at all be found upon an American vessel, the ship would be liable to confiscation and its entire crew liable to death. The Consul, moreover, was to be held responsible for his countrymen's behavior.

Consul Peter W. Snow was ready to promise that there would be no more American imports of opium, but the penalties of this bond were too severe. He refused to have anything to do with it, and instead urged the Americans to withdraw from Canton as had the English. At the same time he suggested, in his report to Washington on the events of the past six weeks, that the time now seemed opportune to attempt to negotiate a commercial treaty with China, and that it might be well to afford the trade some measure of naval protection.

He had, however, no authority over the American merchants, and they had no intention of injuring their position in Canton by further association with the English in a  p158 cause which was no concern of theirs. They did not sign Lin's original bond, but were easily induced to sign a second in modified form, by which they solemnly bound themselves to have nothing further to do with the opium traffic. This satisfied the Chinese Commissioner, and despite the urging of the British and of their own Consul, the American merchants were soon carrying on their interrupted trade as if nothing had happened.

As Forbes pointed out, his countrymen were 'under no control, subject to no law, except that of self-interest.' And even more succinct is his statement of their position as made to Captain Elliot when the latter asked Russell and Company to withdraw from Canton in support of the British traders. He had not come to China for health or pleasure, Forbes told the English official, and he intended to remain at his post as long as he could 'sell a yard of goods or buy a pound of tea.'

At first the British traders, having retired to their merchant fleet, which was anchored idle and disconsolate off the island of Hongkong, greatly resented this attitude upon the part of the Americans. They saw their trade snatched out of their hands, their rivals on more than ever friendly terms with the Chinese, while they had broken off all relations. But soon they realized that the American commerce might also be to their advantage. The authority of their Superintendent of Trade might prevent them from returning to Canton, but it could not keep them from using the Americans as middlemen to save as much of their trade as they could. They hired American ships to freight their goods back and forth between Hongkong and Canton, even selling some of their own that they might operate under the American flag, and coöperated as much as possible to get out the season's tea crop before the possible outbreak of open hostilities between England and China.

 p159  The activity of the American vessels during this period of neither peace nor war between China and England was tremendous. They were towed up and down the river with cotton or tea piled eight and ten feet high on the decks. Even the spars were taken down to lessen the vessels' weight. If the Chinese objected to their carrying British goods, though in time they came to realize that the freighting done by the Americans was as much to their advantage as to that of the English, short trips would be made to Manila or Batavia to keep up the fiction that it was bona fide American trade.

In this way the entire commerce of Canton was carried on for the rest of the season, with the Americans reaping a rich harvest in freight rates, which were higher for the ninety‑mile run between Whampoa and Hongkong than they ordinarily were from China to the United States. The Americans took full advantage of the position in which they found themselves, but the English also profited by this freighting trade. Elliot himself came in time to recognize this, and finally told Forbes that 'the Queen owes you many thanks for not taking my advice as to leaving Canton.'

The Author's Note:

1 These statistics are taken from English sources — the reports of the East India Company and Parliamentary Papers.

Thayer's Note:

a The same can be said of the current "war on drugs", in which billions of dollars are being squandered by government, important tax revenues are forgone, and ordinary citizens are pushed into the arms of criminal enterprises, and often incarcerated: a tremendous waste of human and material resources.

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Page updated: 19 Aug 16