Monday, June 26, 2017

A Disgraceful Little War ~ The Opium War and Commissioner Lin

British steamer Nemesis destroying Chinese junks during the Opium War.
Believe it or not, June 26 is the International Day against Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking. In some circles in the US, advocating the legalization of recreational drugs is considered the correct, even "conservative" thing to do. Granted, these are less "conservative" circles than libertarian, but the cross-over is noticeable. For those with an historical horizon that extends back beyond the 1960s, there is no excuse for taking up this fashionable if foolhardy view.

The date of June 26 was chosen for the Day against Drug Abuse because it marks the anniversary of an event that could be known as the "Humen Opium Party" during which some 20,000 tons of contraband opium were dumped into the harbor at Humen in China.

Alarmed by the vast numbers of Chinese who had become addicted to opium, the Daoguang emperor appointed an official named Lin Zexu to cope with the problem. He was given the rank of "commissioner" and empowered to crush the opium trade.

Lin Zexu's statue,
Chinatown, NYC.
Born in 1785, Commissioner Lin was the son of a prominent official in the Qing dynasty court. He soon achieved renown as an outstanding scholar and writer. During his early career, he established a reputation for intelligence and virtue, described by a more recent writer as: “a resolute and competent administrator, a just and fair applicator of the law and – most amazingly, bearing in mind his peers – incorruptible” [Booth, Opium, p. 129].

Unfortunately, at the heart of the issue were the merchants of a major foreign power — Great Britain. In order to balance out their trade deficit with China, the British began exporting opium into Chinese ports in large quantities. By the 1820s, opium had become the chief product exported into China by the British, with unsurprising results among the Chinese population. Following is a description of a typical opium den in China from a somewhat later source:
The room is four or five yards long and perhaps three wide low ceiling blackened with smoke and covered with black cobwebs. The floor is the bare earth the walls are black as soot save here and there where they are adorned with a few strips of red paper most of which bear inscriptions sounding like horrid mockery. Take one: "May all who enter here gain health and happiness." On all sides of this den are wooden benches like tables covered with a piece of matting and each furnished with lamp and pipe. Most of these were occupied with gaunt hollow eyed figures lying curled up some taking their first puffs others in different stages of prostration and stupefaction. [Taken from Friend of China, 1877, p. 106]
Within a few months of his arrival at Canton, Commissioner Lin issued an edict demonstrating his resolve with typical Middle Kingdom contempt for foreigners:
“Let the Barbarians deliver to me every particle of opium on board their store-ships. There must not be the smallest atom concealed or withheld. And at the same time let the said Barbarians enter into a bond never hereafter to bring opium in their ships and to submit, should any be brought, to the extreme penalty of the law against the parties involved” [Hoe, The Taking of Hong Kong].
Commissioner Lin then posted a warning to the Chinese people of Canton which concluded as follows:
“Now then ye who smoke opium!...When ye take up the opium pipe to smoke, do one and all of you put the hand upon the heart, and ask yourselves: Do I deserve death or not? Ought I to leave off this hateful vice or not? People who have rebelled against heaven, who have injured their fellow-men, who have opposed reason, who have trampled on the five relations of mankind, who have set at defiance every rule of decency and propriety: methinks that though our sovereign’s laws may not slay them, yet with heaven and earth, gods and spirits, must exterminate them with their avenging lightning! Though you may escape our human punishments, think you that you can escape the punishment of heaven?” [Martin, Opium in China, p. 68].
But Lin's most audacious attempt to move the moral needle may have been a letter that he wrote directly to Queen Victoria, Britain's reigning monarch. While it is unclear whether the Queen actually read the letter or not, it ended up having little impact on the sad course of events. In the letter, Lin appeals to benevolence, justice, and logic:
"Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honorable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused. We have heard heretofore that your honorable ruler is kind and benevolent. Naturally you would not wish to give unto others what you yourself do not want.
We have also heard that the ships coming to Canton have all had regulations promulgated and given to them in which it is stated that it is not permitted to carry contraband goods. This indicates that the administrative orders of your honorable rule have been originally strict and clear. Only because the trading ships are numerous, heretofore perhaps they have not been examined with care. Now after this communication has been dispatched and you have clearly understood the strictness of the prohibitory laws of the Celestial Court, certainly you will not let your subjects dare again to violate the law."
Read Commissioner Lin's full Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria here.

Sadly, what Commissioner Lin failed to appreciate was just how far his own country had fallen behind the European West in terms of technological advances and military prowess. Caught somewhat off guard, the British merchants surrendered their opium under the pretense that their loss would be made good. Commissioner Lin proceeded to destroy all of the seized drug and cast it into the sea. The merchants were not compensated, and their perceived grievance soon precipitated a military response from the British. The result was the disastrous First Opium War. A reasonable summary of the depressing course of action during the war may be found here.

Following disastrous military defeats, the Qing court was forced to capitulate. For his role in the debacle, Commissioner Lin was demoted and exiled. The imperial court was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking which was the first of the so-called "Unequal Treaties" between China and the western powers. In short, Qing China was forced to pay reparations to the British merchants for the opium which was destroyed, open additional ports to western trade, and cede Hong Kong as a colony. China continued to be open to the opium trade which would consume untold lives for decades to come.

Later, the British came to regret their part in the Opium War. Philanthropist John Passmore Edwards called it, "One of the most unjust and iniquitous crimes ever perpetrated by one nation on another." Future prime minister William Gladstone opined in a similar fashion: "A war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and have not read of." In the same periodical, a Mr. Omrad gave a fair assessment of Commissioner Lin's effort, saying:
"I hold that Commissioner Lin served us just right when the opium that was to have destroyed his countrymen was instead destroyed by him, and I honor the patriotism and admire the pluck of the brave commissioner who dared to step forth in defense of his country, simple justice, and common humanity against a nation so great and powerful as our own."
So for those in our own day who participate in the recreational drug trade, would attempt to legalize it, or simply to acquiesce in the face of those political forces which seek to make these toxins more easily available in the name of "liberty", I would ask you to consider history. Understand that the wages paid by your intellectual ancestors were evil, destruction and death. You may succeed in making the use of such substances legal in this world, but like the British, you will not escape the punishment of heaven.

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